Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore stretches for fifteen miles along the Upper Peninsula’s Lake Superior shoreline. With naturally colorful cliffs that tower as high as 200 feet above the water, it’s a spectacular sight that’s a must-visit on any trip to the UP. While there are some scenic drive and hiking trails running through the park, the best way to really appreciate the cliffs is from a Pictured Rocks tour boat. A National Parks concessionaire called Pictured Rocks Cruises operates numerous sailings 7 days a week from mid-May to mid-October, and I absolutely loved our tour.
Why take a Pictured Rocks boat tour?
Very little of the National Lakeshore is accessible by car so most visitors prefer to spend their visit on a Pictured Rocks tour boat. Viewing the colorful cliffs from out on the water gives you a much better view than you would have from the land anyway. On a Pictured Rocks tour, the captain will also provide information as you go along so you can learn about the various rock formations and changes that have happened over the years as arches and parts of the cliffs have collapsed due to continuing erosion in the area.
What’s a Pictured Rocks boat tour like?
Pictured Rocks boat tours depart from mid-May to mid-October from docks in Munising. You can choose between the slower-paced Classic Cruise and the Spray Falls Cruise that travels a little faster to take you further down the lakeshore to Spray Falls, one of the park’s waterfalls that drops straight into the lake. Purchasing tickets in advance is highly recommended, especially on weekends and holidays in the summer.
Note: Plan to arrive at the docks almost an hour early to line up for boarding if you want to get one of the seats along the side of the boat (which you do). We got in line 45 minutes before departure and got perfect seats along the edge of the top deck, but people who arrived just a few minutes after us had to settle for lower decks or seats in the middle.
The boarding process was easy, but a little chaotic. A staff member began making her way through the queue to scan tickets approximately 25 minutes before departure, which helped speed things up when we were allowed on board. You enter on the bottom of three decks, and everyone made a beeline for the uncovered top deck to secure a side seat – the equivalent of a window seat. Note that there were accommodations made for a woman walking with a cane, and she and her group were allowed to board first so they could make it into the lower deck cabin without fighting the masses.
Passengers were drawn to the seats on the right side – aka starboard or the passenger side of a car – but we ended up on the left side because the seats on the right were already full. Either side is perfectly fine though because the boat heads east along the shore and then turns around to repeat the same trip back. The passengers on the right got the better views for the first half, but we had the prime viewing on the way back, which worked out well for our particular cruise because the lighting was better then. I paid close attention to the captain’s narration on the way out because I wasn’t expecting him to redo it as we headed back, but that turned out to be unnecessary because he repeated almost all the information.
Your Pictured Rocks boat tour begins with a quick trip through the harbor out toward the national lakeshore. There isn’t a ton to see for the first few minutes, and the boat traveled at a pretty decent clip here. Because we were on the outside deck, it got pretty windy and I was a little chilly. I was glad I had heeded the operators’ advice and brought a sweatshirt even though temps were in the upper 70s that day. The rest of the tour was at a much slower pace and I was quite comfy without the hoodie.
Eventually, you’ll arrive at the first of the towering cliffs. Being up on the boat, it’s hard to get a good perspective on the size of them. Luckily, on the day we visited, there were groups of kayakers near several of the scenic areas, and their presence helped to give the cliffs a sense of scale. The Pictured Rocks get their name from the visible striping in the rock layers and mineral deposits left on the surface from spring water that leaks out forming colorful streaks.
One of the first landmarks you’ll encounter is the rock formation known as Miners Castle. It’s one of the few spots in the park you can drive to, but views from the water are still the best. It’s named due to the rock “turrets” that make it look castle-like, and even though one of them collapsed in 2006, you can still see where it gets its name from.
Just past Miners Castle, you’ll see Bridalveil Falls. This thin cascade runs down the sloping edge of the cliff into the lake. It’s most active during the spring, and by the time we visited in mid-July, it was completely dry.
My fiance has a great love for trees that are surviving in completely unreasonable conditions, so his favorite rock formation was an easy call. Chapel Rock was once connected to the cliff by a natural stone archway, and the roots from the tree pictured here grew on top of it. When the arch collapsed leaving Chapel Rock freestanding, the roots remained and the tree has continued to survive with its lifeline to the mainland.
Along the way, you’ll pass a couple more notable arches gracefully arcing out into the water. Lovers Leap and Grand Portal are two of the most scenic spots along the cliffs, making for gorgeous photos as they curve into Lake Superior’s turquoise blue waters. The smaller archway, Lovers Leap, is named after a Native American legend that had young lovers jumping off the cliff here together. Trying this yourself is absolutely not recommended as the water is very shallow at the base. If you want a closer look, kayaks can paddle through.
Grand Portal is the tallest portion of the cliffs here, and the archway was once large enough that decent sized boats could sail through it. Multiple rockfalls eventually blocked the way, unfortunately.
Chapel Cove is a small inlet surrounded by cliffs on three sides. The water was incredibly calm that day, so the captain said he was going to take us up close to see it. I wasn’t expecting him to pull us all the way inside the cove though. The rock walls felt so close that I could almost reach out and touch them. It was pretty incredible, because our triple decker tour boat was not small.
If you opt for the Spray Falls tour like we did, the final major landmark you’ll see is the namesake waterfall itself. Unlike Bridalveil Falls, this one runs constantly. It drops 65 feet straight off the cliff into Lake Superior and makes for a spectacular sight. The area at the base of the falls was also the location of a major shipwreck, where a boat named the Superior sank in a storm in the 1850s.
At the falls, the boat makes a U-turn and heads back to Munising. People on the left side will get to enjoy the better views for the return trip, which is great. As you approach the harbor, the boat makes a brief detour to see a small historic lighthouse on Grand Island. It’s no longer operational, but its muted wooden siding gives it a unique look. We were also treated to the sight of a bald eagle high in a tree above it which was exciting.
Once we docked, the disembarking process went quickly. Even though we were on the top deck, furthest from the stairs, we made it off pretty quickly.
What to bring for a Pictured Rocks boat tour
- Layers – I was very glad to have a hoodie with me that I could pop on when the wind made things chilly.
- Sunscreen – If you’re gunning for a seat on the top deck, you’ll be straight in the sun the whole time.
- Water – I did not bring my water bottle and I regretted it.
- Pre-printed or digital tickets if you’ve purchased them ahead of time. This allows you to skip the line inside the gift shop.
Amenities on board the Pictured Rocks Cruises boats
Our boat had bathrooms available on the lowest deck. There was also a small cash-only snack bar where you could get cans of pop, bottles of water, and light snacks. Drinks were only $1 each, which I didn’t think was bad at all. Other than that, it was pretty basic. Note that you are allowed to bring your own snacks and drinks on board (no alcohol) so you can pack your favorites with you.
Arrival and logistics
Munising is a pretty small town, so finding the docks is easy. There is plenty of free parking available in a dirt lot near the ticket office, so I wouldn’t anticipate having trouble parking your car. As noted before, it’s recommended to arrive at least 45 minutes before your scheduled departure if you want to snag one of the good seats.
If you’ve ordered your tickets ahead of time – and you really should – you can print them at home or show them on your phone. I had great cell service in town, so I had no issues opening the .pdf, but if you’re not confident in your network it’s worth downloading them ahead of time. Tickets can be printed inside the ticket office/gift shop as well.
Speaking of the gift shop – we actually loved it. Whoever was picking the designs for the shirts completely shared my taste and I would’ve happily bought at least 80% of the store. My fiance and I each had a terrible time choosing just one shirt each. Usually I’ll hunt around and maybe find a design or two that I really like, but there were great ones everywhere here, and they really weren’t expensive for a gift shop.