For the coming week we traveled further east along the shore of Lake Superior from Marquette to just west of Munising to a brand new RV Park named Pictured Rocks RV Park and Campground. As the name implies it is close to the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, which I had been looking forward to all year. Before I get into that, I need to talk about the RV Park. It had only been opened for two weeks, so it was brand new and still a work in progress. I got lucky to find it on a websearch of the area a month ago as there are no Good Sam rated RV parks anywhere near Pictured Rocks. Since it is brand new there were also no reviews to look at. Our first impression was a disappointment as they literally cleared ALL the trees from the campground in order to level the area and install the sites. They do have a large number of large level sites for big rigs laid out in a very regular arrangement. In fact, with all the electric and water hookups lined up in rows it had more the look of a drive-in theatre, minus the big screen. Our site was so long that I had a little trouble backing in the RV and keeping it straight. It was so big that we could have easily fit another 40 foot RV on the site with us. You would have thought they would have done a better job of designing the sites, but all the hookups are at the extreme back end of the sites making me use the extension on the sewer. The bathrooms are also brand new, which is a nice change from all those needing some improvements, however, they were still installing things such as toilet paper and soap dispensers. In addition, the office itself was still under construction. While TV reception was terrible with no channels we could pick up during the day, their free WiFi was the best we have ever seen. Kal got used to streaming the audio of Morning Joe each morning so we could get some news. If they had some trees on the site, I would recommend it. In any case, we got set up quickly and enjoyed the sunny evening, although it was very windy with a secondary front blowing through the area. This lowered the temperatures to the point that we needed light jackets in the mornings most of the week.
The first thing on Tuesday we went in search of the Munising Visitor Center of the Painted Rocks National Lakeshore. Our campground is 5 miles west of Munsing and the Visitor Center is just outside of town to the east, so you would think it would be a quick drive. However, the floods earlier in the summer had washed out the road between the town and Visitor Center, so we had a 15 mile detour to get to it. Once we got there I learned of the fallacy I had about the park. I figured since it was at the extreme northern edge of the Upper Peninsula and centered east to west, that it would be the maximum distance from any metropolitan center and therefore be wild and lightly attended. While the distance from major cities is correct, my assumption of attendance was wrong!! The second growth forests are wild and you can find trails that are not heavily traveled, the major attractions are heavily used. There were more people at this park then we have seen since the Great Smokies. Parking was a challenge everywhere we went. It was obviously a very popular location, especially for young families, and has been since it was established in 1966 with over 500,000 visitors a year. Even early on a Tuesday morning the parking lot at the Visitor Center was nearly full. Only part of this was due to the Visitor Center, since it is also the location to the closest waterfall, Munising Falls. After we gathered the information we needed to plan our week, we walked the 800 feet to the base of the falls and also circled around to an viewing platform near the top of the 50 foot falls.
After taking in our first of many waterfalls, we continued up the road to Sand Point which is a popular sandy beach close to Munising. We were not that interested in the beach, but instead to a 0.5 mile loop trail through the marsh. This trail was entirely up on a boardwalk and had a number of informative signs about the marsh. This marsh is actually the remnants of the beach as the accumulation of sand over thousands of years have been extending the beach out into the lake. Thus it was a mosaic of swamps, bogs, and sandy ridges. I got my first close up look at some large tamarack trees, as well as, black spruce, which can be hard to get to without a raised walkway. Much of the marsh itself was a sea of cattails and rushes everywhere you looked. It is suppose to be an active beaver area, although I did not see any obvious sign of beaver activity. It was a nice relaxing walk with no crowds followed by a nice lunch on the Lake Superior beach.
After lunch we first drove back to town to make reservations for a boat cruise at the Painted Rocks Cruises in Munising. This would have been a quick sidetrip except for the detour to get to town. We wanted to get reservations for their Sunset Cruise since we had been advised by the Park Ranger that this was the best way to see the Painted Rocks. After talking to the ticket seller at the cruise line we decided to wait until Wednesday since there were still 4-5 foot seas on Lake Superior that were predicted to persist all day. The wind had died down considerably since Monday, but I guess the waves were still high. Once we had our tickets we drove back to the National Lakeshore to another popular location, Miners Castle. This is a rock formation that extends out into the lake with originally two spires, making it look like a castle crenelation. However, back in 2006 one of these spires collapsed, so now it is just a single spire. Still it quite impressive jutting out from the 100 foot sandstone cliffs. It is not known how long it will last, as it is already being undercut with holes that go clear through it at the water level. Kal got some good pictures of the water shooting through one of the holes.
From there we drove a little bit further to a dirt road back into the forest to the trail head down to Miners Falls. This is a 1.2 mile round trip down a wide path to the falls. It is an easy path with benches along the way of this heavily traveled path. Even during the middle of the week there were a lot of families on the trail. At the end of the trail we were treated to another 50 foot cascade of water over a sandstone outcrop. After viewing it from a distance from above, we descended 77 steps to a lower viewing platform with a much better view of the falls. Then it was 77 steps back up and a slow walk back to the truck making liberal use of the benches along the way. It is obvious that steps are no longer our best friends on a hike. Still the falls were worth the walk and the stroll through the pine/spruce forests on a cool afternoon was great. By this point we had had a full day and headed back to the campsite for dinner.
Wednesday was another full day hiking in the Painted Rocks National Lakeshore beginning with the drive down a winding dirt road to Chapel Falls. Before I go any further I should give a short overview of the Painted Rocks National Lakeshore. Geologically speaking this entire area was an ocean bed 500 million years ago when the Munising sandstone formation was created. In most locations it is covered by a much younger and harder sandstone layer named Au Train sandstone formation which was then covered by layers of glacier rock. Along this section of Lake Superior these sandstone layers have been exposed and the harder Au Train layer cut through into the softer and more porous Munising sandstone, thus creating 50+ foot waterfalls. The lake has also been undercutting this sandstone causing it to calf off into the lake mostly during the fall and spring frost/thaw cycles. This has created sheer sandstone cliffs where the water leeches out carrying iron, manganese, copper, and other minerals giving the cliffs streaks of color. The Painted Rocks National Lakeshore consists of 42 miles of Lake Superior shoreline that includes these sheer cliffs, some over 200 feet tall, but extends interior only a couple of miles. From there State and National Forests along with other conservationists protect most of the interior of the entire Upper Peninsula. Except for mining interests around Marquette and the Keewenah Peninsula, the only historical industry in the northern part of the UP was logging. When this ran out in the early 1900s, the northern part of the UP has become essentially wilderness. There are few roads and access to the Pictured Rocks is primarily by dirt roads along old logging trails that head towards the many interior waterfalls. So you drive into one trailhead, visit the waterfall, and then drive back out and down the highway to the next road to a trailhead. Even though there are great trail through the woods, nearly all of the cliffs can only be seen from the water. From the trailhead parking lot for Chapel Falls it was a 3 mile round trip to the falls and back. The trail was an easy hike along an old logging road that stayed fairly level well back from the cliffs, which are some of the best in the park. We were early enough in the morning that we were one of the first to the falls, but by the time we left there were a lot of people on the trail. These falls are probably the nicest falls we saw with viewing platforms on both sides of the creek accessed across a bridge at the top of the falls. Unlike the cascades at Miners Fall, this was a shear drop of 60 feet.
Once we made it back to the parking lot it was back in the car to drive back out to the highway to head further east to travel back in on a dirt road to the Little Beaver Lake Campground. There were signs posted about this being a steep, narrow road and we were a little concerned about taking our large truck. However, the restrictions were more for RVs or people pulling trailers (it amazed me how many campers drag their RVs and trailers into these areas), since we had no problem with the truck. The road was narrow in spots, so you had to be careful going by oncoming traffic of which there was more than we would have expected. The trail here is not as well known as it does not go to a waterfall. Rather it is a 0.7 mile interpretive nature trail that was suppose to include old growth white pine. The actual start of the trail is in the campground itself, so from the parking area you enter the loop trail at near the end of the loop. We walked down a bunch of steps to the beginning of the loop where I hiked to the campground where I found a brochure for the nature trail with explanations about each of the markers on the trail. It was a nice trail as it covered a number of habitats from a rocky hillside, the edge of a swamp, along a stream, and on top of a rocky ridge. This also meant there was some steep climbs and descents along the trail. I was disappointed to find out that their old growth White Pine consisted of just a couple of old pine trees that were missed for some reason when they logged the area over a hundred years ago. It was still a worthwhile hike for the variety of the habitats we explored along the trail.
We headed back to the campgrounds for the late afternoon and headed into Munising for dinner before the cruise. Wanting to try out the local fare we went to a well advertised local resturant called “Dogpatch”. Unfortunately their menu consisted of white fish, burgers, and fried chicken. So much for local fare, especially since I don’t like fish. Once we finished dinner we headed over to the boat and stood in line for 45 minutes while we waited on the 7:30 departure hoping to get good seats on top of the boat. It turned out they took two boats so there were plenty of prime seats and we even got an entire bench to ourselves on the left side of the boat. We were disappointed that this the cliffs would be off to the right until we realized that they would be on our side coming back when the sun would be setting inflaming the streaks of color in the rocks. We were also glad that we waited a day before going on the cruise as Lake Superior was absolutely calm without a wave to be seen. This meant they were able to get VERY close to the rocks, sometimes just a few feet. It does take a while to clear Grand Island into Lake Superior proper to see the best and tallest cliffs, but it is worth the wait! This is certainly the highpoint of the summer so far. Besides the spectacular cliffs that sparkled in the setting sunlight with brilliant colors, some looking like specks of gold, but the rock formations were surprising. We got a better look at Miners Castle then you can see from the shore. There were a couple of archways big enough to take a small boat through, except for Lovers Leap where the ceiling had collapsed down into the water blocking access. The water was calm enough that they took the boat into a cove with the rock walls on both sides nearly close enough to touch until the entire boat was inside the cove. An amazing and unsettling experience with rock walls on three sides. There was even a rock spire cut off from the shore with a huge lone pine tree growing on top. It was amazing to think there would be enough soil on top of this spire which was hardly bigger then the tree itself, until you realize there is a massive root system tailing from the tree back at least 10 feet to the shore!! How this came about amazes me. The entire trip took 3 hours and the only the last 15 minutes as we tucked back inside Grand Island and approached the dock in the dark was even slightly boring. If you ever go to Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore be sure to put enough money away to take a boat cruise, it is worth every penny.
Thursday was one more day of hikes in Pictured Rocks before the weather turned back into rain showers. This was our day for the eastern end of the park, so it was over an hour drive to our first location. We skipped the trail at Twelvemill Beach in favor of the 3 mile round trip hike along the shore of Lake Superior to the Au Sable Light Station. This trail is a level road along the shores of the lake set back just enough that you are not walking on sand. Consequently it was a very pleasant walk in the cool morning air to the light station. The Au Sable Light Station is an old lighthouse from the 1870s constructed to warn boats away from the shallow waters at the point and along the Grand Sable Dunes to the east. Over the years there have been numerous shipwrecks along the lakeshore, some of which are highlighted at the light station. You can take tours of the lighthouse, which includes climbing to the top, which we both decided was not going to happen.
After walking back to the truck we continued on to the east to the Grand Sable Dunes. Like the other Great Lakes, there are sand dunes along the western shores where the prevailing winds pile up and push the sands up into great dunes. This is a truly huge dune extending miles along the lake. While not as spectacular as the cliffs to the southwest, they are still worth exploring. The trail to the location of a log slide that dates back to the logging days of the late 1800s is only about a 0.5 mile and easy. However, the side trip up to the top of the dune was a struggle in deep sands. All along the way are signs warning people not to attempt the 300 slide down to the lake as it would take hours to struggle back up. We both kept far enough away from the edge of the dune to make this impossible! We also stopped at the Grand Sable Lake Overlook and to the trailhead to Sable Falls. Kal had already had enough hiking for the day and once I hiked to the first set of 199 steps down to the falls, I decided against it. I am certain I would have made it down, but making it back up was debatable. Thus having traveled the entire length of Painted Rocks National Lakeshore, we said goodbye to an amazing experience over the last three days.
As predicted, we had periods of rain on Friday, although most of it was in the evening. Regardless, we drove all the way to the closest casino, Kewadin Casino, in Christmas about 0.5 mile by truck. The outside of the casino looks like a huge ski chalet and they have it all decked out with Christmas decorations including a 50 foot tall Santa Claus. We expected a very large casino, however, most of the interior is taken up with a gift shop and restaurant. The gaming floor was actually very small. However we found sufficient slot machines on a Friday morning to entertain us for a couple of hours. We both managed to pocket some money so we lost only about $30 for the morning. Not bad for us and it is a fun way to recover from all the hiking we did this week. Saturday and Sunday were also very relaxing hanging out in the campground, although Kal did do laundry while I cleaned the RV on Sunday.