This is one of my favorite places on earth. I first came here for two summers as a young teen camper in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula: known to ‘flatlanders’ (one of the kinder monikers for lower peninsula denizens) as the UP, and to natives as ‘da UP’. The camp was on a small lake in the Hiawatha National Forest, between Manistique and Munising, about halfway between Lake Michigan and Lake Superior. From this base, we traveled all over the UP, and I fell in love with its landscape, remote location, and 1950’s feel. During a visit last summer, it still seemed like a step back in time, although I saw small but disturbing signs that, 10 years into the new millennium, the 20th century is finally and fully arriving in the UP.
As a 13 and 14 year old, I canoed the chains of lakes in Sylvania Recreation Area on the Wisconsin Border, hiked the trails to Lake of the Clouds in Porcupine Mountains State Park on the western Superior Shore, viewed the second-largest waterfalls east of the Mississippi at Tahquamenon, and joined the decades-old cruises along the Pictured Rocks east of Munising.
These spectacular bluffs run for 15 miles along the coast, rising as high as 200 feet above Lake Superior, streaked with bright colors that come from the minerals washing out of the limestone. The Pictured Rocks were protected as the first inland coastline project under a Park Service initiative that had its roots in the Roosevelt administration. The objective was to preserve both shorelines and public access, allowing citizens to continue enjoying one of America’s richest and rapidly vanishing resources, which was in danger of becoming completely private.
In the end, this initiative produced precious few outcomes: four sites along the Great Lakes (out of 43 possible areas), and nine oceanfront areas. Three areas in northern Michigan were targeted: Pictured Rocks, the Huron Mountains (which remained in private hands), and Sleeping Bear Dunes on the northern Lake Michigan shore. (As a Michigander, I’m proud that those three were the only ones recommended by the study for fast-track National Park status.)
I’ve spent a lot of time in Michigan’s two Lakeshores, and will return to them again and again. I finally visited Wisconsin’s Apostle Islands last summer, and hope to complete the set next summer with a trip to the near-urban Indiana Dunes on Lake Michigan’s southern shore. As a Midwesterner, I know how easy it would be to spend a lifetime exploring the Great Lakes; I’ll count it a small victory to have visited these four very different places.
The canonical Pictured Rocks experience is the boat cruise out of Munising, the small city of a few thousand on the Lakeshore’s western edge. These cruises began after World War II, and generations of Michiganders and others have taken these nearly three hour tours along the cliffs and back.
Most experiences of Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore start and stop there. The bluffs are very difficult to reach by land, and hard to experience if you do, and so the lake provides the perfect way to appreciate their beauty. The lone access point is at Miners Castle, a Michigan landmark that looked uncannily like the rook on a chessboard. What erosion giveth, however, erosion eventually taketh away: the better part of the Castle fell into Lake Superior in April 2006.
The Pictured Rocks end 15 miles from Munising, but the Lakeshore extends for another 25. A large part of this is spectacular Twelvemile Beach, whose eastern run ends only when the shore wraps around to the southeast at Au Sable Point and its accompanying lighthouse. Access to the Point and the Beach are also limited: there’s one access point to the shore, and the great majority of Twelvemile Beach can only be reached from the lake, by hiking along the beach, or from the Lakeshore-North Country Trail that passes through the entire extent of Pictured Rocks.
The small town of Grand Marais marks the eastern edge of the Lakeshore. It’s a small fishing village that’s managed to survive, in part because it’s set on a beautiful harbor. It gets my vote for Michigan’s most remote city, as its 1,000 residents have quite a drive to reach the next locale of any size. Inside this end of the Lakeshore, the long stretch of Twelvemile Beach gives way to the Grand Sable Banks and Dunes, whose steep sides end at the edge of Lake Superior. You can hike, run, or tumble down to the water at the Log Slide, but remember: unless you’re continuing along the Lakeshore, you’ll have to come back up. As the sign says, it's a 500-foot trip down or up, and a 300-foot elevation gain on the way back.
Over a hundred waterfalls are scattered across the Upper Peninsula, and at least six lie within the Lakeshore, three at the end of short, easy trails. Munising Falls is actually in town, just a half-mile east of the cruise dock, a half-mile off the shoreline of Munising Bay. Chapel Falls requires the most effort of these three: it’s a 20-mile drive east of Munising, and a three or four mile roundtrip hike. You’ll pass the turnoff to Mosquito Falls on the way; it’s on the Mosquito River; I haven’t visited (yet) so I can’t tell you how apt the name is. Miners Falls is in between, just a short drive out of Munising, and lies at the end of a modest trail not far from Miners Castle. Three others are visible only from the boat or nearly so: Bridalveil and Spray Falls tumble into Superior over the Rocks, and are one of many highlights on the cruise.
Sable Falls is at the other end of the Lakeshore, just a mile inside the western boundary near the small town of Grand Marais. Sable and Munising Falls nearly define the extent of the Lakeshore, marking off a 40-mile run of Superior’s shoreline. At places, the public domain extends inward less than a mile; the mixed, forest-protecting public/private buffer zone boundary runs along a jagged line that varies in depth from two to four miles. Alger County Highway H-58 is the only road through the Lakeshore, and with the exception of spurs to Miners Castle and Miners Falls, Beaver Lake, and Chapel Falls, it’s the only road in the Lakeshore. It actually flirts with the park boundary for the first 25 miles, running right along the watershed boundary between Lake Superior and Lake Huron. H-58 veers north into the Lakeshore only after the pavement runs out five miles past the turnout to Little Beaver Lake and western access to Twelve Mile Beach.
‘Caution: This road is a primitive, rough road’ warns the park map. It’s actually speaking about a three-mile turnout to a lookout above Beaver Basin, but it’s not that bad a description for much of H-58. I finally made my first traverse of the Lakeshore last summer, and we found ourselves frequently reduced to 15 MPH or less on the wide but washboarded gravel roads. Oncoming traffic posed little or no danger: the eastern end of the Upper Peninsula is one of Michigan’s most remote areas, and a check of the state map will show you that it has far less paved highway per square mile than any other region in either peninsula.
Unfortunately, that’s soon to change. Alger County has decided to pave the entire extent of H-58 between Munising and Grand Marais, in order to increase the tourism that the Lakeshore promised but hasn’t quite materialized in its 40 years of existence. I’m sure I’m one of many disappointed by this decision: Michigan is filled with beautiful country, but what little of it approaches wilderness is here in the UP at the eastern and western ends. Paved access moves one remote, beautiful portion another step closer to the rest of civilization. With over a thousand miles of coastline, and over 10,000 inland lakes, you can hardly argue that the state’s residents are deprived without making this area easy to reach. Paving is schedule to finish in 2010, by which time I hope I’ve had a second shot at these roads in their present condition.