Backpacking the Pictured Rocks


Backpacking the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore has been high on my bucket list for several years.

The section of Lake Superior shoreline in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula stretching from Munising to Grand Marais is said to be one of the most beautiful hikes in the state of Michigan, complete with painted cliffs, rock formations, beaches, and waterfalls.

Due to my desire to hike in relatively comfortable temperatures and encounter the smallest amount of bugs possible, I decided that mid May would be the perfect time of year to hike this section of trail.

My friends Erin, Megan, and I had originally planned to hike the entire 42 mile Pictured Rocks section of the North Country Trail in four days, beginning at the Grand Sable Visitor Center on Sunday and ending at the Munising Falls Visitor Center on Wednesday.

Unfortunately Sunday’s weather conditions were awful, so we decided to skip the first day of our planned hike (the 11.2 mile section from the Grand Sable Visitor Center to Benchmark Campground) and have the shuttle drop us off at Twelvemile Beach (0.3 miles from Benchmark) instead.

What follows is my account of our three day, two night, 31 mile hike of the Pictured Rocks.

Day One: Twelvemile Beach to Beaver Creek

We arrived at the Twelvemile Beach Campground just before 9:00 A.M. on Monday morning.  The temperature was in the low 40s with wind and drizzle, but according to the forecast, the skies would clear up later in the day.

After taking a few moments to use the restrooms (aka outhouses) and get our packs situated, it was finally time to hit the trail.

We spent most of the day hiking on wet sand along the edge of a bluff overlooking Lake Superior, then trudging through muddy forests where sections of the trail wove inland.

We stopped for a quick break at the Sevenmile Creek campground about three miles into our hike, then again at around mile five for a quick lunch and foot drying break somewhere inside the forest.

As the trail made its way back towards shore, we stumbled upon a solitary old car alone in the woods.

I’m not sure the story behind this one, but on the off chance you’re reading my blog and you know it, please let me know in the comments!

The rest of the trail was mostly pleasant with the exception of a few downed trees, and offered numerous views of Lake Superior.

Surprisingly, we did not see another hiker along the trail until somewhere in the last three miles before camp.

We reached the Beaver Creek Campground at about 2:00 P.M. and quickly set up camp, then set out to find the bathrooms.  To our surprise, the campground’s “pit toilet” was not an outhouse, but a random open air toilet hidden among the pines.

Beaver Creek Campground was nestled in the trees on a tall bluff overlooking Lake Superior, and it was probably my favorite campground of the entire hike.

A bit cold from the wind, and a bit tired from waking up early for a 9 mile hike, we decided to take a nap.

When we finally awoke a few hours later, the wind had died down and the sun was low and golden in the sky.  Together we made our way down the edge of the bluff to the beach area below to filter some water and cook our dinner.

The water from Beaver Creek was cold and clear and tasted very good.

After enjoying our dinner of chili, pesto pasta, stew, and chili mac, we spent some time on the beach soaking up the warmth of the sun with the sound of waves crashing along the shore beside us.

As the sun dipped lower and lower into Lake Superior, we decided make our way back up the hill to our camp to enjoy the warmth of a fire before  crawling into our tent for some much needed rest.

The campground’s fire pit, benches, and bear locker were all located just at the top of the hill overlooking the lake, making it the perfect place to watch the last few remaining moments of the sunset.

It was a clear night, which might have been perfect for stargazing.  Unfortunately though, all three of us had fallen asleep by the time the sky had reached total darkness.

Day Two: Beaver Creek to Mosquito River

The sun was shining when we awoke on the second morning of our three day backpacking trip of the Pictured Rocks.

After breaking camp and enjoying a quick breakfast of coffee, energy bars, oatmeal, beef jerky, and pop tarts on the beach, we filtered some more water and set out for the ten mile hike from Beaver Creek to the Mosquito River.

The trail skirted Beaver Creek at the bottom of the hill until coming to a small log bridge over the water, then continuing on into some more muddy woods with a lot of fallen trees.

Eventually we reached a cove, where we met a couple who had hiked in from their camp to enjoy a picnic.  They told us they hike there often and showed us a place where a rock shelf had collapsed into the cove over the winter.

From the cove, most of the trail made its way along the sandy cliffs of the Pictured Rocks.

There was a climb up a relatively steep hill made of sand, mud, roots, and loose rocks bordering the edge of a cliff, immediately followed by a relatively steep decline, also made of sand, mud, roots, and loose rocks, also bordering the edge of a cliff.  There were uphills and downhills with steep, muddy staircases.

This was probably my least favorite section of the trail, not because it wasn’t beautiful, but because I was still recovering from a fractured metacarpal, so it was kind of painful every time I tried to use my left hand to help with my balance.  (It had only been one week since getting my cast off!)

Somewhere near the cove, Erin got a blister in the middle of the arch of her foot.

The section of the North Country Trail between Coves and Chapel Beach bordered the cliff edges for most of the way and offered countless views of the Pictured Rocks and various waterfalls.

Due to erosion of the cliffs, tangles of exposed roots from gnarled old trees lined our path.

Eventually, we came to a small, sandy cliff overlooking the Pictured Rocks and Spray Falls.  We decided to take a break and eat lunch on the cliffs before hiking on so that we could rest our feet and I could photograph the falls.

As I sat upon the clifftop, enjoying my Snickers bar and the sound of crashing waves below me, I wondered to myself how many guys hiked to the cliff I was currently sitting upon and peed off of it.

Eventually we reached Chapel Rock, a rather interesting rock formation along the lakeshore with one random tree growing out of the top of it.

After the first viewing area, we descended a tall, wet, and extremely muddy staircase, where we reached a second viewing area.

After hiking five miles in boots through mostly mud, sand, rocks, and roots that day, plus another nine the day before, my feet were feeling pretty tired, sore, and sweaty by this point.  I decided to put on a new pair of socks for a morale booster since we still had another five miles to go before reaching camp.

The area near Chapel Rock had a waterfall (Chapel Falls), a beach (Chapel Beach), and many views of the rock formations.

The wooded sections of the trail in this area were still extremely muddy, so there were basically two options: trudge through ankle deep mud and vault over fallen trees, or bushwack through the foliage, destroy it, and possibly get ticks.  Yay!

Eventually, we reached Grand Portal Point and a really cool clifftop beach overlooking Lake Superior and much of the shoreline.

Being on the cliffs was a little bit scary, but the views were amazing.

Unfortunately, it was starting to get late and we still had a couple more miles to go, so it was time to bet back to hiking.

We made our way through even more wet, muddy woods and eventually descended another hill until we finally reached the Mosquito River Campground.

Tired and sore from nineteen miles of hiking, we took the first campsite we saw and immediately set up the tent, inflated our air mattresses, and laid out our sleeping bags.  Then, we made our way down to the beach to filter some water.

After Megan ever so bravely dipped our water bottles into a forty degree Lake Superior to fill them for us, we sat overlooking the largest and coldest great lake filtering our water.

After having visited the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum a few days prior, I thought about all of the ships that sank in the largest and coldest of the Great Lakes, and how in a way, we were kind of drinking corpse water.  I must admit though, between hiking for ten miles and how cold and clear the water was, that corpse water tasted delicious!

We ate a quick dinner as the sun was setting, then crawled into the tent to get some rest for the final day of our hike.

Day Three: Mosquito River to Munising Falls Visitor Center

It was raining and cool when we awoke on Wednesday morning, and we still had another twelve miles of hiking before reaching the Munising Falls Visitor Center, so we decided to skip breakfast and coffee in lieu of getting a faster start to our day.

After crossing a small foot bridge over the Mosquito River, then ascending a rustic staircase, the first few miles of our hike were through a wet, sandy, mostly flat clifftop forest, which was a welcome surprise.

We reached Miner’s Beach around lunchtime, so we stopped for a quick snack and water break before continuing on with the rest of our hike.  Unfortunately, I didn’t get a chance to photograph Miner’s Falls like I wanted to because we were trying to get a move on.

After walking along the beach, the trail made its way back into the woods and across a river before coming to a long climb up a big hill.  Thankfully there were what I like to call “root stairs”, so it was doable.

About 5 miles into our hike, we reached the lookout points for Miner’s Castle.

After taking a few moments to check out the observation deck and drink some water, we removed our rain layers and set out to do the last seven miles of our hike.

My feet were sore and tired, and my [broken] hand was beginning to swell by this point.  I would be lying if I said I didn’t consider hitchhiking from Miner’s Castle back to the car, but alas, we did not.

The final seven miles of our hike were extremely wet and muddy with several downed trees.  In a way it felt like an obstacle course, complete with huge pits of ankle-to-knee deep water and mud to wade through, slippery snow to walk over, and random water crossings over small creeks with either loose boards or no bridges at all.

My hand continued to bother me, so somewhere between the Cliffs Campground and Sand Point, I took a couple of ibuprofen and sat down on a log for a few moments to ice it on Erin’s cold water bottle before continuing onward.  In addition to it being swollen, I had somehow also managed to sunburn it.  (I guess burn cream is another item I’ll be adding to my first aid kit in the future!)

By the time we reached Sand Point, all of us were pretty sore, muddy, and tired.  It felt good knowing that there were fewer than three miles to go!

Eventually we came to a grassy area, descended off the escarpment, made it through one final water crossing, and eventually made it to the trailhead at Munising Falls.

The first thing I did after making it to the car was remove my sweaty, muddy boots.  Surprisingly, I had only gotten one blister!

We arrived at our hotel looking a bit disheveled and smelling like true hiker trash.  Our room at the hotel was a suite with three beds and two bathrooms overlooking Lake Superior.

After taking some time to shower, have a snack, rest for a minute, and get unpacked, the three of us got dressed and headed out to downtown Munising to enjoy a hot dinner and a beer to celebrate the completion of our hike.

We ended up going to Tracey’s at Roam Inn, which was amazing.  We indulged in roasted brussels sprouts with pistachios, cheese curds, and potato skins for appetizers.  Erin and Megan had burgers and fries for dinner, while I ate shrimp scampi pasta.  The food was excellent and the service was great.  Honestly, it was probably our favorite meal of the entire road trip, and I would highly recommend it!

After dinner we headed back to the hotel, where I basked in the glow of Forensic Files before drifting off to sleep at an awkwardly early time.

All in all, one more adventure for the books, and it was an adventure I will never forget!

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