We did a ten mile loop dayhike on the North Country Trial through the most scenic section of Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, from Chapel Creek to the Mosquito River, visiting Chapel Rock, the Grand Portal, and Lovers Leap, as the trail stayed along the edge of the sandstone cliffs, providing stunning views of Lake Superior.
We knew that it was going to be a long day, so we left our friend’s house before dawn and drove to the trailhead. We were happy that this was a loop hike, so we didn’t need to ask for a ride, for once.
We decided to hike down to the shore on the Chapel Beach Trail, since we’d already hiked up the trail to Chapel Falls. The two trails differed mainly by which side of Chapel Lake they were on, as both arrived on the beach in almost the same spot. We liked the idea of seeing more of this lovely park by taking a different path. This time, the views of Chapel Lake and Little Chapel Lake were much better than on the falls trail, so we were happy.
It was still early morning when we arrived at Chapel Beach. Vicki immediately took off her shoes and waded across Chapel Creek, trying to get closer to Chapel Rock for a better picture and/or novel perspective. Or maybe she simply wanted to freeze her feet! She got her photo, and that’s what matters most. She also took advantage of an opportunity to walk barefoot along a sandy beach.
We eventually climbed up the sand ladder at the west end of the beach, and Vicki had to don her shoes once more. She didn’t regret a thing. Walking on the beach with your bare toes is almost always enjoyable.
After the beach, the North Country Trail climbed upward until it was running along the tops of the sandstone cliffs, many of which were severely undercut by wave erosion. This is what we were waiting for! Stunning views and small-but-measurable danger!
The first stop was along the “Hidden Cove” that the big catamaran tour boat had pulled into on our first day here. We wandered all around it, trying to get the best photo, even if it meant holding on to scrawny tree trunks while leaning out over the water with my GoPro. If I had fallen in, I likely would have died of hypothermia while trying to swim around the cove to the beach. But I didn’t. I’d hate to be one of those statistics you always read about. I came to my senses afterward and vowed to take fewer risks in the future.
After that, it was time to hike along what the tour boat guide called “Battleship Row,” a set of shallow coves and points that tended northwest from the beach. The points gave us many opportunities to take photos of the nearby cliffs, and also zoomed-in shots of Chapel Rock and Spray Falls (off in the distant east). It should be noted that most of the “points” that stuck out into the lake had been undercut by the incessant wave action on Lake Superior. It should also be noted that you couldn’t tell that they were undercut when you were standing up on top of them! Yes, we were living the Spicy Life, and we didn’t even know it.
Our next stop was Grand Portal Point, a large natural bridge, or arch, that jutted out into the lake. It was worthy of many photographs, and we didn’t hesitate to stop and take them as we hiked along on the trail. This was surely one of the most picturesque sections of the park that we had seen thus far. We were having a great time!
The Grand Portal was at roughly the halfway point of our day’s hike, so we stopped up on top to take a major rest break. Naturally, it was impossible to see the Grand Portal from up there, but we knew it was down below us. The likelihood of a major collapse seemed quite low, so we didn’t really mind hanging out up there.
We continued on around the corner to the west, following the cliffs on the NCT. This was a great trail. It didn’t mess around. It mainly stayed safely back from the edge and but there were enough side-paths to the clifftops that it let you enjoy selected viewpoints with only mild danger. It was also fun to listen to the waves as they thunked and galunked far below, the sounds resonating in overhanging hollows underneath the cliffs. We also found yet another great spot to take a long break, and so we took one. Why not? It was beautiful up there.
We saw our first tour boat not long afterward. Conditions were peaceful on the lake once again. We waved at the people on board, but only some of them noticed us up here. They were all too busy looking at the cliffs, not the tiny ants perched on top. We also got limited cell reception as we rounded the corner, and we sent a few photos off to friends and family. That’s what cell phones are good for, mainly: Communicating how jealous they should be of us while they were stuck at work.
There was plenty of clifftop hiking in our future, but I can’t show photos of all of it. You’d get bored. But the next big feature of the park was coming up: Lover’s Leap. And I will be happy to share photos of that fantastic arch. Unlike the Grand Portal, this natural bridge had no obvious debris beneath it, just clear blue lake water. I’m hoping that it was given this interesting name strictly for romantic reasons, and that lovers really hadn’t jumped off the top of it. I checked with the park, and the official name of this feature is “Petit Portal,” so it sounds like somebody got romantic. I’m thinking that it might have been the boat tour operators, or maybe the commercial kayak guides. The NCT went right by, and there was a side trail out over the top of the arch. We went out there, and of course it was useless, as you couldn’t see a thing from up above. And leaping would have been utterly unromantic. But we still got good views from the cliffs on either side.
It was only another mile or so until we reached the Mosquito River. That was where we had to leave the North Country Trail and head back toward our car. So we decided to take one last break on some low cliffs to the east of the river. There were great views west from there, and the weather was fine.
Vicki hates mosquitos with a passion, and she didn’t like the name of the river at all. But this late in a very dry season, there were no bug issues whatsoever. This made her feel much happier. It was almost enough to offset the fact that the Mosquito Beach Trail climbed uphill to reach the trailhead parking lot.
We made it to the car after a ten and a half mile hike, and Vicki’s sore foot wasn’t exactly happy. Vicki was happy, but not the foot. It had been a truly wonderful hike, on what could arguably be called the prettiest part of the entire park. It had also been a magical experience in many ways. Such extraordinary cliffs and forests, plus the massive lake, all worked together to cast a spell of wonder and delight.
After that, it was time to rest Vicki’s foot while I drove back to our friend’s house. There was now only one long section of the NCT in the park that was left undone. It was almost fifteen miles long. I could do it in either one or two days, but either way, Vicki decided that she was done hiking for a while. Fifteen miles it would be, then. Unless I couldn’t handle it. But I’d find that out soon enough.
For a topographic map of the hike see my CalTopo Page
For LOTS more photos of the trek see my Flickr Page