Even native Michiganians invariably ask, “Where’s Grand Island?” At about 13,500 acres and with 35 miles of shoreline, it is nearly the size of Manhattan in New York, yet remains relatively unknown. Grand Island sits one-half mile north of Munising, above Michigan’s Upper Peninsula in Lake Superior—and somewhat in the shadow of its famous neighbor, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore.
The world famous, 40-mile stretch of sculpted sandstone cliffs to the east— with streaks of mineral stain and layers of ochre, tan, brown, white and green—was authorized as the country’s first national lakeshore in 1966. Countless visitors have cruised past Grand Island on boat tours to view the Pictured Rocks, and while its colored sandstone cliffs are just as gorgeous, only about 10,000 people each year set foot on Grand Island National Recreation Area to enjoy its 300-foot-high walls of painted rocks, sea caves, and great swimming, hiking, biking, fishing and scenic picnic spots.
ENJOYABLE FOR ALL AGES
Exploring the island is well-suited to a family adventure, whether you make it a day trip or an overnight outing. Getting there is part of the fun: seasonal access is easy via a 10-minute passenger ferry ride from Munising, or you can paddle or motor on a rented pontoon boat to the island. Cell phone signals vanish as quickly as the shoreline as you hike into the pines, birch and maple forest toward the inland Duck or Echo Lakes. Bring mountain bikes or rent them from the ferry company to spend the day on the 25 miles of gravel roads and dirt and sand trails, which provide access to historic sites, cliff tops and beaches.
A three-hour, narrated van tour offered in the summer and fall helps visitors learn more about the island’s history, Indian culture, natural beauty and wildlife. Black bear, white-tailed deer and sandhill cranes have been sighted. For the pure nature lover, Grand Island is a gem. You can walk barefoot on an isolated sandy beach and climb forested island trails high above Lake Superior’s crystal clear waters, and encounters with other visitors are few.
Campsites on the island are limited and can fill up a year in advance by those dedicated backpackers and campers who cherish the privacy and beauty of the Grand. Rustic campsites have pit toilets, require filtered drinking water from Lake Superior and locking food supplies into bear-proof metal boxes is a necessity. There are no stores or supplies on Grand Island, so you must pack all supplies in and carry everything out.
Fishing enthusiasts have many opportunities and a fishing license is required. Echo Lake typically yields bass, pike and pan fish and is known as the largest social lake in the U.S. Social lakes are made purely by animals—in this case, by beavers. Murray Bay is known for perch, pike, walleye and rock bass. Around the island and in Trout Bay, anglers catch lake trout and Coho salmon.
GRAND ISLAND HISTORY
Archaeological evidence shows that the Ojibwa hunted, fished, gathered plant foods, produced maple sugar, and made stone tools on the island, and that it has been inhabited for over 2,000 years. By the 1650s, French voyageurs arrived and the Great Lakes fur trade had begun. In 1840, Abraham Williams and his family were the first permanent white settlers on Grand Island. He established a trading post and cut wood for passing steam ships. The ferry to the island docks at Williams Landing.
The Grand Island National Recreation Area has been managed by the Hiawatha
National Forest since it purchased all but 40 acres of the island in 1989. Private landowners manage the rest, and they and U.S. Forest Service employees are the only ones allowed to have motorized vehicles on the island (in addition to the narrated van tour). The North Light and the East Channel Lighthouse are on private land and access is limited. Both are best seen and photographed from personal watercraft or boat tours.
VISIT SHIPWRECK SITES
What draws many people to Grand Island, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, and the Munising area is simply the majestic Lake Superior, the largest freshwater lake in the world. It’s responsible for the beaches, the cliffs, the caves, breathtaking scenery—and tragic losses.
Superior’s wind and waves have taken many vessels and lives over the centuries, from explorers and voyageurs in the 1600s and 1700s, to schooners and freighters transporting lumber, minerals and other goods to distant markets. The Big Lake’s moods can be unpredictable, which makes planning a boat trip tricky. Pontoon boats and kayaks are available for rental through Munising outfitters, but area visitors should respect and heed their route recommendations and warnings about the unpredictability and cold temperature of Lake Superior waters.
The maritime history of the area is quickly understood on a visit to Murray Bay on the Munising side of Grand Island, where the sunken schooner Bermuda is one of many shipwrecks protected in the Alger Underwater Preserve. The Bermuda left Marquette loaded with 488 tons of iron ore in October 1870 when she was overtaken by a gale near Grand Marais. The ship’s captain brought the ship into Munising Bay, but due to the pounding of waves, she started leaking and then sank, taking three crew members.
The wreck lies in 30 feet of water, and the top deck is only 12 feet below the water’s surface, so divers and snorkelers can get a good look at the schooner. Kids love the shipwreck-viewing tours on a glass bottomed boat that allow visitors to view wrecks, the rock cliffs and Grand Island’s East Channel Lighthouse. (The wilder Riptide Ride speeds through the bay and around Grand Island, delivering thrills with every 360-degree spin.)
Brave Superior’s chilly water to swim at Trout Bay beach, and wade or snorkel in Cobble Cove to view “cobble bowls” in the rocky bottom. The formations were made over time by small lake rocks being swirled around and around by waves and sand to form depressions. When the water level was low, Indians would use those bowls for cooking.
Native American culture, Great Lakes maritime history, scenic beauty and nature’s best adventures—Grand Island has it all.
This article originally appeared in the 2017 spring/summer issue of Experience Michigan magazine. The contents of this article were checked for accuracy when it was published; however, it’s possible some of the information has changed. We recommend you call first if you have specific questions for the destinations, attractions or restaurants mentioned in this article.
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