Family Camping Trip to Pictured Rocks in Munising, Michigan
Updated: Jun 23
Birthdays have always been big in my family. To us, it is a day to celebrate a person being alive and the joy that their existence contributes to the lives around them. We typically go all out and have get-togethers for each other, give cards and gifts, decorate the house with streamers and balloons, etc. However, for my birthday in 2016, I wanted to do something different. Rather than my family lavishing me with gifts to celebrate, I simply wanted the gift of time together with them. Visiting Pictured Rocks in Munising, Michigan has been on my bucket list for some time now so I proposed that instead of celebrating my birthday in a traditional way, we all pay for ourselves and go on a 4 day/3 night camping trip as a family at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. Everyone agreed that this sounded fun so we began doing research on where to stay and what to see.
We knew we wanted to go tent camping and we quickly realized that almost every campground in this area is run by the National Park Service and no reservations are accepted. All of their sites were first come-first serve only. Seeing how it was a 7 hour drive to get there from our hometown, we kind of wanted to make sure that we had a place to stay once we arrived! I finally called the Munising Chamber of Commerce and they told me that there was one campground that would accept reservations, called the Munising Tourist Park Campground. The woman I spoke with warned me that I would probably get a recording if I called, but that I could reserve our sites on the campground’s website. I went online and to my delight, the campground still had 3 rustic tent sites available that were right next to each other and situated on the shores of Lake Superior. It was exactly what we had been looking for, so I quickly nabbed them up for a cheap $25/night per site. I was giddy that I had gotten the last 3 sites available at the only campground in Munising that accepted reservations so I called everyone to tell them the good news!
A couple of months went by and it was finally time for our trip! Between the 6 of us (Dustin and I, my mom and dad, and my sister and brother-in-law), we had 4 kayaks so my mom made arrangements to borrow 2 more for the trip. We cleaned them all up and strapped two of them to the rack on our vehicle and put the rest in my brother-in-law’s truck. Each couple already had tents and basic camping gear but we were all lured into impulse shopping the week before our trip and ended up being severely over-packed! We didn’t know how rustic our rustic campsites would be and wanted to be prepared. Especially since Dustin isn’t too keen on camping in the first place. He appreciates a clean, dry, comfortable bed with a nice shower and a toilet just steps away when needed like you would find at a hotel. He agreed to give it a whirl though since it was my birthday request.
We kissed our puppies goodbye for a few days, loaded up our trucks, picked up my parents, and then started on our way up north!
Dustin could barely see out of the back window because it was so packed with all of our belongings!
My sister and her husband drove separately and were equally stuffed into their truck. After about 5 hours, we finally reached the Mackinac Bridge, which is a 5 mile long suspension bridge that connects Michigan’s Upper and Lower Peninsulas.
There is a $4.00 toll to cross the bridge each way. Once on the bridge, there are spectacular views from almost 200 feet in the air of Lake Michigan on one side and Lake Huron on the other! From the left lane of the bridge, you can look out your vehicle window and down through the grating to see straight through to the water underneath.
From St. Ignace, which is the city on the other side of the bridge, we had a 2 hour drive to Munising. The quickest route follows a very pretty road that winds around Lake Michigan for a bit and then through the countryside.
We kept seeing signs for pasties everywhere (pronounced past-ees, not paste-ees), which are a sort of pot-pie that the U.P. is known for. We decided that at some point on our trip, we would have to try them somewhere.
Soon, we arrived in our final destination of Munising. It is a quaint little town situated on the picturesque Munising Bay, which leads out to Lake Superior. Our campground was a short distance away, just around the left side of the bay. We checked in and paid at the office/store then went to find our campsites. When I was reserving the tent sites a couple months prior, the map made it look like there were two rows of tents on the beach, with our 3 sites in the back row. However, upon arrival we were pleasantly surprised to find that all rustic tent sites are right on the water in a single row, so we all had lakefront views! I have always wanted to camp on the beach so this excited me! We parked and found a community wagon to tow our luggage with. We started walking down the trail that led to the rustic campsites and it just kept going and going and going! It was a lovely trail, but a bit far when making multiple trips to unload our trucks! Especially since it was about 85 degrees and humid when we arrived! I would say the trail is roughly 1/4 mile or so one way. We quickly regretted having over-packed! We were in a race against the daylight trying to get our tents set up so we got those situated first and then finished unpacking and started a bonfire.
The sunset over the lake was beautiful and soon the skies were filled with stars, as we sat under them roasting marshmallows in awe of where we were fortunate enough to be at that moment.
The next morning, we awoke to the sounds of the waves gently brushing the shoreline and it was absolutely peaceful!
A few minutes after waking, I heard my sister, Karly, whisper into the tent asking if I was awake yet. She is normally asleep until noon on the weekends, so I was completely shocked that she was up already, and that she was the first one up at that! I unzipped the screen to see her and she had already put make up on and gotten dressed. She had made her own espresso concoction before leaving home that was insanely strong (I think I got a caffeine buzz just smelling it) and had gotten up early and drank some of it, so she was raring to go by 7am! I got up and joined her with a much more diluted cup of my iced Caramel Macchiato. The sun was shining and the water in the bay glimmered as it danced in the cool breeze. It was idyllic! What a way to start the day! Soon everyone else got up and we had quite an extravagant breakfast (for camping) on the beach consisting of pancakes, eggs, and bacon. Dustin had brought his propane 2-burner camping stove and some pots and pans to cook with and Karl, my brother in law, had brought a mini propane grill so we were all set!
After breakfast, we decided as a group that the water was too rough to go kayaking that day and that doing some hiking sounded fun. We had planned to kayak part of the cliffs and then see the majority of the lakeshore on a tour boat ride. I called the Pictured Rocks Cruises boat tour company to see about their schedule for the next couple of days and they had cancelled all of the tours that day due to rough conditions on the water. They still had some trips available the next day though and highly recommended booking a trip ASAP if we wanted to go, since they would most likely sell out. We decided on a 1pm cruise and called to book it. My dad wanted to do something nice for everyone so he paid for all of us to go on this cruise. I thought that was incredibly generous of him!
We drove around the bay and stopped at the beginning of the famed shoreline at a place called Miner’s Castle, which had several overlooks with views of the rock formations below. The water in Lake Superior was aqua blue below and crystal clear as it crashed onto the cliffs.
We had the option to hike several miles in that area but we chose to drive about 35 minutes up the shore to another location that Karly wanted to see, called Log Slide. From there a short walk through the woods opened up onto the top of a huge sand dune that they used to use for logging to get the logs from the top of the cliffs down to the beach at the bottom onto ships. We have sand dunes on Lake Michigan in our hometown, but these were unreal! They were very tall and very steep and even had a sign warning tourists that it may only take a few minutes to run down, but it would take over an hour of vigorous climbing to get back up again. No thank you! We were content with the view from the top!
The wind was so strong that it pelted us all with sand so we only stayed about 10-15 minutes before having our fill of sand in our hair, stuck to our faces, and in between our teeth. From the top we spotted the Au Sable Light Station, which was another site we wanted to hike to. Based on the tiny size of it from where we were, we concluded that it would be a pretty long hike and decided to drive a little closer to it. We found a trailhead that was only 1.5 miles from the lighthouse so we opted to hike this one instead of the longer 3.5 mile hike we would’ve had from Log Slide. This trail was closer to the shoreline and we could see the lake beside us peeking through the trees as we walked.
Every so often there were openings in the trees so we walked down to the beach a couple of times to take in the sights.
There were a few shipwrecks just off shore that could be seen from the beach so that was neat to see! The sandy beach soon started turning to rocky shoals.
My mom and I stopped about a hundred million times to take pictures of the scenery, as we both really enjoy photographing nature.
This vividly colored caterpillar crossed my path at one point and I later learned that it was a Canadian Yellow Caterpillar. I love serendipitous instances like these where God shares some of his awesome creations with us to enjoy for a moment. Such a simple treat!
Eventually the trail came to an opening and we could see the white of the Au Sable Lighthouse at the end. This was my favorite view of it.
We spent about a half hour walking around the different buildings on the property and taking photos then headed back down the trail. From there we decided to try one of the restaurants that we had passed along the way that serves pasties. The first restaurant we came to was called the Bear Trap so we stopped there. After seeing all of the yummy options on the menu, everyone but my mom decided to order something other than a pasty, which is what we had initially stopped to try. My mom got a beef pasty and let us all try a bite. I thought it was delicious! Although my meal was good too, I regretted not getting a pasty of my own.
After lunch, we stopped at the Visitor’s Bureau to see what else there was to do in Munising. After grabbing a few brochures, we headed back to the campsite for a nice relaxing evening on the beach. However, when we arrived, we found that Karly and Karl’s tent had blown over due to the strong winds!
It was really hard to keep the stakes in the ground since it was just sand, but Dustin came to the rescue and got it set up for them again before they even got back to the site to see it for themselves!
Karly, Karl, and Dustin decided to go swimming in the lake that evening. The water was warmer than usual at about 68 degrees so they wanted to jump in to say they swam in Lake Superior.
Although the wind had ceased quite a bit when compared to earlier in the day, the air still had a chilly breeze so my mom and dad and I were perfectly content on the beach in our sweatshirts, despite their attempts at peer pressuring us into joining them!
After everyone got cleaned up and dried off, we had a couple drinks and another bonfire.
The air was a lot chillier that night and the warmth of the fire was very welcomed by all of us! We even got out Dustin’s travel propane heaters and placed them around us for more warmth! It was neat to see the “moonset” over the tree line at the edge of the bay and we even saw some shooting stars!
After a brisk yet comfortable night in the tent, we again awoke to find an angry Lake Superior with waves too big for kayaking. Afraid that our 1pm cruise might get cancelled, we called and rescheduled our boat tour to the 6pm departure instead, in hopes that the wind would die down a bit before then, as it had the night before. The company was very good about switching our tickets and agreed that it was a wise plan.
With the day newly opened up, we decided to do some more exploring of the area. The night before as I was putting a photo on Facebook from my phone, it automatically tagged my location as “Christmas, Michigan”. Intrigued as to why, my sister and I Googled the city to see if it was real. It was in fact a legitimate town and the streets were even named to follow the Christmas theme, with names such as Santa Lane, Mistletoe Lane, Scrooge Alley, etc. It was less than 2 minutes away so we drove over to see what it was about. It ended up being one of those towns where if you blink you might miss it, but we did see the street signs that we had read about and they did have some year round Christmas décor displayed.
After a brief drive through Christmas in August, we thought we would check out the Munising Falls located just around the bay.
My sister had printed out a list of waterfalls in the area before we left home and there were 3 very close to each other that would be easy to see all at once. Munising Falls, Memorial Falls, and Tannery Falls.
They were all beautiful in their own right but my favorite was Tannery Falls because there was a gorgeous, mountainous hike to get to them and once we arrived, we were able to walk behind/underneath the waterfall!
After exploring a bit and getting some photos, we decided to walk back to the truck and head back to the campsite to relax for a bit before our boat ride. Dustin is very good with directions and told us all that rather than walking down the hill and back to the road and up and around (which would take forever), if we just climbed up the ridge, the car would be on the other side. No one wanted to risk the poison ivy that might be lingering in the weeds covering the cliff, so Dustin started to walk that way to climb it himself. I couldn’t let him scale a cliff without anyone there in case anything happened, so I went with him, against my will! It actually ended up being a fun climb and despite a few slips on the way up, it only took a few minutes and then we walked out onto the street where we had parked. We got in the car and drove around the corner to pick up my family, who were a little surprised at how quickly we had made it back.
That afternoon we headed back to the campground for some lunch and to relax a little after our day of hiking. My mom and Karly drove back into town after lunch to check out some shops but the rest of us decided to stay back to enjoy the sunshine and the beach for the afternoon. There was a very distinct sandbar where the water was clear and at the edge of it, the water turned into a deep blue color so we knew it had to be deep. Dustin walked to the edge of it to see how deep and took one step off of the sand bar then dropped down like an anchor because it was so deep that he couldn’t touch! We went for a walk down the beach and found tons of really beautiful stones, some of which being agates. Agates are a type of stone found in this region that are known for their bright colors. Dustin found a teal blue stone just off shore that was absolutely gorgeous and started me on an agate hunting frenzy! I could search for rocks and beach glass for days and not get bored so eventually Dustin had to pull me away from the vivid blues, purples and greens of these unique stones so that we could go back and get ready for our boat ride.
We arrived at the ticket office/dock for the boat ride at approximately 520pm when our cruise left at 6pm so we thought we would be plenty early, especially since there were two huge boats that would be loading passengers. However, we were completely wrong! As we finally got up to the boat, both top decks were full and there were only seats left in the bottom part, which was enclosed. I was devastated because I knew I wouldn’t be able to get any good photos through the reflective windows. I may have even gotten a little grumpy about it. I had wanted to go to Pictured Rocks for so many years and this was our last chance to see them since the water had been too rough for kayaking so I was very disappointed. After the captain’s safety speech and a few minutes of me having a pity party for myself, he announced that we would be allowed to stand on the open-air deck if we would like. I rocketed up out of my seat almost instantaneously and sped past the rows to the back of the boat to try and secure a spot on the railing where I could get some good shots of the cliffs. Dustin came with me and it ended up being the perfect spot! We were blocked by the wind and the spray from the boat by a wall to the upper deck, and we still had a front row view of the cliffs. God knew better than us where the best seat in the house was and worked it out so that we would get to enjoy the cruise from there!
The first site that we saw was the East Channel Grand Isle Lighthouse in the Munising Bay, which was built in 1868.
About 30 minutes into our cruise was when the cliffs began to appear.
They gradually got bigger and bigger and more and more beautiful. The highlights of what we saw were Miner’s Castle, Painted Coves, Caves of All Colors, Lover’s Leap, Rainbow Cave, Indian Head, Gull Rookery, Grand Portal, Battleship Rocks, Flower Vase, Indian Drum and Chapel Rock. We were even lucky enough to spot a bald eagle perched high in a pine tree, sunning itself above Battleship Rocks!
My mom and sister tend to get sea-sick so they took some Dramamine about an hour before we left. Before the boat left the docks, they warned everyone that there were 6-9 foot waves on the lake and offered to give a full refund to anyone who thought they might get sea-sick. My mom and sister contemplated it for a moment but then decided to stay aboard. My mom ended up joining Dustin and I at the back of the boat shortly after we left the dock. The captain told her this would be the best place to be if she was worried about getting sea sick since it was open air and the least bouncy part of the boat since this is where the stabilizers were located. Plus, she could keep a constant eye on the shoreline. She ended doing alright for the most part. However, my sister wasn’t so lucky. She came outside about 45 minutes later than my mom had and by time we had reached the midway point of the cruise, she wasn’t doing so hot! In fact, she ended up running to the back of the boat and puking over the back. We all felt really bad for her, especially since we still had an hour to get back to the dock! She wasn’t the only one though; there were several other people aboard who got sea sick as well. Once she puked, she felt a little better but unfortunately it ended up pretty much ruining the rest of the evening for her, and even into the next day. I joked with Dustin and told him good thing it wasn’t me who gets sea sick because he probably wouldn’t have married me. Because his favorite thing to do is go boating.
For the final day of our trip, we had planned to stop near Sleeping Bear Dunes in Honor, Michigan to go river tubing on the Platte River. Karly wasn’t feeling very well still the next day so her and Karl headed home instead of following my parents and I to go tubing. We finally got to the place where we go Dustin and I have gone tubing the past 5 years, Riverside Canoe Trips, around 2:45pm. We enjoyed a 2 1/2 hour float out to Lake Michigan and then got back on the road for another 3 hour drive back home.
Overall, the trip was fantastic! I really enjoyed spending time with my family. Time with them was exactly what I wanted for my birthday. They are the most important people in the world to me! Life gets so busy sometimes and we all have our own schedules and our time spent together always feels fleeting so it was so wonderful being able to have 4 whole days with them uninterrupted. It made me feel like a kid again when I got to spend time with my family everyday and I really, really loved it. I will cherish that weekend spent with them, adventuring through northern Michigan together.