On a perfect fall weekend late last September, I found myself exploring the “North Coast” of Lake Superior at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. My chosen timing was a little bit of a crapshoot – it could have just as easily been 40 degrees and drizzling, as the sunny and high-in-the-60s that I got instead. Unfortunately, that brought with it the complication of itinerary-planning.
At Pictured Rocks, as at many National Parks, backcountry camping is allowed only at designated sites, and only by permit. Pictured Rocks is a day’s drive from both Chicago and Detroit, not to mention all the points between, so its 15 or so backcountry sites can be booked far in advance. I figured that with my post-Labor Day travel, the sites wouldn’t all be reserved. Though I wasn’t wrong about that, by the time I arrived at the Visitor’s Center late on Friday, the pickings were slim. I had to scrap my initial plan, as the more popular sites had already filled up for all three of the nights I had planned to be there. I wound up making a tour of the Beaver Basin Wilderness, a valley of inland lakes and maple-beech forest, and spending the bulk of the weekend in a less-busy area of lakeside cliffs. I never really saw the eponymous “pictured rocks,” except from a distance, but got a good taste of the rugged beauty of the landscape.
I arrived at the Beaver Basin Overlook in the late afternoon, and met a group of bear hunters coming off the trail. I couldn’t take long to chat, though, or to observe the fabulous view – I had four miles to go before the sun set! I walked down an old road grade into the valley, and flushed a couple grouse in a grove of young aspen near the crossing of Lowney Creek. I couldn’t stop by the babbling rapids, but pushed on, up a rise, and onto a broad plateau of maple woods. This was the least interesting part of the walk, but it eventually transitioned into an older-growth forest, with large beech and yellow birch interspersed with knobby old sugar maples. Finally the flat woods ended, and I began to push uphill – the end of my power-hike finally near! I meandered along the increasingly-sandy trail, and the hemlocks that had transitioned into red pines became white and jack pines in turn. The ostrich ferns and wildflowers were replaced with bracken ferns, blueberries, and short grasses. Within moments I had gone from a northern mesic forest to a sand barren and finally to a north-facing cliff….where I arrived just in time to watch the sun set over Lake Superior!
I spent that first night, as well as the second, at Pine Bluff campground, along with three other groups the first night, and only two the second. I could hear
the waves crashing from my tent, but was sheltered enough from the wind. There’s plenty of fresh water there, too… the only catch is you have to wade out waist deep in the big lake to get at it! So I waited in my tent until I was too warm in the morning, then I ran down there clothed in long underwear, clutching my water bottles and filter. In late September, the lake is still pretty close to its high temperature for the year… but the air temperature has gone down a
bit. After a few minutes of pumping my filter, trying to keep it under the waves but above the sand, I had a couple bottles of water, but couldn’t feel my toes anymore! I ran back up the hill to get my blood moving, changed into dry clothes, and prepared for the day. I hiked east to Sevenmile Creek, enjoyed lunch by the creek, and walked around on the beach. The beaches looked tropical, with white sands and clear, bright blue water… but the winds were a good reminder of fall in The U.P.! I filled up all of my water bottles in the creek and hiked them back to the campground… didn’t want to take another chilly dip that night!
The next day, I hiked westward towards the Coves campground, named for the numerous rocky inlets near it. I took a couple of breaks along the way, one of whch was over an hour of lying on a sun-baked rock, reading a book in one of these sheltered nooks. I got closer and closer to the outcrop of the pictured rocks, and though I never got all the way there, I enjoyed the colors and the formations of the cliffs I was on. The Coves campground was nearly deserted on a Sunday night in late September, so I was able to relax after my long and exhausting hike. The next morning, I regretted not
having swim in Lake Superior since my arrival, so I decided to take a real dip – I kept my long underwear on again (a poor substitute for a wet suit!), but I actually ducked all the way under the water for at least a few seconds. It was a lovely morning, and the “swim” was only part of it, but it helped to energize me for the trek back to civilization. The hike out was long, but mostly pleasant, I took the west side of the inland lake this time, with somewhat more varied woods, and a break for lunch on the swampy shores of that lake. When I got back to my car and looked out at the Beaver Basin Overlook, I found that the foliage had become noticeably more orange since my first look a few days earlier. As I drove south away from the coast, I saw the “fall colors” begin to “peak” as I neared home. A beautiful end to a lovely weekend!