Location: Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore
Length: 10.6 miles
More info: https://www.nps.gov/piro
In the heart of Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore lies what I would consider the best day hike in the entire state: the Chapel Loop. The 10.6 mile loop takes you past a couple awesome waterfalls, on top of 200 foot tall cliffs, through open forests, and to a gorgeous remote beach on the shores of Lake Superior.
I recommend doing the loop clockwise, heading towards Mosquito Falls and Beach then hiking on top of the cliffs all the way to Chapel Beach. The parking lot at the trailhead is small so the earlier in the day the better. There’s also no potable water available along the trail so bring enough to get you through the day.
Warming up with Waterfalls: Trailhead to Mosquito Beach
From the trailhead, head to the left and follow the Mosquito Falls trail. The first mile is pretty flat and almost out of nowhere the trail comes to the top of Mosquito Falls. When I did this hike in late August 2019 the bugs weren’t too bad, but I’ve been told earlier in the summer this area is aptly named, so make sure you have bug spray! The falls run through a little ravine and if you want to view them from below, you’ll have to find a spot to climb down about 6 feet. There’s a little trail that runs along the side of the river and a stack of rocks next to the ledge to help aid getting in and out. The trail looked like it paralleled the river and probably comes back up and out in an easier spot, but I can’t confirm if it does or not.
The trail continues along the river and a little further up you come across Upper Mosquito Falls, my personal favorite of the two. This waterfall is much easier to access and, I think, presents itself nicer than Mosquito Falls.
Leaving Upper Mosquito Falls it’s a really pleasant hike almost completely downhill to Mosquito Beach. This is a great spot to take a break. You can only see a couple in the photo, but tons of rock cairns have been set up on Mosquito Beach. Please, please, please don’t add to them. Cairns take away from the natural beauty of an area and, especially on a beach, speed up erosion. Leave no trace and keep the place natural for the next person.
The Heart of Pictured Rocks: The Cliffs to Chapel Beach
This is the epitome of Pictured Rocks right here. After crossing the Mosquito River you quickly ascend to the top of the cliffs that give Pictured Rocks their name. This is where the fun begins.
The trail generally stays in the woods, about 50 feet from the edge, so there aren’t a ton of views starting off. There are plenty of spur trails to take if you want to get a little closer and look out over Lake Superior.
The first notable sight you come across is Lovers Leap, a large arch that forms directly over Lake Superior. The first views you get of the arch are fairly close, but mostly blocked by trees and bushes. Continue on a little further to get the best view, looking back at one of the most iconic formations at Pictured Rocks.
The trail stays fairly flat, weaving to and from the edge of the cliffs until another iconic Pictured Rocks formation comes into view: Indian Head Rock. The formation gets its name from its resemblance of a human face. The overhang is the nose, cracks beneath serve as the mouth, and the rock face sloping away has contours that create the jawline and ear.
Getting closer to Indian Head, a spur trail to your left goes down a couple feet and actually lets you walk out on top of the rock, providing some awesome views of the clear turquoise water beneath. This is and our next stop, Grand Portal Point, are both great places to stop for a break.
Only ¼ mile away from Indian Head, Grand Portal Point is one of the most interesting places I’ve ever been. I wish I took more pictures there! It’s a quick, mostly downhill walk from Indian Head, until the trail quickly comes out onto a really nice beach. . . 150 feet above the lake. If you’re brave enough there’s a little ledge you can walk out onto that makes for a great spot to get a shot of yourself. If you’re not one to hike with a tripod, there’s usually other hikers up there also taking a break who would be glad to take your photo.
Grand Portal Point is pretty neat on its own, but from above it’s hard to get a good view. Keep hiking on for another half mile. The trail turns towards the right around a bend and there’s a pretty obvious spur trail on the left that leads out to another point. From here you get an excellent view of Grand Portal to the left and Chapel Beach and Spray Falls in the distance to the right.
It’s all downhill from here until Chapel Beach, passing around the top of a few neat coves before descending to the beach.
Chapel Beach gets crowded pretty quickly during the summer so expect to see a fair number of people here. This is a perfect place to stop and take a break, have lunch, and if you’re bold enough, go for a swim in Lake Superior. Aside from the beach and the lake, the two other things that make Chapel Beach one of the best gems at Pictured Rocks are Chapel Rock and Chapel Beach Falls. Chapel Rock is yet another iconic landmark at Pictured Rocks and was featured on the 2018 Michigan quarter.
A hundred feet away from the rock, Chapel Beach Falls is one of the few waterfalls in Michigan that actually drains directly into Lake Superior. Be careful if you decide to walk up and on top of the falls; the algae is very slippery.
Close it out: Chapel Beach to the Trailhead
This is far and away the easiest part of the hike. After hiking back up to the trail from Chapel Beach, the trail is wide and flat, making for easy hiking through wide open forest.
About two miles later we come to the last big highlight of the hike: Chapel Falls. This is one of the tallest waterfalls in Michigan and one of the most scenic at Pictured Rocks. There are lots of different vantage points on the top of the bowl the falls drop into and if you have the time I highly recommend checking out as many as you can.
Leaving Chapel Falls you only have about 1.5 miles left to get back to the parking lot.
What’d you think? Pretty amazing? Let me know if you’ve done this before or if you have a recommendation for an even better day hike in this awesome state!
You can see more of my photos from Pictured Rocks here.