Backpacking through Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore is a perfect chance to challenge and enjoy yourself.
Illustration by Maggie Denman. photos by Holly Marley-Henschen except where otherwise noted.
In Making The Nature Scene, Tone Madison explores the splendor of the outdoors in the Madison area (and beyond), and encourages Madisonians to think more deeply about their natural and built surroundings.
Picture it: Michigan, 2021. You’re standing on a cliff. There’s water below as far as the eye can see. On the other side is a forest, miles thick. There’s a fresh breeze blowing off of the lake and the sound of waterfalls in the distance. I was the Sophia Petrillo-inspired (but solo) peasant girl in this waking dream for five days of backpacking. The place: Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in the Upper Peninsula.
Each summer, Wisconsinites and others flock to the extra appendage of Michigan that’s attached to our state. The resplendent forest and lake access are worth the five-hour road trip. The trappings of concrete and technology fade. Nature takes over (coincidentally, my personal sci-fi fantasy). Chillness ensues.
Pictured Rocks is awash with opportunities to luxuriate outdoors. Named for its colorful sandstone cliffs, the 42-mile expanse is a composite of said cliffs, as well as dunes and coniferous and deciduous forests. Rivers and waterfalls are scattered throughout. I’d been pining for the ocean all pandemic, so I bugged out to the national lakeshore—the first area to be given that designation, in 1966. Here, Lake Superior gives off super low-key sea vibes. I gazed out into nothing but water and realized how big the world is, which quickly put the last year into perspective. The waves aren’t surfable, but they are audible and soothing. The Pictured Rocks themselves are reminiscent of a tiny, tiny elevated slice of Grand Canyon cliffs. Groundwater trickles out of cracks in the sandstone on the cliff faces, mixing with minerals to create a rainbow of colors. Iron causes red and orange streaks, copper stripes are blue and green. Manganese makes brown and black lines on the rocks, where limonite creates white.
The tranquility of the more than 73,000-acre park is secured by its distance from main roads. The North Country Trail (NCT), which runs along the cliffs and shores abutting the lake, is prime for backpacking—and my main motivation for visiting. Many of the park’s notable spots, rock formations, beaches, and campsites are reachable by a car and a brief hike.
I live in a bustling part of Madison and am used to the urban cacophony of traffic, construction, commercial and war planes, and neighbor sounds. I love to be alone with nature and sink into a still, calm headspace. In mid May, Pictured Rocks was the perfect spot. Most visitors flock to the park from Memorial Day through Labor Day, making it a more social experience.
Campers and hikers can visit Pictured Rocks’ plentiful day hikes, which range from 1,700 feet (Munising Falls) to 10 miles (Chapel Loop—highly recommended). There are also a few accessible spots, like campsites and Miner’s Castle overlooks.
Pictured Rocks boasts a high concentration of waterfalls. Dolomite, a sturdier type of sandstone on the outer layer of the cliffs, suffers less erosion from the water flow. My top waterfall pick is Spray Falls, which is only viewable from the NCT or by boat. Its powerful cascade plunges 70 feet from a clifftop to the lake below. Another popular and easy to reach spot is Munising Falls, a one-way, semi-steep 800-foot climb that sits at a trailhead at the west end of the park.
One of my favorite spots was Little Chapel Lake. It’s not technically a lake, but rather a very small cove cut into the bluffs where rivulets of water trickle into cool aquamarine water below. It’s namesake, Chapel Rock, once resembled a small church. Rockslides and erosion have remodeled it. It’s still fascinating to see how it’s been sculpted by nature. Plus, the chapel is topped with a Tolkien-reminiscent tree. Its sprawling roots climb out across the stone like an Ent stretching to take a step.
Critters galore dwell in the woods surrounding the NCT and adjacent hiking and skiing trails. Tiny orange-red squirrels are downright cartoonish compared to their engorged, bird feeder-raiding, Madison cousins. I spied several white-tailed deer and nearly kicked a wild chipmunk that scurried fearlessly across my path. One spot on the trail was marked as a Bear Area (or Bearea if you will). Park managers put up signs at both ends of the roughly one-mile stretch of trail after a recent bear sighting. Lucky for me, singing an impromptu song about bears (tentatively titled “Bear Song”) seemed to ward them off.
In another memorable wildlife moment, I watched a scattered, peaceful flock of bluebirds gently flutter and hop up over the side of a cliff and into trees. Then they slowly carried on into the forest. For flora lovers, there’s a feast for the eyes of moss and lichens, in addition to forests full of plants and trees.
Amid the natural majesty of the park, there was also an odd amount of used toilet paper. And not even the easily biodegradable variety. This was the Charmin Ultra-thick Buttblanket stock. It’s glaring bleachwhite dotted campsites—ones that had actual vault toilets for all of your waste elimination needs—and at sites like Chapel Rock. Which brought to mind Leave No Trace Principles.
As a backpacker, Leave No Trace includes packing out all of the things you bring in with you. That means double-checking your surroundings when you skedaddle from any site to make sure you didn’t leave anything behind, like a tent stake or small bits of plastic from packaging. Based on findings from recreation ecology, Leave No Trace also encourages keeping on the trail, camping where you’re supposed to, and the old adage of taking only pictures and leaving only footprints. Respecting wildlife from a distance and others by avoiding general loudness makes for a more pleasant experience for everyone. These principles also protect the Earth—ya know, giver of all life.
Note that Pictured Rocks visitors centers at Munising Falls and Grand Sable are closed this season for remodeling. Water fountains and most rest areas don’t open for the season until Memorial Day weekend. My trip in mid-May during the week offered much privacy, but little potable water. It was actually quite fun and satisfying to gather and filter my own from the cool lake and streams.
If you need encouragement to start backpacking, I think you’ll love backpacking and be great at it! Learning to do it safely is super vital. If you have a friend who’s into it, they’ll most assuredly help you learn the ropes. While it can be pricey to amass your gear, it’s easy to start small and with brief excursions. REI and other groups host backpacking trips and the NCT is nearly impossible to get lost on. Homemade Wanderlust has a trove of approachable backpacking vids. Note: Backpacking requires ample planning. I’m learning to strategize and prepare better in general because I could die or be seriously injured if I mess up on planning for my trips. That’s part of the fun!
The mind operates on a different level when you’re surrounded by nature and your only prescient concerns are getting to where you need to go and making sure you have enough to eat and drink. Backpacking is also fantastic motivation to amass snacks. Bring twice as much chocolate as you think you’ll need. Treats (although they’re probably not midnight girl-talk cake) are one of the few things that backpacking has in common with Golden Girls. Unless you hit the trail in Florida or with your Ma.