Gitche Gumee Gambol: Backpacking in Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Michigan

Sierra Club Outings Trip # 14105A, Backpack


  • Enjoy a five-day backpack in beautiful Pictured Rocks
  • Savor fine backcountry cooking and good company
  • Capture camera-worthy views of multicolored cliffs and brilliant fall colors


  • Private shuttle from Munising to the trailhead
  • Highly rated meals
  • Permits, fees, topos and more 


DatesSep 1–5, 2014
Difficulty2 (out of 5)
StaffTerry DeFraties

Trip Overview

The Trip

“By the shores of Gitche Gumee,

Westward by the shining Big-Sea-Water,

Came unto the rocky headlands,

To the Pictured Rocks of sandstone...”

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow borrowed the Ojibwa name for the largest freshwater lake in the world when he placed his poem, “The Song of Hiawatha,” on the shores of Lake Superior. It is a storied lake with an impressive shoreline, perhaps none more exciting to hikers than the 42 miles of the North Country Scenic Trail included in Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore.

Pictured Rocks stretches along the Michigan coast, from Grand Marais to Munising, and features spectacular scenery, including 15 miles of multicolored sandstone cliffs rising 200 feet above Lake Superior. The splash of color is caused by minerals: red and orange from copper, green and blue from iron, white from lime, and black from manganese. Waves, wind, rain, and ice have eroded these cliffs into arches, columns, promontories, and thunder caves.

This is the nation’s first designated national lakeshore, identified in 1966 to protect the inspiring cliffs, miles of pristine beaches, waterfalls and Grand Sable Banks, which extend for five miles rising 300-feet above the lake. We’ll also hike through the 12,000-acre Beaver Basin, one of the nation’s newest wilderness areas.

Gitche Gumee Gambol is a five-day backpack during early September when fall colors are just beginning to peek out. This could be a perfect time for you to discover Pictured Rocks and enjoy a hiking vacation “…by the shining Big-Sea-Water.”


A typical day begins with breakfast and strong coffee (and other drinks) at 8 a.m. On the trail an hour or so later, we’ll spend the morning hiking, enjoying the scenery, and exploring the sights, including a lighthouse and shipwrecks still visible on the beach. A tasty lunch in a scenic spot preceeds a few hours of afternoon hiking before arriving at one of four reserved, backcountry campsites. There will be plenty of time to relax in camp before dinner and to watch sunsets from beaches that are near every campsite. As the stars come out, we’ll light a campfire if conditions allow, and enjoy hot drinks and good conversation before climbing into cozy tents to fall asleep.

Pre-trip: On Sunday, August 31st, the day before the trip begins, an optional cruise is offered on Lake Superior to view Pictured Rocks from the water.

Day 1: The trip starts Monday, September 1, in Munising, Michigan, where we leave our vehicles and board a private shuttle for a one-hour drive to the trailhead near Grand Marais. Today’s hike is about five miles and skirts Grand Sable Banks and Dunes. Lunch will be at the Log Slide, the site of a long-gone wooden chute that occasionally caught fire from the friction of logs sliding down the dunes to ships waiting in the lake. Au Sable Lighthouse, built in 1874, may be open to hikers a short distance from camp.

Day 2: The day starts with one of several shipwrecks near Au Sable Point and it ends at isolated Sevenmile Creek in the Beaver Basin Wilderness. Much of the 7.3-mile hike will be on the edge of Twelvemile Beach that connects Grand Sable Banks with rocky cliffs further west. Once we walk through two car-accessible campgrounds, we’ll be in the most remote and rarely visited section of the park.

Day 3: Today’s 8.8-mile hike skirts Trappers and Beaver lakes, home to eagles, loons, and other denizens of the North Woods. Just before our campground, we will begin to experience the colorful cliffs that give Pictured Rocks its name.

Day 4: After viewing Spray Falls that pours over a 70-foot cliff into Lake Superior, we’ll stop frequently for outstanding views of Pictured Rocks on our 7.3-mile hike, including 200-foot Grand Portal Point. Other than a short time on picturesque Chapel Beach, the path follows the edge of high cliffs on our way to Mosquito River.

Day 5: Our final hike will take us 9.1 miles over cliffs, beaches, and bogs. We will visit one of the icons of the park, Miners Castle, which lost one of two huge sandstone turrets when it crashed into the lake in 2006. After lunch at Miners Castle, we’ll head into the woods for the final miles to Munising and our cars, where we will arrive by mid-afternoon.



Getting There

Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore is on the south shore of Lake Superior between Munising and Grand Marais, Michigan. Sawyer International Airport is 50 miles away near Marquette, Michigan. Participants will receive a roster to encourage ride-sharing. The trip begins at 9 a.m. on Monday, September 1, in Munising, at a place to be determined. Cars will be parked next to park headquarters at Sand Point, where we will board a shuttle for the ride to the trailhead.

Accommodations and Food

Our group has four backcountry group campsites reserved along the trail. The campsites are undeveloped. All water must be boiled for cooking or filtered for drinking. We bring the filters. All meals, from lunch on day one to lunch on day five, are included. Plan to work together to make camp, and prepare and clean up meals. The trip leaders really enjoy cooking and eating, so participants can count on interesting, varied, and nutritious meals. There will be plenty of food. If desired, participants can bring along additional between-meal snacks. We will try to accommodate vegetarian and medical dietary restrictions. Those with challenging restrictions may be asked to bring or prepare some of their own food to supplement the group food. Please contact the trip leader if you require accommodation.

Trip Difficulty

This trip is rated 2, formerly Light/Moderate. The pace, 38 miles in five days, is relaxed with little elevation gain. We will travel from five to nine miles each day with 30-40 pound packs, so this is a hiking vacation for experienced backpackers in good physical condition. If you have cardiac problems, asthma, or diabetes, or carry an epi pin, please let the trip leaders know. If you have any medical or other condition or device that could conceivably cause any problem or might need accommodation on this outing, please also let them know. 

Rescue and advanced medical care will usually be at least several hours away due to the remoteness of the area.

Equipment and Clothing

The Sierra Club provides food, cooking gear, water filters, and more. The leader will provide a list of required and suggested gear well in advance of the outing, including a large backpack to carry 8-10 pounds of group food and kitchen equipment; tent; sleeping pad; sleeping bag; sturdy, broken-in, waterproof hiking boots; rain suit; and layers of clothing to keep warm.

The weather at Pictured Rocks in early September should be ideal -- warm days mostly, and perhaps cooler nights. During our time in the woods in 2013, high temperatures were in the 50s and 60s, with overnight lows in the 30s and 40s.



A band of Chippewa, the Ojibwa, made their home in Pictured Rocks long before French Jesuits paddled to the area. The Native Americans left behind art, culture, and stories that we’ll discuss in one of our evening slide shows.

Pictured Rocks is one of 40 national parks participating in the Climate Friendly Parks Program of the National Park Service. Among other accomplishments, Pictured Rocks has installed a photovoltaic power system at Au Sable Lighthouse and photovoltaic powered water pumps in all car campgrounds, and they run diesel equipment on a 20 percent biodiesel blend. We’ll discuss what we have accomplished to reduce greenhouse gas emissions personally, and what we can do.

Pictured Rocks is not immune to environmental pressures faced by other parks. Invasive, non-native plant, and animal species are considered major threats, including sea lamprey and zebra mussel in Lake Superior. The gypsy moth has defoliated as many as 12 million acres of eastern hardwoods in one year and is being monitored in Pictured Rocks with traps and pheromone baits. Moths have been trapped in Pictured Rocks since 1990, but not yet in great numbers. Aggressive measures continue to be taken for invasive plants, notably spotted knapweed and purple loosestrife.

Leave No Trace principles will guide our stay in Pictured Rocks. For more information, visit

In 2014 America celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act. The Sierra Club, various other organizations with a wilderness focus, and the four federal wilderness management agencies are vigorously planning this celebration. The goal of the effort is to assure that a broader public knows about the concept and benefits of wilderness. Sierra Club Outings is a vital part of the celebrations for wilderness.
While the Act was far in the future when our outings program started, we were already promoting the principle behind it: to forever set aside from human developments certain special places, by civic agreement. This is the basic principle on which the Sierra Club was founded. The wilderness anniversary gives us an opportunity to highlight our organization’s leading role—in publicizing this principle, in passing the 1964 Act, and in achieving more designated wilderness since then.
Sierra Club National Outings is an equal-opportunity provider and will operate under a permit from Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore.



Terry DeFraties leads local outings for the Thomas Hart Benton Group (Kansas City) of the Sierra Club Missouri Chapter and lives in the Kansas City area. He owns a small construction company and backpacks, canoes, kayaks and caves whenever he can. He has participated in, organized and led wilderness trips for over thirty years. With Sierra Club national outings, he has led or assisted on service, backpack, kayak and canoe trips. He is a certified Wilderness First Responder.

Assistant Leader:

Ken Green is a relative new comer to assisting/leading trips for the Sierra Club. He and his wife have been members for several years and have participated in many national and local outings. After deciding that fitness had to be a priority in life, he has become an avid backpacker and cyclist. He has done several long section hikes on the AT and has completed four century rides (100 miles) just this summer (2013). He and his wife decided that leading/assisting on trips would allow them the opportunity to share all the things they find fascinating in the great outdoors and also to allow them to continue to learn from other enthusiasts from all over.

Assistant Leader:

Robin Green is new to leadership with the Sierra Club but has been an avid hiker with the Sierra Club for over a decade. She has hiked or paddled various part of the U.S. -- from the High Sierras to the Adirondacks -- with Sierra Club groups and has started her journey toward leadership with backpack trips and service trips. She is a firm believer in the Sierra Club's "Explore, Enjoy and Protect the Planet" motto and looks forward to being part of the team that brings the participants out into the natural world and shares her enthusiasm with all others.

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