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Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore: All the Things to do at This Breathtaking Water Wonderland

Feast Your Eyes on the UP’s Stunning Pictured Rocks Coastline

You’ve no doubt heard about the Pictured Rocks Michigan.

You keep meaning to take that road trip up north to check them out, but you just haven’t quite got round to it. Just how cool can some colored rocks really be? As it turns out, seriously cool. As in, unmissable.

We visited the UP this summer and the Pictured Rocks were, without question, the highlight of our trip. You’ll definitely want to tick this national lakeshore beauty off your National Parks bucket list. We guarantee it’ll be one of your favorite Michigan summer vacations.

Where is Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore?

So you want to visit. But how long will it take to get there and where exactly are they?

The Pictured Rocks Michigan coastline is actually pretty huge. Located in the Upper Peninsula on the southern shore of Lake Superior, you are looking at around a six hour drive from Detroit, or five hours from Milwaukee. 

The Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore is bordered by Munising, MI on the west and Grand Marais, MI on the east. These glorious cliff formations span a whopping 42 miles. 

So we’re not talking about a few key landmarks, or day-trip territory. Make sure you build in plenty of time to experience them when planning your UP itinerary.

Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore map
Courtesy of U.S. Geological Survey

What Makes Pictured Rocks Michigan so Special?

The Pictured Rocks coastline boasts beautiful waterfalls, iconic rock formations, magnificent sea caves and of course, vibrant colors which need to be seen to be believed.

It’s truly like the cliffs have been hand painted, and photos simply can’t do them justice. 

Their striking colors come from mineral deposits in the sandstone: red and orange from iron, green and turquoise from copper, purple and black from manganese, and yellow and green from algae, to name a few.

The only way to appreciate them fully, is to get up close and personal, and this can be done in several ways, over several days!

What Does it Cost to Visit Pictured Rocks?

As of March 2022, all visitors to the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore need an entrance pass. You can either buy a 7-day pass (these cost $15 per person on foot/bike, or you can purchase one for your car group for $25) or an annual pass for $45. If you are already an America the Beautiful pass holder, then you can use that to access the Pictured Rocks at no extra charge.

You can NOT purchase passes at the park headquarters, so you’ll need to buy one before you arrive! You can purchase them online in advance here, or in person from the Munising Falls Visitor Contact Station (cashless), South Bay Outfitters in Munising or Grand Marais Outfitters.

All funds raised from the passes go towards improving the visitor experience in the park, so it’s all for a great cause!

We explored the rocks by both boat and kayak, but there are also wonderful hike options too. It’s definitely worth seeing them from multiple vantage points!

Pictured Rocks Cruises/Pictured Rocks Boat Tour

Pictured Rocks Cruises is the authorized Pictured Rocks boat tour company, and they operate from the Munising City dock. They run a variety of daily boat tours from mid-May to mid-October, and boy, do they do a perfect job. 

Their Classic Cruise features famous natural landmarks such as Miner’s Castle, Lover’s Leap, Indian Head, Battleship Rocks and Chapel Rock. 

The Spray Falls Cruise is an extended option, which also includes Spray Falls, the only spring-fed waterfall along the cliffs that runs year-round.

Both options are fantastic, and include a trip into the recesses of Chapel Cove for an up-close experience of the cliffs.

close up of Chapel Cove at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore
Chapel Cove on Spray Falls Boat Tour

It’s worth noting that the Spray Falls Cruise (2 hours) is actually a little quicker than the Classic Cruise (2 hours, 40 mins), as they use their faster catamarans for this tour. 

Top tips: 

  1. BOOK EARLY! The cruises sell out fast.
  2. Show up at least 45 mins before your time slot to guarantee a seat on the open-top deck.
  3. Locals recommend the Sunset Spray Falls Cruise for a unique experience. We chose that one, and it was the BEST. So atmospheric to watch the sun go down over the rocks!
  4. Pack layers! It gets chilly out on the water.
Pictured Rocks boat tour of children in hoodies
Don’t skimp on layers at Pictured Rocks – even in dead of summer.

Pictured Rocks Kayaking

There are a number of authorized kayak tour companies at Pictured Rocks, and you can find them listed here

We went with Pictured Rocks Kayaking and felt very well looked after! The way it works is that you arrive early to sign in and attend a safety and instruction briefing (beginners are welcome and no previous experience is necessary). 

Pictured Rocks Michigan Kayak Tour
No filter! The water truly is this color.

You’ll be given your life jackets and kayak skirts (to stop you from getting drenched!) and you’ll be shown some basic kayaking skills. 

Then it’s time to board the boat, and ride out into Lake Superior! 

You’ll be organized into groups, and introduced to your tour guide. You’ll then climb aboard your kayaks and be lowered into the water in turn, and you’ll follow your instructor’s directions about where to go. 

Your guide will take you right up close to the rocks, and if you’re feeling confident, you can also navigate your way through caves and narrow openings between the rocks, which is super fun! 

Plenty of people found themselves getting stuck from time to time, but the instructors were always on hand to help kayakers out of any tight spots, so don’t worry!

The main boat stays close by during the trip for any emergencies, and then takes you back to shore once the kayaking is over. This was such a fun experience, and a wonderful way to experience the cliffs up close.

Top tips:

  1. Be prepared for cancellations or alternative routes – we actually ended up kayaking around Grand Island instead on the day we had booked, as the waves were too choppy to kayak the Pictured Rocks. But it was still worth it, and the company offers an immediate partial refund in these situations.
  2. Pack a waterproof case for your phone that you can wear round your neck.
  3. Interact with your guide! The more you ask, the more they’ll share. Some will even take pictures for you!
  4. You can take snacks/drinks on the boat – you’ll be glad of them after two hours on the water!

Pictured Rocks Michigan on Foot

We waved at plenty of hikers exploring the cliffs, or enjoying the variety of Pictured Rocks beaches from our boat tour. We didn’t have time to fit in the hikes as well, but it’s definitely on our list for our next visit. 

We spotted hikers standing right at the top of the Grand Portal , and that looked like a magical viewpoint to be able to experience!

There are hiking options to suit all levels, and they range from short and easy (Miners Castle Trail) to medium (Mosquito Falls Trail, Spray Falls Trail) and all-day (Chapel Loop Trail).

For the best guidance and options, visit the National Park Service at one of their visitor centers to find trail details and condition updates before you set off.

Top tips:

  1. Check conditions/weather before you set out.
  2. Wear appropriate sturdy footwear for the trails.
  3. Bring a map – wifi can be sketchy in the UP!

4 More Experiences at Pictured Rocks

If you think soaring, painted cliffs was the full gig, we’ve got news for you: there’s more to do at Pictured Rocks Michigan.

1 – Hike to a Lighthouse and See Shipwreck Remains

Shipwrecks are kind of a thing on Lake Superior. While you won’t find the legendary remains of the Edmund Fitzgerald, you can get glimpses of other vessels that have met their fate in these deep, icy waters.

To see shipwrecks and a lighthouse, head to the Hurricane River Campground, which is the trailhead for a 1.5 mile hike out to the picturesque Au Sable Light Station.

The route will take you along the Lake Superior shoreline, and you’ll discover exposed shipwreck fragments on the beach. You can then take a 30-40 minute tour of the lighthouse itself, climb to the top for the beautiful views and visit the museum.

Don’t overlook rock hunting on the way to Au Sable lighthouse

Top tips:

  1. Bring exact change ($5) for the light station tour.
  2. In the summer months, the black biting flies can be fierce, so wear clothing that covers legs and arms, and bring bug spray!
  3. Tours run Wed-Sun, from mid-June to end September, from 11am to 3.30pm.

2 – Take a Shipwreck Boat Cruise

Still fascinated by the ships that didn’t survive the unforgiving Lake Superior storms?

Take the unique glass-bottom shipwreck tour, which lasts two hours and takes you on a fully-narrated historical tour of two shipwreck sites, the East Channel Lighthouse and the cliffs and beaches of Grand Island.

In the best conditions, you can see as far as 45 feet below the surface!

Top tips:

  1. Reserve ahead! Tours run every day from Memorial Weekend until September 30th.
  2. Bring a jacket, even on a warm day.
  3. Don’t let rain or fog deter you – often less sunny weather conditions make for greater visibility underwater!

3 – Discover the Many Pictured Rocks Waterfalls

Pictured Rocks Lakeshore is home to more than just the impressive Spray Falls and Bridalveil Falls that you see from the boat tours.

There are countless other waterfall trails to explore, and most of them are accessible on foot!

These include: Munising Falls, Miners Falls, Sable Falls, Mosquito Falls and Chapel Falls. Choose a hike length and accessibility to suit you!

Munising Falls at Pictured Rocks Michigan
Munising Falls

Top tips:

  1. Munising Falls is particularly stunning in winter when it freezes, and the trail is open year-round.
  2. Miners Falls is a special treat in the springtime, when the wildflowers are in bloom.
  3. Sable Falls is best viewed from the bottom of a 168-step staircase. So just be prepared to walk back up again!

4 – Take in the Views at Log Slide Overlook

Seven miles west of Grand Marais, you’ll find an easy hike out to Log Slide Overlook. Back in the late 1800s and early 1900s, it was home to a long wooden chute for sending logs down to the lake, to then be floated to saw mills in Grand Marais.

Just a short walk from the parking area, you’ll reach the lookout point, where you can enjoy incredible panoramic views of Lake Superior, including the Au Sable lighthouse.

You can even climb down (and back up) the steep dune if you are feeling energetic enough.

Top tips:

  1. Be warned that getting down the dune takes minutes, but getting back up can take over an hour.
  2. There are overhangs near the bottom of the dune that you can’t see from above.
  3. Watch out for poison ivy on your walk out to the overlook.

Pictured Rocks Lodging

Hotels by Pictured Rocks  

There are plenty of hotel options in Munising, which is the western border of Pictured Rocks. There’s a Holiday Inn Express, Comfort Inn Express and AmericInn, plus a host of motels to choose from. You can find an extensive list of accommodations here.

Also check Vrbo and Airbnb for additional options. We stayed farther out, nearer to Marquette (about 50 minutes west), at this absolute gem and were so happy we found it! 

Cabin Rentals Near Pictured Rocks Michigan

If some rustic charm is more your vibe, then consider booking a cabin for your stay. 

Pictured Rocks Cabins are ideal for a couples’ getaway, with one-bedroom accommodations boasting outdoor firepits, porch swings, love seats and outdoor gas grills. They have two duplex cabins available.

Hilltop Cabins in Grand Marais have a number of two and three-bedroom cabins available, overlooking Lake Superior. All have full kitchens and come complete with all the amenities you would hope for in a vacation rental. An ideal choice for bigger groups.

If you are willing to stay further out (about 2 hours), the Tahquamenon Falls-Lodge is a fun choice for larger parties, sleeping up to 8 people, although in the summer months it must be rented by the week. 

Or for a truly back-to-basics stay, you could try the Rivermouth Pines Camper Cabin within the Tahquamenon State Park grounds.  Sleeping up to 7 people, it has electric outlets and wall-mounted heating units, but no restrooms or running water. Vault toilets are available on the campsite itself. 

Camping near Pictured Rocks

Camping is definitely a fun (and cost-effective) way to enjoy your stay in the UP.

There are three drive in-campgrounds within the Pictured Rocks Lakeshore itself: TwelveMile Beach is the biggest, followed by Hurricane River, and Little Beaver Lake, which has just 8 spots. 

All three sites require reservations, so you can’t just show up! Bookings can be made up to six months in advance and cost just $25 per night, per site.

For all sites, be aware that this is bear country, so anything with a scent will have to be stored in bear-safe boxes, and there is likely to be no cellphone reception.

Another option is the pet-friendly Munising Tourist Park situated right on the shore of Lake Superior, with breathtaking views. This city-owned campground is an ideal base for exploring the Pictured Rocks.

A little further out, Au Train offers both beach and lake campgrounds. We swam at the gorgeous Au Train beach, and the water was warm and crystal clear.

It’s a beautiful bay, and is located further up the coast towards Marquette, so it’s a great location for exploring beyond the Pictured Rocks Lakeshore.

The Best Time of Year to Visit Pictured Rocks

The summer months are undoubtedly the peak visitors’ season, as this is when most attractions, such as the boat tours and lighthouses are open, and the weather is warmest.

Having said that, the Fall colors in the UP are known to be stunning, while the waterfalls tend to be at their peak flow in May and June. 

But  you can’t discount a Winter trip either! The frozen waterfalls are beautiful, and you can try your hand snow-shoeing the hiking trails or even snowmobiling and ice climbing!

Whether you are visiting the UP purely for the Pictured Rocks, or as part of a longer trip, you won’t be disappointed to see this natural phenomenon in all its glory, up close and personal. 

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Helen Williams

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