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!

Grand Sable Dunes, here we come…

Today I head north for the Second Annual Sisters’ Hiking Trip. Last year we hiked some of the more rugged trail of the western end of Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. This year we’re tackling the eastern end where we will find Grand Sable Dunes and the Au Sable Point Lighthouse. We’re purposely skipping Twelve-Mile Beach, which I hear feels more like twenty miles since the trail is all sand.

Depending on where we decide to park this time around, would could end up doing a fair amount of hiking with packs on, or slack off and set up camp first, then hike around with almost nothing in our packs beyond water bottles and cameras. I guess we shall see how masochistic adventurous we feel when the time comes.

As I packed up the new tent (which my son and I slept in in the back yard Tuesday night) and bought my rations and tested out my new water purifier, I couldn’t help but wonder…

Will we see any early color changes that far north? (My drive to Grand Rapids is already colored by bright orange and red sumac and a few blushing maple trees.)

Will we rise early enough in the morning to catch the sunrise?

Will we be so fortunate as to experience the Northern Lights before they calm down and move north for the next decade? (Apparently there was a huge solar flare Tuesday and the effects could be seen on Friday. Crossing my fingers!)

Will we see more wildlife than squirrels and insects this time around?

Will the promising weather forecast pan out?


But beyond the questions is the certainty that there will be beauty to behold.


Summer in Michigan Means One Thing to Me: Up North

Over the past week my husband, Zach, and I have been engaged in the blessed process of planning summer travel around the state: picking dates, securing care for our pets, coordinating travel with family, reserving a room here…

Bay View Inn

We’re thrilled to be heading back up to Mackinac Island after a few years’ absence and excited to introduce our son to its magical qualities for the first time. Zach and I will spend two nights there alone, writing while overlooking the Straits of Mackinaw and riding bikes around the island. Then my in-laws will come up with our son and we all get to pal around, ride bikes, bring the boy to Fort Mackinac, ride in horse-drawn carriages, and eat ice cream. I can already feel the wind off the water.

Mackinac Island Ride

But before we get to Mackinac Island, we’ll be spending another week at a very special place to our family, Camp Lake Louise

Lake Louise

And in late summer will be the Second Annual Sisters’ Hiking Trip. Last year we hiked Pictured Rocks…

Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore

You can read about our amazing trip here, here, here, and here. Not totally sure just where we’re going this year. But I’m scheming.

This is the time of year my heart aches for woods and water and sky, when thinking about driving north–far north–elicits a physical reaction of butterflies in my stomach and even tears welling in my eyes. The silence of the night sky filled with stars. The sound of wind through trees. The cold splash of clear water. The clip-clip-clip of horses’ hooves. The heat of the sun upon bare skin. The scratchy sound of sand upon worn pine floors. Just the thought of these stirs deep longing in my soul.

I’m hopelessly in love with Michigan.

Lessons Learned While Overdoing It #2: Small Graces

A landscape like that of Pictured Rocks is one of immensity. Lake Superior stretches on past the horizon in varying shades of green, turquoise, blue, and violet. The pristine blue sky arches to space. The faces of the cliffs explode from the waves. The soaring canopy of green rustles overhead.

But throughout our weekend hike at Pictured Rocks, my sister and I were careful to take note of the small things set in our path. I’m a “noticer.” My sister joked that while I was busy noticing a miniscule red and yellow fungus in the undergrowth I would be eaten by a bear. Sadly, we saw no bears, but we did see flowers, ferns, stones, fungus, insects, squirrels, snakes, rabbits, deer, and chipmunks. Always chipmunks.

Here are some of the small graces we experienced as we were pushing through the pain.

Beyond the sights, we heard eerie and thrilling bird calls we had never heard before and smelled the freshness of Lake Superior and pine forests. When you are exerting the kind of effort we were, you also appreciate with true gratitude the small graces of cool breezes off the lake, cold water from the rivers, and the frigid waves of Superior. That’s probably why so many of my photos are of our feet in the water.

It’s focusing on these gifts of comfort and beauty from God that makes it possible to overdo it without complaint. Sure our feet hurt, our shoulders were sore, our joints were aching, we were thirsty and rationing water. But that’s just hiking. Complaining doesn’t change it, and, in fact, it makes it no fun. I’ve been on hikes and nature walks and tours with complainers young and old and I have to tell you, there is little that grates on me quite like someone who is whining about heat or cold or bugs or boredom and not appreciating the beauty of a place.

And that’s how it is in the rest of life, too. You can focus on the negative  and moan about the things that make you uncomfortable or unhappy and bring everyone around you down with your constant discontent and never notice that all around you are small graces. All it takes is a shift in focus. All it takes is taking your eyes off yourself and looking instead to the gifts that have been lavished upon us by a generous hand.

Lessons Learned While Overdoing It #1: Perseverance

For some people, hiking 12 miles whilst carrying approximately 75 lbs (Is that an exaggeration? I’m not sure.) on your back is not difficult. I know this, because a few of you passed us on the trail last weekend. You were cordial and saved for later any eye-rolling or disparaging comments about our slow progress at the end there. And my sister and I appreciate that.

During the four mile span from Chapel Beach to Coves Campsite, I asked myself a number of times why, exactly, I had decided on 12 miles for our first big day on the Pictured Rocks trail. After all, neither of us is in stellar shape. I hadn’t been hiking in probably ten years. My job entails sitting, reading, typing, and, very occasionally, talking out loud. My sister also sits a lot in her job, though she has certainly been to the gym more recently than me. Still, why 12 miles?

I kept coming back to the inevitable: we had to end our hike where we began it because we didn’t have anyone picking us up. We had to get back to the parking lot at Miner’s Beach. So in order to make the 7+ hours drive to Pictured Rocks from Lansing (via Elk Rapids) worth it, we had to camp more than just one or two nights. And so we needed to get as far away from the car as possible that first day so we could make our way back at a more reasonable pace. This makes sense, right? Right?

In my infinite wisdom, I figured that doing 12 miles the first day, rather than leaving the big hike for the last day, would be smarter. We’d be more energetic, fresher, more excited about hiking. Also, we would be without injury, pains, blisters, bug bites, etc. that might slow us down near the end of the hike.

So it was that I found myself trudging (it can’t really be called walking at that point) through the hardest terrain of the entire hike, glancing about now and then for a clearing we might collapse in should we fail to reach the campsite before sunset (or before one of us expired). During these four miles, which felt to both of us like far more than four miles and I’m simply trusting that the National Park Service isn’t lying outright to us all about the distances between sites, I had a little talk with God.

Now, I’m of the belief, first of all, that there is a God, that he can and does hear prayer, and that he is all-powerful. I reasoned with myself that God could, if he so desired, physically move the Coves campsite so that it was closer. He could make it appear around the next bend or up the next cursed flight of “stairs.” (Is it just me, or is it way easier to climb those inclines without the aid of stairs?) However, if some other person was hiking toward Coves from the east, and if that person was praying that God would move the Coves campsite closer to them, who would God answer?

God could move the Coves campsite, but I knew that he wouldn’t. What purpose would it serve? Nothing but my own comfort. And I don’t think that God is particularly interested in my own personal comfort. I know he is loving, but so is my father, and I can tell you there were times when Dad wasn’t terribly interested in my own personal comfort. (For instance, I would have been comfortable with a later curfew but I think he disagreed.)

So, I knew that, despite his love for me, God would not move the campsite. What then, might I say to God as I stumbled over roots and leaned away from the edges of sandy cliffs?  Between my heavy breaths and occasional grunts I asked for endurance. I asked for the strength to make it as far as I knew I had to go that night. I asked that my sister, whose hip and heel were obviously in pain, would not be injured and would feel well enough the next day to hike again. I asked that he help us keep pace to make it there before dark.

You see, there are many struggles we cannot escape in life. God does not promise us a life of happiness and comfort. We do not deserve a certain level of prosperity simply because we are on this planet. We are not entitled to a certain level of education. We were not all born for great things. Most of us are just normal. Some of us will have health problems. Some of us will have trouble finding work. Some of us will do worse than our parents. Some of us will fail. But God doesn’t move the goals closer to us simply because we are weak and tired and in pain.

My husband and I recently had to explain to our four-year-old son that we will not let him win games simply because he wants to. We’ve been playing Sorry!, a game that is almost entirely determined by chance rather than skill or wit, and when the boy finally lost his first game, there were lots of tears. We had to explain to him that when people let you win, either by letting you cheat or making the game easier somehow, it doesn’t feel as good as you think it will. Winning because someone feels sorry for you is no victory.

In the same way, God does not make the game easier. He doesn’t move the campsite. But, if we ask, he may help us become a more graceful loser. He may give us the mental push we need to push through the pain and make it to Coves after all. We don’t grow when the bar is lowered. We grow when there’s no choice but to reach the goal as it stands.

We did reach Coves campsite before sunset. We pitched our tent, lurched down to Lake Superior to filter water, ate up some of the weight from our packs, and went to sleep. And the next day, though we were both very stiff, we started out. And you know, once you start walking again, you find that you really can do it. Your muscles stretch back out, your joints aren’t so angry with you anymore, and you can finally enjoy the scenery that you were silently cursing the night before. You can even laugh at the “stairs” which you must now traverse a second time.

2 Women, 3 Days, 27 Miles, and an Entire Can of 40% DEET Bug Spray

What sort of weekend excursion should two 30-something, slightly overweight women with desk jobs take? If you said “Hike 27 miles of the rugged backcountry terrain at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore” you’d be right. We might not be the most fit people in the world, but my sister and I are rabid lovers of the outdoors and luckily don’t mind taking on a challenge in our down time.

Our reward for this was great conversation (sans interruptions by children or commentary from anyone else), fantastic scenery, and true appreciation for things like cold water, cool breezes, food in non-bar form, and soft beds and pillows. Oh, and showers.

Here are some things I learned whilst on the trail.

1. 12 miles is really about 4 miles too long for the first day.

2. If you get 40% DEET bug spray on your lip, it will start to go numb.

3. I now fully appreciate John the Baptist’s cry in the wilderness to “make His paths straight.”

4. My sister is really awesome at her very stressful job.

5. When you know you have to climb yet more inclines, you can somehow make yourself do it.

6. Michiganders are blessed with some of the most stunning scenery around, yet too few of us take the time to get out and appreciate it.

7. During the past 46 years of national park status and funding, the National Park Service has failed (or hasn’t seen the need) to put mile markers on any of the trails at Pictured Rocks. This would be helpful.

8. The ubiquitous Nanny State has yet to extend its reach to Pictured Rocks, where one can stumble around on the very edge of sandy, unstable cliffs (and, in fact, must do this in order to reach many campsites) without a railing in sight and without signing any sort of waiver. (The only rails are in place only to protect a few choice natural features from erosion. Human beings are left to their own devices or stupidity.)

9. There’s nothing quite like standing completely alone on an empty rocky shore after sunset and contemplating the vast darkness of Lake Superior.

10. When my little son is old enough, I will bring him to this amazing place.

To see more pictures from Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, click here.