Kayaking at Pictured Rocks

Coast Guard Helicopter hoisting kayaker from Lake Superior along cliffs in Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore
Coast Guard helicopter rescuing kayaker from the waters of Lake Superior along the Pictured Rocks NL cliffs. Kayaker survived thanks to his wet suit and life jacket, and the fact that one of the other two swamped kayakers in the group was able to get a call out for help.

NPS photo

Kayaking in the Great Lakes can be a fantastic experience, but it can also be dangerous. Whether you're kayaking at Pictured Rocks or anywhere, conditions can change rapidly. If you have an emergency here on Lake Superior, rescue could be hours away.

At Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, we have responded to many rescues where kayakers were ill-equipped or ill-informed. Occasionally, kayakers will be properly prepared, and Lake Superior will still overwhelm them. We implore anyone interested in kayaking Lake Superior to seriously consider the risks and to properly prepare before getting in the water. Even experienced kayakers have been overpowered by the lake.

Before you set out to kayak Lake Superior, ask yourself these questions:

  • Do I have the proper kind of kayak?
  • Do I have the required life jacket and whistle?
  • Do I know the marine forecast?
  • Am I completely prepared for the conditions?
  • Did I tell others where I'm going?
  • Can I save myself (and get back in my kayak from the water)?

(Inexperienced kayakers and those without their own kayaks can take a guided tour of the Pictured Rocks cliffs with authorized private companies. A list of authorized kayak and other commercial tour companies is on our Guided Tours page.)

Kayaker on Lake Superior along the Pictured Rocks cliffs.
Kayaker on Lake Superior along Pictured Rocks Cliffs.

NPS photo


Paddling at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore

Before you get to the park, make sure you have the right equipment and the right skills:

1. What kind of boat do you plan on using?

Sea Kayak, Recreational Kayak, Canoe

A sea kayak is a long, slim boat designed for coastal paddling. It is usually between 14.5 - 18 feet long, and between 18 to 24 inches wide. The deck (top) covers the entire boat except for a small opening (cockpit) in which the person sits. The cockpit has a raised lip around it that allows a paddler to utilize a spray skirt to help keep water out of the boat. Sea kayaks also have bulkheads to prevent water from flooding the entire boat. A sea kayak is the only type of kayak that should be used on Lake Superior.

A recreational or general purpose kayak is for the casual paddler on placid rivers, ponds, or small lakes. It is smaller than 14 feet long and has a larger opening for the paddler to sit in. The larger opening can make it easier for water to enter the boat, making these types of kayaks prone to swamping. Their shorter size also makes them prone to being pushed around in the wind and waves. Recreational kayaks should NOT be used on Lake Superior or used on windy days.

A canoe is an open boat that is wider than a kayak. Their height makes them hard to control in windy conditions on open water. Unless packed with flotation, they can also fill with water and more easily swamp. Canoes should NOT be used on Lake Superior!

If you are using a canoe or recreational kayak, consider paddling on island lakes or nearby rivers (such as the Au Train River west of the park). At Pictured Rocks NL, Little Beaver Lake, Beaver Lake, and Grand Sable Lake are easy to access by vehicle.

2. Do you have the right safety equipment to go out paddling?

  • PFD (Personal Flotation Device) / Life Jacket - required
  • Whistle or Air Horn - required
  • Wet Suit / Dry Suit (for paddling on Lake Superior and during cooler weather on other lakes)
  • Spray Skirt (for paddling on Lake Superior)
  • Paddle Float
  • Bilge Pump
  • Paddle Leash
  • Marine Radio

    PFDs are required by law for each person. They should be worn at all times and not stowed away. Life jackets work while on. It is very difficult to put on a life jacket once in the water. 75% of canoe/kayak fatalities were not wearing life jackets. Don't be a statistic!

    A sound-producing device such as a whistle or air horn is also required by law. It must be audible for one half mile for 4 to 6 seconds. The device should be attached to you. Storing it in a bag in your boat will mean that it is not available in emergencies, such as when you are in the water needing to signal for help, or a motorboat is coming at you in the fog, or in high waves.

    A wet suit or dry suit is strongly recommended for anyone paddling on the cold waters of Lake Superior. Lake Superior never gets warm. The average summer surface temperature is is 59 degrees F / 15 degrees C. Hypothermia can occur in as little as 10 minutes. Difficulty moving is one of the symptoms of hypothermia. Learn more at www.coldwatersafety.org.

    A spray skirt is a waterproof barrier that helps keep waves, rain, and spray out of the boat and helps keep the paddler drier, and therefore warmer. A spray skirt also helps prevent a boat from swamping (filling up with water). Water in a boat makes the boat unstable.

    An inflatable paddle float is an important self-rescue tool. If a paddler capsizes (ends up out of the boat and in the water), they need to be able to get back into their vessel. The paddle float attaches to the kayak blade and helps create an "outrigger" to stabilize the boat to allow for safe re-entry.

    A bilge pump is a device used to remove water from a boat. A small bucket can work too. Sponges are good for soaking up small amounts of water.

    A paddle leash attaches from your paddle to your kayak. It helps prevent you from losing your paddle or even your boat if you capsize.

    A marine radio should be carried to help keep you informed about the weather. The weather can change quickly on Lake Superior, exposing you to high winds, rough seas, and fog. The cliffs along the Pictured Rocks shoreline do not offer any protected places to get away.

3. Can you save yourself?

Help is not a phone call away! You are on your own!

Cell phones may or may not work at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. Even if you are able to get a 911 call out, help is still far away, 30 minutes at least. Rescue time of 60 to 90 minutes or longer is more likely. If the weather is very rough, no one will be able to respond until the weather calms down.

You need to be able to perform a self-rescue. Read, research on-line, take lessons. And then practice, practice, practice! Paddle with others. Make sure they know how to perform rescues too.

Always wear your life jacket! Wear a wetsuit. Cold water kills!

Leave a float plan with someone who cares about you. This includes information such as your name, type of boat and equipment used, and your planned route and schedule. Don't forget to tell them when you get back so they would know when to start searching.

Kayak rescue along Pictured Rocks cliffs
on the water weather buoy
weather buoy - transmits real time air and water temperature, wind speed and direction, wave height, and video
You have the right boat, right equipment, and the skills. Before you go, check the weather (especially the marine weather) forecast!

If you're going out for the morning, pay attention to the afternoon forecast as well. Weather changes quickly and unexpectedly.

Location, location, location - just because it's calm in the bay, does not mean it is calm along the more distant shores. Listen to the weather forecast and pay attention to wind direction. Visit the weather buoy site to see real time data and video.

The Pictured Rocks extend for 15 miles and include sheer walls all the way to the water line. These exposed cliffs offer no way off the water if wind and waves increase.

Other things to keep in mind while paddling on Lake Superior:

Cold water kills!

Drowning is the #1 cause of death in national parks.

Be aware of boat tours that leave Munising on a regular basis during the summer months. They run fairly close to the shoreline with a turnaround point at Chapel Beach or Spray Falls. Give them plenty of room and allow for their wake.

Besides your PFD, wet suit, spray skirt, whistle/emergency signal device, bilge pump, and weather radio, consider bringing: lighting device, self-contained stove, extra paddle, compass, maps, first aid kit, insect repellent, tow line, rain gear, waterproof matches, and dry storage containers.
Sea Kayak and Recreational Kayak. The recreational kayak has the no slashed through it.
Remember... recreational kayaks should not be used on Lake Superior!

Alternative Places to Paddle
Your decision on where to go paddling should depend on your type of boat, experience level of each person in your group, and the weather. Several inland lakes offer great paddling for recreational kayaks. Good choices that have a boat launch include:

  • Grand Sable Lake (within the park)

  • Little Beaver Lake / Beaver Lake (within the park)

  • Kingston Lake (Michigan State Forest Lake along Alger County Road H-58)

Launching Locations for Lake Superior
Personal sea kayaks can be carried from parking lots to Lake Superior at these park locations:

  • Sand Point Beach
  • Miners Beach (both west and east ends; requires use of medium staircase)
  • Twelvemile Beach Campground and Day-Use Area (requires use of long staircase)
  • Lower Hurricane River Campground and Day-Use Area (requires use of short staircase)

Kayaking With Your Pet
Kayaking with your pet is NOT recommended on Lake Superior. Pets are not allowed in boats on Little Beaver or Beaver Lakes as those lakes are within the Beaver Basin Wilderness zone. Please talk to a park ranger about other options for kayaking with your pet.

Kayak camping at water-accessible backcountry sites is allowed at Pictured Rocks. HOWEVER, we strongly suggest you speak to a park ranger about kayak camping rules, regulations, and safety considerations before planning a trip. See the Backcountry Camping Planner (pdf) for more kayak camping information. As with all backcountry camping, kayak camping requires a reservation and a permit. Only certain designated sites are available for camping by boat.


Last updated: February 15, 2024

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Munising, MI 49862


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