It's been too long, I know. This summer flew by in a flurry of apartment hunting, packing, moving, and traveling, but I made a special effort to plan one very important trip: a visit to the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore.
For all you non-Michigan natives out there, the Pictured Rocks are located in the Upper Peninsula of my fair home state, a region known for its pasties, smoked fish, taxidermy, and Canadian-esque accents. Also? It's crazy beautiful.
My first visit happened back in 2009, and it remains one of my favorite places in the world (I already want to go back again next year for a longer stay). This year, I managed to convince my two brothers to join me. Here are some tips and things to do and see if you go (which, no question, you should):
Break up the trip.
People in New England are used to being able to drive half a day or less and be in another state, but that ain't how it works in Michigan. Unless you're wildly wealthy (let's be friends) and can afford to fly into one of the small airports in northern Michigan, you'll probably be driving from one of the larger, more southern hubs, like Detroit. My brother, Kevin, lives in Petoskey, Michigan, so we drove up to his place one day (roughly 4.5 hours), hung out around town, and then continued on to Munising (where the Pictured Rocks are) the next morning (another 2.5 hours).
Northern Michigan, whether you're on the Upper or Lower Peninsula, is gorgeous, so it's worth spending time in some of the cities along the way. Though we didn't stop there, Mackinaw City is a popular spot, along with Mackinac Island, which is entirely car-free and accessible only by ferry (that's where all the famous fudge comes from). Traverse City is known for its cherries. And Petoskey and Harbor Springs are cute beach towns that are also close to the major Michigan ski resorts, Boyne and Nub's Nob.
If you're near Harbor Springs, I highly recommend checking out Pond Hill Farm, which has a winery, brewery, and cafe, and is a working farm (there were piglets!). We did a tasting in the winery (the Cottage White and 2013 Chardonnay were my favorites, though the cherry wine was pretty interesting, too) and enjoyed the beautiful view of the grounds. They also have farm-to-table dinners and barn dances, which I really, really wished I could go to. Basically, this would be my regular hangout spot if I was a local.
For dinner, we tried Barrel Back, which was right on the water of nearby Walloon Lake. The food was good, the view was great, and there was randomly a bouncy castle set up right outside. Pretty much the perfect combination.
Book a campsite ahead of time.
I had grand visions of camping in one of the few sites within the park itself, which was foolish on my part since you can't reserve them ahead of time and my brothers are especially slow at getting going in the morning. Unsurprisingly, by the time we got to town, all those sites were full (there are only three major sites) — and all the surrounding ones outside the park, too. We wasted a lot of time driving around, trying to find an open spot (that far north, there's practically no cell service, so we couldn't call ahead or look up places on the fly).
In the future, I'd book a spot at one of the closest campsites and either be satisfied with that, or try my luck at one of the park sites first thing the next morning. Even then, though, I don't know the likelihood of securing a place, so reserving elsewhere is your best bet. We grabbed the last spot on the grounds at Jack Pine Lodge, which was actually fairly charming in its cheesiness. When I have the choice, though, I prefer sites where there's some brush and trees between you and your neighbor, and no RVs.
Backcountry camping is possible without a permit, but we heard differing rules about building fires in the backcountry (was it allowed? or not?), and we'd been talking about hot dogs and s'mores for days at this point, so that was a dealbreaker. If I ever got a bigger group to go for a longer stay, I'd definitely look into renting a house, too, but I personally enjoy camping and get a kick out of putting all my gear to good use.
Get on the water.
The first time I was here, I went with two friends and we brought kayaks with us. (Thinking back, the fact that we drove eight hours, on the freeway, with two kayaks tied to the top of my mom's car with nothing but some straps and bumpers is pretty insane.) I highly recommend doing the same if you can, because I loved the freedom of exploring the rocks at my own pace and being able to go into the caves and jump into the water when I felt like it.
Since we didn't have enough kayaks to go around this trip, we chose to book a guided kayak tour along the rocks with a company that seems to be having an identity crisis and is either Paddling Michigan or Uncle Ducky Outdoors. Either way, it was fun and a great way to see the rocks.
There are also pontoon boats available to rent, so if I went back with a larger group, I'd definitely rent one for a day and explore that way, too. Do it all!
I think my brother Matt would disagree with this one, but half the fun of this place is walking around and exploring. We got in a pretty major loop on our last day, and while I don't think any of us were really prepared for how long it was, it gave us some amazing views along the way.
Above is the route we took, and I would definitely do it again. Next time, however, I'd pack a lunch and towel and take a break at the beach near Chapel Rock to relax in the sand and go for a swim. From there, the hike along the water is the best part; make sure to stop at Grand Portal Point and enjoy the cliffs and clear view they allow. From Mosquito Campground back to the parking lot is just walking through the woods, but the time along the water makes it all worth it.
Hit the beach.
We didn't have time for a dedicated beach day, but on longer trips, there's nothing I love more than laying in the sun, napping, and occasionally dipping your toes into Lake Superior (it's freezing!). The sand here is unlike anything I've experienced else where in the U.S. It's soft, but not powdery. Thick, but not rocky or heavy. The closest thing I could compare it to? Brown sugar.
The beach near Miner's Castle is perfect, and if you're brave enough to go in the water, you can easily swim to some of the caves and climb onto the rocks (and then jump back in!).
Embrace the quirk.
The Mystery Spot. Moose heads. Puns. Motorcycle gangs. Road-tripping retirees. The Upper Peninsula has it all (except, perhaps, Wi-Fi and cell service). While you're here, embrace the fact that your best food options are pasties and smoked fish, and take in all the weird, cheap, and low-brow treasures that Northern Michigan has to offer.
Pictured Rocks, I love you.