If there is one place on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan that people fully expect you to visit during your time there, it is Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. I do believe that it may be written into one of their state laws or something that if you fail to avail yourself of the multi-coloured rock cliffs on the southern shore of Lake Superior, state officials are fully entitled to tie you to a wooden stake, dress you in an Ohio football uniform and allow people to throw pasties at you and boo you. It’s true. ‘Boooo’, they say.
With that fate on the line (and remembering how large the pasties are), we decide to see what all of the fuss is about and check out their rocks.
Now I will admit I feel a little trepidation about visiting Pictured Rocks, given that the last encounter we had with the National Park Service was back at Sleeping Bear Dunes and it wasn’t a positive one in the end. So when we pull up at the Ranger Station at the northern tip of the park, I’m a little bit nervous as to what reception we and Belle will be given. I would like to say right now that the rangers here were FAR nicer than those at Sleeping Bear AND very straight-forward with us.
The gentleman we spoke to whipped out a little booklet with a map and circled all of the car parks that would be of suitable size for our bus, the walks that we could take from them and the ones he personally recommended. He let us know which areas would be off limits because of the bus length and was polite but clear about no overnight parking in the grounds of the park boundary (which was clearly marked on the map); even giving us a couple ideas about where might be best to stay nearby outside the park. When we left the station I felt very happy with the help we had been given and looking forward to our day.
One aspect of the Lakeshore Park I particularly like is the linier shape. For where we cannot camp overnight in the park’s formal campgrounds (due to the length of our bus) and are not allowed to simply park overnight, it means that we literally only have a day to explore any National Park we enter; and when you are faced with hundreds of thousands of acres, well, it becomes obvious really quickly that you aren’t going to be seeing that much.
However, with a lakeshore that is long but narrow in shape, it means we can drive through the whole length of the park and get out numerous times to walk some of the width, meaning we have a fuller experience over all; which is exactly what we are going to be doing today.
The park has a single main road on which you can make your way through the lush forest, which forms the buffer zone between the actual shoreline and the rest of the non-conserved world. We pass several picnic points along the way before we come across the area (Hurricane River) where we have space to park up and jump out for a stroll.
We wander down a small side road following signs for the campground that is tucked away nearer the shore of Lake Superior. Our ranger had told us of the footpath here which you can follow, taking you a couple miles along the shore and ending up at Au Sable Point; which has perched upon it a fine old lighthouse to gaze upon. We find the campground surprisingly busy for the time of year and grumble to ourselves at the injustice of only smaller RV’s being accommodated at the parks, the usual limit being between 25 and 35ft long. Seriously, in a country that is seemingly geared toward everything being as large as possible – massive roads, buildings, open spaces etc. – somehow the only thing geared towards smallness is campgrounds. Just our luck.
Still, there really isn’t much time to gripe about such things because right now, we are on a hunt for pirates!
That’s right. Apparently Lake Superior is a well-known location for swashbuckling pirates, they like to sail their massive tall ships into port and do a roaring trade in rum, parrots and eye patches; then have loud and rambunctious sword fights with the winner being given a treasure map and the captain and crew have the chance to search the lakeshore for a treasure that has been buried there! Actually I just made all that up because it sounded like fun. But in truth what this area is well known for are shipwrecks – that is totally true and today I am determined to find one.
There have been hundreds of shipwrecks reported within the Great Lakes, mostly between the 1800’s and early 1900’s, and if you would like to get a scale of the loss and destruction here is a picture of a rather neat placemat you can buy showing the known reported wreckage in Lake Superior alone.
That’s a lot of boats, right?
And they are all different types of ship, carrying both cargo and passenger, and all shipwrecked for a plethora of reasons. Here’s just a couple to name a few…
Smith Moore – a 230ft long wooden steam barge which crashed into another ship and sank in July 1883.
George – a loaded coal barge which sank in a winter snowstorm after having its sails ripped off and ran aground in 1893.
Superior – a passenger steam boat caught in heavy seas, lurched off course and tipped the passengers into the freezing cold water. Between 35 and 42 people died in the accident in 1856.
A number of these wrecks are actually still relatively intact, lying either at the bottom of the lake where divers can access them or are in shallow enough water that you can take a glass bottomed boat tour and sail over the tops of them. The fact that a number of these boats sunk as opposed to being dashed against the rocks combined with the lake being fresh water and not salt has resulted in them being in very good condition still to view. However, if you can’t make it out to these boats, there are still pieces of wreckage that have washed up on the beach that you can happen upon and marvel at.
Loops and I walked along our wooded trail path past the campground until we found a break in the scrub to our left and a path down onto the beach proper. From here we continued along the colourful pebbled and sandy beach toward the lighthouse at the point, and a sign we passed confirmed we were headed in the right direction to find some wreckage.
Low and behold, we finally spot a couple shapes in the water laying a short distance out from the shore; but only visible when you catch the angle just right and the waves are moving at the right direction. In all honesty it was Loops who had the better eye and picked out the shapes and then had to spend the next ten minutes directing me so I could find them too. But hey, I’ve seen a pirate shipwreck!
OK, not really, but in my mind it totally was.
We continued meandering down the shoreline with Loops following behind me, carefully tiptoeing so as not to get his shoes too wet or too sandy, and me giggling secretly in my head to flashbacks of mud puddles on the AT and watching him do the exact same thing four years ago.
Now here I was expecting the next interesting thing that we would come across to be the lighthouse itself, but no, a little ways down the beach spread out in front of me were great big hulking wood beams, the bones of an old ship washed ashore! Gleefully I ran over to inspect my find and was fascinated by the old oak timbers, still held together by thick iron treenails driven through them, even though these had to have spent over a hundred years old sitting and rotting in the water. Now that’s craftsmanship.
After a little investigation around our location I think I’ve narrowed our finds down to a couple ship possibilities.
The first is the Mary Jarecki, a wooden bulk freight steamer that ran aground in fog near the mouth of the Hurricane River on the 4th July 1883. According to the NPS, the wreckage should be found resting in the water just outside the breakers on the trail to the lighthouse – which is where we have just walked past, so I’m thinking that might be the one eagle-eyed Loops spotted.
The beams on the shore however could actually be from two other ships, the Sitka and the Gale Staples. Both ships were very much alike, tall mast bulk freighters carrying iron ore, with one being grounded in heavy fog and high winds 1904 and the other hitting the reef in 1918. Again according to the NPS, we should be standing in the area where pieces of the wreck can be scattered along the beach.
In all three of these cases, all the people on board were rescued, so really it’s only the boats that didn’t make it. I still like to believe that they are pirate ships though….
We finally make it to the embankment with steps leading upwards towards the lighthouse point and I am delighted when we come upon a little museum telling the story of the lighthouse in its heyday, when it was still manned and trying to perform the important job of keeping ships from running aground. The lighthouse keeper would live year-round in the small quarters at the base, sometimes with their families as well, and don’t forget how cold it gets up here! In the museum I spotted a picture of one of the men who was a lighthouse keeper and for some reason I just immediately loved it. Whether it was the clothes, the feel of the era or the seriousness and pride of the man, I just don’t know, but here it is for your enjoyment too – what do you think?
We spent about half an hour looking at the museum exhibits, by which time we realised that we needed to be making a move if we wanted to actually head to the overlook for the famed rocks themselves, so we opted out of touring the actual lighthouse, but it did look pretty handsome from afar, restored to its 1909 condition.
Our bus ride over to Miners Castle takes us most of the afternoon, it’s only about 30 miles in distance through the park but with a low speed limit and given our size we take it steady and careful along the winding road.
Miners Castle is the main lookout point if you wish to get a good glimpse of the colourful rock formations that line this part of the lakeshore; and so we were joined today by a fair sized crowd. We however seemed the only pair who thought to bring our binoculars for a better view, so I was feeling pretty smug inside while watching the waves crash against the cliffs in the distance.
So what to say about Pictured Rocks? Well, they are very colourful and pretty.
The main section of cliffs runs for 15 miles, but only a tiny portion of that is visible from land at places where the coast curves in and out on itself. The best vantage point is from the water of course, but we opt to save our funds for something else other than a boat tour. The colouration and formations are what draw the crowds, the cliffs being made up of sandstone which contains minerals that, when leached from the rock by water, provide a rainbow of stains on the cliff face; red, orange, blues and greens, black and white.
Being sandstone and therefore easily eroded, there are a multitude of different formations to be seen – the caves and blowholes being my favourite. Here is what the blowholes look like when the waves crash in and out…tip – look at the base of the cliffs!
If you are into geology, there is plenty of information out there to tell you more about the periods of history and geological layers of the rock. For me, well, the rocks were pretty enough to hold my attention for about half an hour and then I could say I had my fill.
I was potentially a little more excited about the gaggle of hikers I spotted milling around who, had we been in the right location, I would have sworn stepped straight off of the Appalachian Trail. A single glance and I could tell that these people hanging about at the ranger station were long distance hikers. I was hit with an instant flashback feeling and immediately wished I was part of this gang; this close knit group totally encapsulated in their own little hiker world bubble and accidently happened upon modern day society for a short moment. Any second they would surely gather there packs and poles and trudge back out into the wilderness from whence they came. And that’s exactly what they did.
It took me only a couple minutes to find where they were headed and to be astounded by my discovery – these hikers were walking the North Country Trail. Ever heard of it? No? Me either. But I have now found out that there is a hiking trail, the NCT, running 4,600 miles across 7 states, from New York to North Dakota and that people are out there hiking it. You learn something new every day.
We exited Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore by way of Munising Falls and Interpretation Centre which, while not being the most impressive waterfall I’ve ever seen, did have several interesting and educational exhibits in the centre explaining about the history of mining in this part of the state.
And with that, we head for a couple nights in the car park of the Kewadin Casino in the very jovial sounding town of Christmas. Don’t get your hopes up, I wouldn’t plan a visit any time too soon, but if you are passing through or need a place to stay here’s what you need to know…
Bay Furnace Campground – we cycled around this one afternoon and although the location is nice and right on the water, it looks like it’s only geared for tents and small campers. The best thing about the campground is that there are the shaped remains of an old blast furnace from 1870 near the entrance along with an interpretive trail. There are signs telling you about the history of mining in the area and how the furnace worked to produce what they called ‘pig iron’. It was named this as when the liquid iron came out of the furnace it did so in little channels making the shape reminiscent of a sow with her little piglets suckling, like a farrowing crate, when it solidified. Also from the site you can look out across Lake Superior and view Grand Island nearby which is very picturesque.
If you want somewhere to park overnight for free, the casino right across the street has spaces for RV’s and has free power!
Additionally if you want some decent food for a good price and in a nice atmosphere, there is a bar and restaurant opposite the casino called Foggy’s Steakhouse and Lounge. I highly recommend the nachos which were just under $10 and fed both Loops and I with some leftover to boot. Also, if you get a steak there, they have a giant hot charcoal grill in the centre of the room where it seems you get to select your own steak piece and go grill it yourself. I’d be the sort of person who’d think that was fun, but other people might just be like ‘Hey, that’s what the chef is for!’
Anyway, those are my Christmas, MI insights and I guess if you are really in the mood for it, yes there does appear to be a year round Christmas shop for you to buy things in.
Have at it!