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Picture Perfect: A Beginner’s Guide to Hiking Through Pictured Rocks

It didn’t start out very well. Within ten minutes of hitting the trail, my friend Steve and I had both slipped on wet patches of dirt and rock and ended up on our backs. We were both a bit unsteady and unaccustomed to the weight of 50 pound packs on our backs, and our overconfidence had led us to stumble. Okay, it was time to focus. Otherwise this was going to be a very long hike.

The idea to hike through Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore sprouted back in June, when Heather, the kids and I took a trip to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and camped in a state park just outside of Pictured Rocks. We were blown away by the natural beauty.

While checking out various landmarks within Pictured Rocks we saw groups of people backpacking along the North Country Trail, a hiking trail which runs through Pictured Rocks along Lake Superior.

The North Country Trail is a footpath that stretches approximately 4,600 miles from eastern New York to central North Dakota. It passes through seven states and is the longest of the eleven National Scenic Trails.

Heather and I talked about how fun it would be to do a backpacking trip through Pictured Rocks some day. But upon seeing the signs warning of bears in the area, and learning of the bathroom and electricity-free tent campsites in Pictured Rocks, Heather said: “Maybe that would be a good trip for the guys.”

After returning home, almost as an aside, I threw the idea out there to a few guys, including my friend Joe. I didn’t know at the time that Joe, and another friend Trev, would actually bite. You see, they know what they’re doing – they’ve each spent a great deal of time outdoors hiking, camping and hunting. They have the gear. They have the experience. They were all in.

Joe, in particular, was intent on making this happen. I think he knew that, like many schemes cooked up in conversation over a few beers, this wasn’t going to materialize without some cajoling. Fortunately he kept after us – and planned the entire trip – because it would have been easy to just put it off for next year (which, of course, means it never would have happened).

Steve and I? Well, we had neither the gear nor the know-how, but we were excited about the prospect of spending time outdoors in the U.P. Steve, like me, had just recently moved to northern Michigan from the suburbs in southeastern Michigan. We grew up together and have been close friends for our entire lives. This was exactly the type of adventure we both envisioned embarking on when we moved with our families Up North in order to take advantage of the great outdoors more frequently.

Despite the rough start, this story has a happy ending: We had an awesome time hiking and camping across some of the most beautiful terrain on earth. I’m no world explorer, but it’s hard to imagine that any place is more majestic than Pictured Rocks in autumn.

Interested in backpacking through Pictured Rock yourself? Well, if you’re a beginner like me, here are some experiences from our journey that might help in planning yours.

The Route

We had about two and a half days to complete our trip, and we wanted a bit of time to enjoy the views and get our campsites set up, so we planned (or I should say Joe planned) a route that involved a lot of walking, but not so much that we had to move at a frantic pace. We didn’t want to be tripping over tree roots and trying to set up tents in the dark.

We arrived in the town Munising early on a Friday to check-in with the Park Service and meet the driver we had arranged to drive us to the starting point of our hike. We planned to hike west, and arrive back to where our car was parked on Sunday afternoon.

Our driver, Tom, loaded our packs into the back of his minivan and headed east toward our destination. He dropped us off at a trailhead near Beaver Lake and off we went.

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Our first day of hiking took us along the Pictured Rocks cliffs with incredible views of Lake Superior and the lakeshore. We camped that night at the picturesque Chapel Beach campground, which features a remote beach that is surrounded by cliffs on one end and Chapel Rock and Lower Chapel Falls on the other.

We had our longest walk planned for day two – we covered almost 12 miles. We passed through a number of noteworthy spots on our way to our next campground at The Cliffs, including Mosquito Beach, Potato Patch, Miners Beach and Miners Castle.

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A significant portion – probably a majority – of the trail hugs the lakeshore and cliffs, often at 100 to 200 feet of elevation. The views are incredible, and it’s hard not to stop at every twist and turn in the trail and stare at the panoramic majesty of Lake Superior and the Pictured Rocks lakeshore. But there were times on day 2 when, tired from the hike and anxious to shed our heavy packs, we would just blow by certain scenic lookout points in order to keep moving.

Rain was in the forecast for Sunday – day 3 – so we got up bright and early and started the final leg of our hike back to Munising. This part of the trail was different. It was mostly wooded, and set back a bit from the cliff’s edge. We passed over a number of foot bridges spanning creeks and streams, and ended our hike by checking out the majestic Munising Falls, one of many cool waterfalls that we passed along the way.

It felt great to emerge from the woods in Munising – dirty, a bit bedraggled, sore (hips and calves, mostly), but thrilled by the experience. We headed straight into town for a hot meal and a cold beer.

Food and Water

We had a running joke all weekend that we should have had a meeting before our trip to plan things like food and water allocation – what types and how much. We joked about it because meetings were suggested on several occasions but I, in particular, could never seem to make it happen. Consequently, we ended up bringing way too much food with us.

It may not seem like a big deal to have a few extra packs of freeze dried chicken and mashed potatoes in our packs, but when you’re walking long distances every ounce matters. When we reached our first campsite and did an inventory, we learned that we were collectively carrying around 30 pounds of food – way, way too much for our short trip. The next morning we left about half of our rations in the bear box (a metal box that, as the name suggests, protects food from marauding bears) with a note welcoming future campers to indulge on our excess.

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In addition to the freeze dried meals (which we cooked for dinner), we snacked on granola bars, jerky and gorp. Gorp is essentially trail mix. Trev made the gorp – a mixture of cashews, almonds, sunflower seeds, chocolate and butterscotch chips – and gave each one of us a large Zip-Loc bag full of it. He also brought some of the best smoked meats I’ve ever had (available for purchase at the Dockside Party Store on M22 if you’re in the Traverse City area).

We also, of course, brought along some libations – whiskey, mostly – to enjoy around the campfire.

The water situation was a little trickier. We needed lots of it, but it’s heavy to carry. And there is no drinking water available at any point on the route we covered until you reach Sand Point (day 3), just outside of Munising. So we packed Nalgene bottles – I started with about 48 ounces – and supplemented thanks to Joe’s water bottle with a filtration system. That allowed us to get extra water to drink from streams and Lake Superior. We also boiled water in the morning to make coffee.

Sleeping

We exerted a lot of energy during the day, so we went to bed relatively early each night. Plus as you might imagine it’s pitch black in Pictured Rocks at night, and there’s only so much you can do by the light of flashlights and small lanterns.

We slept two to a tent. Sleep – for me, and I think for all of us – came in fits and starts. I have newfound respect for those who go on long treks and spend weeks, if not months, hiking and sleeping under the stars. Two nights in a sleeping bag with no pillow (more about that below) on the hard ground was enough to get my fill. By the third night I was ready for a nice, soft bed.

A couple of the guys brought hammocks with them and slept in them the second night. They traded warmth (it got down into the 40’s at night) to get a bit more comfort.

Campground Activities

Since we got an early start each morning and moved at a pretty good clip, we reached our campsites by about 3 p.m. each day. Upon arriving we immediately got things set up – essentials unpacked from our bags, tents up and food situated.

Our first campsite, Chapel Beach, does not allow campfires, so we didn’t have to worry about gathering wood. Instead we traded our hiking shoes for flip flops and headed down to the beach to relax. The Cliffs, our second campsite allows fires, so we spent a bit of time there gathering sticks and sawing small logs. The private campgrounds are small – only 5-10 sites at each – which gave us a chance to meet and chat with some of the other hikers.

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We played cards quite a bit, as well as a game called darts (at least that’s what we called it) which involves tossing a bean bag filled with small rocks into a circular rope from a distance of about twenty feet. It’s kind of a cross between cornhole and horseshoes. Mostly, we spent time exploring the surroundings, goofing around, telling stories and cracking jokes.

I’m sure each of our wives asked us the same question upon our return: What did you guys talk about? Reasonable question – we just spent 72 hours together after all. But the answer was what is always is when guys get together: I don’t really know.

What I do know is that it was funny. I haven’t laughed that hard in awhile.

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Packing

I didn’t get around to packing until the night before our departure. I had never packed a backpack before. It did not go well.

The day before I went to Gander Mountain to buy stuff I needed (pretty much everything). I spent the better part of an hour aimlessly wandering the aisles, picking up and examining gadgets, considering their utility for our trip. A battery operated marshmallow roaster? That might be fun.

As I tried to stuff all of the clothes, food and (mostly useless) other crap that I had bought into my bag, Heather came into the bedroom and suggested that I bring a pillow. It was a good idea, but I didn’t have one. I certainly didn’t have room for a full-size pillow. She suggested that maybe I could bring the small pillow from my six year old’s Frozen sleeping bag set with me. It has a picture of Olaf on it. Needless to say I didn’t bring a pillow.

At about 8 p.m. I sent a text to the guys expressing my need for assistance. Joe called and talked me through it. His advice was to approach things like packing for a conventional vacation – pack, then remove ⅓ of everything. For me that meant dumping a bunch of clothes. It was great advice. I ended up wearing the same pair of pants for three days anyway.

At the end of the day, there’s not that much that you need for a three day hike. It really comes down to bringing enough clothes and food (probably less than you think you need of each), water, a tent or hammock, something to cook with like a small propane stove, and some basic first aid materials. One thing that we all “splurged” on (in terms of pack space, not price) and we were glad to have were camp chairs that fold down into a small sack. It was nice to have something other than a tree stump to sit on. As much as you might want to bring along that extra pair of shoes – just in case – leave it home. Your back will thank you for it.

That’s a Wrap

If you’re a beginner, like me, then a three day hike during the fall through Pictured Rocks is a great way to get started with backpacking and camping. The terrain is challenging, but not too tough. The scenery is unmatched. The bugs are gone. The crowds are thin.

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Best of all, an overnight hiking trip is a great way to connect – or reconnect – with people. There’s no cell service in most of Pictured Rocks, which is disconcerting for someone like me who is too often plugged into a digital device. But after a bit of time with the smartphone tucked away you start relishing the freedom of being disconnected.

Instead of looking down, you look up. Instead of tapping, you talk. It’s a reminder that nothing refreshes the spirit like a long walk in the woods. {tweet that}