Goin’ to the Chapel




I was 400 miles from my job at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore (PIRO), thinking I had another week of summertime freedom, when I got a phone call from my boss wondering if I could be at work the following morning. By 7 p.m., I had packed my car and was just getting on the road for the five hour drive to Munising. Arriving at midnight and believing I was at the recommended campsite, I set up my tent with icy fingers and crawled into my warm sleeping bag.

I woke up on the lawn of PIRO headquarters. Oops. Luckily I got out of there before anyone saw me. I drove up to the maintenance building and walked into my first day as a member of the backcountry trail crew for the National Park Service. A break table surrounded by crotchety men, whom I would grow to love, greeted my arrival with a tucking of shirts and straightening of hair. For the first time in years, there was a lady in the house.

Soon, the gender issue was relegated to awkwardness when I had to go to the bathroom out on the trails. Keeping up with the self-described workaholic of the maintenance division, I surprised and impressed many by doing a “man’s job.” We hiked upwards of 12 miles a day — with heavy packs and in any weather — working the trails and hauling wood. I escaped the testosterone overflow by staying out on the trails with groups of volunteers.

I hiked nearly every mile — usually more than once — in the 100-plus mile trail system but my favorite was Chapel Beach. Usually a 30-minute drive up H-58 from Munising, I rode the Rangers’ boat a number of times to deliver supplies to a volunteer group camping up on its sandy bluffs. After cruising by 265-foot sandstone cliffs, we would turn down Battleship Row (named so as the cliffs distinctly look like a series of docked ships) that frame Chapel Beach’s crystalline waters and anchor where all shades of blue meet white sands.

Hiking the Chapel-Mosquito loop to check on the backcountry campsites made for good days too. Here, in addition to seeing Chapel Beach and the mystic Chapel Rock, you can walk along the top of the most spectacular cliffs in the park. Tree species change with the mile markers and in late July, blueberries provide a tasty trail snack or topping for the morning’s oatmeal. This 10-miler is easily done in a day — just pack a lunch to have atop scenic Grand Portal or Indianhead — or camping is available at both Chapel Beach and Mosquito Beach trail junctions.

A goal of the trail crew was to clean every campfire ring in the park; we saved the Beaver Basin area for last. Pulling into the Little Beaver Lake drive-in campground (about a 45-minute drive from Munising) on a hot day, we launched our canoe and paddled through the narrow waterway connecting Little Beaver to Beaver Lake. Beaver Lake is surrounded by forests with steams replenishing its shallow waters as herons patrol its beaches.

The Beaver Basin area is a gorgeous place for day-hikes. A walk from the parking lot to secluded beaches is less than two miles as you wander through a self-guided nature walk under the pines. While this will soon be a federally-designated wilderness area (meaning without motorized or mechanical vehicles or equipment), there is a certain quiet and untouched quality to the woods, lakes and creeks already established. Backcountry campgrounds can be accessed by boat or by foot with views ranging from intimate lakes to beaver-dammed creeks to the great Lake Superior. Beaver Basin has it all.

With the wintertime months come snow and a different sort of recreating at PIRO. The trails are open for snowshoeing, the waterfalls are open for ice climbing, and the extensive ski trail systems are open for cross country skiing.

As the consummate PIRO advocate, I urge you to be respectful when you visit — I want to be able to show my kids its splendor as I know it. The comments of every first-time visitor I have encountered were along the lines of “I can’t believe something this beautiful is in Michigan,” and/or “I can’t believe more people don’t come here.” While I like its anonymity, it is definitely a place worth visiting during your time here at Northern and the Upper Peninsula. And if you see someone working on the trail, thank them.