The Unsurpassed Beauty of Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore

You almost don’t need words with a landscape like this, but I’m going to provide some anyway so you know what you’re looking at.

Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore is on the south shore of Lake Superior between Munising and Grand Marais. And if you ever find yourself planning a trip to the UP, a Pictured Rocks Cruise or kayaking tour should be on your MUST DO list. There are only a couple features that are visible to the drive-in tourist, more for backpackers and hikers. But the most impressive features of this 43-mile long stretch of sandstone cliffs, arches, and caves cannot be seen unless you are out on the big lake.

Battered by wind and waves, the shoreline varies between sheer cliffs, pockmarked with caves, and idyllic sandy beaches and inviting waterfalls. And every so often, a “picture” in the rocks–a structure or illusion that suggests an object, like finding shapes in the clouds. One of these is Miner’s Castle (below) which you can drive to easily but which, in my mind, is far from the most impressive or exciting.

In addition to the “pictures (which we’ll see a lot more of below) the cliffs are “painted” by minerals dissolved by underground springs and streams of water that then drip down the sides of the sandstone. The color indicates the mineral: white is calcite, orange is iron, gray is dolomite, blues and greens are copper, black is manganese.

The various points have colorful names, such as the arch below, which is called Lover’s Leap. Our guide on the cruise reminded us that it was not such a great name because if you take a flying leap into the lake from this point it is into only about four feet of water. So maybe this is for jilted and suicidal lovers only…

Things can change quickly though. Our guide pointed out a sandbar to us, saying, “If you were to stand on that sandbar where you see the water looks more brown, you would be in water up to about your waist. One step closer to the boat where we are now and you’d be in 65 feet of water.” Superior is beautiful, yes, but dangerous when you don’t know what you’re doing.

Probably not all of the caves on the lakeshore have names, but this one does — Rainbow Cave, for the streaks of minerals on the walls and the turquoise water.

When I took this cruise as a child, this point of land was called Indian Head. Our guide this time around was careful to be PC about it, but its name is certainly no insult. The Native Americans who fished these waters called this rock the Gitchee Manitou, or Great Spirit. They saw themselves in its strong jaw and nose, its sloping brow, and its steadfastness in the storm.

Someday I intend to kayak Pictured Rocks, if only so I can slip into places like this to see how far back those caves go…

Sometimes a single cliff or point is not enough to make a picture, but a series of them is. This is Battleship Row, where five or six points of land at the right angle look like a fleet lined up at port.

The winters are long in the UP and the gales off of this inland sea are powerful enough to sink freighters, as any Gordon Lightfoot fan knows. So I always like to see trees that hang on despite adversity, like this pine gripping the side of this cliff.

Can you see the goblet or vase in the rocks below?

 

How about a set of sturdy bear or elephant legs?

A pirate’s face below a gray tricorn hat? (Barring that, you might at least see a set of very round eyes and a rabbit-like nose perhaps?)

This tight cove is Chapel Cove, and the interesting thing here is better viewed in the second picture.

This is the spot with the most copper coming through, as you can see by the deep teal about halfway up the rocks.

Just beyond Chapel Cove is Chapel Beach and Chapel Falls, both accessible by car and a short walk.

And then the feature which is almost everyone’s favorite: Chapel Rock.

It may not be wholly obvious from that first picture that there is indeed a white pine tree (our state tree) atop the rock. And even if you caught that right away, it may be tough to tell just how it can live on a rock that is almost completely separated from the mainland. The photo below reveals the mystery.

A thick tangle of roots, which had developed at a time when Chapel Rock was still an arch and connected to the rest of the forest, is that tree’s main source of water and nutrients from the soil. Tenacity. You need it to live in such an unforgiving place. Incidentally, in what can be a very difficult and sometimes treacherous trail that forces the hiker to the very edge of unstable cliffs in this stretch of the North Country Trail, the only fences the National Park Service has constructed are those protecting this feature (and Miner’s Castle) from people who might otherwise trample and climb and damage it.

If you take the longer cruise option, you will get to see Spray Falls, which empties into Lake Superior and can only be seen from the water. In late summer during a dry year, this waterfall may not be flowing at all, so go in June.

 

Another waterfall you can appreciate from the lake is the lovely Bridal Veil Falls…

And just in case the scale of these features has eluded you…see those kayakers?

On the way back to port the boat swung by Grand Island and the East Channel Lighthouse, which opened for service in 1868.

The island is used largely by sportsmen, tourists, and hikers, but there are a few houses on it. The summer residents of these houses have no plumbing and no electricity, and they are the keepers and restorers of the lighthouse, which hasn’t been in service since 1913.

For days when I asked my son what his favorite part of the trip so far had been, he’d say it was the Pictured Rocks Cruise. His answer would change later, but that is another post for another day…

Just trust me and put this on your bucket list.

One Small Taste of Coming U.P. Delights

My son and I have just gotten back from an epic trip around Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. I have more than 500 photos to wade through and edit, and I’ll be sharing them in this space over the coming days (maybe weeks!) so stick around!

Hiking with a Summer Storm at Your Heels

On Sunday, the final morning of our trip to Pictured Rocks and Grand Sable Dunes, we woke to a still, hazy morning. The largest group of hikers that had camped at Au Sable Point East with us had already silently packed up and left before 7:15 in the morning when I woke, which I remember finding a little odd (principally because they seemed to be college-aged and I, at least, was not wont to get up early and exert myself during my college days). Our other neighbors were in the process of packing up as well. Seeing the sun through the haze, I ran off to the beach to snap a few photos before breakfast.

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This serene scene belied the weather that was to come that morning. As we strapped our tent and bags to our packs, my sister said, “Do you hear that? That sounds like thunder.”

True, it did sound like thunder, but it also sounded like it could be a distant logging truck or some such noisy thing (which is what I wanted to believe). Within another 30 seconds, though, there was no mistaking it. It was most definitely thunder. Fast-moving thunder indicating a storm quickly approaching us.

With 1.7ish miles to go, almost all of it steeply uphill, we lost no more time getting our packs on our backs and getting the hell out of there. We each had a 5-Hour Energy metabolizing in us and knew the car was less than an hour away, which was powerful motivation (as if the impending storm was not enough). The question was, could we manage to get up that extremely long, steep incline before it became a river of mud should we be caught in a deluge?

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The thunder got closer and louder and the woods around us grew very, very dark, except for when the occasional flash of lightning lit up everything around us. I thought about the metal frames in our packs–the only metal for hundreds of feet, most likely–just as a loudest, closest, angriest ball of thunder burst right over top of us.

“Do we have a plan here if the sky opens up?” I asked my sister.

We did not.

The only plan was to get to the top of our climb before the rain. She suggested I say a prayer. And so with every labored, frantic step over root and sand and dead pine needles, I prayed aloud. And after my prayer was through, I prayed silently, thanking God for every dry step I took.

And you know what? It never did rain on us. We could occasionally see rain off in the distance when we passed quickly by an overlook we had lingered at the day before. We could see that it had rained on the parking lot when we got to the car. We could see that it had rained on the road when we drove back to the ranger station in Grand Marais.

But not a drop of it rained on us.

The storm passed by us and left us unscathed.

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This is not to say we were not wet. If you had witnessed our triumphant emergence from the forest, you might be forgiven for thinking we had been caught in the rain because we were drenched with sweat from the effort. When I looked at my phone to check the time I was dumbfounded. I think it’s quite possible that we made the hike in little over thirty minutes, about half the time I figured it would take us with the incline and my blisters (which, by the way, did not hurt at all the entire climb, but started to hurt the moment we hit the path that led from Log Slide to the parking lot).

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This Sunday morning hike is not one I will soon forget. It was almost as though God decided that because we had not been in church we might need a reminder of His power–and His mercy.

Au Sable Point Lighthouse, the Graveyard Coast, and Hurricane River

On Saturday, my sister and I packed up and made the three-ish mile hike to our next campsite, Au Sable Point East. I say three-ish because it really seems to me that some desk jockey at the National Parks Service (NPS) looked at a map of Pictured Rocks, estimated that the width of his thumb was, “Eh, more or less about a mile,” and then did that tongue-out, one-eye-closed sort of “guesstimating” you do when you just want to get something checked off your to-do list. Next time we are there, Alison and I plan to bring one of those fancy runner’s watches that records everything you do and actually measure the real distance.

But I digress.

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After lurching down an endless hill (“Ah, now this feels more like Pictured Rocks!”) we found the campsite and were quite happy that it was a.) very close to Lake Superior for water and scenery needs; b.) situated in an idyllic looking little area populated by pines and the cutest little baby fir trees you’ve ever seen; and c.) not far from both the lighthouse and the mouth of the Hurricane River (as we were both marvelously fond of the Mosquito River on our last trip and were looking forward to hearing and seeing another river).

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We had neighbors at this site, but everyone was pleasantly quiet and industrious and no one seemed to be there to make new friends. (Alison and I come from some painfully solitary German stock on our father’s side and are never really looking to meet anyone. Ever.)

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We happily strolled along the beach and examined rocks until we were chased away by biting black flies (“Ah, now this feels more like the U.P.!”) and then thought we’d check out the lighthouse.

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I have a friend who “collects” lighthouses, but to me they are just one of those things you look at and go, “Hm, that’s cool,” and then move on to more important things, like marking how prevalent wild blueberries are in these parts or how fascinating that rock is over there. (Aside: Did you know that Michigan has at least 116 functional lighthouses–plus more that are no longer in service–more than any other state in the nation?)

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Alison and I took the “steps” down to the beach to search out the remains of shipwrecks that are visible between the Hurricane River and the lighthouse, part of the Graveyard Coast, a very shallow area of the lake that has claimed several vessels over the years and prompted the building of the lighthouse in the first place. Despite the flies and the heat and my growing blisters, it was a beautiful walk and it struck me once again how many hundreds of miles of gorgeous beach there are on Lake Superior and how little it is really used for recreation. I think that’s a good thing, don’t get me wrong. But when you think of crowded beaches downstate, it’s really quite incredible.

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Now, above the beach and in the woods a little bit, between the lighthouse and Hurricane River, there is a bizarrely wide footpath (wide enough for a truck, and there were tire tracks on it). I can only assume that the lighthouse staff uses that path as a road to reach the light station. It also happens to be more welcoming for the people who might use the drive-in campground at Hurricane River rather than the backcountry sites that pepper the North Country Trail that runs through the park. You know, larger families with small children, the elderly, and the less-in-shape-than-even-me. In fact we met a large older gentleman with a cane and his wife coming down a real set of stairs (rather than just posts strung together with cables and flung down a sandy hill) to go see the shipwrecks and I thought to myself how odd it was to see someone like that hiking. Then we came to Hurricane River and it all made sense.

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We first knew something strange was going on when we saw an RV. Just the night before I felt like I was the only person in the park, so devoid of human activity were the tops of the dunes. Then we saw another RV. And another. And coolers. And bottles of ketchup and mustard. Then we smelled meat grilling. I finally looked at the map and saw that this was one of two drive-in campgrounds in Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. A small part of me, for a very, very short moment, was incensed. But then I started thinking about bringing my son up here sometime before he’s big enough to hike with a pack on his back. And I understood completely. This would be the way to experience a piece of this place if you could not (or were not inclined to) carry your house and food on your back to and fro.

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Except for the RVs and the grills and the coolers, Hurricane River reminded us a bit of the Mosquito River in that it was refreshingly frigid and the water ran over shelves of sandstone that you could walk across (carefully). We took a seat on a log in the river, cooled our achy feet, and had a snack. Then, being the curmudgeon I am, I started removing evidence of human activity from the river (in the form of little dams of rocks that a sweet little child no doubt made but which I, ardent naturalist and generally ornery person, didn’t think should be there altering the course of the water and messing up my photos).

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I know. I’m a rotten killjoy. I also systematically destroy those “cairns” everyone seems to be so fond of making on Michigan’s shorelines. I don’t understand why people simply must leave their mark on the natural world and I resent them ruining my landscape photographs. There. I said it.

Anyway

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This is a very nice area to visit. If you are doing a U.P. trip by car and want to get a taste of Lake Superior and Pictured Rocks without a ton of footwork, I recommend parking at various parking lots along the park and taking the short hikes to places like Log Slide, Au Sable Point Light Station, the Graveyard Coast, Miner’s Castle, Miner’s Beach, Miner’s Falls, Sable Falls, and anywhere else you can see (especially the Pictured Rocks boat tours). Combine that with stops at Tahquamenon Falls, Point Iroquois, the Shipwreck Museum at Whitefish Point, the Soo Locks, and Wildwood Pasties, and you’ve got yourself a lovely trip. I recommend the first or second week of October if you also want to take a fall color tour to boot.

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We eventually headed back to camp, ate dinner, then hid from the bugs in our tent. I think we were both asleep before sunset that night (36 hours with no caffeine and a lot of walking in direct sunlight kind of saps one’s energy). I was looking forward to a fairly early start the next morning as I anticipated going home to my boys and a nice soapy shower. Little did I know there would be another good reason to get moving quickly on Sunday…

Sunset on Grand Sable Dunes and Waiting for the Northern Lights

After we visited Log Slide on Friday, Alison and I returned to our campsite, had a bite to eat, and then returned to the other world waiting above us to watch the sunset.

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Apparently, we were not the only ones with this idea. We were joined by about 63 million tiny flying bugs of the gnat variety, which frantically whizzed about in clouds all around us. You can spot some of them in the photo above.

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And yet, it was still quiet and peaceful up there. I set off to photograph the dunes in the waning light while Alison plunked down with a book. You can see her in the above photo, way up near the top of the hill.

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The sun slowly sank lower in the sky and lit up the dune grasses and sand in that perfect evening light that photographers so adore.

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And a landscape that had seemed almost stark in the harsh midday sun took on a quality that made you feel that this earth is really a beautiful place indeed.

How often do we go to bed at night having not noticed this? It should strike us daily and yet we are so busy and so insulated from the earth outside and spend so little time with the real world that we miss it regularly.

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Certainly that feeling is easy to come by in a singular landscape such as Grand Sable Dunes. But even your own yard or neighborhood or that corner of your kitchen where the light hits just so, you can see it. If you’re looking.

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Now, I have never been a fan of August. It has always seemed a wasted month of horrid heat, humidity, and boredom. But I’ve recently begun rethinking my stance.

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This past weekend it started to cast a spell over me. (More on this at a later date.)

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Finally, finally, the sun sank below the horizon. My sister headed down the now dark trail, flashlight in hand, leaving me atop the highest point of the dunes, camera firmly affixed to my tripod, to wait for a very different sort of light. I had read on Tuesday that a massive coronal mass ejection (CME) had occurred. For those of you unfamiliar with this term, essentially the sun had released a tremendous amount of energy that was careening through space toward us, the effects of which might be visible on this Friday night.

Still in the dark? I’m talking about the Northern Lights, which for the past few years of increased CME activity (which goes in 11 year cycles) have been spotted all over Michigan, but mostly on Lake Superior. And here I was at Lake Superior on the perfect night in the perfect spot to see them for the first time in my life and, if I was lucky, capture them in pixels so I could smugly share my good fortune with others.

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As the cold wind whipped around me and my surroundings darkened, I actually prayed for the privilege to witness this incredible display of the power of our star and the kind hand of the One who put our planet in such a position that I could both see it and not be harmed by it.

But it was not to be. There may have been lights later that night while I was snoozing or watching a little mouse scurry overhead between the tent and the rain fly, but I was not permitted to see them. I eventually packed up my camera and flicked on my flashlight for the descent to Masse Homestead (made exponentially more difficult by the darkness and more nerve-wracking by the thought that should I encounter a black bear or wolf in the pitch black night, it would have a significant advantage over me despite my being armed).

I was (and am) profoundly disappointed. And yet, the sun continues to shine and produce storms that will cause the Northern Lights to appear at a later date. Someday I hope to see them. In the meantime, this disappointment reminds me that I am not owed beauty. Beauty happens, but it doesn’t happen for my sake. I am like one of those grains of sand on the dune, one of billions of people in the world. My great comfort is that God knows every speck of sand, every one of us, and that He heard my prayer for light that night…and for whatever reason His answer was “Not just yet.”

The View from Log Slide

Log Slide is a destination spot on the east end of Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore with quick and easy access from a parking lot. In a previous era it was used for (you guessed it) sliding logs that were cut from the forests above into Lake Superior below so they could begin their watery journey to sawmills in parts south. Nowadays, the only thing sliding down this patch of sand is tourists (some unwillingly, I imagine).

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There are a couple signs warning that though it can take less than a minute to reach the bottom 500 feet (300 vertical) below, it can take more than an hour to climb back up.

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The day we spent time at Log Slide I wasn’t feeling particularly energetic as we had just traversed a LOT of sand on top of the dunes and the balls of my feet were developing blisters. So instead of making the descent, Alison and I crept around on a few more-or-less-sorta stable areas just to the west of the actual slide.

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You can get a great view of the five miles of sand that make up Grand Sable Dunes from this vantage point.

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And you can see Au Sable Point Light Station from there as well, which is where we were headed the next day.

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But before we get to the lighthouse, there is the little matter of sunset on the dunes and waiting for the Northern Lights. Stay tuned…

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Surprised by Sand

This past weekend, my sister Alison and I took our second hiking trip together. We planned a shorter hike than last year and parked such that we could hike a short distance (under two miles) to our campsites, pitch our tents, then do day hikes unencumbered by packs. I must say it was an excellent strategy.

So on Friday afternoon we quickly found ourselves setting up our tent at Masse Homestead backcountry campsite on the eastern end of the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. The hike to the site was eerily silent. We heard no birds or humming insects, encountered no other hikers, and spoke little as we walked a narrow path through a largely open, mostly deciduous woodland.

To Masse Homestead

Masse Homestead is a smaller site, with only three campsites allowed. There was some mold growing in the food box, so we opted for the food pole to keep our rations away from bears. The soil was sandy, making the tent setup smooth and bathroom breaks easy (apart from the mosquitoes). And in just a matter of minutes, we were ready to check out our surroundings.

Masse Homestead

The old bearded ranger (“I’ve lived in Grand Marais all my life but I’m slowly moving west. I’ve gotten about two and a half miles so far.”) told us about a very steep, sandy trail that led up to the dunes. It was easy to spot (harder to climb) so we grabbed cameras and water bottles and headed up.

Trail up to dunes

Near the top, one gets the very queer feeling that you are going through C. S. Lewis’s wardrobe to Narnia.

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And, in fact, I think what awaited us took our collective breath away just like Narnia did for Lucy.

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The last time I could see this much landscape all around me, I was in a plane.

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There we stood, upon the very highest point of the Grand Sable Dunes, and all around us was wilderness.

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The only sound was of the crickets and cicadas.

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At that moment, we felt as though we must be the only two people on earth.

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We hiked over the dunes, up and down, for a long time before we even approached the edge, losing site of the big hill we first stood on and the opening in the trees that would lead us back down to our tent.

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But how could we not be drawn by this landscape to abandon the trail and set off to blaze our own?

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We stopped (quite sensibly) at this line of wet sand that ran across the top of the slope. Had we taken very many more steps forward, we might have found ourselves sliding down 300 or so feet into Lake Superior.

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Instead, we rested our feet a bit and took in the incredibly blue lake and the cool breeze.

Erin on the Dunes

Besides some tracks in the sand (coyote, deer, crow, and one set of bare human feet) and one pile of scat (bear) there was little evidence of life up there beyond dune grasses, scrubby junipers, poplars, and wild roses.

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We would discover later that night that the dunes are a favored spot for huge clouds of gnats (or some related tiny flying insect) but that is a post for another day.

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