Backpacking Pictured Rocks in the Upper Peninsula
I’ve visited Pictured Rocks in the Upper Peninsula in June. It’s quite nice. I had a perfect view of the awe-inspiring cliffs as I kayaked 10 miles of glassy water. I remember parts of Pictured Rocks look like they were painted with a brush. A beautiful Michigan summer sunset glowed against the red rock. The crisp cool air and warm sun were perfect. That was summer. Last weekend was my first trip to the Upper Peninsula in the winter. And I quickly learned that Pictured Rocks is a different beast in March. My backpacking adventure would take me through a foot of snow at the top of the cliffs. There was no sun and temperatures were expected to be in the low teens.
It takes a special type of person to backpack in the woods of Northern Michigan in the dead of winter. And I’m so grateful to have found someone as crazy as me to join in on the “fun.” Andrea and I have been going on all sorts of adventures together around Traverse City. We’ve hiked the Brown Bridge Trails, cross country skied the VASA trails, gotten lost at Pyramid Point, and even sledded down the dunes at Sleeping Bear Dunes. We’ve had a lot of fun this winter, despite getting lost, losing my car keys in the dunes, and getting lost some more. We make a great team. We manage to get lost every other hike and we still have fun. I’ve learned that if things get a little too quiet on the trail, to cautiously turn. Usually that means a giant snowball is about to come careening at my head. Or Andrea likes to shake trees as I walk under them leaving me covered in white.
Andrea and I embarked on our voyage to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan in my trusty Tacoma. The drive was about 6 hours to get to Pictured Rocks from Traverse City, but only because I missed a turn and we were about a half an hour from Canada before I realized. Parking was a bit of a concern since a snowstorm was coming in and I didn’t want to get my truck stuck out in the middle of nowhere. I had talked to a ranger and learned that parking on Chapel Road should be a safe bet. From there, we trekked toward the most scenic area of Pictured Rocks near Grand Portal Point. About a half mile into our hike, we realized the need for snowshoes and turned around to grab them out of my truck. Snowshoeing made the hike so much easier as we plodded one some rolling hills and through a dense snow-covered forest past Chapel Falls and a view of Chapel Lake.
Our hike ended the first day with a beautiful view of Chapel Rock and giant snow blocks floating along Chapel Beach. This was the epic U.P. we had come to see. But by this time our boots and clothes had gotten fairly damp and so we set up camp and made a fire. Luckily, Andrea had packed some hot cocoa and Bailey’s. We enjoyed some delicious pasta primavera and mashed potatoes as we burned our clothes by the fire. We had a grand idea to dry our wet clothes, but instead managed to burn a few socks, two gloves, snow pants, and even put a hole in a boot. That night we slept close in our tent as temperatures dipped into the low teens.
Andrea and I woke up early the next morning to a winter wonderland as the snow began to fall. We left basecamp to go venture along the cliffs of Pictured Rocks. Andrea had explored this area of Pictured Rocks before and so she led the way towards Grand Portal Point and Mosquito Beach. The snowshoes proved necessary as we hiked along the cliff’s edge on over half a foot of fresh powder. The new snow was different from the icy stuff we had hiked on the previous day. It was fluffy, wet, and slippery. I was a little nervous along the edge, especially as the winds picked up. But the views of the ice below were so breathtaking and so I decided to scoot on my belly and extend my camera over the edge to get a couple aerial shots.
Andrea and I didn’t quite make it to Mosquito beach. The storm had picked up and the wet snow was soaking our clothes. We headed back to our now snow-covered tent and attempted to start a second fire with the wet wood we had remaining. This is normally the part in the adventure when things get miserable. But Andrea and I just laughed it off. We were just a couple of crazies having our own version of fun in the woods of Pictured Rocks. Instead of staying another night, we decided to pack up camp and make the long trek back to the truck. When we got there, the truck was covered in 9 inches of snow and we needed to use my tire chains to get out. We drove back to Traverse City, happy to be in cushioned seats with warm heat blowing in our faces.
Josh Hartman, Adventure Photographer based in Northern Michigan
Follow my adventures at instagram.com/joshhartmanphotography