The only way to really see the Pictured Rocks is by boat. Whether a big cruise vessel or a small kayak, the breathtaking forms and colors are best seen from below looking out and up. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t some things to see on top of those bluffs and around the various beaches that make up the Lakeshore. Like all Lakeshores and Seashores we’ve been to so far, they are complex parks with both natural and cultural resources. (There is even a lighthouse in this park.). Of course all we can ever do is sample what a park has to offer, but we learned that there are great experiences here off the boat.
At the far eastern end of the park is Great Sable Dunes, a sand dune field much like those at Sleeping Bear, and about the same size. They are ‘perched’ dunes sitting on top of what is either a moraine, or an outflow deposit (geologists are debating that) that forms the northern part of the peninsula. As such the dunes are elevated fifty feet or more above the lakeshore. Since we had already seen ‘perched’ dunes at Sleeping Bear, we decided to skip the dunes here. I think we would have included them had we not lost a day to weather.
Instead of the dunes, we wanted to take the girls and do another beach walk. National Geographic ranks Twelve-mile Beach here at Pictured Rocks in the top ten National Park beaches in the country. But since the water of Lake Superior is a chilly fifty degrees, this isn’t exactly a beach for swimming (some folks can do it, I suppose, but most of us wouldn’t last more than a minute or two.)
But it is definitely a beach for walking. We drove there today. It is thirty miles or so from Munising east on H58, and then a mile or so down a dirt road. There’s a campground on one side of the road, and a picnic area on the other, both of them in the shore-side forest. Between the trees you can see the dense blues and greens of Lake Superior. A short boardwalk took us onto the sand. As we approached the beach, both Joan and I said ‘Oh, My!’
National Geographic was not wrong. It was a glorious beach and a perfect day to be on it. There was nothing but a light breeze, strong enough to keep the bugs away but otherwise hardly noticeable. The lake’s waves were small, but lapped insistingly at our feet. Fleur, as usual, rolled and wiggled in the sand; Smooch waded into the waves up to her neck – they always do exactly the same thing at any beach we go to.
We weren’t the only people on the beach, but we might as well have been. This beach goes on forever (12 miles in fact), and the other four or five people we could see were scattered out into their own special places. Reflecting the scarcity of visitors as well as the crystal clear waters of Lake Superior (the least polluted lake of the five), the beach was as pristine as the water. The sand was pure and in different shades of brown. In bands parallel to the lake shore were clusters of pebbles of different sizes – the wave action was sorting the rocks, arranging similarly-sized pebbles in rows across the sand. The pebbles were definitely from the lake, smooth and rounded, and the hues ranged from red to green to blue with some yellows and oranges thrown in too. Periodically, we’d encounter logs also laying on the beach. They were ancient and well weathered – it seemed exactly right that they should be exactly right there. Behind the beach, the lush forest provided a dark green backdrop.
We walked about a mile down the beach, until we got to a ‘no dogs allowed’ sign and then returned to the car. The girls, though, worked out a bunch of energy by running back and forth up and down the sandy beach. They returned to the car wet and sandy, but very happy. Joan and I got to walk together, holding hands part of the way, along the beach which was, really, all ours. Contemplating the vastness of this lake and the beauty it holds we realized that this is why we do this traveling stuff- for moments like this when we can feel the vast and complex beauty of our world.
Back in the car, we drove back westward along the same highway, dipping through what I now know are the remains of the glaciers that carved these lakes and the surrounding landscape. Kettle lakes, moraines, outflow washes, eskers – a whole dictionary full of terms I’ve never heard of before, but which make up the complex work of glaciers. In the back of the book I am reading, there is an 84-mile road trip that visits the glacial features in the park. For those with the time and inclination, spending a week taking that tour would be a rewarding trip.
Another National Geographic ‘Top 10’ item in this park was the picnic grounds at Miner’s Castle. Normally, I can see why National Geographic makes the picks it does, but I’m not sure about this one. The picnic tables are set in a thick grassy area surrounded by woods. But it is far enough from the edge of the cliffs that you can just barely make out the blue lake waters. It is a nice place to have a picnic, and we did that, but I’m not sure it deserves special mention.
After lunch we followed the paths down to the observation platforms to view Miners Castle. This is a famous part of this park and we saw it from below on the boat tour. It is a sandstone formation that has been shaped and carved by wind and water to look like two castle turrets. Except that a decade or so ago, one of those turrets broke off and fell into the lake. So now, its just one turret and a stump. Still, it is impressive standing at the edge of the cliff as it does and looking out on the vastness of Lake Superior.
After Miner’s Castle, Joan wanted to see two waterfalls that were just south of Munising – Instant Rebellion Items, I call them. So we visited them. Wagner Falls was a delightful spot with a terrific water fall. Capping the day, we returned to Munising, bought a few groceries and gassed up the car, ready to resume our adventure.