Munising is Rockin’

Alger County Events

Michigan Ice Fest

Pictured Rocks Days (Yooper Days)

Grand Marais Seaplane Splash-In

Fourth of July Celebration

Grand Marais Music & Arts Festival


Munising is Rockin’

by Kath Usitalo
The Grand Island National Recreation Area, a shipwreck preserve, waterfalls, plenty of eateries and, of course, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, make Munising, Michigan a stunning tourist destination.
Millions of years in the making, the geologic formations that line the southern shore of Lake Superior in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula have fascinated humans for centuries. The colorful sandstone cliffs, sculpted by wind and water and painted by seeping minerals, inspired stories and awe in the region’s first people, in the French explorers and Jesuit missionaries of the late 1600s, and those who’ve followed — from fur trappers, fishermen and lumbermen, to modern-day adventurers discovering Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore and its western gateway city on Munising Bay. 

Munising’s natural harbor is protected by the 13,500-acre Grand Island, which gave the location its name; the Ojibwa word for “at the island” or “island in the lake” is minisiing. The harbor bustled as an industrial port from the fur trading days through a short-lived iron mining period and lucrative logging era, and welcomed ships seeking refuge from the volatile Lake Superior. Its waters are the final resting place of dozens of vessels, which are now protected in the Alger Underwater Preserve. 

Grand Island National Recreation Area, shipwrecks, the area’s 16 waterfalls, lighthouses and the main attraction — Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore — make Munising a destination during the warm weather months, but it’s growing as a year-round destination, as well. 

Nature’s graffiti 

Towering 50 to 200 feet above Lake Superior, the 15-mile-long work of naturally-formed art known as Pictured Rocks is best viewed from the water. Mineral-rich waters ooze from the sandstone walls to “paint” the surface in red and orange (iron), white (limonite), brown and black (manganese), and blue and green (copper). Pounding waves and winds have carved arches and shaped towers, sea caves, spires, turrets, blowholes and formations that observers have given descriptive names like Miners Castle, Indian Head, Chapel Rock and Battleship Row. 

The first boat tours meant for enjoyment of Pictured Rocks date to the 1920s, when the Cleveland Cliff Iron Company offered outings on Sunday afternoons. But it wasn’t until after World War II that dedicated sightseeing cruises took visitors on shoreline excursions. In 1966, Pictured Rocks was designated as the first National Lakeshore in the U.S., and within several years, Pictured Rocks Cruises was established and is now a concessionaire of the National Park Service. There are multiple 2 1/2-hour outings daily throughout the season, from mid-May through mid-October, and they often sell out; reservations are recommended. 

Beyond the spectacular rocky cliffs, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore encompasses 73,000 acres of forest, beaches, waterfalls, inland lakes, bogs, marshes and sand dunes along the 42 miles of wilderness from Munising eastward to the village of Grand Marais. Exploration of the park can be easy or strenuous. The 100 miles of trails range from remote backcountry hikes to a short, paved path to view one of the most-photographed landmarks, Miners Castle. The park’s more than 12 miles of sandy Lake Superior beaches are made for sunning and picnicking, including Miners Beach and Sand Point, where the shallow water is warmer and the sunsets are memorable. 

The welcome mat is out

The National Park is by far the Munising area’s biggest visitor draw, and thanks to increased media exposure in recent years, the region’s popularity as a tourist destination is exploding, says Kathy Reynolds, executive director of the Alger County Chamber of Commerce. A “Good Morning America” broadcast from Pictured Rocks in 2015, and Kid Rock’s “Born Free” music video filmed on location, sparked the tourism boom, which has been fueled by digital media. 

“Visitation has grown 50 percent in the last five years,” says Reynolds, with nearly 800,000 visitors in 2017 — the majority during the short summer season. The economic impact of $33 million is having a tremendous effect on the Munising population of fewer than 2,500. Multiple projects recently completed or underway include the Pictured Rocks Interpretive Center a renovated bank building with local history exhibits, National Park information desk and gift shop, and dining and drinking spots filling handsome buildings just a short stroll from the waterfront. 

Much of the investment is coming from locals and residents who left but have returned to the area, says Reynolds. Entrepreneur and developer Tom Dolaskie grew up near Munising, served in the Air Force, succeeded in a couple of businesses in Florida and California, and moved back to his hometown, where he’s now behind multiple projects bringing new life to the city. 

Dolaskie renovated a former lumber baron’s mansion and adjacent medical facility into the boutique Roam Inn and farm-to-table Tracey’s restaurant. He also transformed a tired diner into Eh! Burger, where the short menu of fresh, Great Lakes whitefish, burgers and fries comes with a view of the bay. And he turned an empty, 36,000-square-foot eyesore into offices and retail space, including his own speakeasy restaurant and bar named Whiskey Tom’s, within eyeshot of the tour boats docked at the marina. 

“I’m interested in getting people from the waterfront to look and say, ‘Man, I didn’t realize I can spend another three or four hours in Munising,’” Dolaskie says.

Sip ’n SUP

Munising’s traditional meat-and-potatoes food scene is buzzing with new options to satisfy more adventurous appetites. One young couple remodeled grandma’s house, added a wood-fired oven, and is winning raves for their thin crust and gluten-free Pictured Rocks Pizza. Another family serves whitefish and traditional tacos from their cozy Taco Primo Mexican Kitchen. At his Fish Basket food truck tucked away off a downtown alley, Sam Corp lightly fries whitefish straight from Lake Superior until the catch of the day runs out. East Channel Brewing Company, making beer in Munising since 2016, usually has at least six brews on tap at its downtown pub. 

But not all businesses are recent startups. Since 1989 Muldoons Pasties (rhymes with nasties) has been baking the handy and hearty all-in-one meal wrapped in a flaky crust that was favored by copper miners. Pasties are still a popular dish identified with the Upper Peninsula, and are perfect for carrying on a hike or to a lakeside picnic. From its dockside market, the third generation VanLandschoot family sells its fresh Lake Superior catch and smoked fish dip and sausage.

John Flanders, who opened his Johnny Dogs stand in 2008, expanded into a downtown space where his legions of fans line up for gourmet hot dogs topped with homemade sauces, with a side of famous Piggy Fries.
Nancy Dwyer and her husband Jeff fell in love with Munising on their visits to the area; in 2003, they moved from Florida to open Falling Rock Café & Bookstore in adjoining 19th-century storefronts they renovated into a landmark gathering spot for live music, free Wi-Fi, local art for sale and, of course, new and used books. The nearly 500 coffee mugs that line the walls attest to the number of loyal locals and regular visitors who flock to the Falling Rock for the house-roasted coffee, sandwiches (including vegan and gluten-free options) and ice cream treats. 

“It wasn’t easy,” Dwyer says of their beginnings 15 years ago. “But we were determined to provide something to the community that was needed.” 

Now, Dwyer says of the new developments in town: “It’s exciting. People are finally discovering what a gem it is, and the fact that this amazing natural resource can be appreciated by so many. We’ve got the Pictured Rocks Boat Cruises, kayaks, paddleboards, shipwreck tours, pontoons, the Riptide Ride and pirate cruises,” she says, ticking off the variety of watercraft activities. “The more the better. It makes [Munising] a destination, and people can walk around downtown instead of just taking the boat cruise and leaving.”

UP~Scale Art carries the photography, jewelry, pottery and other creations of Munising Bay Arts Association members at its downtown gallery and shop. Leading the art scene 18 years ago, Jill Zwemer Baugnet and Thomas Baugnet saved a roadside cottage from collapse to create Open Wings Pottery, where they sell handcrafted stoneware and the work of about 50 other regional artists. 

The Munising Downtown Development Authority recently completed the Art in the Alley project, located in an alley behind Falling Rock Cafe. The project showcases art of more than 60 artists from around Alger County. 

Water wonderland

In 2010 — also ahead of the current tourism boom — Munising natives Tim and Joni Flynn introduced an alternative to Pictured Rocks Cruises with their Riptide Ride, the “Baddest Boat in the Bay.” They started with a 20-seat, 750-hp Island Girl jetboat and just added the 44-passenger, 1,600-hp Rogue Wave to accommodate thrill seekers who enjoy the faster pace and 360-degree spins during tours of Grand Island. The shallow draft of the boats allows them to get close to the cliffs, lighthouses and wildlife on the 90-minute tours, offered from Memorial weekend into early October. 

Scuba divers explore eight wrecks in Munising Bay at depths of 12 to 105 feet, but two of those vessels are visible through the high-and-dry glass bottom boats of the two-hour Shipwreck Tours offered from Memorial weekend to mid-October. 

Experienced kayakers follow the Hiawatha Water Trail, a route paddled over the centuries by Native Americans and voyageurs along the Lake Superior shoreline past Grand Island and the Pictured Rocks to Grand Marais. Local outfitters conduct guided tours, which are recommended for inland lake and river paddlers not accustomed to navigating the mighty Great Lakes. 

New in 2018 are the Munising Pirate Cruises, a 90-minute sail around the bay that’s a great family outing by day and adults-only pirate party at sunset.   

The Pirate Cruises and Pictured Rocks Cruises depart from the modern Bayshore Marina, the public facility at the heart of Munising’s waterfront activity. The marina, like the city itself, is enjoying increased visitor traffic and just opened an expansion that nearly doubled its capacity to 58 slips for seasonal moorage and transient traffic. 

The new, 240-foot floating pier adds a dozen 40-foot and a dozen 50-foot floating slips, plus space for another four transient boats at the existing L-Dock. All have water, shore power and access to showers, and 10 slips are ADA-approved. The marina also offers a boat launch, grills, long-term parking, picnic tables and pump-out. Diesel fuel is available at a nearby gas station, while restaurants, grocery and hardware stores, shops and services are within walking distance of the marina and waterfront park. The convenience contributes to the marina’s reputation for being boater friendly. 

Winter in Munising is chill

Ice climbing is permitted at Pictured Rocks and Grand Island, and is growing in popularity. Curtains and columns of ice 20 to 40 feet high form from the water that seeps out of the rock, aided by lake effect snow and frigid temperatures along Lake Superior. Down Wind Sports (in Marquette) rents gear, offers guided climbs and organizes the annual Michigan Ice Fest each February. 

“The community is starting to pay attention to what a unique opportunity we have, with the harbor, Munising Bay and the protection of Grand Island, and the National Lakeshore,” Tom Dolaskie says. “It has become a more well-rounded environment. People are beginning to understand that well into October and even November they can have a great time here. Fall is ideal for that traveler looking for a little bit less on the hectic side, who is willing to explore. They’ll find plenty to do.”  

Prestige 750 Skyscraper
Prestige 750 Skyscraper