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The Best Hike in Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore


a rock arch in Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore

Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in Upper Michigan is a true hidden gem of the National Park System. Clocking in as a “National Lakeshore” rather than a National Park means it flies under a lot of people’s radar. But it’s also the kind of place that you google exactly once and immediately add to your bucket list. You look at the rock formations and think you must be looking at some Greek island. You look at the water and say it must be photoshopped. It can’t possibly be that color. 


Spoiler alert: it absolutely is that color.


Where to Start the Best Hike in Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore


There are a wide variety of trails throughout the park, showcasing everything from rock formations, to waterfalls, and of course, Lake Superior. In my opinion, there’s one route that shows you all the highlights in one single hike.


As a quick warning, this full loop I’m about to describe to you clocks in around 10 or 11 miles, depending on how much extraneous exploring you do. It requires a decent amount of stamina, and you should plan for it to take all day. But it’s truly going to show you all the best of the best of Pictured Rocks, so it’s worth the effort, and absolutely doable with a little preparation. And I’ll note shortcuts and turnaround points as we go.


You’ll start from the Chapel Falls Trailhead. This trailhead has its own parking lot, and it’s the perfect place to start your adventure. You’re going to want to get to this trailhead as early as possible on your hike day. Not only will an early start mean that you won’t feel rushed on your hike, but getting to the trailhead at sunup is really the only way to guarantee you’ll find a parking spot. In the summer months, the Pictured Rocks parking lots have been known to fill entirely by 8am. Start early and thank me later!



The Trek to the Lakefront


From the edge of the parking lot, the trail takes off in two directions. Check your maps, and follow signage for Chapel Falls!


a hiker in front of Chapel Falls in Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore

The first stretch of trail is wooded and circles Chapel Lake, a small body of water that feeds into Lake Superior. Enjoy the lush greenery and deep quiet that comes with a proper Northwoods forest. This is a great place to spot wildlife, especially if you start bright and early before the trail fills up. I had an astoundingly close encounter with a tiny fawn on this section of the trail when I hiked it!


You’ll be following the shores of the small lake and its feeder rivers and creeks, and there will be waterfalls to admire as you do! The most dramatic of them is Chapel Falls! It’s surrounded by overlooks, so enjoy all the views and photo opportunities.



Hike Along the Lake


a tree growing from a rock formation

This section of the trail ends when you reach the shore of Lake Superior. At the endpoint, you’ll find another small falls that pours into the Great Lake, a beautiful soft sand beach, and a one of a kind rock formation where a tree appears to be growing right out of the stone!


If you’re reaching the edge of your stamina, you can turn back right here and return to the parking lot. If you walk down the beach a short ways, there’ll be an offshoot of the trail that leads back to the trailhead. It takes you back on the opposite side of Chapel Lake, so it’ll be slightly different views than the ones you had on the way out.


But you’ve just barely made it to the shores of Lake Superior! The best sights are still to come!


a rock arch in Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore

From Chapel Beach, the trail continues along the waterfront. Once you leave the beach, you’ll be climbing back up layers of cliffs and bluffs, which means every corner you turn will show you a new Lake Superior vista. This is the part that makes you feel like you’re somewhere far more exotic than the Midwest. This is the part of the hike that will take you the longest because you’ll be stopping every few minutes to admire views and take photos. It’s like no place else I’ve ever visited.


If you want, you can follow this trail just a short ways, see a few of the rock formations, and then turn around and retrace your steps back around Chapel Lake. But once you start this trail, you’re not going to want to stop. And besides, you don’t have to go very far before continuing on is just as quick as going back. Pace yourself, bring snacks and extra water, and the whole hike is absolutely going to be within your grasp.


You’ll see breathtaking cliffs and caves, and huge rock formations with names like “Lovers Leap” and “Battleship Rock.” You’ll find wide plateaus to sit on in the sun and eat your packed lunch. 


a rock formation in Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore


Turn it into a Loop


You’ll also start to wonder where your turnaround point is. The park-issued maps of this area estimate that this hike covers about 9 miles. When I hiked it, my tracker clocked it as 11 miles. Don’t get worried if you feel like you’re hiking for longer than you should have been. You haven’t missed the return trail, I promise. 


You’ll know you’re almost to your turn point when you find the backcountry campground. The trail you’re going to follow back to the trailhead is on the far side of the campground. Full disclosure, this particular branch of the trail was not particularly well marked when I hiked this route back in 2021. But helpful hikers and campers left markers pointing the way! 


If you hit another beach (comfortingly named “Mosquito Beach”) you’ve gone too far. The trail back to the parking lot where you left your car sits just between the beach and the campground, and closer to the campground than the beach.


The last leg of the trip is back through the forest again. This was the hardest stretch for me, because I was getting tired and had less motivation once I’d left the lakefront behind. But it’s still gorgeous, and you can check your map for a handful of offshoots that lead to more waterfalls, if you have the stamina for even more discovering!


You’ll arrive back at the now uncomfortably packed parking lot exhausted, but satisfied. Load up your car and head back into town for a well-earned meal and a long nap. You earned it!


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Love and Shenanigans,


Andi


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