Michigan’s Upper Peninsula is home to the infamous Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. Visions of kayaking crystal clear blue lakes, relaxing on sandy beaches and endless cliffs plummeting into Lake Superior dance through the minds of most Michiganders who have spent time here. It’s a bit of a drive from Detroit, but well worth it for the surreal landscapes and access to miles of adventure and wilderness experiences here in the mitten.
A 42 mile wilderness trail, perfect for backpacking, runs through the park from end to end, hitting all the top spots and taking in some truly rugged northern Michigan terrain and endless lake views.
I put backpacking Pictured Rocks on my “30 before 30” bucket list. At that time, I had no idea that I wouldn’t be swatting flies, enjoying warm summer nights or taking a dip in Lake Superior when I checked this off the list. I’m a sucker for adventure, so when the opportunity to explore Pictured Rocks in the dead of winter came up, I was totally on board. I knew that Pictured Rocks was incredibly scenic, but I was pleasantly surprised at how winter transformed the landscape into a iced-filled masterpiece.
Chapel Loop is one of the more popular trails along the lakeshore. It has great lake views, long sandy beaches, unique rock formations, jaw dropping cliffs and two established backcountry campgrounds. It was the perfect destination for a winter backpacking trip. The entire loop is about 10.5 miles, which was appropriate for the slower pace of snowshoeing through a few feet of snow and unbroken trail.
In mid-February, temps at Pictured Rocks can be pretty chilly. Highs of 15 degrees F and night time lows of zero degrees or colder would test my strength and determination. But equipped with the right attitude and gear, I was certain I would make the most of this opportunity. Because the drive from Detroit is a bit of a haul (6+ hours), especially on winter roads, this was a long-weekend adventure. Three days on the trail and two chilly nights under the stars would be an epic winter trip.
All overnight backpackers need to check in at the visitors center in Munising and pick up a back-country permit. Winter camping regulations are in affect if the snow depth is greater than 6 inches. Being that it surely was, I would have had been able to camp outside of established sites, but the intention was to make it to these sites if possible.
The access road to the Chapel Loop trailhead parking lot isn’t always plowed. You are going to want a good winter vehicle here anyway, but especially if you plan on tackling Chapel Road to the trailhead. This road was plowed about half way down to a turn out for parking cars. This meant tacking on a couple extra miles to the start and end of the trek to access the trailhead.
The first waterfall along the loop (about a mile from the real trailhead) is Chapel Falls. They were fairly snow-covered but were the first sneak-peak into the scenery I would be enjoying for the next couple of days. The trail markings are few and far between but the wide trail underneath gives a good guideline to follow. Pack a map and compass just in case. You know you are approaching the lake before you even get there. The wind picks up, the air gets a bit more chilly.
The first point along the lake is Chapel Rock (now about 3 miles from the trailhead). This is a truly unique work of Mother Nature art. A lone tree clings to a wind-worn rock formation, its roots expanding like a power line to the mainland to keep the tree alive.
The views of Lake Superior in the background were intimidating. Winter clouds lined the sky, making it difficult to tell where the water ends and the sky begins. A short hike (less than a half mile) from Chapel Rock leads right into Chapel Beach campground. A flat clearing sheltered from the lake’s wind was a perfect place to pitch a tent for the night. The outhouses were open here, even in the winter. Bear lockers are available to use as well. Dark comes early- so does bed time while winter camping. After a huge meal and hot drinks, our group turned in early to stay warm and rest up for the adventure the next day.
The trail leaves Chapel Beach and continues around the lakeshore for most of the day, darting in an out from incredible views over Lake Superior and its frozen stone cliffs. Along the lake, the trees were covered in a thick layer of ice, bending this way and that, as if frozen in motion.
Be sure to pack a balaclava or a large scarf to cover your face since the snow and wind blowing off the water is quite frigid when you are in the exposed sections. Today was by far the most scenic day with fantastic views around every corner. Pancake ice dotted the open water on the lake and ice clings to the side of the cliffs, contrasting with the interesting colors of the stone. I’ve never seen any landscape as interesting as this.
There are a few great points of interest along the Lakeshore Trail. One is Grand Portal Point: a wind blown, exposed and sandy rock-top. Almost like a beach on top of a cliff. The views here are expansive.
The hike along the lakeshore is about 4.5 scenic miles from Chapel Beach before its pulls into Mosquito Beach and campground. Reaching the campground at Mosquito was a welcome retreat and the sites were quite sheltered from the lake with easy access from the trail to reach the beach. A stream runs through the campground. Outhouses and bear lockers are also open and available here.
Mosquito beach was lined with large ice blocks, some the size of small houses. Waves that break on the frozen ledge create large ice pieces scattered about and form a ice shelf along the shore.
It’s important to remember that the ice shelf along the water is not a solid piece and can be unstable in places. Though unique and highly photographable, be very aware of the risks of walking or trekking on the ice shelf. Stick to the trail.
There are two possible routes back to the trailhead from Mosquito. One is the Mosquito River trail, and one is a bit longer: the Mosquito Falls trail, which includes a scenic waterfall. Because the weather was ominous and snow had already started to fall heavily, I took the quick route through the forest back to to the trailhead and hiked back to where the car was parked.
The temps on this trip were well below 10 degrees F for the entire hike (though, we went during a week-long extra cold snap). These conditions surely tested our abilities and determination. However, our group was lively, adventurous and all equipped with a good attitude. The fascination of overcoming cold weather obstacles had our spirits high.
The cold weather allowed for packing in real-meal items and lots of down time in the evening left ample opportunity for cooking up some gourmet feasts. Our group served up chocolate chip pancakes, tomato-vegetable curry and veggie fried rice.
The trail was very conducive to pulling a gear sled which was useful for the heavy winter gear. The trail was fairly easy to navigate, and the scenery was spectacular.
Though it was cold, it was a trip I would do again in a heart beat. I want to expand on the opportunities to check out different sections of the trail along the lakeshore. Whether you snowshoe or ski, backpack or day hike, I recommend taking in this trail during the winter months so you too can experience the magic that the Old Man Winter casts over this incredible and unique Michigan landscape.