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Home » Adventures » Great Superior Adventure » Pictured Rocks

Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore

October 24 – 29, 2016
Pictures Rocks National Lakeshore sign

For the sixth and final stop of my Great Superior Adventure I stayed in the UP of Michigan to visit Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, which covers about forty miles of Lake Superior coast and includes tall cliffs, sand dunes, and forests. My trip started in Grand Marais, where I kayaked along the entire National Lakeshore to nearly Munising, before parking my boat and hiking back to Grand Marais along the North Country Trail. Instead of reading through uninspiring prose of this trip, pretty pictures are alternatively available for perusal.


The morning after finishing a hike through the Porkies I arrived at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, ready for a late season loop through the park — kayaking along the coast and then hiking back to where I started. Unfortunately the weather was not cooperating, with five foot waves and a small craft advisory in effect. Conditions were supposed to improve the next day though, so I visited some of the touristy parts of Pictured Rocks, relaxed, and prepared to shove off the following morning. That choice was still questionable though, as Lake Superior is never warm, much less at the end of October. I had only an improvised wetsuit, where a dry suit would have been the correct attire for those temperatures, especially traveling solo. Any unintentional swimming in such weather could be life threatening. Still, I went ahead, taking some risk.

An Unsuccessful Kayaking Attempt

I planned to kayak from Grand Marais to Sand Point, since in that direction the predicted weather would provide a tailwind while at sea. The morning was very chilly in Grand Marais though, so not only did I have to wait for the late daylight this time of year, but also for some warmth to arrive. The small craft advisory warning did not expire till 10 a.m. anyway, so time was not of the essence. By midmorning I was finally ready and launched from the beach on the town’s protected harbor, not even getting the outside of my booties wet.

Route I paddled/hiked

Route I paddled/hiked

Although the small craft advisory had (just) elapsed, Lake Superior was not exactly flat. The narrow manmade causeway to the lake had large, rolling waves, as the concrete walls on each side reflected the seas at odd angles. A few of the larger waves completely blocked the horizon from my view. Once free of the passageway though, conditions became much calmer as I paddled with relative ease paralleling the shore.

My morning was transpiring well until I glanced to the stern and discovered my rear hatch was open! Somehow I had forgotten to close that and water was freely splashing into the stern compartment, soaking gear and weighing down my kayak. I was at least fortunate that my hatch cover was not lost to the waves. Continuing the rest of the day in this condition was out of the question, but sealing the hatch while still in my kayak’s cockpit is impossible and going for a swim to get at the cover would have been more dangerous than leaving it open. I had no choice but to land.

The major problem however, was that several feet of crashing surf still assaulted the unprotected beaches. Launching back into that would be very difficult. Still I had to do something about my boneheaded mistake of not battening down all the hatches so I reluctantly turned shoreward1. Even paddling in through these waves proved difficult, and I was fortunate to merely crash land onto the beach after some sketchy surfing, without having capsized or even gotten very wet.

Big waves do not mix with kayaks

On shore I discovered my rear compartment completely full of water. The inside of my clothes bag stayed mostly dry thanks to Gortex and garbage bags, although a “dry bag” containing electronic accessories fared much worse. I dried my gear on the beach, with the cool overcast sky not helping much, but the wind doing its part. As typical though, antsiness overcame me and I repacked my boat, eager to get back underway. Staring out over the water though, I wondered how I could possibly launch into those crashing waves. The thrash only extended about fifty yards offshore though, so once through that small stretch the rest of the day would be manageable.

I should never have even attempted setting off into such conditions in those temperatures, but my ever present stubbornness prevailed as I gave it the ole college try. My thickhead could not overcome nature though, with my attempts to launch onto an aggravated Lake Superior turning out as conditions dictated. The crashing waves easily overpowered me — knocking me and my kayak around, flipping it over a few times, and drenching me. I kept trying for a long time though, convinced a lucky gap in the waves would appear allowing my escape. That never materialized, and instead the surf just beat me up more. After way too attempts of trying to fit a round peg through a square hole I finally acknowledged reality and aborted this mission.

Thankfully I had barely left town, and a nearby staircase led up the cliffs to the Grand Marais campground, so I carted my kayak and gear from the beach after retrieving my car. By now it was too late to relaunch from the protected harbor, and I was too tired from having fought the surf anyway. I spent the rest of the afternoon drying gear — even more than when I first landed, since items got wet during my numerous attempts to break through the waves. At least for all my suffering I could now eat a delicious pizza in town, instead of yet another uninspiring dinner courtesy of Knorr.

A Successful Kayaking Attempt

My kayak on shore at Chapel Beach

Mercifully the seas were calmer the next morning, although temperatures had dropped to below freezing overnight — not conditions in which I should be paddling with only a jerry-rigged wetsuit. But I setout same as yesterday, triple checking that my hatches were sealed, and enjoyed an easy paddle out of the harbor and along the coast, aided by a nice tailwind.

I passed the massive Grand Sabel Dunes, which rose several hundred feet abruptly from the water, before rounding Au Sable Point with its lighthouse. The water was choppy here, but conditions smoothed as I sailed along the uninterrupted sand of Twelve Mile Beach. Past Beaver Creek the beach ended, and sea cliffs began to grow from the water. Rock towered out of the lake, often forming sheer walls hundreds of feet straight up. In other locations large chunks of the fortress had cracked off, leaving oversized debris piles in the lake. Many small caves had been carved into the cliffs as well. The waves were not the right height to create an incredible percussion ensembles like I enjoyed at the Apostle Islands, but conditions were calm enough to allow paddling into some of the crevasses.

Matching my kayak up to the picture on my NPS Annual Pass at Petit Portal

Several large rock arches sat along the shoreline as well. The arch at Grand Portal Point has had enough collapses that a debris pile completely blocked passage underneath, but the giant arch at Petit Portal was clear and I paddled underneath. This spot was also the one depicted on my NPS Annual Pass, which I had been looking at for the past year.

The cliffs ran mostly uninterrupted until Sand Point, where I transitioned from kayaker to hiker. I stowed everything I needed for the walk back to Grand Marais in my backpack and left the rest in my kayak. I stashed my boat in the woods2 before starting my hike back along the coast I had just kayaked down.

My paddling excursion through Pictured Rocks was great (well, expect for my first day), and I really enjoyed my time kayaking past the long beaches and bands of cliffs.

Kayaking inside one of the sea caves

Sea Caves

Spray Falls

Spray Falls

Backpacking the North Country Trail

A leaf covered boardwalk

I hiked back to Grand Marais along the North Country Trail (which I kept running into). The scenery was mostly the same sights I spied from my kayak, but now from a much different perspective atop the cliffs. With fall in its last throes, leaves were mostly devoid of color and already on the ground. They crunched noisily underfoot as I walked high above the lake, admiring the shear drop-offs and stark cliffs. The water was crystal clear too, revealing the many boulders and rock chunks that cracked free from the walls and plummeted to their watery graves.

Upon reaching Twelve Mile Beach I elected to journey on the sand instead of following the official trail in the dunes. This choice afforded a very enjoyable beach walk, which was also more direct and a bit faster. Staying on the beach however, only made sense with the very low surf happening that day. With these calm conditions I strolled along the edge of the waves on (mostly) hard sand. In large seas though, the entire beach would be inundated with water, but even moderate sized surf would force a hiker into loose sand, making the beach route more difficult than just remaining on the trail.

Sea cliffs near Grand Portal Point

Although the day was a bit too chilly and overcast for swimming or sunbathing, I reveled in my beach excursion until nearly at Au Sable Point, where the sand ended. I retreated back to the trail through the woods, passing by the lighthouse before climbing to the top of Grand Sable Dunes, which had great views of the massive sand dunes and over the lake.

The picturesque cascade of Sable Falls was near the end of my hike, followed by a final short stretch along the lake. Unfortunately the surf was larger than when I visited Twelve Mile Beach, so my feet got wet, even with some iffy scrambling along the dunes.

Twelve Mile Beach

Twelve Mile Beach

Grand Sable Dunes

Grand Sable Dunes

The End

But I finally made it back to my car, after a great bimodal loop through most of Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. I drove back to Sand Point to retrieve my kayak (which thankfully sat undisturbed) and formally concluded my two months playing in, on, and near Lake Superior. Plenty more places to explore lay in the area, but I pushed my luck with the weather enough already, especially since I was not equipped for snow sports.

1 In hindsight I should have turned around and returned to Grand Marais harbor, but that did not cross my mind then. I was not yet fully aware either just how impossible relaunching into those waves would be
2 Note to future visitors: The NPS may not be entirely happy with people leaving boats unattended for several days, but with mine out of the way and at the end of the season, I figured it would go unnoticed and not bother anyone