If you’ve ever Googled (or seen) pictures of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, odds are you’ve witnessed breathtaking vistas of kayakers on impossibly clear waters gliding past massive, picturesque cliffs. Two things you need to know: 1) That very real slice of heaven on the north side of the UP is Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, and 2) those pictures don’t even begin to do it justice.
One of only four National Lakeshores in the U.S., Pictured Rocks’ hallmark sandstone cliffs line Lake Superior for 15 miles, rising directly out of the lake upwards of 200 feet, striped spectacularly in shades of rust, taupe, cream, and even streaks of bright turquoise, where copper deposits have been exposed to the elements. While you can take in the sights from the hiking paths threading through Pictured Rocks’ 40 miles of shoreline forest, you’ll get the best views of the rock formations—including hidden caves, cutaway arches, and giant boulders—on the water.
There’s a couple ways to do so: You can sign up for a boat “cruise” to see the cliffs from mid-lake, or you can kayak. We recommend the latter—there’s a reason PR was ranked among the “11 Most Beautiful Places You Can Only See by Kayak,” as you’ll get the most up-close-and-personal experience that way. In addition to the breathtaking cliffs, you’ll be in awe of the clear, sea-green water. Kayaking on a calm day, we could easily see giant sandstone boulders on the bottom of the lake 60 feet down.
Note: Because Lake Superior is so volatile—as the largest of the Great Lakes, it’s prone to unpredictable “seiches,” tide-like waves that can rapidly grow in size—it’s a little dangerous to just rent a kayak in town and go out on the lake on your own. (You’ll be hard-pressed to find anywhere in town that rents out kayaks anyway, for this reason.) But there are tons of guided tours you can sign up for, though you’ll likely need to sign up weeks in advance because they book up quickly.
For kayaking tours, you can’t go wrong with Paddle Pictured Rocks. Rather than launch directly from the shore like most other guided tours, the folks here load up your kayak (and about 20 others) on a giant boat and shuttle you 45 minutes down the shoreline, so that by the time your kayak is in the water, you’re paddling through only the most striking 5-mile stretch of formations, including past the iconic Lovers Leap arch and famous landmark Chapel Rock, whose likeness graces the 2018 Michigan “America the Beautiful” quarter.
While the pretty Pictured Rocks themselves are the main draw, there’s plenty to do between your paddling and hiking excursions. Explore the quaint town of Munising, the “home” of Pictured Rocks, on the banks of Lake Superior. Framed by the UP’s characteristic (and Narnia-esque) wild pine forests, downtown’s got a friendly, trip-into-the-past feel, with a variety of mom-and-pop shops and restaurants clustered in an easily walkable radius. We liked the fast-cuisine of Eh! Burger, for much-higher-quality-than-you’re-paying-for burgers of all kinds (including a bomb veggie burger), and local favorite Johnny Dogs, for gourmet hot dogs, burgers, and “piggy fries”: pulled-pork/BBQ/ranch topped French fries. Nearly every shop will hawk “pasties,” a UP signature pastry, typically savory, that resembles a dry, handheld pot pie. (Sample at your own risk, and be open to ridicule if you indulge with ketchup or gravy or, heaven forbid, pronounce it “pay-stee” instead of the proper “pahs-tee.”)
Because Munising is small, there are limited options for hotel-esque lodging. Campsites abound in the Lakeshore forest and nearby Hiawatha National Forest, but they can book up as much as six months to a year in advance, particularly the best waterfront campsites, so you’ll need to plan way ahead. But if you’ve read this far, I bet you’re already planning your trip now.