Apostle Islands vs Pictured Rocks: Where Should You Visit?

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When it comes to visiting the shores of Lake Superior, there are so many options! The landscapes are beautiful, and you really can’t go wrong anywhere along the lake.

There are 2 beautiful national lakeshores along Lake Superior, and we’re here to help you decide which one to visit. When deciding between the Apostle Islands vs Pictured Rocks, there are a few big things to consider.

We’ve loved exploring both of these lakeshores, and we hope to return to Apostle Islands to camp on more of the islands. Pictured Rocks is home to some of our favorite hiking. We’d revisit both of these spots, no questions asked. Our goal is to help you choose the best destination for you, based on what you want out of your trip.

If you want to hike for days, you should plan to visit Pictured Rocks.  While you can kayak and fish at both, there are more of these opportunities at the Apostle Islands.

These are our favorite things and things to consider about each of these spots, based on our visits to each one.

Overview of Apostle Islands and Pictured Rocks

There are a lot of similarities between the two spots, but there are a few key differences in activities and ease of access that you’ll want to consider.

FeatureApostle IslandsPictured Rocks
LocationNorthern coast of Wisconsin, Lake SuperiorSouthern shores of Lake Superior, Michigan
AccessClosest city: Duluth, MN (1.5-2 hours away)Closest airport: Marquette, MI (1 hour away)
Main AttractionsKayaking, sea caves, lighthouses, campingHiking, colorful sandstone cliffs, waterfalls
Boat ToursScenic, informative tours of islands, caves, and lighthousesEntertaining tours with views of cliffs and rock formations
HikingLimited trails on mainlandExtensive trails with varying difficulty
CampingIsland camping for a remote experience requires ferry transport. No established modern campgroundsBoth accessible campgrounds and off-the-grid options
Unique ActivitiesHistorical shipwrecks explorationWinter sports, ice climbing, waterfalls
Best ForWater activities, history enthusiastsHikers, those who want variety

Apostle Islands

Located in the western Lake Superior, the Apostle Islands is an archipelago consisting of 22 islands. Turquoise waters, stunning sea caves, and sandy beaches surround the islands, coming together to create the perfect getaway destination.

Explore the islands by kayak or paddleboard, check out the wildlife that inhabits the area, and enjoy activities in the Apostle Islands including fishing, hiking, and camping.

The Apostle Islands are home to a rich cultural history, lighthouses, and historic shipwrecks.

Pictured Rocks

Along the southern shoreline of Lake Superior, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore protects a 42-mile stretch of colorful sandstone cliffs, rock formations, and tucked-away beaches.

Book a cruise or kayak tour to get the best views of the vibrant cliffs, covered in a range of colors due to the minerals in the waters.

The park also has miles and miles of hiking trails, scenic overlooks, and camping opportunities for those who wish to get a little off the grid.

A natural sandstone arch with striated rock formations of Lover's Leap at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, overlooking the blue waters of Lake Superior
Pictured Rocks features these beautiful cliffs over Lake Superior, which you can see both from land and water.


Location is a key factor to consider because neither of these lakeshores is easy to get to. You’ll also want to think about other stops you may want to make on your trip.

Both Pictured Rocks and Apostle Islands make great stops on longer road trips (that’s how we’ve visited both!), but they can each be destinations on their own. 

Apostle Islands

The Apostle Islands National Lakeshore is located in Lake Superior, off the northern coast of Wisconsin. These islands and the mainland on the small peninsula make up the northernmost point of Wisconsin.

The closest city with airport access is Duluth, Minnesota, which is 1.5-2 hours away by car. If you plan to fly into the area for your visit, you should plan on renting a car to get around.

If you do not want to get out on the water, you will have a hard time seeing most of the lakeshore. A small strip of land is included along the water’s edge of the Bayfield Peninsula however, which includes a hiking trail, a campsite, and a beach.

Otherwise, you’ll have to get on a boat to see the rest, as there are 21 islands out in the lake to explore!

Fun Fact: There are actually 22 Apostle Islands, but the largest one is not protected in the national lakeshore at this time. Madeline Island has lots of privately owned land, and some people live there full-time!

Pictured Rocks

Also located on the southern shores of Lake Superior, Pictured Rocks is a magnificent stretch of coastline that spans over 40 miles. However, Pictured Rocks is located in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan

You could even drive from one of these lakeshores to the other in about 4 hours and 30 minutes, and extend your roadtrip!

One of the major draws of Pictured Rocks is its stunning rock formations, which are a result of years of natural erosion and mineral deposits. The cliffs vary in accent colors from reds and oranges to hues of blues and greens.

If you want to fly in to access Pictured Rocks, you’ll likely need a connection. The closest airport to Pictured Rocks is in Marquette, about an hour west of Munising. It’s small, with only 2 flights in and 2 flights out per day. You’ll have to travel through either Detrioit or Chicago’s O’hare.

Some of our favorite things about the location of Pictured Rocks are the two towns on each end of the lakeshore. Munising to the west and Grand Marais to the east are small but bustling during the summer months. We found great little hole-in-the-wall restaurants and enjoyed our time in the towns as much as exploring the lakeshore itself.

Pictured Rocks is also a great stop to make on longer road trips, especially from Tahquamenon Falls to the rest of the UP.

Overcast skies cast a serene glow over the distinct sea caves of Devils Island in the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, with emerald waters foregrounding the weathered red sandstone formations.
The sea caves are beautiful in the Apostle Islands, but they’re more difficult to see.


The Apostle Islands and Pictured Rocks National Lakeshores both protect rich histories shaped by nature and industry.

The Apostle Islands, designated a National Lakeshore in 1970, are filled with legacies of Native American tribes, fur traders, and lighthouse keepers, mirroring a diverse cultural tapestry against a backdrop of natural beauty.

Pictured Rocks, established a bit earlier in 1966 as the first National Lakeshore in the United States, protects the history carved into its colorful sandstone cliffs, telling the tales of Indigenous peoples, explorers, and loggers.

Apostle Islands

Established as a national lakeshore in 1970, Apostle Islands National Lakeshore protects areas that are important both ecologically and culturally. Some of the islands are important homes and breeding grounds for wildlife.

Although Madeline Island is not officially a part of the national lakeshore, it historically was the home of the native Ojibwe people. They then explored the rest of the islands, gathering resources necessary for survival.

The establishment of Apostle Islands National Lakeshore as a national lakeshore initiated the protection and preservation of fragile ecosystems and historical structures, including those beautiful lighthouses.

Pictured Rocks

Officially named a national lakeshore in 1966, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore was the first area in the US to receive this designation.

The rich history of trading, fishing, and lighthouse keeping is deeply embedded in this area of the UP, and Pictured Rocks protects and educates about all of these.

From the early days of indigenous tribes trading furs to the rise of commercial fishing and logging, to the essential role lighthouses played in guiding ships safely through treacherous Lake Superior waters, you’ll get more history than you might expect in Pictured Rocks.

Make sure you visit the Log Slide Overlook. You’ll see some old logging equipment on the way up to the view. Then, once you reach the overlook, you’ll be treated to a panoramic view of Lake Superior. While you’re there, imagine workers sending giant logs down that steep drop to the boats waiting to transport them across the Great Lakes. That was mind-boggling to us!

A secluded shoreline on one of the Apostle Islands with a cluster of rustic cabins and a wooden dock, surrounded by dense spring greenery.
While on a boat tour in the Apostle Islands, you’ll see views like this.

Things to Do

Both the Apostle Islands and Pictured Rocks offer great boat tours, showing off beautiful views from the water. The Apostle Islands are known for their clear waters, lighthouses, and sea caves, which you’ll see on those relaxed boat trips. Pictured Rocks also has amazing boat tours, taking you to the views of the tall sandstone cliffs and rock formations.

But, if you love hiking, Pictured Rocks stands out with its longer trails that let you explore more on foot. You’ll discover some great waterfalls in Pictured Rocks along those hiking trails. The mainland Apostle Islands area only has a few trails to explore.

Apostle Islands

If you’re considering a stop exploring the Apostle Islands, they’re worth visiting for a few days. If you enjoy camping, you’ll want to get to one of the islands for a remote experience.

Kayaking is also a must-do. Getting to see those sea caves up close and personal from the water in your kayak is an unreal experience. If you’re not up for kayaking, hop on an informational cruise around the islands.

If you visit on a hot summer day, plan to spend relaxing time on Meyers Beach, too. Lots of kayak tours take off from there, so you can plan to spend the whole day there. Since there is a fee for parking at Meyers Beach, you might as well get your money’s worth!

The best hiking trail on the mainland also begins at Meyers Beach. The Lakeshore Trail weaves through some thick, wooded land before reaching views of the sea caves below.

Pictured Rocks

Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore is a stop you absolutely have to make on any road trip around Michigan. It’s home to some of the best hiking in Michigan.

The Chapel Loop is one of our favorite hikes in Pictured Rocks, and all of Michigan. It’s a must-do trail for those ready to cover the distance. 

You can find hikes that range in difficulty from easy walks on paved paths to more challenging trails with descents down to the lake. Each trail has unique views of the cliffs and forests; some lead to tucked-away beaches, and many have waterfalls.

Kayaking along the cliffs is a perfect activity for those looking for something more adventurous. Lake Superior can be unpredictable, so the conditions do cause tour cancellations from time to time. However, if the weather cooperates, kayaking is one of the best things to do in Pictured Rocks.

For a more laid-back adventure, we’d recommend the scenic boat tours, which highlight the beautiful views without the work of kayaking. The guides on the boat entertainingly narrated the tour, which kept us even more engaged in the views.

Even if you go kayaking, we’d still recommend taking a scenic boat cruise because it was one of our favorite things to do in Pictured Rocks, especially for the sunset views.

Pictured Rocks also has more area accessible for winter activities. Snowshoeing and cross-country skiing are popular, as is ice climbing when the waterfalls and cliffs are frozen. While Apostle Islands has allowed access to the sea caves over the frozen lake when conditions permitted in the past, this has not happened since 2015.

A serene autumn day at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore along the sandy Chapel Beach leading to clear turquoise waters, flanked by a vibrant display of fall foliage atop the sandstone cliffs.
Chapel Beach is one of our favorite spots in Pictured Rocks, but you’ll have to hike to get there.

Should You Visit the Apostle Islands or Pictured Rocks?

Deciding between visiting the Apostle Islands or Pictured Rocks depends on what you’re looking for in an outdoor adventure. Both offer stunning fantastic boat tours and opportunities to get out on Lake Superior, but they each shine in unique ways.

If your idea of a perfect trip involves kayaking among historic sea caves, camping on secluded islands, and enjoying sunny beach days, then a mid-summer adventure to the Apostle Islands is for you.

On the other hand, if you’re drawn to hiking and backpacking opportunities, breathtaking cliff views, and lots of waterfalls, Pictured Rocks should be your go-to.

For the best of both worlds, plan a road trip to visit both! You’ll want to plan at least 2-3 days in each spot, or more if you plan on backcountry camping.

Ultimately, whether you choose the Apostle Islands for its water-based adventures and camping, or Pictured Rocks for its trails and scenic beauty, both national lakeshores will give you unforgettable experiences in some of the most spectacular landscapes Lake Superior has to offer.