Travel

America's Most Surreal Lakefront Is an Ancient Psychedelic Playground

Hidden among the deep forests and wild shores of Lake Superior, you'll uncover one of the most scenic areas in the States.

Posnov/Moment/Getty Images
Posnov/Moment/Getty Images
Posnov/Moment/Getty Images

Michigan is the undisputed king of jaw-dropping lakeshore drives, with almost 3,200 miles of waterfront covering three Great Lakes, endless adorable towns, and enough lighthouses to fill a whole damn library full of coffee-table books about lighthouses. 

But even by Michigan standards, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore is astounding. Located deep in the reclusive Upper Peninsula, right by the small town of Munising, it’s the crown jewel of Michigan’s scenic waterfronts. The deep-blue waves of inland sea Lake Superior form the base of miles and miles of jagged, multicolored limestone cliffs. They rise from the choppy waters like a panoramic wall-one that looks like it was attacked by a gigantic toddler with a paintbrush.

Here are the coolest things to see at Pictured Rocks, and how to best experience this isolated, unforgettable stretch of land-from the car, the kayak, and the trails.

Esther Tuttle/Unsplash
Esther Tuttle/Unsplash
Esther Tuttle/Unsplash

Getting to Pictured Rocks Lakeshore

Journeying to this rugged stretch of wilderness is an adventure unto itself. For a proper Upper Peninsula road trip, start with a visit to the impossibly quaint Mackinac Island before journeying over a harrowing five-mile suspension bridge, stocking up on Lehto’s Pasties, and cruising along this hidden coast. Lighthouses, shipwrecks, waterfalls, and friendly small towns like Grand Marais await: we’ve got you covered with a full itinerary.

Regardless of your starting point, you’re in for a breathtaking first reveal when you finally emerge from the dense, emerald treelines of Hiawatha National Forest and arrive at your destination. Cell service and GPS can be spotty in these parts, so plan ahead or pick up an official park map at the visitor’s center in Munising.

Posnov/Moment/Getty
Posnov/Moment/Getty
Posnov/Moment/Getty

The colorful cliffs of Pictured Rocks

You can get a panoramic glimpse of the rocks from the roadway, rising out of Lake Superior’s South Bay. The most lively section spans about 15 miles, just northeast of Munising. At their most stark, they’re streaked with kaleidoscopic mineral stains that look like a cross between candle wax and chalk. 

Rodrigo Avanse/Shutterstock
Rodrigo Avanse/Shutterstock
Rodrigo Avanse/Shutterstock

Miner’s Castle

As if a whole shoreline full of trippy painted cliff faces wasn’t enough, Pictured Rocks is also home to wild rock formations and natural arches that extend from the cliff walls into the icy waters. The most famous of these geographical oddities is Miner’s Castle, a natural formation that looks like an ancient, abandoned fort and is accessible by car. 

PHOTO COURTESY PURE MICHIGAN
PHOTO COURTESY PURE MICHIGAN
PHOTO COURTESY PURE MICHIGAN

Thousands of acres of hiking trails, 11,000 lakes, some of the best Arab-American food in the states, the Northern Lights… honestly Michigan may just have it all – which is why the Great Lake State should be a top contender for your 2021 travel plans. Whether you’re into breweries, beaches, or scuba diving through a shipwreck, you’ll find it waiting for you between the state’s two peninsulas, so get planning.

Ali Majdfar/Moment/Getty Images
Ali Majdfar/Moment/Getty Images
Ali Majdfar/Moment/Getty Images

Chapel Rock

Perhaps the dreamiest rock formation is Chapel Rock. A moderate hike through the woods leads to a tall rock spire rising from the water. This tower is capped with a 250-year-old white pine tree, whose roots wrap down the rock and stretch across the gap to the mainland, like some sort of ancient suspension bridge, in order to plug into the dirt for nutrients. It’s gobsmacking to see it from the forest-and even more ethereal when gazing up from the pristine beach below. 

genesisgraphics/ E+/Getty
genesisgraphics/ E+/Getty
genesisgraphics/ E+/Getty

A kayaker’s playground

There’s no better way to get up close and personal with the rocks than via kayak or canoe. Traverse the waves on a guided tour and paddle through arches while gazing upon this weird natural wonder. The closer you get, the more the colors pop. If you’re hesitant about dipping half your body into one of the coldest freshwater lakes in the world, you can always book a boat cruise.

John McCormick/Shutterstock
John McCormick/Shutterstock
John McCormick/Shutterstock

Paddle through sea caves

While you’re paddling through the waters of Lake Superior, you’ll start to notice caves carved into the surface of the rocks. From the massive Rainbow Cave to endless tiny alcoves painted with slants of sunlight, each nook and cranny of the rocks is worth exploring. And if you’re particularly adventurous, in the winter they turn downright ethereal when they ice over.

Kenneth Keifer/Shutterstock
Kenneth Keifer/Shutterstock
Kenneth Keifer/Shutterstock

The Grand Sable Banks

As you explore the roads and trails along Pictured Rocks, you’ll discover a rich array of waterfront landscapes, including a dense white-birch forest and, further west, the sandy dunes of the Grand Sable Banks. Basically, every bend reveals something new and unexpected. For those who don’t mind a little stress on the calves, the soft sands of Grand Sable Dunes are steep enough to keep the “crowds” at bay.

Paul Bryan/Shutterstock
Paul Bryan/Shutterstock
Paul Bryan/Shutterstock

Some of the best beaches in the Upper Peninsula

The Upper Peninsula’s pretty isolated: 3% of the state’s population lives in the area, which constitutes 40% of Michigan’s landmass. So when people refer to any of the many, many beaches along this stretch of Superior as “popular” or “crowded,” take it with a grain of salt. 

Miners Beach is basically the gateway to the colorful parts of the rocks: Here you’ll observe natural arches and big waves without much physical exertion. Sand Point offers up some killer sunsets on soft shores along crystal (and cold!) waters. The easiest bet is Twelvemile Beach, which offers day-use areas and camping (whenever that’s allowed again).

Thanasis/Moment/Getty
Thanasis/Moment/Getty
Thanasis/Moment/Getty

Historic lighthouses

If you’re looking for a lighthouse, you’ll find it at Au Sable Point. The beach here includes a campground and debris from various shipwrecks, which may or may not make you skeptical about the actual effectiveness of lighthouses. And just a hair north of Munising, the East Channel Light on Grand Island was constructed entirely of wood in 1868. It sits on private property on the expansive island across from the Pictured Rocks, so you’ll have to cruise by on a boat tour or kayak.

Photo ©Tan Yilmaz/Moment/Getty Images
Photo ©Tan Yilmaz/Moment/Getty Images
Photo ©Tan Yilmaz/Moment/Getty Images

Waterfalls on waterfalls on waterfalls

The Upper Peninsula has more waterfalls than pasty shops, thanks to the extreme amount of snow melt that this perpetually frozen region endures. The Pictured Rocks area is home to some of its most breathtaking. Spray Falls drops 70 feet into the waters of Lake Superior, the ripples partially obscuring an old shipwreck underneath. Sable Falls is best viewed from an easily-accessible platform underneath, while Mosquito Falls offers up a short-and-wide plunge where you might spot a beaver.

If any of that sounds like too much work, Munising Falls is located in the small town that kicks off this whole epic lakeshore and can be viewed from a paved path. And hey, you can-and should-grab a pasty from Muldoon’s while you’re there.

Posnov/Moment Open
Posnov/Moment Open
Posnov/Moment Open

Come in the winter for dramatic frozen waves

Summer is the best time to visit Pictured Rocks, but summer’s kind of an abstract in the UP: a short window of euphoric weather and slightly-less-cold water that is often obscured by clouds of flesh-chomping black flies. So don’t fret if you miss that warm-weather window. 

In autumn, the rocks somehow manage to become more colorful, with leaf-peeping that makes New England seem downright monochromatic. In spring, the snow melt results in cascades of water charting new paths for the various falls. And in winter-by far the most dominant season here-massive icicles form on the cliffs like building-size stalactites, while the waves below freeze into what resembles ice volcanoes. Ice climbing is a thing, and you can book a guide to help you do it here or here.Sign up here for our daily Thrillist email, get Next Flight Out for more travel coverage, and subscribe here for our YouTube channel to get your fix of the best in food/drink/fun.

Andy Kryza is a former senior editor at Thrillist who could really, really use a pasty right now. Follow him to Da U.P. @apkryza

Travel

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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