News from the Greater Munising Area: The folklore of Pictured Rocks

Jaymie Depew

While millions of people have explored the Munising, Grand Island, and Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore areas over the last century, the land has been cherished the land for thousands of years.

Before French fur traders and Europeans voyaged to what would become Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, the rural region was vastly home to the Ojibwe tribe.

What are the Pictured Rocks?

Nestled between the cities of Munising and Grand Marais, massive sandstone cliffs, caves and unique formations along Lake Superior shoreline, sand dunes, miles of incredible hiking trails, beaches, waterfalls, inland lakes, and wild forests make up the Pictured Rocks. Minerals from Lake Superior stain the rock face with colorful hues of white, red, blue and greens as water seeps into the cracks and crevices in the sandstone.

Mid-1600s: Pictured Rocks

In the mid-1600s, French fur traders Pierre-Esprit Radisson and Medard Chouart des Groseilliers sailed the wicked waters of Lake Superior along the Pictured Rocks shoreline in birch bark canoes carrying animal pelts and are known to be the first to write about the area.

Radisson called the 42-mile shoreline of cliffs and dunes “most delightful and wonderful.” However, he also claimed it to be “dangerous when there is any storm.” Radisson was fascinated by how the waves seemed to carve out the cliffs, stating when they’d crash in caverns it made “a most horrible noise, most like the shooting of great guns”.

Native American Lore

In his account, Radisson stated that Native Americans worshipped the rocks and considered them to be “alive with unseen spirits”, often providing the towering sandstone cliffs and formations with tobacco offerings.

Today, there are many landmarks in the Pictured Rocks that people from all walks of life travel across the globe to see that are rich with Native American folklore:

Lover’s Leap

Legend has it that Lover’s Leap gets its name from an incident when a Native American woman jumped to her death from a steep cliff overhanging the water because her lover failed to return from a trip.

Caves of All Colors

One of the many wonders of the Pictured Rocks are the Caves of all Colors, which were regarded with fear by Native Americans, as they thought the caves were places of execution. “The vermillion coloring was thought to be the blood of victims within the caves. The Indians named the place ‘Caves of the Bloody Chiefs,'” a Munising News article from 1957 reads.

Chapel Rock

“I found, on examining this rock, which I did all its parts, that the (Native Americans) had used it as a place of resort, for the ashes of their fires were yet several places within it,” Thomas L. McKenna of the Indian Department wrote of Chapel Rock in 1834.

Grand Portal Point

Grand Portal is one of the most impressive features of the Pictured Rocks. Once a wide archway opened into a cave so large that boats could pass through it. Unfortunately, the roof of the cavern collapsed in 1906.

An article published on Feb. 15, 1946 by The Munising News reads: “Floating under the Portal on a summer day, voices echo back and forth, a single word is repeated and naturally the mind reverts to the (Native American) belief in the grotesque imps who haunted the cavern and played their pranks upon rash intruders.”

The Song of Hiawatha

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow brought attention to Pictured Rocks in 1855 with the publication of his poem, “The Song of Hiawatha”, which features Native American characters from the area.

Over 100 years later, Gordon Lightfoot wrote the famous song “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” where he refers to Lake Superior as “Gitche Gumee”, which was initially coined by Longfellow in his poem. The term derived from “gichi-gami”, which loosely means “the big sea” or “huge water” in Anishinaabemowin.

Pictured Rocks Today

Managed by the National Park Service, the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore was established on October 15, 1966 as the first designated national lakeshore in the United States.

While many people journey to the national lakeshore to bask in the serenity of the colorful cliffs, sea caves, and sandstone formations, the magic of the national lakeshore still awes and inspires to this day. Presently, the Pictured Rocks are most commonly enjoyed aboard boat and kayak tours that are offered in Munising.

Editor’s note: Jaymie Depew is the communications and special project assistant for the Alger County Chamber of Commerce/Greater Munising Bay Partnership for Commerce Development, Munising Downtown Development Authority and Munising Visitors Bureau.


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