Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore: Unexpected Michigan

The Pictured Rocks beach. Photo by Kelsey Dean
The Pictured Rocks beach. Photo by Kelsey Dean

My grandmother, who will turn 90 this year, is a force of nature; her travel plans for the year are always a subject of conversation at family gatherings. Like me, she has called Michigan home for most of her life, and, like me, she has an insatiable case of wanderlust.

Although she travels extensively on international vacations, she is, understandably, less motivated to tour around Michigan. When my father convinced her to come with us on a camping trip in the Upper Peninsula one year, she was skeptical.

In her youth, the U.P. wasn’t a recreational destination; it was a rugged and much less accessible wilderness populated largely by men working tough jobs in mining and logging. Today, it often still feels like the region is still more dominated by bears, moose and deer than people, but it is nothing short of a hidden gem in terms of natural beauty. Over 30 percent of the land is government-owned forest that is used recreationally.

A couple hours of driving north of the Mackinac Bridge will get you to a quaint town called Munising, where there are some places to eat and a handful of shops. One of my favorite foods, fresh smoked whitefish, is everywhere, and cheap — a few hours south, in the Lower Peninsula, it doubles in price. This is also the departure point for the Pictured Rocks cruise, a two plus hour boat ride along one of the most breathtaking shorelines I have ever witnessed, which stretches almost 50 miles along Lake Superior.

On the boat, the first thing you see is the impossibly turquoise water. You might think to yourself, ‘Is this the Mediterranean? The Aegean? Southeast Asia?’

You’ll feel a sharp, fresh breeze without a hint of salt as the boat begins to move. At first, the land you can see is simple, uniform — mostly green trees. Pine, birch and oak. Wildflowers and wild berries. But as the trees fade into stone bluffs and mineral-stained cliffs, you might feel your mouth opening of its own accord.

For a geologist, this place is probably some kind of paradise. For everyone else, it is a place that makes you scramble for your camera and hope that you have enough battery life to last the entire ride.

Lake Superior’s choppy waters have carved strange smatterings of caves into the rock, and there are shadowed crevices in the cliffs that are large enough for the whole boat to pull into. Inside, you can look up and see trees spilling over the edges, or you can look down and see the sandstone forming a deep cradle below the water.

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