Man snowshoeing at Pictured Rocks.
Nearly 100 miles (160.9 km) of trail unspool through Pictured Rocks, snugged against Lake Superior’s southern shore in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, or U.P. The paths, which include 42 miles (67.6 km) of the North Country Trail, showcase the lakeshore’s colorful sandstone cliffs, towering sand dunes, rushing waterfalls and pristine beaches. A late-fall exploration means cooler temps, no pesky bugs and lots of privacy. Stash a pair of snowshoes in with your gear in case the snow begins to fly.

The Insider

A teenage Tom Nemacheck wasn’t happy when his family relocated from Detroit to the Upper Peninsula in 1969. So after graduation, he joined the Air Force – only to find himself stationed right back in the U.P. “After that, I decided I was destined to stay here,” he says. Today, Nemacheck knows every inch of the U.P. as executive director of the Upper Peninsula Travel & Recreation Association. And one of his favorite hiking destinations is Pictured Rocks. “We don’t have more scenic, easily accessible trail in the U.P. than at Pictured Rocks,” Nemacheck says. “And it’s majestically beautiful year-round.”

Historic Stroll


Trails in the easternmost portion of Pictured Rocks lead you past remnants of its logging and lifesaving past. Plus massive sand dunes, white birch and jack pine forest, and mighty Lake Superior. Start out from the Grand Man snowshoeing through heavy snow and pine trees.Sable Visitor Center and head west on the blue-blazed North Country Trail (NCT). It winds along the 300-foot (91.4 m) Grand Sable Banks. The banks are topped with miles of sand dunes, pushed here by the last glacier.

When you reach the historic log slide at mile 5.3 (8.5 km), you may be tempted to hike down to the lake. But Nemacheck advises taking a pass. The 500-foot (152.4 m) log slide, once used by lumberjacks to send felled trees gliding into the lake, includes 300 vertical feet (91.4 m). While you can make it down in five minutes, it can take an hour to climb back up. “Or you might get stuck down there, like I did,” Nemacheck says. “When I tried to climb back up, the sand was so dry I’d take one foot forward and go two feet back.”

Instead, continue 2.2 miles (3.5 km) to the Au Sable Light Station. The 86-foot (26.2 m) tower first began beaming its white light into the lake in 1874 and is still shining today. Keep a keen eye on the lakeshore as you continue west along the NCT. Old shipwreck remains are sometimes visible between the lighthouse and Hurricane River Campground, 1.2 miles (1.9 km) away. From the campground, it’s another 2.8 miles (4.5 km) to Twelvemile Beach, a designated stop for the Altran shuttle. The shuttle, in operation year-round, whisks hikers back and forth along the Pictured Rocks lakeshore. (Reservations necessary; $25; 906-387-4845.)

Water Galore


Part of Pictured Rocks, Beaver Basin includes 13 miles (20.9 km) of Lake Superior shoreline, Spray Falls, three sparkling interior lakes and five cold-water streams. Nemacheck recommends hiking the 10-mile (16.2 km) trail around 762-acre Beaver Lake. Strike out from the Little Beaver Lake parking Frozen and snow-covered Lake Superior with rock formations.lot on the Beaver Lake Trail heading west. As you wind past both Little Beaver and Beaver Lakes, cradled inside a beech-maple forest, watch for wildlife such as American martens, fishers, river otters and, of course, beavers, which can often be spied in and around the lake. “In winter, it’s really fun to watch the river otters as they swim in and out of the holes in the ice,” Nemacheck says. “They slide along the snow, leaving long skid marks, and don’t appear to care about the cold water and snow.”

Turn left on the trail leading to the Beaver Creek campsites (mile 3.2 [5.2 km]), then cross the log bridge. Another quick right at the campsites, perched next to the lakeshore, takes you back onto the Beaver Lake Trail, now curving around the lake’s northeastern shore. Before reaching Trappers Lake (mile 5 [8 km]), take a right to continue around the water. In another 3 miles (5 km), you’ll take a final right to reach the parking lot.

Another option is to start off on the Beaver Lake Trail as above, then take a left onto the NCT heading toward the  Coves campsites, where Pictured Rocks’ sandstone cliffs start to rise. Impressive Spray Falls lies just beyond, a 6.4-mile (10.3 km) one-way journey. While this rain-dependent waterfall is best viewed from the water, autumn’s reduced foliage may help you spy it. Spray Falls is notable because the water plunges off a chiseled cliff right into Lake Superior – and right at the spot where the 1856 shipwreck “Superior” is submerged. Retrace your steps for a 12.8-mile (20.6) hike.

Best of the Lakeshore


Some of the most iconic spots at Pictured Rocks are found in the lakeshore’s western half, which makes a great two-day trek. Start at the Munising Falls Interpretive Center, taking the paved, .5-mile (.8 km) path into a shady canyon, where 50-foot (15.2 m) Munising Falls dives over a sandstone cliff. Backtrack and head east on the North Country Trail (NCT). In 7 miles (11.3 km) you’ll reach popular Miner’s Castle, where you’ll catch one of Pictured Rocks’ most photographed vistas.

“The views of Lake Superior from here progress from deep blue water in early winter to a massive ice covering and pushed-up ice shelves as the season progresses,” Nemacheck says. Take the side trail to Miner’s Falls (1.2 miles [1.9 km] round-trip) to view another 50-foot (15.2 m) waterfall, this one the park’s most powerful. It’s a steep, rocky climb to Potato Patch campsite (reservations needed), another 1.9 miles (3.1 km) up the trail, for a daily total of 11.1 miles (17.9).

On day two, hike 7.8 miles (12.6 km) eastbound on the NCT. Enjoy gently rolling trail all the way to Chapel Rock, another popular sight. The freestanding Cambrian sandstone rock formation is topped by a white pine estimated to be 250 years old. Take the staircase down to the beach for prime views. Back up on the bluffs, it’s 3.1 miles (5 km) to the trailhead and Altran shuttle, ending the day at 10.9 miles (17.5 km).

Hunting Season

Pictured Rocks is open to hunting from the day after Labor Day until March 31. If you plan to hike during hunting season, wear bright colored clothing.

Trip Planner

Season Year-round. Some access roads closed in winter. Permit Required for overnights; reserve at Contact

This article first appeared in Backpacker magazine. 


©2018 Melanie McManus – All Rights Reserved

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