Backpacking Pictured Rocks – A Guide to Planning and Hiking

Backpacking Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore has been high on my list for years. I finally hiked the entire trail over four days and three nights in mid-May 2018. It was a beautiful, unforgettable hike.

What follows is a complete itinerary and guide telling of my experience backpacking Pictured Rocks, which I hope will help you plan your own trip there. My aim is to provide you with as much knowledge as I can about the trail and campgrounds.

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North Country Trail through the pines along Lake Superior

The Pictured Rocks trail is a 42 mile section of the massive North Country National Scenic Trail, running along the coast of Lake Superior from Grand Marais to Munising. It offers constantly changing scenery—leading you through mammoth dunes, rolling pine forests, mucky swamplands, deserted beaches, and of course atop soaring bluffs with views of the spectacular turquoise water and layered sandstone below. It’s truly a unique hike.

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Mosquito Beach
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Grand Portal Point

Weather, Bugs, Time of Year

My trip backpacking Pictured Rocks was from May 13th-16th, 2018. I stayed in the UP for a week and miraculously had perfect weathersunny and cool days with no rain.

The mosquitoes, ticks, and flies were just emerging at this time. I never felt like they were a problem. The bugs in the summer can be relentless, so while I brought DEET and a mosquito net for my face, I was happy to never need either. The trade-off for this bug-free heaven was sleeping in and waking up to 39-45 degree weather, but with plenty of layers and the right gear, it was fine.

Another trade-off for coming early in spring was the absence of leaves on the trees—the only greenery coming from the pines and some young budding plants. However, this lack of foliage let through plenty of sunlight at all hours of the day, and the awakening of spring meant wildflowers galore.

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Wildflowers like these yellow trout lilies everywhere

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(This itinerary tells of hiking from east to west—from Grand Marais to Munising.)

Day 1

Grand Sable Visitor Center to Au Sable East Campground – 7.1 miles

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I love the feeling of the first steps onto the trail. Despite the heavy backpack, there’s a joyful lightness in those early strides. Life asks very little now—you must walk, eat, appreciate.

This first day was the easiest day. Fresh, eager muscles and a 7 mile jaunt along mostly level terrain.

The shuttle (more on this below) picked up at 8 a.m. at the Munising Falls Visitor Center and reached the Grand Sable Visitor Center an hour later. On the shuttle, I talked with a guy named Sean, and we hiked together this first day since we were both staying at Au Sable East Campground that evening.

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One of many neat footbridges

After the first mile or so, the trail comes to a paved road with dunes opposite it. Turning left onto the road and following it west for about 10 minutes, you’ll see a North Country Trail sign on your left, which will lead you back amidst the haven of trees.

From here, it’s a pleasant walk through an expansive forest. The trees are nice and spread out, enabling you to see far into the distance. Some ups and downs in elevation, but nothing major.

Nearly six miles in, you’ll reach Log Slide. There’s a bench just next to the wheelhouse, which makes a great spot for a rest or lunch break. Afterward, leave your pack and spend a few minutes exploring the dunes. There are panoramic views of Lake Superior and Grand Sable Lighthouse in the distance.

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Au Sable Lighthouse as seen from Log Slide
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Out for a lunchtime snack, too.

Au Sable East Campground

Sean and I reached camp by mid-afternoon, set up our tents, then skipped down to Lake Superior to filter water. We perched ourselves on a big boulder in the sun and soaked our feet in the ice water. The pain was sharp and instantaneous and only lessened by a tingling, creeping numbness.

As the numbness took hold, relaxation would set in for a few moments before some internal distress signal sounded in my mind reminding me to remove my feet. After a spell in the sun, the process would repeat. Of the few truths in life that I’m dimly aware of, one stands out here: any contact between one’s own feet and the earth—even when accompanied by some pain—is a sensation wholly pure and delightful, and deserves full attention.

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Lake Superior – Water source at Au Sable East CG. Plenty of snow on the banks in spots.

Of course, the mineral-stained cliffs where Pictured Rocks derives its name are impressive; yet, equally fascinating is the varied collection of time-worn and water-tossed rocks that occupy the shoreline.

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Rocks on the beach near Au Sable Lighthouse

In the evening, Sean and I walked a half mile west down the trail to Au Sable Lighthouse to meander along the beach and catch the sunset.

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Sunset at Au Sable Lighthouse

FYI: There’s a porter potty here by the lighthouse (I don’t know if this is permanent or not), and also a bear-proof trash can to dump trash.

Back at camp we built a bonfire out of downed pine and birch and chatted before bed. It’s interesting to see what “luxury items” people deem worth the extra weight on their backs. For me, it’s a good book and good food to look forward to like cheese and cured meats. For my new, generous friend, it was an admirable flask of whiskey.

Day 2

Au Sable East to Coves Campground – 14.6 miles

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This was the longest day.

Starting off, the ~1.5 mile hike from Au Sable Lighthouse to Hurricane River is flat and not especially scenic. The trail is more of a narrow dirt road that provides access to the lighthouse from Hurricane River (a small drive-in campground).

From Hurricane River, the trail will lead you mostly inland through the forest until Twelve Mile Beach Campground (a water pump and more trash bins here).

Immediately after leaving Twelve Mile Beach, the trail leads you back to the shoreline of Lake Superior. This was one of my favorite stretches of the whole trail.

Hiking under the shade of massive pine trees with speckles of sunlight gleaming through, cool breezes skimming off the lake, bursts of pale green lichen on the ground and tree branches—it was lovely. Frankly, it didn’t feel like Michigan.

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Light and color

Beaver Basin Wilderness

Unfortunately, all this ends at Seven Mile Beach once you enter Beaver Basin Wilderness. Now, there are downed trees all along the Pictured Rocks trail, but nowhere compares to that of Beaver Basin Wilderness. It’s chaos.

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Also, it’s the least marked section of the whole trail*.

*From Seven Mile Beach to the Trapper’s Lake fork.

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The last sign for a while

I imagine in the summer months the growth of vegetation makes the trail more visible, but at this time of the year it was difficult to follow. Sean and I (we hiked together again this day) were able to follow the faint outlines of the trail for a while, but after an especially ugly tangle of fallen trees, we lost it.

We zigzagged back and forth for nearly an hour, searching for “harder” feeling ground, but everywhere beneath our feet felt soft, like dried up creek beds and layers of dead matter.

After much frustration, we eventually found the trail again and soon came upon the interesting old green car in which many people pause to etch in their legacy. Looking back, I wish I would’ve inscribed something, but I was eager to make up lost time so we continued on.

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I wonder what the backstory is here

At the Trapper’s Lake junction, Sean and I parted ways as he was staying at Trapper’s Lake Campground for the night—located a half mile inland.

Onwards to Coves

Immediately after this fork, the trail curves back toward the coast—a welcome relief after spending many miles away from it between Seven Mile and Trapper’s Lake.

Even though my limbs ached after covering ten miles already that day, the sight of the water reenergized me and the last four miles to Coves turned into a pleasant late afternoon stroll. I didn’t even mind traversing through massive snow drifts.

After passing through Beaver Creek Campground—which is beautiful on its perch above the lake—the path leads down to Beaver Creek. Just upstream from the mouth of the river is a neat log bridge welcoming you across.

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Beaver Creek Bridge – Like open arms

Coves Campground

At Coves Campground, I had the entire place to myself that evening. I got in around dinner time, set up my campsite, and strolled down to the lake to filter water.

A spectacular, desolate stretch of beach walled in by pine and rock welcomed me—my own “place beyond the pines”. 

I walked along the beach, admiring the massive ice chunks rolling in the gentle waves, the sunlight filtering through the hovering clouds.

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Due to all the melting ice, the lake water was astonishingly clean and clear. I wanted to plunge my lips in and drink it down (I nearly did, but with two more days of hiking ahead I didn’t want to risk it).

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Unfiltered water from Lake Superior

As I sat at the lake’s edge filtering water, I realized I was separated by four miles in either direction from the nearest campground. Precariously poised on the fringes of the largest freshwater lake in the world, I began to really feel my aloneness. Not loneliness, not an absence of something—but a fullness. I felt completely at ease, like falling into tune with nature in a way that is frustratingly hard to reach in the city. Like I was bestowed some Muse of the Forest, hovering about and making everything grand and gay for a while.

Back at the campground, I dined on chili in a sort of solitary dignity, did some reading, and went to bed early—weary and content.

Day 3

Coves to Mosquito River Campground – 8.7 miles

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This was my favorite day of the trip. Good things from sun up to sun down. A day that implants itself in your memory so that you can easily replay reels for future enjoyment.

It was a bitterly cold morning—the coldest yet—and I woke up to the mellifluous notes of a few lonely birds and the sun peeking through the pines. I made oatmeal and coffee and tried to force some warmth into my body by jumping about. Feeling the soreness in every step, I hobbled down to the beach to fill up my water for the day.

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Well good morning to you

Just as I was finishing packing up and getting ready to leave, Sean strolled into view, cheeks flushed and beaming.

“Well I’ll be damned! You’re still here?”

It was nearly 10 a.m.

I had to walk less than nine miles that day compared to the previous day’s fifteen. I was in no rush to leave.

Apparently, Sean left really early from Trapper’s Lake because he spent the night there alone and didn’t sleep well (bears on his mind). He was staying at Chapel Beach that evening so we set off together soon after. How simple it is to make friends on the trail!

After Coves, there are multiple turn-offs from the trail leading to various viewpoints. About two miles from Coves, we reached the Spray Falls overlook. It was stunning, and definitely worthy of a five minute break to take it in.

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Spray Falls overlook. Check out my cool camera holder!

From here, the trail mostly stays near the coast. Elevation changes become more frequent, but not to worry, each climb reveals yet another grand view.

Chapel Rock / Chapel Beach

Eventually, you reach Chapel Rock. It’s a magnificent sight with its endless layers of sandstone and Chapel Beach just past it. In an 1840 expedition, explorer Charles Penney wrote of it in his journal:

We breakfasted at La Chapelle (Chapel Rock) this morning of Pictured Rocks. La Chapelle is a portion of these rocks; the softer parts of which have been worn away, leaving it in the shape of a costly temple. They are the workmanship of the elements, and lose nothing when compared with the labors of man..”

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First view of Chapel Rock

Chapel Beach Campground is great too—the sites are spread out with many along the river, and all have close access to the beach. There’s also a bathroom around somewhere (according to a map I saw).

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West end of Chapel Beach – view from the trail
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A campsite at Chapel Beach Campground. The river is just to the left.

We ate lunch—a smorgasbord of cheese, crackers, cured meats, and trail mix. Afterward, Sean stretched out his merry limbs at his campsite and I continued on to Mosquito River.

The Best Section of the Trail

The hike from Chapel Beach to Mosquito River was my absolute favorite section of the entire Pictured Rocks trail. The trail is right along the edge of the cliffs with drop-offs up to 200 feet down into shimmering aqua blue water.

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So much of this

I walked this section in the late afternoon. If you sleep at Chapel Beach Campground you get to walk it in the morning, and yeah a bit I’m jealous. There’s overlook after overlook along this part. You’ll be stopping a lot, so give yourself time to enjoy it.

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Grand Portal Point

Mosquito River Campground

I reached Mosquito River Campground in the early evening. The whole area is fantastic.

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There’s a pine bluff at the edge of Mosquito Beach with several clearings to sit and watch the sunset. Mosquito Beach itself is vast and full of sharp-edged geometric rocks strewn about on top of layered sandstone.

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Mosquito Beach at sunset – wander up to that pine bluff in the top left for excellent sunset views

(To see a picture of my epic campsite along with some videos, check out my Instagram story labeled “Pictured Rocks”.)

In the hours leading up to the sunset, I brought all of my food and cooking supplies down to the beach and ate my dinner on a big boulder. Even though it was chilly out, the direct sunlight warmed me and I peeled off my clothes, washed my face and neck, and soaked my feet. It was a relaxing, gratifying way to spend the evening before retiring to my campsite.

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Mosquito Beach at sunset

You can hear the waves speak in many places around Mosquito River as they pummel the rocks. Up on those pine bluffs, the steady symphony of the waves was the medicine I didn’t know I needed. Nestled safely up in that hive of pine, sleep washed over me swiftly and silently.

Day 4

Mosquito River to Munising Falls Visitor Center – 12 miles

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With each day, it took just a bit longer to dispel the soreness in my limbs as I walked. I hiked out this day and I admit it was hard on me. My body was ready for a break, a bath, a bed. I awoke just after sunrise, packed up my campsite, and headed down to the beach to cook breakfast.

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Morning view at Mosquito River

After eating, cleaning up and performing necessary bodily functions, I waited around a bit to see if I could meet Sean coming in from Chapel Beach, but no luck—a solo hike today.

From Mosquito River, the trail immediately turns inland and weaves through the forest for three miles.

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Three miles through this? Happy to.

Along this section, tiny pink and purple Spring Beauties were in bloom, and restless chipmunks scampered about looking for love and nourishment.

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I understand your plight

Just after Potato Patch campground, which sits high on a bluff, the trail descends steeply and turns towards the coast and Miner’s Beach.

Miner’s Beach / Miner’s Castle

While Miner’s Beach is beautiful, walking through sand is kind of awful. And that’s exactly what the trail is along the beach. Thankfully, it’s less than a mile.

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Sand trail along Miner’s Beach

After crossing Miner’s River, the biggest elevation gain of the trail awaits. Shortly after this is the stunning Miner’s Castle with its many overlooks.

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Miner’s Castle Viewpoint

From Miner’s Castle to Cliffs Campground to Munising Falls, the spectacular scenery mostly ends. It’s now a seven mile push to the end. It’s still a nice walk through the forest with multiple stream crossings and only minor elevation changes, but after several days I was exhausted. I pushed forward, imagining in my head the sweet reward of a burger and beer, seemingly suspended in front of me the way a bone is dangled from a string in front of a dog.

Finally emerging from the trail and seeing my car sitting in the parking lot was a glorious sight. Feeling dead tired yet accomplished and as triumphant as my body would allow, I phoned Sean to meet him for a celebratory beer and a hot meal.

Overall, this was an amazing hike. I’m certain I will do it again, but next time during autumn. If backpacking Pictured Rocks is something you’ve been dreaming of doing, make it happen. Don’t wait on this hike.

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Hiking Tips

Pre-treat your clothes with permethrin. Spray your clothes, shoes, backpack, and entrance to your tent with it in the days leading up to your trip. Sean, the guy I met on the shuttle, had never used permethrin before and found three ticks on himself the first day. I had none on me. In fact, the entire time I was in the Upper Peninsula I was tick-free. Maybe it was luck, but I think it was the permethrin. The stuff is incredible.

Don’t forget trekking poles. If you haven’t hiked with them, you don’t know what you’re missing. Watch this video to learn how to properly use them.

Watch your footing. This is obvious, but there are sections of this trail that literally border the cliff’s edge. The trail is slowly eroding away in spots and there are occasional sinkholes where the ground has fallen through, leaving exposed roots and teetering trees awaiting the inevitable.

Planning Your Hike

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For any beginner backpackers out there, planning to backpack Pictured Rocks is not as difficult as you may think. Start with the NPS’s Backcountry Camping page, and then read through the Backcountry Planner.

Here are some initial steps to get you started:

1. Decide how many days you want to be on trail, and how much of the trail you want to hike.

2. Decide how many miles you want to cover each day (I did 7, 15, 8, 12). View this map to decide which campgrounds best suit your itinerary and to see the mileage between each.

3. Reserve your backcountry permits for each campground. (If you’re able to hike during the week, do it. You’ll have more freedom to choose the campground you want, and you’ll be able to monitor the weather for your planned days and book closer to your trip time.)

4. Reserve your shuttle. (See ‘Logistics’ below for more on this)

5. Refresh yourself on Bear Safety and Leave No Trace principles.

Reserving Your Backcountry Permit

To reserve your backcountry permit for your backpacking trip, go to www.recreation.gov.

Type “Pictured Rocks” in the search bar and click on “PICTURED ROCKS NATIONAL LAKESHORE BACKCOUNTRY CAMPING PERMIT”.

In the drop-down box on the left, select “Backcountry Camping”. Select Campsite Type (group or individual).

Under Campsite, select your chosen campsite, or leave it on “Any Campsite” to see the availability for all campgrounds.

Then, select the date of your first day on the trail. Under ‘Length of Stay’, enter the number of nights. For a 4 day 3 night trip, enter “3”.

Lastly, select your chosen sites for each day (to reserve sites you need to be logged in), and proceed to payment. Print your permit (within 14 days of your start date) and you’re good to go!

Pictured Rocks Campgrounds

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I stopped in all of the campgrounds (except Trapper’s Lake and Cliffs) during my hike and they were all fine. Don’t stress too much about which campgrounds you stay at.

However, take note of these things when planning:

  • Masse Homestead, Potato Patch, and Cliffs don’t have nearby water sources. (There were several small streams a few minutes west of Potato Patch, but this was springtime when water flow is generally higher so don’t rely on this.)
  • Trapper’s Lake Campground is located a half mile inland.

For my trip, I stayed at Au Sable East, Coves, then Mosquito River. I had Coves to myself—which I loved—but my favorite overall was Mosquito River. I recommend trying to sleep one night at either Chapel Beach Campground or Mosquito River.

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Bear Boxes and Bear Poles

There are bear boxes/lockers and bear poles at every campground.

You don’t need to lug around a heavy, bulky bear can in your backpack, nor do you need an expensive Ursack. You don’t even need paracord for hanging (there are poles for lifting your food sack up onto the hooks).

All you need is a sturdy dry sack. I recommend the Sea-to-Summit eVac dry sack. I use a 13L one. Even though it’s not stuffed full of food, at the end of the day when I throw in my scented items like toiletries and my first aid kit, it’s pretty full. Also, don’t forget a carabiner clip to help you hang your food sack if the bear box is full.

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Bear box and bear pole at Chapel Beach Campground

Logistics

Shuttle

I booked my shuttle 4 days before the start of my hike through Altran. It was $25. I parked my car at Munising Falls Visitor’s Center, got picked up at 8 a.m. by the Altran shuttle, and arrived at the Grand Sable Visitor’s Center in Grand Marais around 9 a.m.

If you don’t want to start at Grand Sable, you can be dropped off at Log Slide, Hurricane River, or Twelve Mile Beach. There are other drop-off points as well, but you’ll have to hike in to the trail.

Also, there’s Trailspotters shuttle service, but I have no experience with them.

Visit the NPS shuttle service page for more information about making a shuttle reservation with these companies.

Camping / Showers around Munising and Grand Marais

(For the budget-traveler)

I stayed at Munising Park Tourist Campground (a private campground) before and after my hike. Of course, there are plenty of hotels, but I didn’t want to spend $90 on a room. The campground is nice, sits right on Lake Superior, and has hot showers. It’s an easy ten-minute drive from there to Munising Falls Visitor Center. They take reservations online or by phone. A rustic “walk-in” site (a 1-2 minute walk from where you park) costs $25 per night.

In Grand Marais, Woodland Park Campground has showers too, but they cost 50 cents or a dollar to use. However, I don’t think you have to be staying on the campground to use them.

Update: after a month-long road trip south and then southwest in early 2019, I camped for free almost every single night thanks to the excellent resource, FreeCampsites.net. Not a whole lot around Munising, especially right in town, but still an option. Also, I’m certain there are other free campsites around if you put the time in to find them. 

Backpacking Gear

For those interested, here’s a breakdown of the gear I took on this trip.

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Pictured Rocks backpacking gear for springtime – minus the dark green rolled towel at the bottom (can’t believe I thought I was going to take a swim)

Daily temperatures: 50-65 degrees. Night temperatures: 39-45 degrees. No rain was in the forecast.

(Disclaimer: some of these are affiliate links, meaning if you purchase through them I receive a small commission at no extra cost to you. It goes directly to pay for the hosting of this site. Thank you.)

Main Gear

Camera Gear

Cooking

Water Filtration

Clothing

Miscellaneous

And that’s it! Thanks for reading. I hope you found this helpful in some way.

Have you backpacked Pictured Rocks? What was your favorite thing about it?

Please share your thoughts with me below and feel free to ask any questions!

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References

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About the Author: Tung Chi