America's Most Surreal Lakefront Is an Ancient Psychedelic Playground
Hike, drive, or kayak through one of the most surreal scenic areas in the States.
Michigan is the undisputed king of jaw-dropping lakeshore drives, with almost 3,200 miles of waterfront covering three Great Lakes, endless adorable towns, and enough lighthouses to fill a whole damn library full of coffee-table books about lighthouses.
But even by Michigan standards, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore is astounding. Located deep in the reclusive Upper Peninsula, right by the small town of Munising, it's the crown jewel of Michigan's scenic waterfronts. The deep-blue waves of inland sea Lake Superior form the base of miles and miles of jagged limestone cliffs. They rise from the choppy waters like a panoramic wall -- one that looks like it was attacked by a gigantic toddler with a paintbrush.
Here are the coolest things to see at Pictured Rocks, and how to best experience this isolated, unforgettable stretch of land -- from the car, the kayak, and the trails.
Hiawatha National Forest
Getting to Pictured Rocks Lakeshore is an adventure in and of itself. If you're heading up from the Lower Peninsula, you'll be driving across the convergence of lakes Michigan and Huron over a five-mile suspension bridge. If you're coming from Wisconsin, chances are you're winding through the forest via Iron Mountain. Regardless of your starting point, you’re in for a breathtaking first reveal when you finally emerge from the dense, emerald treelines of Hiawatha National Forest and arrive at your destination.
The colorful cliffs of Pictured Rocks
You can get a panoramic glimpse of the rocks from the roadway, rising out of Lake Superior's South Bay. The most lively section spans about 15 miles, just northeast of Munising. At their most stark, they're streaked with kaleidoscopic mineral stains that look like a cross between candle wax and chalk.
Note that much of the state's shut down due to COVID-19, including campsites and boat tours. That means, for now, the colorful streaks of mineral on the rocks will have to be observed from a distance. So bring binoculars if you want to get psychedelic.
As if a whole shoreline full of trippy painted cliff faces wasn't enough, Pictured Rocks is also home to wild rock formations and natural arches that extend from the cliff walls into the icy waters. The most famous of these geographical oddities is Miner's Castle, a natural formation that looks like an ancient, abandoned fort and is accessible by car.
Perhaps the dreamiest rock formation is Chapel Rock. A moderate hike through the woods leads to a tall rock spire rising from the water. This tower is capped with a 250-year-old white pine tree, whose roots wrap down the rock and stretch across the gap to the mainland, like some sort of ancient suspension bridge, in order to plug into the dirt for nutrients. It's gobsmacking to see it from the forest -- and even more ethereal when gazing up from the pristine beach below.
A kayaker’s playground
Once things return to normal, there's no better way to get up close and personal with the rocks than via kayak or canoe. Traverse the waves and paddle through arches while gazing upon this weird natural wonder. The closer you get, the more the colors pop. If you’re hesitant about dipping half your body into one of the coldest freshwater lakes in the world, you can always book a boat cruise.
Paddle through sea caves
While you're paddling through the waters of Lake Superior, you'll start to notice caves carved into the surface of the rocks. From the massive Rainbow Cave to endless tiny alcoves painted with slants of sunlight, each nook and cranny of the rocks is worth exploring. And if you're particularly adventurous, in the winter they turn downright ethereal when they ice over.
The Grand Sable Banks
As you explore the roads and trails along Pictured Rocks, you'll discover a rich array of waterfront landscapes, including a dense white-birch forest and, further west, the sandy dunes of the Grand Sable Banks. Basically, every bend reveals something new and unexpected. For those who don't mind a little stress on the calves, the soft sands of Grand Sable Dunes are steep enough to keep the “crowds" at bay.
Some of the best beaches in the Upper Peninsula
The Upper Peninsula's pretty isolated: 3% of the state's population lives in the area, which constitutes 40% of Michigan's landmass. So when people refer to any of the many, many beaches along this stretch of Superior as “popular” or “crowded,” take it with a grain of salt.
Miners Beach is basically the gateway to the colorful parts of the rocks: Here you'll observe natural arches and big waves without much physical exertion. Sand Point offers up some killer sunsets on soft shores along crystal (and cold!) waters. The easiest bet is Twelvemile Beach, which offers day-use areas and camping (whenever that's allowed again).
If you're looking for a lighthouse, you'll find it at Au Sable Point. The beach here includes a campground and debris from various shipwrecks, which may or may not make you skeptical about the actual effectiveness of lighthouses. And just a hair north of Munising, the East Channel Light on Grand Island was constructed entirely of wood in 1868. It sits on private property on the expansive island across from the Pictured Rocks, so you’ll have to cruise by on a boat tour or kayak.
Waterfalls on waterfalls on waterfalls
The Upper Peninsula has more waterfalls than pasty shops, thanks to the extreme amount of snow melt that this perpetually frozen region endures. The Pictured Rocks area is home to some of its most breathtaking. Spray Falls drops 70 feet into the waters of Lake Superior, the ripples partially obscuring an old shipwreck underneath. Sable Falls is best viewed from an easily-accessible platform underneath, while Mosquito Falls offers up a short-and-wide plunge where you might spot a beaver.
If any of that sounds like too much work, Munising Falls is located in the small town that kicks off this whole epic lakeshore and can be viewed from a paved path. And hey, you can -- and should -- grab a pasty from Muldoon's while you're there.
Come in the winter for dramatic frozen waves
Summer is the best time to visit Pictured Rocks, but summer’s kind of an abstract in the UP: a short window of euphoric weather and slightly-less-cold water that is often obscured by clouds of flesh-chomping black flies. So don't fret if you miss that warm-weather window.
In autumn, the rocks somehow manage to become more colorful, with leaf-peeping that makes New England seem downright monochromatic. In spring, the snow melt results in cascades of water charting new paths for the various falls. And in winter -- the most dominant season here -- massive icicles form on the cliffs like building-size stalactites, while the waves below freeze into what resembles ice volcanoes.