Sunday, October 16, 2016

Family Backpacking Trip to Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore

Famous for its gorgeous rock formations and cliffs along the south shore of Lake Superior in Upper Michigan, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore can be visited by tour boat, kayak, driving tour, or on foot. We chose the latter. With both campgrounds and backcountry sites available, we opted to backpack which may be done by permit at $5 per night per person. Pictured Rocks is located between Munising and Grand Marais on Michigan's Upper Peninsula.

When I saw the cold, rainy forecast, I thought ah, yes - another wet, muddy disaster. As a responsible, thinking, planning adult, I ignored the forecast and surprisingly received great rewards. Thanks to the sandiness, drainage in many areas made things quite doable. The high winds dried us quickly between periods of rain. By hiking in the rain we earned a bonus - viewing rights to some pretty fantastic rainbows. Doesn't get too much better than that. As a responsible, thinking, planning adult, I also had not reserved permits in advance. The cold, rainy forecast likely helped with campsite availability, particularly at this time of peak fall colors. We bought permits at the Interagency Visitor Center in Munising, and drove to the Litte Beaver Trailhead.

I updated this post to add a YouTube video of this trip to Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, 20 October 2016.

Day 1 - Big smiles - our short hike through the rain is over, we'll camp at Coves backcountry sites.

Twelve Mile Beach - Day 1, loved the squeals of delight running from the "tides" from the big waves and winds.

Amazing displays of fungus throughout the trip. Who finds fungus beautiful? Me! That's who.

A break in the rain just in time for sunset, on day 1 allows us to enjoy a heavenly, gorgeous, wonderful sunset.

We arrived on a Friday, and hiked a short two miles in the rain to the Coves backcountry sites. This area offers miles of sand beach. We set up camp, ate a late lunch, and spent the remainder of the day playing in the on again, off again rain on the trails and beach. The waves amazed us as winds blew strong. The rain kindly stopped to allow us an evening campfire and a sunset on the beach. Having read all the park literature about digging cat-holes, we were surprised and delighted to find a thunderbox at our campsite. The coves area was not busy, didn't see many hikers and not all of the 5 sites at coves were full.

Plenty of interesting rock formations along the trail.

What do you do when you find a big rock? Stand on it, of course.

Plenty of boardwalks and bridges throughout the wet areas.

Some of the stairs in the trail are steep.

Gorgeous roots.

Plenty of fungus among us.

Saturday we hiked 4.3 miles to the Chapel Beach backcountry sites. With the trail now overlooking the cliffs of Lake Superior, we enjoyed many interesting views with Spray Falls and Chapel Rock as perhaps the most spectacular.

Plenty of visitors poking one another with selfie sticks at Chapel Rock.

Chapel Rock in profile, if you stare at it long enough you can find faces and profiles. 

Special Family Chapel Rock Pose Juxtaposed with Lovely Blaze Orange Hat and Gorgeous Windswept Hair. 
Amazing roots at Chapel Rock.

Afternoon rainbow on Chapel Beach Day 2.

Evening rainbow on Chapel Beach Day 2.

Despite the rain, wind, and colder temperatures, the area near Chapel Rock and the Chapel Beach backcountry sites crawled with visitors. Not all of these visitors practiced leave no trace. I thought it ironic that as we entered the trail to the Chapel Beach campsites to my left stood a sign warning about recent bear activity in the area, and to the right a banana peel hung from a tree.

In camp, we felt a bit like monkeys in the zoo with a steady stream of visitors strolling by our campsite and staring. Between my husband and I, we gave directions to about a half dozen lost groups. We waited until later afternoon to go enjoy Chapel Rock and Chapel Beach once the day crowd started heading back to the trailhead. Overall, backpacking at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore on a Saturday is a bit like backpacking at Disney Land. I would recommend weekday visits if possible.

Monkey viewing zone - our Chapel Beach backcountry campsite Day 2.

Bear box and pole - sleep adjacent to this in a busy area unless you like flashlights and noise all night long.

After we set up camp we had a late lunch / early dinner and wandered the beach and trails. The sun peeked through the clouds a couple of times, treating us to rainbows in the late afternoon and evening. In the morning, the rain had stopped and I enjoyed waiting for sunrise on the beach. After breakfast on Sunday morning, it was time to hike the 6 miles back to the trailhead.

Sunrise on Chapel Beach, Day 3.

The trails and backcountry campsites at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore are well-maintained, with boardwalks and bridges in wet areas. However, there is erosion constantly occurring, and one must take care to pay attention to avoid sliding over ledges in some places. You will see other people hiking at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. With larger numbers of people near the more popular sights, it can feel a bit like backpacking at Disney Land. However, the backcountry is not nearly as crowded as the tour boats. Immersed in the fall foliage, and at a hiker's pace which allows for appreciation of every sight and sound, I could not imagine a better way to enjoy Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore.

Here comes the sun to warm us on our hike out - Day 3.

Gorgeous cliffs at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore.

Spray Falls at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore.

Taking a snack break on the hike out.

Lovey lakeshore.

Plenty of rock formations.

Excited to see the sun on our day 3 hike out after two cold, rainy days.

Fall foliage typically hits peak color change during the second week of October. This trip the fall colors and views of cliffs, waterfalls, and beaches provided us thrills around every corner. There are about 42 miles to hike in this park along the lakeshore. Using a shuttle, this length could be hiked over a long weekend staying at campsites along the way. We didn't do long miles as our daughter is pretty unhappy with a pack after several miles, but we did enough to know we really enjoyed ourselves. I highly recommend for anyone looking for spectacular views in the Midwest to hike at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore.

Post-hike feast at the Bear Trap Inn.

We stopped at the Bear Trap Inn for a delicious post hike pig-out, and drove home wet and tired with muddy feet and happy hearts. We vowed to return to explore the entire length of Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore when we have more time, reserving our first choice campsites well in advance. Next time we'll avoid camping near popular stops like Chapel Rock.

If you decide to visit Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, please respect the 50 to 200 foot drop offs by staying away from the edges, no selfie is worth the fall! This will also help slow some of the erosion seen in the park. In terms of bear safety, the park recommends keeping a clean camp, practicing leave now trace, presenting as big and noisy if you see a bear, and following park guidelines and recommendations. Also, hunting is allowed in the park. If hunters are present, blaze orange clothing can help visually identify you as human to hunters. We encountered no hunters.

Sun came out and it started warming up nicely, just in time to say goodbye.

That's all for now. Get outdoors - and keep our wild places wild!

Map from Little Beaver Trailhead to Chapel Beach backcountry sites.


Breakfasts - Oatmeal, brown sugar, raisins, nuts, bacon jerky.
Lunches - Trail mix, jerky, granola bars.
Dinners - Mountain House and Backpackers Pantry meals.


Trail Conditions - 40°F (4C) to 57°F (15C), windy and rainy. Became sunny and warmed up into the high 50's on day 3. Muddy trail in a few places. One downed tree to climb over, overall well-maintained and well-trodden.

Distance from Little Beaver Trailhead to Chapel Beach  - 6 miles (10 km) on foot.

Difficulty - Overall moderate with some easy flat areas and some difficult short, steep climbs.

Highlights - Views of the beach, cliffs, waterfalls, and rock formations.

Location - Parked at Little Beaver Trailhead at Pictured Rocks National Park in Upper Michigan.

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