Where did I leave off? OH! Bragging about how great our very own Upper Peninsula and Pictured Rocks are…
I, for one, can’t understand why this area of Michigan is not a global phenomenon. Why aren’t people flocking here from all over the world like they do to the Eiffel Tower, Machu Picchu, or the Grand Canyon? It’s just about as breathtaking as those places or even more so. I kept finding myself wandering around the trails and the lookouts while on my hike, being nearly the only one for miles, and thinking, “Where are the tourists?!” Sure, there was the occasional Lower Peninsula Michigander and one or two die hard backpackers from Wisconsin or Minnesota along the way, but I don’t think I saw or spoke to one person who had come further or had taken an airplane to get there. It was baffling! Yet maybe it simply added to its appeal…
For my first trip to the Pictured Rocks, my boyfriend and I drove to Munising after work on a Friday and stayed in a little motel called Superior Motel & Suites. Now, usually I’m not one to be down for staying in a place with doors that open up to my car literally steps away, but this place had a cabin-like feel to it, was clean, and the staff was friendly. We were looking for a cheap place to ramp up for the hike ahead and this place did the trick. It was the perfect place to rest for an early morning and long next couple of days.
In the morning, we did a 3 hour morning kayak trip to the cliffs and caves. This isn’t just any kayaking. This is kayaking in Lake Superior, which is all but an ocean. I couldn’t help but imagine myself being swallowed up and swirling around one of the shipwrecks in the area or slamming up against the rocks due to a horrible storm. My recommendation for anyone doing this kayaking trip—go on a warm day and DON’T go first thing in the morning. It was cold and rainy, which impeded my ability to really enjoy myself–I just kept hoping we could go back so I could get warm again. I can’t deny that the scenery was breathtaking, though and although it was a bit uncomfortable, I don’t regret going; it was a way for me to see the rocks from all angles.
Immediately following the kayak trip, we had lunch at Johnny Dogs. Okay, so maybe this isn’t the most wholesome, healthy choice right before embarking on a journey where the only thing we would be eating is granola and powdered soup, but DAMN, was it good! I encourage anyone who visits Munising to try this place. There are tons of unique burgers and dogs on the menu with loads of ingredients to choose from and everything is hot off the grill. TIP: Try the mac ‘n’ cheese bites–they’re in an egg roll type shell with some dipping sauce that is to die for!
Our shuttle met us at the Munising Visitor Center and we strapped on our packs and got on the empty shuttle thinking “What have we gotten ourselves into?” We were dropped off at just about the halfway point between Munising and Grand Marais—Little Beaver Lake Trailhead. With only three days to spend, I wanted to see how I felt about this whole backpacking thing, so I figured 20-ish miles would be a good start.
Our plan for the first day was only to hike about 4 miles, but we didn’t factor in the distance from the trailhead drop-off to the actual trail, so I think it ended up being about double that. We camped at a place called Chapel Beach for the first night–an airy campsite perched on a cliff overlooking the lake. The view was gorgeous, but I remember the mosquitos being pretty bad because of the no fires rule.
It was also 4th of July, and while lying in our tent to go to sleep (embarrassingly early by the way), exhausted, I could see through the tent ceiling the fireworks from nearby Munising. I’m ashamed to say we didn’t even get out to watch them, we were so tired.
The second day we hiked about 12 miles and saw some of the most scenic and beautiful sections of the trail. We ate lunch barefoot on a Cliffside near Mosquito Beach overlooking the lake, saw waterfalls, mossy groves, bridges, rivers, and wildlife. This day was amazing, but toward the end of it I started to wonder if we’d ever reach our next campsite. It felt like we had been walking for 20 miles–not seven!
The second night we camped at Cliffs campsite, where we met two other hikers and chatted about where we came from and our experience on the trail so far. They hadn’t made reservations at all and it was just a stroke of luck that someone else had cancelled at the last minute and they were able to get campsites.
On our last day hiking back to the visitor center, we only had about 5-6 miles to go, but again it felt like much longer. A small portion of the trail was under construction at the end and we ended up being re-routed onto a seemingly deserted road. Slowly walking back into civilization felt strange. Even though we were only out there for about three days, it felt so remote, so withdrawn from the rest of the world, and so pure. Seeing cars and road signs was a bit disheartening—I wasn’t looking forward to turning my phone back on and going back to real life.
Despite all that, seeing our car was like a beacon of light. We were SO extremely tired and neither of us had ever walked that far. This is corny, but I felt so unbelievably accomplished—like I had just climbed Mt. Everest or something. I had just survived three days in the absolute wilderness, drinking water from the river (purifying it first of course), carrying everything I needed on my back, and enjoying the crisp, clean air. And I felt so restored after it but also so thankful for all of the conveniences we enjoy on a regular basis. If I felt that elated over a 25 mile hike, I can’t imagine what Cheryl Strayed must have felt at the end of her sabbatical on the Pacific Crest Trail.
This is where we ate lunch on our second day of the hike.
We’ve gone on another trip to the Pictured Rocks since then, on which we met a really fun couple from Escanaba, MI and a solo hiker that were all staying at our campsite. We all got to chatting around the fire, something I hadn’t really experienced much of on our first trip there–camaraderie among backpackers can be a really cool thing. Turns out one of them was a photographer and took some really amazing pictures from the beach near our campsite that night and of me rooting around in my tent. The people you meet while traveling can sometimes surprise you and they’re some of the most open and friendly people you’ll ever come across.
I could probably fill up a novel about this place, but I think this is a stopping point. I can honestly say that I’ve traveled around the world and back, seen many exotic countries and experienced lots of other cultures and destinations, but the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula undoubtedly stole my heart. It was the most beautiful and breathtaking place I’ve ever found myself in—and the ironic part about it is that it has been right in our backyard all this time!
CAITLYN WITHOUT A COMPASS