Backpacking Pictured Rocks

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.)

Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore

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!

Starting the hike at Grand Sable

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.

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.

Full moon over Lake Superior

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.

My new friends Jennifer and Lenore

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!)

TwelveMile Beach Campground

How great is this campsite?  Listening to the roar of Lake Superior waves crashing all night?!  I’m definitely coming back here!

TwelveMile Beach Campground

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!

TwelveMile Beach Campground

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!

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Exploring Michigan’s Upper Peninsula

As my final year in the Midwest kicks off, I want to be sure to see all the highlights that I’ve somehow missed in the last 10 years.  I’ve taken a few trips to the U.P., but there were some key areas that I hadn’t yet visited.  With July 4 falling on a Monday, I decided to take advantage of the long weekend and head north in search of cooler weather.  Work was crazy right up to the minute I left so I hadn’t had a chance for my usual meticulous planning.  This time, I literally threw a bunch of stuff in a bag and hit the road.  No reservations…holiday weekend…I figured I might spend at least 1 night in my car!

I didn’t actually leave home until after 2:00 on Saturday and after a few hours was already talking myself into getting a hotel room for the night (not in the budget!)  As luck would have it, when I got to Minocqua, WI and really decided on a hotel, they were all booked up.  So I started calling campgrounds.  One wanted $45 for a site…um, no.  My next call was the Arbor Vitae Campground on Big Arbor Vitae Lake, where they still had several primitive sites available for $24.  We were way back in the woods, far from the crazy RV’ers and had a great sleep as it was nice and cool overnight.

Bailey has dinner in the tent, lest another dog walk by while she's eating!

The next morning, we continued on towards Ironwood and the Porcupine Mountains State Park – a place I’d wanted to visit for years!  I didn’t have firm plans in place, but I had seen a UP waterfall itinerary on Facebook, so that seemed a good place to start! First stop was Potawatomi Falls, which has several falls and a nice boardwalk with overlook platforms.  It was a hot day, so we found a way down to the river for a dip.

Cooling off at the bottom of Potawatomi Falls

Next on the list was Gabbro Falls – this was trickier to find as it was tucked behind a ski resort and not marked at all.  Of course, this also meant no crowds, which is always a plus!

Gabbro Falls

From here, we headed into Porcupine Mountains State Park.  I parked near Presque Isle campground, and we followed the river trail to Lake Superior.

Porcupine Mountains State Park / Lake Superior

We then headed East through the park and I was SHOCKED to get a site at the Union Bay campground in the park.  The campground was nice, albeit full of RV’s on a holiday weekend, but very clean facilities and walking trails right to Lake Superior.  After setting up camp, dinner and a nap, tonight was the night I would try out some night photography.  Little did I know, it doesn’t actually get dark this far north until almost midnight!

Sunset on Lake Superior - 10:30 local time!

I managed a few star shots, but unfortunately, no Northern Lights.  I’ll have to go back in the winter when it gets dark earlier!

The next morning, we took the short walk to Lake of the Clouds, and then headed towards the Keewinaw Peninsula.

Porcupine Mountains State Park / Lake of the Clouds

The Keewinaw Peninsula is a gorgeous strip of land jutting into Lake Superior that will remind you of the Maine coast.  I’d been here before to catch the ferry to Isle Royale, but hadn’t spent much time here.  Amazingly, I was able to score a campsite at Ft Wilkins State Park, albeit a scruffy patch of dirt next to the bathroom.  (I think “beggars can’t be choosers” is applicable here!)

The campground was super quiet in the morning, so I got to sleep in – I guess all the kiddos were worn out from the previous night’s fireworks.  I packed up and hit the road again, this time headed across the UP to pick up the “waterfall trail” again.  I really wanted to visit Pictured Rocks, but as a National Lakeshore, dogs are not allowed on the trails here.  Imagine my excitement when I found out that Pictured Rocks Cruises offers on-site kennels for customers! I called from the road and made a reservation for the 3:00 cruise (the cruises that go the extra bit to Spray Falls were all sold out) My ticket was $38, which I thought was a good price, given that parking and dog kennel were free!  The cruise lasted 2 1/2 hours, and was a great way to see the park from the water.  I know many people who have backpacked here and this definitely made me want to return for some hiking!

Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore

Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore

Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore

After the cruise, it was time to continue East – I decided to aim for Tahquamenon Falls State Park.  It was now Tuesday night, most folks would be returning to work in the morning, so I was surprised that the campground was full – my first strike-out of the trip!  By now, it was 8pm, so I spent some time photographing the falls but couldn’t stay long as I now had to figure out Plan B for the night.  This was another gorgeous state park – I would love to come back here, too!  You can even rent boats to paddle up near the falls.

Tahquamenon Falls State Park

Tahquamenon Falls State Park

Tahquamenon Falls State Park

Now driving south, we were heading towards Mackinac Island, and hotels were increasingly expensive, but it was also starting to get dark. I pulled into Straits State Park and set up my tent in the last bit of light for the day.  I’m now kicking myself for not going to photograph the famous Mackinac Bridge at night.  I had no idea how close I was!  First thing in the morning, we drove to a few viewpoints to see the bridge before driving across it.  Mackinac Island is a popular tourist destination, but accessible only by ferry as cars aren’t allowed on the island.  I think it’s fairly touristy (think lots of fudge and taffy shops!) so I wasn’t disappointed to pass it up.

Mackinaw Bridge

From here, we headed back to Chicago along the Eastern coast of Lake Michigan.  We made a few beach stops for Bailey to play in the water.  Now I’m back home, planning my next trip to the UP…looks like I’ll be back in September, hopefully for some cooler weather, fall colors, and Northern Lights if I’m lucky!

I have to say, Michigan has some incredible state parks – I’m so glad I was able to explore it just a bit more on this trip.

For all of my photos from this trip, click here!

 

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