The U.P. is one of few spots in the Midwest that I’m going to miss when I eventually move away. I wish I had started visiting sooner and every time I leave, I think “I’ll come back one more time” This is exactly what happened when I visited in July. It was a bit hot for my taste, so I decided to come back in the fall. I thought Pictured Rocks would be a great destination for my first solo backpack trip. I filled out my permit application about a month ahead of time, and waited for the confirmation. (I thought I was being overly cautious by getting a permit ahead of time, but saw several folks at the ranger station having a hard time piecing together an itinerary with available campsites.) Campsites at Pictured Rocks are spaced about 4-7 miles apart, along the 42 mile Lakeshore Trail (which also is part of the North Country Trail.)
One great thing about this hike is that there is a company that runs a shuttle bus up and down the park, where you can arrange a ride. This turned out to be even more useful than I imagined, but in general the shuttle is one of the trickier logistics of planning a backpacking trip, so it’s one less thing to worry about here.
Sunday morning, I dropped Bailey at a kennel in town (no dogs allowed on the trail) and headed to the Munising Falls Visitor Center, where I would be hiking back to my car 5 days later. On the shuttle, I met two other backpackers, Jennifer and Lenore, who had a similar itinerary to mine. After a 42-ish mile drive to Grand Sable Visitor Center, I started my hike!
I only had 7 miles to hike that first day, so it left plenty of time for pictures, and a leisurely lunch looking out at the Grand Sable Dunes.
I arrived to the Au Sable East campsite with plenty of daylight left, and my new friends had saved a campsite next to theirs for me. All available campsites were taken at this campground, so it was relatively crowded for the backcountry. We had a nice dinner and a campfire, and even went down to the lake to check out the night sky. I was hoping for Northern Lights on this trip, but we got a pretty cool full moon rising over Lake Superior instead.
Monday was another 7 mile day, so I again took my time and lots of photos – it’s a very scenic trail! Hordes of black flies around Au Sable lighthouse had me hiking a pretty fast pace for a while, though! We stopped for lunch at TwelveMile Beach campground, and one of these ladies became pretty ill so they decided not to hike on. Timing was pretty good for this scenario, as we happened to be at a car campground with a road in and out. With the help of the campground host and her radio, they arranged for the shuttle company to pick them up the next morning, rather than risk illness further into the backcountry.
I said goodbye to my new friends and continued on another few miles in the rain, to Sevenmile Creek campground. To my surprise, there was nobody there! Given the amount of people the night before, I assumed hikers would straggle in through the evening, but nobody ever showed up. I was all alone – 3 miles from the nearest people, with no cell service. In bear country. Now, obviously I knew going into this hike I would be solo, but did not anticipate complete solitude. I gotta say, I didn’t love it! I’m an introvert, I am generally good without company for a long while, but having nobody around pretty much freaked me out! I tossed and turned all night, especially after something rolled into the wall of my tent in the middle of the night. I wasn’t sure I could handle 2 more nights like this – what if all the campsites were empty?! Lenore and Jennifer have that shuttle coming in the morning, I could hike back to where they are….well, once that thought popped into my head, I couldn’t get it out. I didn’t want to bail, but I didn’t want 2 more sleepless nights. Even as I put on my boots and pack in the morning, I wasn’t 100% sure which direction to go. Ultimately, I decided to head back and meet the shuttle. Yes, part of me felt like a big failure for not completing the hike. But I kept reminding myself that many people, including most people I know, wouldn’t even try camping in the woods alone! (Hell, I know people who won’t go to the movies alone!)
Lenore and Jennifer had meanwhile snagged a great site right on the lake at Twelvemile Beach, so we all agreed to meet up again and car camp that night. After shuttling back to my car, I “stole” a shower from a campground in Munising, and hit up the local laundromat before springing Bailey from the kennel a few days early. We headed back up to Twelvemile, where I let her run free on the beach for a bit. (It’s pretty rare I let her off leash as she likes to pester people, but we were all alone and she loved it!)
How great is this campsite? Listening to the roar of Lake Superior waves crashing all night?! I’m definitely coming back here!
I wasn’t able to get a site at Twelvemile, but snagged one just a few miles up the road at Hurricane River. We had another nice dinner, watched the sunset and then Bailey and I drove up to our site where we both slept really, really well!
The next day, I decided to check out all the spots in the park that allowed dogs, so we visited the Miner’s Castle area, another beach, and a few drive-by waterfalls. I had no plans or reservations, and decided to head south and check out Door County for a night. Unfortunately, big storms were rolling in so we didn’t get to explore much here, and hunkered down in a cheap motel in Sister Bay for the night. At this point, I decided to head back to Chicago, and reclaim a vacation day for another time.
All in all, the trip didn’t go exactly as I had planned, but it was still a week in the Northwoods away from work, so I’d say it was a success. I might even try solo backpacking again, although this time with my dog, and maybe just a 1 night trip for starters.
I do think Pictured Rocks is a great place for a beginner backpacker or first-time solo trip. It’s nearly impossible to get lost, as you follow the lakeshore almost the whole way and if you veer too far south, you’ll hit a road. There are established campsites along the way, all of them have bear boxes and poles, many have a vault toilet and potable water, and there are several “bailout options” as you pass through several day-use areas along the way.
I do recommend getting a map ahead of time from Michigan Trail Maps – the map I brought had much more detail than what the park provided, and I didn’t see any other map options in town.
For all of my photos from this trip, click here!