Michigan carries the title of Great Lakes State for obvious reasons, but what many may not know is the uniqueness of each coastline. The shores of Lake Superior form a solid wall of multicolored cliffs in the central Upper Peninsula that are amazing and best seen from the water. Two hour Pictured Rocks boat tours draw thousands of tourists each year and is by far the most popular way to see the cliffs.
Pictured Rocks Cruises is the official partner of the National Parks and has been offering boat tours for decades. Two types of boat tours are offered daily and depart about every hour. Late evening sunset cruises are also offered; times depend on season and can range from 5:00pm to 8:00pm. The Classic cruise lasts approximately 2 ½ hours and takes visitors for a 32 mile round trip along the Pictured Rocks coastline one of four 2 deck ships. The Spray Falls cruise is about 15 minutes shorter, but goes slightly farther to see Spray Falls on the high speed 3 deck catamaran. Both cruises get in close to the shore and you’ll have plenty of time to enjoy the miles of multicolored cliffs, but there are a few minor differences.
The classic boats are smaller, and it’s easier to get a good view with only two rows of seating. The larger catamaran is a good choice when Lake Superior is feeling feisty and there are larger waves. The upper deck has a middle row, which can make it difficult to get a good view, especially for kids. For picture taking, I like the back row of the catamaran’s upper deck for an open field of view and higher vantage point than the classic boats.
Both types of ships have enclosed (and heated) lower decks. All ships have bathrooms, which can come in handy for the long trip. The lower decks are handicap accessible for traditional wheelchairs. Contact the ticket office ahead of time if you’ll need assistance. See below for helpful tips at the end of the article.
Pictured Rocks Cruise Ticket Prices and Information
Tickets can be purchased at the office near the Munising City Docks or online. The ticket office opens at 8AM and I recommend getting in line early to avoid long lines. If purchasing online, I would wait until the day before so you can get a look at the weather report first. Visit PicturedRocks.com for tickets and information on refunds, cancellations, etc.
Boarding begins 15 minutes before departure. Get in line at least 30 minutes ahead of time to have the best choice of seats. The dock does not have any awnings for shade and there are very few benches. A wide golf umbrella goes a long way to providing shade while waiting. For younger kids, do not bring anything larger than an umbrella stroller or infant car seat since there is not extra stowage space.
Classic Cruise: $38 $10 ages 6 to 12, and only $1 for ages 5 and under.
Spray Falls Cruise: $45, $10 ages 6 to 12, and only $1 ages 5 and under.
Being that we wanted to get a good view, and I wanted to take a lot of pictures, we lined up on the dock about 45 minutes early. It worked out well since there were only two or three benches and I got a prime spot in the back corner of the upper deck. We chose the catamaran cruise on the advice of the ticket cashier since there were 5 foot waves.
Despite the rough conditions, the cruise was pretty smooth. Lake Superior is typically windy, so we came prepared with light coats and bucket hats. The views from the boat tour was even better than expected. Pictures do not do justice to the miles of cliffs. The boat gets in close to the shoreline for spectacular views and great pictures (see video slideshow at the end of the post). The end point of the Spray Falls cruise was a bit of a downer since it has been a dry summer and there was barely any water flowing over the cliff.
Of course, once you get to the end you have to sail all the way back. We sat on the right side of the ship to make sure we had a clear view on the way out, which meant just sitting around on the way back. The one bonus is the ship skirts the island and lighthouse before returning to port.
Looking back, my biggest takeaway from the cruise was the importance of getting in line early to pick the best seats. The catamaran was worth the extra money with the rough lake conditions and higher vantage point for taking pictures, but I think the smaller boats offer a better view all around being only two rows wide.
Pictured Rocks Boat Tours Tips
- Purchase tickets early. Either get in line when they open in the morning, or order online the day before once you know the weather forecast.
- Dress for the weather. If you plan on sitting on the open top deck, make sure to have a snug fitting hat and light coat since it is typically windy.
- The best lighting is during the later afternoon and evening cruises when the sun is lower; especially for pictures.
- The cruise is 2 ½ hours long, so be prepared to keep kids occupied and bring along some snacks.
- Line up early. Boarding begins 15 minutes prior to launch, but you can start getting in line after the previous boat leaves. I’d recommend at least 30 minutes early.
- The right side of the boat will be facing the Pictured Rocks on the outbound leg and the lighthouse on the way back. This side also has the best lighting for pictures later in the day.
- Free parking is available on the side street and lot near the ticket office. The street side parking may offer some shade.
- There are bathrooms in the ticket office and lesser known ones in the building across the street in the park.
- Here are three great places to eat in Munising before or after your cruise.
Boat tours are such a fun way to explore new-to-me coastal areas! I haven’t been to Pictured Rocks since I was a kid but would love to make a trip back and take a tour. Thanks for sharing!
I would love to do this, thanks for sharing!
I’m bummed I missed visiting this part of Michigan during our road trip. I hope to plan a trip just to see Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore.
The beauty and grandeur of the Great Lakes never ceases to impress me. And that lighthouse photo. Wow!!!