If you’re craving turquoise water and white-sand beaches, you can grab your passport, buy a pricey airline ticket, and fly 1,700 miles to Quintana Roo, Mexico. Or, you can hop in the car and drive a mere seven hours from the Twin Cities to Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Although the U.P. in winter is the rare person’s fantasy, during spring, summer, and fall, Pictured Rocks, with its gushing waterfalls and mammoth rock outcroppings, resembles a rugged, piney Caribbean.
The Lakeshore stretches 42 miles along Lake Superior’s southern edge and features a string of stunning beaches and sandstone cliffs. Starting at Munising—the town that anchors the park’s western border—you come to Miners Castle, a much-photographed outthrust that shelters the pristine Miners Beach. Next comes Mosquito Beach, with rock flats stretching into the lake like petrified waves, followed by Chapel Rock, a jagged tooth of sandstone carved some 4,000 years ago.
Visitors can hike to each of these landmarks and, in spring, view pink lady’s slippers among the ferns and pines. The hikes are generally easy thanks to strategically placed parking lots and well-groomed trails. Admission is free.
The best views, however, are had from the water. During the warm months, tour boats depart the municipal pier in Munising several times a day, affording sightseers up-close examinations of the sculpted rocks.
The surreal coloring of the mineral-stained sandstone is particularly striking, comprising great swaths of blue, green, orange, and white. The rocks appear to be painted and boat passengers spend much time embroiled in Rorschach-inspired analysis. (Tip: sightseers on the starboard top deck get the best views and benefit most from the amplified narration.)
With only around 400,000 visitors per year, Pictured Rocks is distinctly unpopulated compared to other national parks. (By contrast, both Yosemite and Yellowstone draw more than three million people annually.) This relative sparseness creates a club-like feeling among visitors. Those who come get the sense they’ve discovered something hidden and marvelous. And, in fact, they have.
MNMO‘s Guide to Pictured Rocks
WHERE TO STAY
Sunset Motel on the Bay: Pristine rooms abutting Munising Bay, complete with pine décor and stunning sunsets. sunsetmotelonthebay.com
Twelvemile Beach Campground: Camp sites overlooking Lake Superior and connected to the North Country National Scenic Trail. nps.gov/piro/planyourvisit/campgrounds.htm
WHERE TO EAT
Sydney’s Restaurant: Steaks, fresh fish, and a solemn promise: “You won’t leave here hungry!” sydneysrestaurant.com
The Navigator: Nautically-themed breakfast, lunch, and dinner overlooking Munising pier and Lake Superior. 906-387-1555
Muldoons Pasties: A take-out joint serving some of the best pasties in the U.P. 906-387-5880
WHAT TO DO
Pictured Rocks Cruises: Expertly guided tours for more than 50 years, picturedrocks.com
Munising Bay Shipwreck Tours: Explore the remains of three sunken ships, all within the Alger Underwater Preserve, shipwrecktours.com