On the shores of Gitche Gumee,
Westward by the Big-Sea-Water,
Came unto the rocky headlands,
To the Pictured Rocks of sandstone
Song of Hiawatha W.W. Longfellow
Extending for 42 miles along Lake Superior, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore offers spectacular scenery along the hilly shoreline between the very small towns of Munising and Grand Marais. After the lumbering era ended around 1910, many of the parcels of land making up the current national lakeshore reverted to the state of Michigan for unpaid property taxes. Eager for federal help and recognition, the state cooperated with the federal government in the area’s development. Subsequently, Congress enacted a law in 1966 making Pictured Rocks the first officially designated National Lakeshore in our country. The Indiana Dunes was designated one month later as a National Lakeshore, followed by the Apostle Islands in Wisconsin and Sleeping Bear Dunes in Michigan, both in 1970.
Still heading east, leaving Marquette behind, our next destination was the small town (pop. 2,355) of Munising. Lying on the western border of Pictured Rocks, it is a warm-weather destination for many travelers. Come winter, its population dwindles and if you’re not a participant of winter sports, then you have no business coming here. The fall season is a great time to visit . . . the weather is still holding and the number of visitors is tolerable. We didn’t exactly have the place to ourselves, but we weren’t bumping into people either. We could see the scenery without having to fight for a view. And the view is what Munising is all about—the sandstone cliffs and promontories of Pictured Rocks begin just east of town and the scenery is magnificent.
Ojibwa Indians hunted and fished here, as their descendants still do. Ojibwa myths attach great importance to these rocks and sea caves, which canoes had to traverse, close to them, in danger of being blown up against the rocks by sudden storms. In the 1600s and 1700s French and English explorers and voyageurs came searching for furs and minerals. They left little behind except place names, such as Grand Marais and Miners River. In the 1800s American and European settlers arrived to make fortunes in mining and logging. The demand for timber attracted lumber barons who bought vast forests of white pine, beech, and maple. By the 1890s boomtowns supported sawmills. Grand Marais, bustling with a population of 2,000, produced millions of board feet of lumber annually. Business on the lake flourished, too. Wooden-hulled freighters and side-wheelers transported lumber and pig iron to distant markets. To help ships navigate the dangerous reefs, the U.S. Life Saving Service (later to become the U.S. Coast Guard) built light stations along the lakeshore. By the early 1900s most of the forests were gone, and the fortune-seekers moved on. Only a few small towns and lonely lighthouse keepers remained.
Our campground was just a couple miles west of town. Taking no reservations, it was first come/first served, and it turned out that our early arrival paid off. We were able to snag the last available site on the shore of Lake Superior. Another warm and sunny day, we quickly set up camp and began to enjoy our 3-day stay.
The towns of Munising and Grand Marais bookend the national lakeshore. Since the park extends about 40 miles along the shoreline, Melinda had planned for us to extensively explore the western half and then move up to Grand Marais in order to experience the eastern end.
With topography similar to the North Shore of Minnesota, the surrounding headlands fall rather precipitously down to the lake around Munising. Rocky cliffs, softened by the cover of trees, lead steeply to the shore. Streams and rivers tumble over rocks, creating a number of waterfalls in the area. Not surprisingly, our first few walks seemed to have a waterfall (or two) at the trail’s end. Melinda went prepared.
Though not as dramatic as most of the falls along the North Shore, nevertheless Munising’s collection had an attraction of their own.
Twilight sets in early this far north. Back at our camp, the setting sun wrapped up a rewarding day for us. We walked the sandy shore as evening turned to night.
There are two perspectives from which to view the Pictured Rocks . . . from above or at water level. Today, we would take the high road and hike along the precipitous edge of those towering cliffs. A path led out from Miners Beach, where Melinda intended to end the day, having found a particularly scenic rocky beach. The trail led up, and higher, until the very pinnacle of the cliffs was attained. Then we could take a breath and enjoy the hike as it mostly wound through a dense forest. The views wouldn’t open up until we were near our destination, 3 miles away.
No railings, no warnings, the implication was obvious . . . proceed at your own risk. We (correction, one of us) could stand on the very edge and get that far-off view.
The best reward was waiting at the end of the trail. We descended to the rocky beach below, which was a considerable drop. Miles from easy access, we weren’t surprised to have this scenic spot all to ourselves. Bathed in the afternoon light, we took time to enjoy Mosquito Beach.
All rocky shoreline, the sandstone layers resembled the thin layers of phyllo dough. Stretching out to the horizon, today the surf was pounding, its echoes reverberating against the cliffs. And what, we wondered, would this beach be like when the storms of November come calling?
The sun was dropping lower and Melinda had another destination. Once again, we huffed back up and took the 3-mile trail back again. Along the way, coincidentally, we saw the tour boat cruising far below. Tomorrow we would be down there, taking the rocks in an entirely different perspective.
Facing mostly to the western sky, these rocks were naturally illuminated in the warm evening light. The trick was to find a ground floor perspective. Rising straight out of the water and soaring to those heights, a “beach” was not readily accessible. The few places that there were involved more than a couple miles of trekking. Except the one at Miners Beach.
A half-mile walk led to a protected inlet and there was where the evening rays would hit. Already the rocks were glowing. The light was right, but it was fleeting. Her efforts weren’t in vain.
And so ended another day.
The light wasn’t as dramatic the following morning. Nevertheless, sometimes the gentle light is also worth capturing. As we stepped out to take an early morning walk, we saw the big lake had settled down.
The day would only get better. The clear and warm weather was auspicious for our cruise. After enjoying most of the day on land, touring what there was of Munising, listening to the Colts’ game during lunch, late afternoon found us down at the boat dock. Once aboard and settled in, Chris just had to use his iPhone to play the theme song to Gilligan’s Island once it was announced that this would be nearly a 3-hour cruise. Yes, it was that kind of day! We sailed out.
To be continued . . .