Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Michigan
On Lake Superior’s southern shore, sandstone meets the unrelenting waves and weather of the world’s largest freshwater lake. The result: caves, arches, pillars, and cliffs that stretch for miles along the shoreline. Better yet: The colorful coast gets eve
Few can claim to know the nooks and crannies of Michigan’s wild Lake Superior shoreline better than Michael Neiger. After decades spent exploring the region as a volunteer canoeing and backpacking guide for groups like the Sierra Club, a lead investigator for Michigan Backcountry Search and Rescue, and author of Exploring Pictured Rocks: West Half, Neiger has logged nearly as many days in “the bush” as he has in civilization.
The loop circling Chapel and Mosquito Beaches is “the best cliffside hiking in the Midwest,” Neiger says—and that’s not even the half of it. This 10.4-miler also encompasses a pair of waterfalls, wavy sandstone formations, and pristine, singing-sand beaches. From the Chapel Road trailhead, hike counterclockwise through abundant patches of orangeyellow jewelweed ( blooming late summer into fall) to 60-foot Chapel Falls. Continue on to see Chapel Rock at mile 2.1, a sculpted sandstone pillar marking the start of Chapel Beach. Swing west along the sandy stretch (when it’s dry, the sand will squeak or “sing” underfoot), then ascend the lakeside cliffs to stroll 200 feet above the shoreline to “the most spectacular part of the park.” The escarpment offers views of the cliffs’ orange stripes, rutted coves, and sea caves in both directions. Descend to Mosquito Beach (usually bugfree in September), then head back into the woods to pass Mosquito Falls—a wide shelf where you might spy river otters—en route to the trailhead.
Pictured Rocks is a long, skinny park, and the North Country National Scenic Trail spans the whole thing—making it the best bet for extended backpacking. Neiger’s favorite segment links Sand Point to Little Beaver Lake for a leisurely 22-mile, fourday shuttle route. From Sand Point ( beachy and sheltered, it’s a top spot for a dip in the lake), follow the NCT northeast along the bluff to Miners Castle (pictured above). Take the short spur to a series of overlooks to check out the solitary sandstone pillar, then continue down to Miners Beach. Camp at the clifftop Potato Patch site at mile 7 (there’s no water up there, so top off at Miners Beach .4 mile back). Day two, hike the shoreline section of the ChapelMosquito Beach Loop (see “Top Dayhike,” previous) and snag a coveted site in the pines near Chapel Beach for a grade-A Lake Superior sunset (reservation required). Follow the bluff 4.3 miles to the sandy Coves site for night three, nabbing views of 70-foot Spray Falls along the way. Finish by connecting with the spur to Little Beaver Lake in the Beaver Basin Wilderness and hiking out to your shuttle car.
The 5-square-mile expanse of Grand Sable Dunes, a rare “perched dune” system of sand deposited on top of a bluff, “will blow your mind,” Neiger says. “You’ll think you’re in the desert.” For the best access, start at the Sable Falls lot and head 1 mile north to the lake to wander through the fragile
dune ecosystem, a rolling, sandy landscape dotted with stands of jack pine.
Best car campground
Tent-door lake views, epic sunsets, a sugary beach: Midwestern camping doesn’t get much better than Twelvemile Beach. The first-come, first-serve sites ($14$16/night) sit on an elevated plateau shaded by white birch and fill up fast, so show up early and beeline it for sites 12, 15, 16, 24, 25, or 26 for the best water views.
At Falling Rock Café & Bookstore in Munising, locals hang their own coffee mugs on the walls, smoked whitefish headlines the menu, and a “super selection” of ice cream replenishes lost calories, Neiger says.
SEASON May through October; fall foliage typically peaks late September through mid-October. PERMIT Required for backpacking ($5/person per night plus $15 reservation fee); obtain at recreation.gov. Car campgrounds are $16/night. SHUTTLE ALTRAN (altranbus.com/ backpack.html) and Trailspotters (trailspotters.com) both run hiker drop-offs and pickups. Prices vary. CONTACT nps.gov/piro
Get this view of Miners Castle on the North Country National Scenic Trail near the visitor center.
Kayakers can explore the innards of Miners Castle. To do it, put in at Miners Beach near the visitor center.