At a Glance: Lakeshore Trail
Length: 43 miles
Location: Part of the North Country Trail, the path is located within Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula
Trail Type: Out and back or shuttle
Scenery: Northern Forests, massive sand dunes and the park’s namesake rock cliffs
Pictured Rocks is the setting for the Lakeshore Trail. The path runs the length of the park, approximately 43 miles and is often within sight of Lake Superior and its spectacular shoreline. Sharing tread with the North Country Trail, the trail is generally well marked and moderate in difficulty as it travels between views. Those with issues with heights should note that the trail, at times, is located right on a cliff’s edge. Camping is by permit only with options located five miles apart or less.
The route generally stays well above the lake, though dropping down to the waters edge on occasion. Hiking is generally moderate with a few steep climbs. Some mileage back from the lake travels through poorly drained forests. On a spring trip, waterproof boots turned out to be a good choice.
For most, head north through Michigan, over the Mackinac Bridge into the Upper Peninsula. From there, take U.S. 2 west to 77N to 28W to the town of Munising . Those coming from Wisconsin and points west can take 28E through the UP. The Munising Falls Visitor Center is located at 1505 Sand Point Road in Munising.
The easiest way to walk the length of the park is to use the shuttle service provided by Altran, http://www.altranbus.com/backpack.html the Alger County Transit system. They are very backpacker friendly and run multiple trips per day between the Munising Falls Visitor Center on the west end of the park to the Grand Sable Visitor Center near the eastern end. The ride is $25 and the driver was happy to take me a mile past the visitor center so I could add Sable Falls to my itinerary. There are other stops available for shorter hikes. Overnight parking is available at either visitor center.
Why Hike This Trail
Hiking the Lakeshore Trail is a great way to see the tremendous shoreline of Lake Superior. In just over 40 miles there are countless epic views of rock formations, a lighthouse, options to stroll the lakeshore on both sand and rocky beaches, massive sand dunes and some quality time in the boreal forest.
As with nearly every National Park, wildlife take advantage of the protected habitat. Wolf and bear are spotted along the trail along with species specific to the northern forests such as the snowshoe hare. The park is also far enough north that viewing the Northern Lights is a possibility as well.
Climate and Weather
As with any far north location, weather can be an issue. I hiked the trail in mid-May and there was still snow on the trail in spots. Starting too much earlier would have been challenging on a heavy snowpack year like 2019. As the snow melts, it also leaves portions of the trail wet and sloppy. At the other end of the season, snow can fall as early as October with an average of 140” falling throughout the colder months.
Timing the hike also includes consideration of insects. Both black flies and mosquitoes show up soon after snowmelt and can be an issue through early summer. I was ahead of them for the most part in mid-May in 2019. Later in the summer, stable flies, deer flies and horse flies all make an unwelcome appearance and can inflict a painful bite. At times, long pants, long sleeves and even a head net may be required.
July and August tie for the warmest month with the average daily temperature range from 56 to 74. Freezing temperature are possible any month of the year. I brought a 30 degree bag and was glad I did.
By fall, the insect populations have dropped considerably. On the flip side though, fall is not always the best time to visit weather wise. The area is the 2nd most cloudy region of the US with much of the cloudiness coming in the fall and early winter. At that time of the year, air traveling over the warm lake hits the relatively cooler land and results in significant cloud cover, fog and rain.
The National Park Service maintains over a dozen backcountry camp areas on or near Lakeshore Trail. Each camp area has spots for three to six small groups. There are also some larger Group Camp areas. Most, but not all, have access to water, a toilet and a designated fire ring. The park’s Backcountry Trip Planner https://www.nps.gov/piro/planyourvisit/upload/Backcountry-Trip-Planner-2017-accessible.pdf lists specifics for each site.
Each site requires an individual permit for the night you plan to stay there. Spots can be reserved in advance through Recreation.gov. There is a $15 reservation fee for the entire itinerary, plus a user fee of $5 per person, per night. If the plan is to visit on a weekend during the summer, it would be a good idea to make those reservations well in advance.
Water is generally not an issue. You are walking along the largest freshwater lake in the world after all. In addition, the trail crosses a number of streams on their way to the lake. The water sources all appear to be relatively clear, but play it safe. Bring a filter and use it.
If you’re looking for a 3-5 day hike with great scenery, simple logistics, an easy to follow trail and camp areas where water and a toilet are accessible, the Lakeshore Trail might be for you. For me, the rock formations are the most impressive I’ve seen this side of the Grand Canyon.
Depending upon when you go, biting insects and/or weather can be an issue, but with proper planning and equipment, the trail is well worth any aggravation encountered.
The National Park Service website has the information needed to start planning a trip to this amazing place. When I had specific questions on snowpack and trail conditions, the folks at the Munising Falls Visitor Center (906-387-3700) were extremely helpful.
Once the hike is over, if you want to see the Pictured Rocks from a different angle, there are both larger tour boats as well as kayak tours locally available. If you have the time, the views from the water are pretty impressive as well.