Morning found us packing up. Not much time to enjoy the early light on the beach—just a quick shot. It had been a good stay here . . . we made the acquaintance of a couple from the Leelanau Peninsula, and enjoyed the ambiance of Lake Superior’s different looks. Although we didn’t have much of a drive ahead today, we were anxious to be on our way. Half of the National Lakeshore remained for us to see, and this was the last day before our federal government might shut down. All the talk coming out of Congress seemed to be leading nowhere. Would access to the lakeshore’s attractions soon be off limits? Not willing to risk the closure, we were determined not to waste our time. First, set up camp in Grand Marais. We headed out, passed through Munising one last time and took the road leading east.
Less than a handful of years ago we wouldn’t have been fortunate to have the paved H-58 highway taking us to Grand Marais. Up until then this road was a sand and gravel, hard-packed, little-used road leading to the access points and trailheads in the national lakeshore. The alternative drive would take many more miles through a much less scenic area. Finally paved, the road layout was supervised by the National Park Service and built with federal funds. The H-58 is a delightful drive that curves through a dense hardwood and pine forest. Not heavily used, with its scenic assets it would be a great road to bike, Chris noted. Indeed, I won’t find it surprising if he decides to try it out.
Situated on a bluff overlooking Lake Superior, Woodland Park would be the location of our camp for the coming 3 days. Having the lake within sight and the center of town just a couple blocks away, being adjacent to the lakeshore’s boundaries made it the perfect location. It also seemed to be the only campground nearby. Not taking reservations, we felt fortunate to find a corner site available just across from the sandy bluffs that led down to Lake Superior.
Then we were off. Nestled at the foot of the Grand Sable Dunes, the Grand Sable Visitor Center is located near the eastern gateway to the lakeshore and at the beginning of the Lakeshore segment of the North Country National Scenic Trail. It would have been the perfect place to get our bearings, plan out an agenda and pick up some firsthand tidbits about the area, but it didn’t work out that way. Why did it not surprise me to learn the center was closed for the season?
So we forged our own way. Knowing there were priorities and realizing which ones would be better seen in the later afternoon light, Melinda selected Sable Falls as our first destination.
Whereas the western segment of Pictured Rocks is all about mineral-stained rocky headlands and waterfalls pouring over sandstone cliffs, the complexion of the lakeshore changes going further to the east. Just past one of Pictured Rocks hallmark waterfalls, Spray Falls, spewing its waters directly into the Big Lake, the cliffs give way to an isolated sandy beach. Stretching for a dozen miles, the aptly-named Twelvemile Beach is an ideal place for long walks along the shore. From there, towering sand dunes begin to rise high above Lake Superior, and continue nearly all the way to the lakeshore’s eastern boundary. Only one more waterfall is found along this stretch, and that would be Sable Falls.
Accessed from a trail leading from the beach heading upstream, or from the parking lot descending a series of stairs going downstream, the waterfall is about midway between those two points of origin. We proceeded down.
Tumbling over several cliffs of Munising and Jacobsville sandstone formations, Sable Falls drops 75 feet and then the water tumbles in several small cascades as it makes its way to Lake Superior.
After the photo ops were completed, we continued to follow the trail downstream. In no time at all the forest trees parted and abruptly we were confronted by the open expanse of Lake Superior. As we made our way out into the direct sunlight we weren’t prepared for the view before us. Rising straight up from the pebbled shoreline were the huge Grand Sable Dunes.. Standing there at the base of this huge formation, the banks rise in elevation up to 275 feet. Stretching more than 5 miles down the shoreline, the dunes present an awesome sight leading down to the water.
Retracing the trail back up, many stairsteps later we were on our way once more. Now that the afternoon light was beginning to warm the northwest-facing headlands, our next sight to see would be the Log Slide Overlook. Lying at the far end of the Grand Sable Dunes, it would be several miles back down that scenic H-58. We drove on.
Known to have one of the best scenic views in the U.P., from the Log Slide one can see the lighthouse of Au Sable Point in one direction and the high dunes stretching down the opposite way. From this location 19th century loggers rolled and slid logs down the sharp sandy incline on a wooden slide. Once at water level, the logs were loaded onto lumber schooners. Today the chute is gone, but along the trail leading to the overlook are relics and displays of the machines used to accomplish this task and explanations of the work involved. Today the forest is once again re-establishing itself, but it will be many decades before it has the appearance of what it once was.
With the day winding down, we returned to enjoy our campsite. Chris built a campfire and Melinda stirred up some dinner. As the evening came on, a cloud bank rolled over the lake. Thinking it would be an overcast sky, she didn’t anticipate any sunset photo op. But there is a fine edge between clouds that hang heavy and dull and clouds that reflect and illuminate. The sunset light came on quickly and it was a fiery one. Dashing down to the beach, she managed to get off a shot, and then a couple more. It was as fine a sunset as any that had been seen these past two weeks of our U.P. trip.
Mornings are beginning a little later in these waning days of autumn. Melinda was up before dawn, hoping to find the early light in Grand Marais. After checking several vantage points, the sun rising over the town’s small harbor seemed to best typify the atmosphere of this place.
The remote, simple little village of Grand Marais enjoys one of the U.P.’s finest sites. It’s located on the only natural harbor of refuge along the 90 miles of beautiful but treacherous Lake Superior shoreline between Munising and Whitefish Point, a.k.a. the Shipwreck Coast.
The Grand Marais harbor offered such good protection to 17th-century French explorers that they gave it the name “marais” (pronounced “muh-RAY”), meaning a sheltered inlet or harbor of refuge. The town grew up on one end of the harbor, a short ways from the Lake Superior beach and the later pier and Coast Guard station. That’s one of its assets: warm-water swimming in town, and an easy walk to Lake Superior.
After breakfast we went our separate ways. A beautiful sunny day was shaping up and Chris was anxious to bike that scenic road. With camera in hand, Melinda was anxious to capture the personality of little Grand Marais. With our mornings mapped out, we both took off.
Grand Marais has mostly been an end-of-the-road kind of place, which is now part of its charm. But it has had its moments, going through some successive booms. At first it was a port for the lucrative early 19th-century beaver pelt trade. Then the lumber companies came through; the surrounding forests were dense with hardwood trees. Those were depleted by the early 1900s. The lumber company pulled up its railroad tracks and the town’s population dropped from around 4,000 to under 300 in a few months. Then commercial fishing came on big, and once again the harbor was alive with activity. That also has slowed down considerably. Presently, the local economy is being sustained by a combination of tourism, hunting, fishing, retirees, summer cottages, and more recently, snowmobiling and more second homes, increasingly upscale, especially along Lake Superior. It is becoming a rather upscale place, but still laid back. The lakeshore to the east has its share of trophy homes, a source of pride for some, but unwelcome symbols of urban gentrification for others.
However, it’s the small cottage-style homes in town that seem to reflect the true nature of Grand Marais. Simple and sweet, and nicely maintained, these are the homes that give a hint to the character of the people living here. In a place where winter sets in hard and fast, where snowfall mounts up, and doesn’t leave until sometime in May, the town’s summer appearance belies what the long winter months bring on.
And then there’s the quirky aspect too. On display near the center of town stands the Pickle Barrel House. Moved here long ago from a private spot near Grand Sable Lake, it once was the personal cabin of William and Mary Dickerson Donahey. William was an illustrator and cartoonist who created the Teenie Weenies cartoon feature, a comic that debuted in the Chicago Tribune in 1914, and continued until his death in 1970. Donahey did several advertisements for Reid-Murdock & Company for the Monarch Foods line. One advertisement featured a small pickle keg that was used as a house by his Teenie Weenie characters. In 1926 as a surprise for his wife, William had a duplicate larger version of the keg house built to be a summer cottage for both of them. Actually, it consists of two “barrels”—the larger (16 feet high) front one has the living area and an upstairs bedroom; the smaller one serves as the kitchen, and the two barrels are connected by a pantry. The Donaheys received much attention for their “barrel house on the lake” and curiosity seekers were a constant factor. Finally, after 10 years of dealing with those onlookers wanting to see how they lived, they moved it from its lake location into Grand Marais and sold it. Today it is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
Continuing to walk around town, one can’t help but notice the abundance of gardens. Nearly every home has flowering plants growing in their yards. Even the public areas have their share of lovingly tended gardens. Knowing what a harsh climate they must endure and how short must be the growing season, it is a remarkable sight to see. It tells me something more about the people living here.
One thing that isn’t disguised is evidence of preparations being made for what is to come. In nearly every block, if not more, are the high stacks of wood in people’s yards. Frequently seen too are the mechanized splitters, obviously being put to regular use.
Last of all, and perhaps most notably, Grand Marais shows its patriotic spirit. It is evident from the first town banner that greets people entering their town. The American flag can be seen all over town . . . it isn’t unusual to see flags in many people’s yards.
Chris returned from his ride a hungry man. I was somewhat in need of food myself, after covering every square foot of town. I had the perfect place in mind . . . maybe even the only place serving meals in town . . . and it too reflected the character of this village.
The West Bay Diner is an authentic 52-seat 1949 diner, deli and bakery. Saved from a near-totally decayed state, it has been meticulously and faithfully restored. The front portion is a Paramount Diner made by the preeminent manufacturer of classic diners. It is attached to a cabin in the rear, complete with a rustic setting and wood-burning stove. The food was excellent too. Great pie!
We walked off what we had indulged in by returning to Pictured Rocks. The landmark Au Sable Light Station was last on our list of places to see. A 3-mile out-and-back hike would lead to that destination . . . after crossing over the warning cones indicating that the national lakeshore was closed to the public. Yes, Congress didn’t get its act together. But puny cones wouldn’t prevent us from hiking in. We walked on.
The dramatic red brick light keeper’s house and attached white cylinder of a tower sit atop picture-perfect red sandstone rocks. The lighthouse, finished in 1874 and enlarged in 1909, has been restored to its 1910 condition. The fog signal building was built in 1897. The light tower is 86 feet high, and shines its beacon 18 miles out on Lake Superior. Its lantern again houses the Third Order Fresnel lens, six feet tall. The functioning automated light, however, is on a separate tower outside the lighthouse. The eighty-six-foot brick tower was built on a rise, placing the light about 107 feet above the lake surface. The attached, two-story brick keeper’s dwelling was spacious, but also one of the most remote mainland stations in America.
It seemed fitting to end this day high up on a crest of Grand Sable Dunes, one of the distinguishing landmarks of this national lakeshore. From this perspective one can appreciate the formation that they are. Created during the last ice age when sand and gravel filled in a deep rift in the glacier. Atop the gravelly banks, sand dunes rise even higher. These are “perched dunes” because they are perched on top of another landform. Five square miles of Grand Sable Dunes are perched atop the 300-foot high Grand Sable Banks. The Grand Sable Dunes dwarf comprehension. These vast banks and dunes along Lake Superior are a highlight of Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore.
Tomorrow we move on . . . another destination awaits. Still moving east, there is more ground to cover here on the Upper Peninsula.
From the rolling surf of a Lake Superior shoreline where a lonely beachcomber searches for the illusive agate . . .
. . . to one last spectacular, Superior sunset.
Airstream Travelers, Chris and Melinda