The heat wave that enveloped the nation's midsection this summer was just the excuse we needed to pack up the Roadtrek and head north, nearly 400 miles from our suburban Detroit home to one of the most spectacular stretches of undeveloped wilderness coastline found anywhere in America.
We headed to the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, crossing over the five-mile long Mackinaw Bridge into Michigan's pristine Upper Peninsula – the UP – where big towns simply aren't, and the scenery is jaw-dropping gorgeous with lots of forests, lakes and streams and, of course, the Big Lake, Superior, which some say is the coldest, deepest fresh water lake in the world.
Along a 50 mile stretch of Superior shoreline stretching from Munising on the west to Grand Marais on the east is the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, with wilderness views, waterfalls and undeveloped beaches that are perfect RV destinations.
We chose the Woodland Park Campground in Grand Marais as our base. It’s a 150 site campground, offering full hookups and WiFi. It’s open May through October and can has sites available for everything from tents to Class A motorhome. We were lucky in snagging a spot that faced Lake Superior. Camp Manager Sheila Tobias said we timed it just right, arriving on a Sunday moments after the previous occupant pulled out.
The campground does not take reservations and, as we were plugging our Roadtrek in to the hookups, two other people came by with disappointed looks on their faces, explaining that they had been eyeing our spot and wanted to get it as soon as it opened up.
From the upper 90 temps back home, we were glad we came north.In the shade, it was 78 degrees. The lake breeze made it delightful.
But we were in Woodland Park mostly for sleeping. The rest of the time, we went exploring, driving our Roadtrek to Munising and then checking out spectacular views, like Miner’s Castle. All along the Pictured Rocks area are towering sandstone formations. There are glass bottom boat tours available and exploring the caves and rock formations up close from the water is on the bucket list of many a kayaker. Trails, steps and access roads abound leading to beaches and and three National Park campgrounds.
All are rustic and suited to Class B or, maybe, a Class C motorhome. An A would be hard pressed to maneuver into the heavily treed and remote spots.
The National Park campgrounds are at Little Beaver Lake, Twelve Mile Beach, and Hurricane River. Camping is on a first-come, first-serve basis (no reservations) with an overnight fee of $14. Lakeside sites at Twelve Mile Beach Campground – our favorite of the three – is $16 anight. Holders of the America The Beautiful Senior Pass (62 and older) and the America The Beautiful Access Pass (disabled) receive a 50% discount.
I stress, these are rustic. You need to be totally self-contained. They are so much in the boondocks that cell phoen service is inaccessible. You are completely off-the-grid here. The Twelve Mile Beach area has a generator free zone.
But you also have the best campground views I've ever seen.
A couple more things about camping here. This is black bear country. Keep your food locked away. Watch your pets.
But a more common problem is another wild critter that is particularly irksome: The black fly. There are swarms of them along the Superior shoreline that can make life quite miserable for most of the summer. I'll have another video that illustrates that. Of the five days we were in the area, the flies seemed to come and go. Two days were miserable. The other three, inexplicably, were relatively fly free. My advice is to be sure to bring long pants. the flies seem to bite the ankles and legs. Or, come in the fall, after the first killing frost. Otherwise, I'm sure you'll encounter them.
Again, the flies don’t bite all the time. And they are a small price to pay for some of the most beautiful wilderness you’ll find anywhere.
Hiking is obviously a big draw of the area. But so is rock collecting. People come from all over the world to search the Superior beaches for agates. I met Sally and Larry Hales on the beach. Sally was wading in the water with a unique pole made for scooping rocks from the crystal clear water. Larry was checking out the rock piles on the shoreline. They're from Clare, MI and have been coming to the UP for decades. Turns out they were in the spot right next to us at Woodland Park. Sally stays all summer, Jack commutes back and forth during the week for his job back below the bridge in the Lower Peninsula.
“People tell us we should go to Florida,” said Larry. “We just smile and nod. But we come to the UP. It's quiet and peaceful up here. There's no place we'd rather be.”
The town of Grand Marais is well worth a visit. Once a thriving lumber town of 2,000, it has dwindled to about 300 year round residents. Tourism draws many a visitor with three seasons – summer for fishing and fresh lake-cooled air, fall for the colors and winter for snowmobiling. The area gets over 23 feet of annual snowfall. At the town’s Fourth of July parade, you can see evidence of how much snow there is by massive tracked vehicles that residents need to get around.
The parade is a hoot. Everyone is in it. Kids, oldtimers, the fire department, the snowmobile folks. The parade is so spirited it goes around twice, just in case you miss something. Afterwards, everyone walks over to the Methodist church for the annual pie sale. Fresh-bakes wild blueberry, raspberry and rhubarb pies sell like, well, hotcakes. By the time I got there, drooling for my favorite raspberry pie, the church was sold out.
Seems the regulars all know you only watch the parade go around once, then hurry down to the church. I was polite and watched both circuits. I'm convinced the second loop is to trick the newbies into not competing with the regulars for the pies.
Grand Marais celebrates the Fourth with great small town enthusiasm. The local fire department sprays their hoses in a tug of war, there's a street dance and just before the July 4 fireworks at sunset, local snowmobilers drive their snow machines across the open waters of the bay at Grand Marais.
If you've never visited the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, all I can say is head on up to the UP.
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