Back in 1966 the spectacular, natural beauty of the region of the Upper Peninsula that hugs the southern Lake Superior shore between Munising and Grand Marais, Michigan was designated the first National Lakeshore in the United States.
Only four such areas in the country claim that designation, and two are in the Great Lakes State: Pictured Rocks and Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in the Lower Peninsula’s “Little Finger” area of The Mitten.
Munising, a city of about 2,300 hardy souls on the south shore of Lake Superior in the Upper Peninsula, is best known as the western gateway to Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. The Ojibwe called the area “Minnising,” the “place of the great island,” for what is now Grand Island National Recreation Area.
Grand Island, a half-mile off the U.P. shore in Munising Bay, was the summer camping grounds of the Ojibwe and the site of the area’s first white settlement, by fur traders, in 1840. The first mainland villages were settled at Munising and nearby Au Train in the 1850s.
When Munising did take off it became a bustling industrial center with an iron blast furnace, sawmills, docks and a tannery; in 1940 the population was about twice what it is today. The Munising Woodenware Company opened in 1911 and through the 1950s turned out kitchen products like decorated rolling pins and salad bowls.
Tourism is important to Munising’s economy year ’round, not only for Pictured Rocks and Grand Island but the many waterfalls in the area. Snowmobile trails and ice climbing are popular in the winter.
Pick up a free guide to waterfalls and other information at the chamber of commerce welcome center named for the late, local booster Dennis “Fuzzy” Boyak. The center is also a mini-gallery with the works of local artists for sale.
Use Touraide as a guide to places where we had positive, first-hand experiences. This is not a comprehensive inventory of all there is to see and do, but selective and subjective recommendations based on what we’ve actually done.
To read stories on many of those places click on the red highlights. Check back for updates as do more exploring and share more discoveries!
Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore is the main attraction for visitors to Munising, but multiple waterfalls and Grand Island Recreation Area are increasingly popular reasons folks head to this town on the Upper Peninsula’s Lake Superior shore. There’s a good selection of hotels and motels, both of the chain and good old-fashioned mom-and-pop variety, as well as cabins and cottages for rent.
The best known feature of the National Lakeshore is the 15 mile stretch of sandstone cliffs stained different colors by minerals and sculpted by the elements and time. But the park also has massive sand dunes, beaches, multiple waterfalls, streams and inland lakes, 100 miles of hiking trails, a lighthouse and rustic camping sites.
Enjoy Pictured Rocks your way, easy or extreme: Drive to scenic sites on short walks along accessible trails, or make it a wilderness backcountry hiking and camping experience.
There is no admission fee for the park; stop at the visitor center in Munising to get oriented and learn about guided hikes and interpretive programs.
You’re going to want to see the sights and dramatic landscape from the water, but unless you’re an experienced sea kayaker prepared for the challenges of navigating Lake Superior, board a Pictured Rocks Cruise boat for a narrated tour and sit back, relax, enjoy the ride and keep your camera dry. Contrast that leisurely outing with the Riptide Ride, and make time to see a few of the shipwrecks on a glass bottom boat tour. Kids especially welcome the thrills of these two excursions. We checked out the three options; click here for the story.
Dr. Beach, American’s beach expert, has ranked Sand Point Beach, east of Munising, one of the tops on the Great Lakes. Part of its appeal is that conditions allow the water to warm to a relatively inviting—okay, not bone-numbing—temperature for swimming in notoriously icy Lake Superior, where the water hovers around 46 to 48 degrees F.
Bonus: Sand Point is a spectacular spot for sunset-watching.
Until we made a day trip to Grand Island National Recreation Area I had no clue about its size or history. We hopped the passenger ferry (no cars allowed) for a five-minute ride to the island where we took the guided tour on a mini-bus; the adventurous go for the rugged hiking and primitive camping experience.
There’s more to Munising than the natural wonders. We spent some time visiting a handful of shops and spots downtown, including The Gift Station, a cool 1930s gas station where you can now fill up on souvenirs, Up North gifts and wearables.
Stop at the Garden Bay Winery tasting room to sample the fruit and grape wines “made with a lot of berries and a lot of love” in small batches on the Garden Peninsula, which juts into Lake Michigan 50 miles south of Munising.
Favorite wines include the Garden Riot blend of berries and the most popular, Northern Lights Out, a blackberry wine. “It has a higher alcohol content so that’s kind of fun,” says Gloria Anderson, who owns the winery with her husband John Lucas. Tastings are $5 for three samples, and you keep the glass.
I like the winery’s logo, created by the couple’s daughter Emily Lucas who has designed the label art for most of the wines. It’s an illustration of fruit in the shape of the Upper Peninsula. The tasting room also carries Emily’s art prints and a nice selection of gift items for sale including local thimbleberry jam.
Open Wings Pottery and Wings of Fancy is the studio and showplace for Thomas Baugnet’s functional and decorative pottery and fiber arts made by his wife Jill Z. Baugnet.The gallery also carries the work of other regional artists.
Every community should be as lucky as Munising to have a hangout like the Falling Rock Cafe & Bookstore. Check out the fresh roasted coffee, free WiFi, tasty menu, ice cream treat, new and used books, Munising Woodenware and live music.
We saw the line snaking out the door at the Navigator Restaurant across the road from Falling Rock and were told to plan on an early dinner if we wanted to avoid a wait at the popular, family-friendly spot. We arrived about 5 p.m. and just beat the crowd that quickly filled the nautical-themed dining room, but still had a long wait; this is not a fast food joint, at least not on Friday Fish Fry when each batch of the secret batter is made by the owner and the fishermen are delivering their catch straight from the dock.
The waitress explained, “We have haddock and perch and in the next 10 minutes we’ll have whitefish and trout.” Just after I ordered the trout I overheard the phone call announcing that the fish would be at the restaurant within minutes. It was delish, as was the half-pound burger and fries Paige devoured.
For a picnic we stopped by Muldoons Pasties for the meat-and-vegetable pie famous across the U.P. These rank high on the list of my Best Pasty Quest. For other tasty carry-out options head to Johnny Dogs for the gourmet hot dogs or sandwiches to-go.
We stayed at the Holiday Inn Express Lakeview, high on a bluff overlooking Munising Bay, two miles west of town. The decor of the three-story, 62-room property is “Up North” style, big on bears, moose and pine trees.
The rooms on the Lakeview side cost slightly more than those facing the road, but are worth it when you step outside onto your patio or balcony to enjoy the view.
The hotel has an indoor pool, sauna, hot tub, exercise room, business center, free WiFi and expanded continental breakfast.
While you’re in the area: It’s a bit of a drive out of town but Lakenenland, a “Junkyard Art” sculpture garden created by one man, Tom Lakenen, is worth the half-hour jaunt west of Munising on M-28.
TIP: Pack sturdy shoes and gear for all sorts of weather because it can change in a minute. While on the shipwreck boat tour the sun was shining on one side of the boat and it was foggy and gray on the other. Really.
Visitor Info Clicks:
Alger County Chamber of Commerce
127 E. Munising Ave., Munising, Michigan
Holiday Inn Express Lakeview
E8890 M-28 West, Munising, Michigan
All are located in Area E on the map
Please share your tips on great places to stay, eat, shop and play in the Munising area; I’d love to check them out!
All stories and photos copyright Kath Usitalo unless otherwise noted