Spray Falls was one of the more unique waterfalls that we've seen. I guess what made it so memorable was that it dropped 70ft directly into the turbulent southern shores of Lake Superior. And since each of the Great Lakes seemed to be more like oceans complete with waves, beaches, cliffs, temperature moderation, and its own influence on the weather (including "coastal" fog), this waterfall could've passed for one of those waterfalls that fell directly into the ocean (or very close to it) like McWay Falls or Alamere Falls among others! So with that said, we were definitely excited at the prospect of visiting this falls, especially when we learned that it could be combined with touring the Pictured Rocks, which was the main attraction of the Munising vicinity.
Speaking of touring the falls, we've managed to visit it in a couple of very different ways. The most obvious way to do it would be the boat tour that would tour both the colorful and shapely cliffs of the Pictured Rocks as well as Spray Falls (though the waterfall option only left at specific times of the day). The other way involved land-based self-touring, and that pretty much meant doing a long hike along the shores of Lake Superior until the waterfall would be visible.
Both ways of experiencing Spray Falls have pros and cons. The water-based option was clearly the easiest way to witness the falls, and it was an added option to the already popular default way of getting frontal looks at the famous Pictured Rocks cliffs themselves. However, such tours weren't cheap (we paid $75 for the three of us), the boat was crowded, and the tour was subject to cancellations due to weather. In fact, high winds resulted in high waves that cancelled all tours on the day that we originally planned to exercise this option. So we had to be flexible in order to accommodate.
The land-based option was nice in that the experience was quiet as it was pretty much all nature (as it should be) while I was able to do the hiking at pretty much any reasonable time during the day that I wanted to as well as at my own pace. Of course, the drawback was that the duration of the hiking was not trivial as it would require a minimum of a half-day to even experience the shortest of the hiking routes to access a distant view of the falls. We'll get into the logistical details and detailed firsthand accounts of each option below...
Pictured Rocks Cruise with Spray Falls (Difficulty: 1)
There were two types of boat tours - the regular cruise and the Spray Falls cruise. There was also the Sunset cruise, which was basically the regular cruise at the end of the day. We had to make sure that we took the Spray Falls cruise, which was typically 15 minutes longer than the 2-hour 30-minute regular cruise. Given that these cruises were the shortest and easiest way to experience the Pictured Rocks (kayaking would be more intimate but would require more time and some degree of self-sufficiency), we had to book our tickets in advance. We actually bought them in person the day before our cruise, but apparently it's possible that they might sell-out to the extent that you'd have to buy them online. We paid $75 total as it was $37 per adult and $1 for our daughter since she was less than 6 years old.
During the peak Summer months, cruises would leave every hour from 10am with the last cruise around 7pm or later and the Spray Falls cruises starting at 4pm and the last tour would either be 5pm and/or 6pm. Since our visit was during the shoulder season of autumn in late September/early October, cruises left every two hours from 10am with the last tour at 5:15pm, and the Spray Falls cruises left at either 2pm or 4pm. Pamphlets containing a table of the full departure schedule were readily available at the boat dock in Munising as well as some accommodations (the Holiday Inn Express that we stayed at had some available). Of course, for trip planning purposes, the Pictured Rocks Cruises website also has up-to-date schedules and fares.
As for which cruise to take, we knew that the Pictured Rocks tended to get a nice late afternoon glow, which would get amplified the later in the day the tour would commence. And since we had to include the waterfall as part of the tour, that meant we aimed to take the 4pm tour (as the sunset cruise wouldn't go to the falls). But alas, the cancellation due to high winds forced us to do the tour the following day, but since we had to be in Paradise, Michigan instead of Munising, Michigan on that day, we had no choice but to take the 2pm tour so the lighting on the cliffs weren't as optimal (and there was always the chance that the winds might pick up and cause another cancellation).
The Spray Falls cruise was said to average about 2 hours and 45 minutes. In order to get choice seating, it's pretty much first-come first-serve. There was already a giant line an hour before our cruise departure time. It took a good 30 minutes or so to zoom along the lake from Munising towards the start of the Pictured Rocks cliffs. When the PA announcer told us that we were free to move in the aft deck (the back of the boat), I used the initial part of the cruise as an opportunity to make my way to the back on the right side since it would face the cliffs on the way there (the left side would face the cliffs on the way back).
Along the way, we saw some exclusive Summer homes on both Grand Island and on the more remote shores of Michigan's UP. Once we got to the Pictured Rocks (especially around Miner's Castle and beyond), that was when the aft deck got really crowded (so it was good I got there early, but now I could hardly move). In any case, from a photo standpoint, this was where the hit parade occurred as there were small sea caves, impressive natural arches, colorful streaks on the shapely and sloping cliffs, impressive rock formations, and beaches along the way. The DSLR camera was useful as the rocking motion of the boat conspired to make photos blurry.
Once we got past Chapel Rock, the boat then went the extra mile to Spray Falls. Right at the falls, the boat turned around and that was when my position at the rear right corner of the aft deck was no longer advantageous. Since the left side of the aft deck was full, I pretty much retreated to my seat and tried to take what photos I could though you can imagine how tricky it would be when you're seated in the middle and not the edge of the boat. If you were seated in inside the heated cabin like Julie and Tahia were, taking photos through the window would be difficult at best, especially with all the people in front to contend with.
There were a couple of hiking options to go about the land-based self-tour of Spray Falls. One started from the end of Chapel Road, which was also near both Mosquito Falls and Chapel Falls. The other was from the Little Beaver Lake Trailhead. I would up doing the latter as it was said to be the shortest hike to Spray Falls. But even then, based on the signage there, it was 4.1 miles each way (or 8.2 miles round trip). I believe the Chapel Road Trailhead was a little bit longer, but in hindsight, I probably should've tried that approach just to experience the other waterfalls as well.
In any case, I started from the trailhead parking near Little Beaver Lake (see directions below). From there, I followed the White Pine Trail for the first 1.5 miles. The trail was fairly straightforward to follow with a few bridges and boardwalks over the marshiest spots. For practically the entire time, the trail was surrounded by trees and even went past some interesting rock formations (some with tiny caves). At about 0.1-mile from the North County Trail (which skirted Lake Superior), there was another spur trail on the right leading to Beaver Lake. I didn't make it all the way to the lake on that detour, but I did explore enough of it to get a nice reflective shot of a calm section of Little Beaver Lake before resuming the Spray Falls hike.
Once I got to the well-signed North County Trail (the signs were important so on the way back, I would know when to turn back inland to get back to the trailhead along the White Pine Trail), I then hiked the remaining 2.6 miles to Spray Falls. This section of the hike pretty much skirted along the shores of Lake Superior. There were some sandy spur trails leading down to the beaches in the more flatter parts of the lakeshore, but most of this trail was skirting along cliffs with some limited dropoff exposure except for the bluffs that afforded me some of the more satisfying views of the lakeshore.
On the inland side of the trail, there were other spur paths leading to the Cover's Campground and group sites. The North County Trail was mostly level except for a couple of spots where I had to go up and down some very steep steps and slopes to get around some rocky alcoves and bluffs along the way. This part of the hike represented some of the most peaceful moments of our entire Great Lakes trip, and I could easily see why people would want to go on a much longer trek involving overnight backpacking along this trail. In fact, I didn't see another person until I was returning to the car park from Spray Falls. And I only saw one other person after that at the White Pine Trail on the return.
Anyways, there was a signpost marking "Spray Falls", which led me on a short spur to a precarious overhanging bluff with a distant view of Spray Falls as I peered towards the southwest direction. There was definitely dropoff exposure at the edges of this bluff, and given the tendency of the shoreline to erode and fall into the lake (the same forces that caused the Pictured Rocks as well as all the arches and caves), I was keenly aware of how dangerous it would be to linger at the edges. Nevertheless, I knew that this was the best view I could get of the waterfall from land so this marked my turnaround point.
The North County Trail actually kept going along the lakeshore towards Spray Creek and beyond, but I knew from my pre-trip research that I wouldn't be able to see Spray Falls without doing some very daring and dangerous scramble (which I wasn't up for doing). When I returned to the car, I wound up spending about 3 hours and 10 minutes on this excursion. However, since I couldn't keep Julie and Tahia waiting back at Munising, I admittedly had to do a little trail running as I had previously thought that this hike was around 5 miles round-trip. So on a more relaxed pace, this out-and-back hike can easily take around 4 to 5 hours.
This sloping cliff in the heart of the Pictured Rocks was where I believe the seasonal Bridal Veil Falls was supposed to be, but as you can see it wasn't flowing during our visit
Perhaps the most attractive part of the Pictured Rocks cruise was being able to see the colorful streaks on the cliffs themselves juxtaposed with the chaos of rock formations resulting from erosion
This part of the Pictured Rocks was the remnants of a huge arch known as the Grand Portal Arch. It was so big that fairly big boats used to pass beneath it. The arch collapsed in 1900
This was one of many scenic spots to see the cliffs along the Lake Superior shore while hiking the North County Trail
This was the car park at the trailhead near the Little Beaver Lake Campground
This sign at the trailhead gave me a dose of reality as I realized right then and there that my hike was 60% longer than I had anticipated (from 5 miles to 8 miles)
Boardwalk skirting a tranquil creek on the White Pine Trail
This was one of the interesting rock formations and caves along the White Pine Trail
This was the trail junction between the White Pine Trail and North County Trail. These signs were useful on the return hike, which told me when I should turn inland again
The trail became very sandy around the junction of the North County Trail and White Pine Trail
Most of the 2.6-mile stretch along the North County Trail to Spray Falls were flanked by dense foliage with limited views towards the vast Lake Superior
On the way to the falls, I took a short detour to check out the beach before the sun breached the horizon
This interesting beach and alcove was one of the more rugged formations that I got to see without having to go in the water. However, this was also one of the steeper parts of the trail, where stairs allowed me to go up and over this bluff
This was one of the spots along the North County Trail where there was dropoff exposure as some trees were even growing sideways on the slope
Looking back along the Lake Superior coastline as the sun was starting to come up
Looking forward as the cliffs of the Pictured Rocks could be seen in the distance
To illustrate the constant erosion that takes place, this part of the trail was eroding into Lake Superior
This part of the North County Trail was one of the more notable sections as it was even more exposed to the cliffs dropping directly into Lake Superior
This opening in the trail revealed just how vertical the cliffs of the Pictured Rocks Lakeshore were
This was the context of the outcrop representing the lookout for Spray Falls
Looking right along the cliffs towards Spray Falls
Focused and colorful look at Spray Falls as the sun's rays were starting to penetrate the landscape
Looking in the other direction along the gorgeous coastline of Lake Superior from the Spray Falls lookout
Hiking back along the North County Trail, which kind of reminded me of a tamer version of the Kalalau Trail in Kaua'i sometimes
This was one of the access paths to the beaches along Lake Superior. I believe this beach was called Twelvemile Beach
Looking east along Twelvemile Beach
These boats were the cruise vessels that we'd ride in for our Pictured Rocks cruise
This school-looking building was actually the historical Grand Island East Channel Lighthouse seen in the early part of our cruise
As we got closer to the Pictured Rocks, we started to notice caves and alcoves like these
Now we were starting to see the cliffs of the Pictured Rocks
Approaching the outcrop known as Miners Castle
This long streak of red and orange cliffs was one of the more impressive parts of the Pictured Rocks
Another impressive part of the Pictured Rocks showing just how sheer and colorful these cliffs were
This impressive natural arch was the Lover's Leap, which was one of several arches seen along the Pictured Rocks
More jumbled patterns and fallen rocks lining the Pictured Rocks with some fall colors showing on the tree-lined rim
This giant and dark alcove further illustrated how much cliff can calf off at any given moment, which further highlighted the instability of the cliff edges here
Looking back at the remnants of the massive Grand Portal Arch, which was still showing evidence of collapsing
These shapely potholed cliffs were seen between the Grand Portal Arch and Chapel Beach
This was the last tier of Chapel Falls. Note the bridge above it, which was part of the North County Trail
The shapely Chapel Rock, which itself was the remnants of a much larger arch that collapsed
Finally starting to see Spray Falls as we went beyond Chapel Rock
Approaching the impressive Spray Falls by boat
This was as much of a frontal look at Spray Falls as we were going to get before the boat turned around
On the way back to Munising, we managed to get a second look at the Pictured Rocks from the other side of the boat. Note how the lighting improved the later in the afternoon it became, which confirmed my suspicion that the lighting improves the later in the day you do the cruise
This was the last of the attractive part of the Pictured Rocks before returning to the docks at Munising
To do the Spray Falls (or any Pictured Rocks) cruise, all you have to do is to show up at the dock near the main part of Munising. This dock was at the end of Elm Ave less than 0.1 mile towards Lake Superior from the corner of West Munising Ave and Elm Ave in the center of town. The ticket office and parking lot was on the left at City Park Dr.
To reach the trailhead for the Spray Falls hike starting at the Little Beaver Lake Campground, I first had to drive on the H-58, which began east of Cedar St (M-28) on E Munising Ave. From there, I drove 19 miles east on the H-58 until reaching the signposted Little Beaver Lake Road. Turning left onto the unpaved road, I then made another left after 500ft to continue on the Little Beaver Lake Road. The remainder of the 3-mile road was fairly narrow with a smattering of ruts and potholes. It would probably be a non-trivial drive for long vehicles like RVs or big trucks given their width in addition to their length, but for our passenger car, it wasn't too bad. I just had to take my time given the blind turns and the dips or holes along the way.
Overall, this drive was about 22 miles from Munising, but it took me 40 minutes.
I can't say anything about the Chappel Road Trailhead, but if we're fortunate to return to this beautiful part of Michigan, for sure I'd give this hike a try.
For reference, the town of Munising was about 100 miles (2 hours) west of Paradise, Michigan, and 44 miles (under 1 hour) east of Marquette, Michigan.
Marquette was 146 miles (under 3 hours drive) east of Ironwood, 168 miles (over 3 hours drive) northwest of Mackinaw City, 392 miles (over 6.5 hours drive) northeast of Minneapolis, Minnesota, 382 miles (over 6 hours drive) north of Chicago, Illinois (via Green Bay, Wisconsin), and 455 miles (7 hours drive) northwest of Detroit, Michigan.
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