Grand Island for a Grand Time
A Point North
By Mikel B. Classen
Photography by Mikel B. Classen
Historical Photos from the Mikel B. Classen Collection of Historical Pictures
Munising Bay in upper Michigan is a beautiful and popular destination for travelers that want to see the finest that the Lake Superior basin can provide. Home of Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, an unusual amount of waterfalls, the United States’ only underwater preserve, and the majestic Grand Island, the bay is a rare place indeed. In May of 1990, Grand Island was acquired by the U.S. Forest Service and designated by congress as a National Recreation Area. Now much of the island is in public hands and between its history and natural beauty, it is worth the small effort it takes to spend some time there.
Grand Island is most times seen from an overlook in Munising. Yet a side trip to the island can be a special experience. William’s Landing on Grand Island is one of the oldest place names on Lake Superior and Abraham Williams and his wife were one of the first settlers to brave life on the Lake Superior frontier. The history here shaped life all along the Superior shoreline.
The 13,000 acre Grand Island, just offshore Munising in the bay, compliments Pictured Rocks though it is not a part of the national park. It is a separate entity that is under the control of the U.S. Forest Service and not the National Park Service. Not nearly as well known, it is less known as a destination. This affords a much quieter and personal experience for individual or a family.
There are two lighthouses on Grand Island. One is the East Channel Light which can be seen on the Pictured Rocks Boat Tours. Probably the most photographed of the Island’s lights. The other is the North Light which is in private hands, though it is occasionally open for tours. There is an unsolved murder that happened there.
Currently, a visit to the island is very private and can be an exceptionally rewarding experience. There are established primitive campsites on the south end of the island at Murray and Trout Bays. They are within two miles of where the ferry puts in at William’s Landing. There are tent sites all around the island but in the summer months reservations are required. There are a couple of cabins that can be rented. These are reasonably new and are very nice to stay in.
Grand Island is a paradise for silent sports. Hiking, biking, paddling, is all encouraged. Trails cris-cross the island making most places of note accessible. For paddlers, in Murray Bay are two shipwrecks that are in shallow water, visible from the surface. Buoys mark their locations. Grand Island is designated as part of the Lake Superior Water Trail.
One of the trails is a history loop. It meanders through the settlement of William’s Landing. Many of the original old homes and homesteads still stand. Many are still lived in as private residences and are not a part of the recreation area. Their privacy should be respected.
The history of Grand Island and William’s Landing was one of the earliest settlements o Lake Superior. He arrived there in 1840. The only settlements that are older on Lake Superior are Sault Ste. Marie and Grand Portage. There was a small Native American community that lived along side of them.
In time the island evolved into a resort destination. The Williams Hotel, its distinctive barn shape makes it recognizable on the shore, was a destination for the rich and elite. It now is in private hands and can only be viewed from the water.
Because of the island’s popularity, a tycoon by the name of William C. Mather decided he would build the ultimate hunting lodge. Mather was the head of CCI (Cleveland Cliffs International) the Marquette Iron Range mining company. He purchased a large tract of land on the north west side of the island and built a magnificent lodge on the shoreline. Mather then stocked his new hunting lodge with exotic game animals and then had them imported from around the world. Unfortunately many of the animals couldn’t take the severe Lake Superior climate and died. The lodge was a failure. It still stands on the west side of Grand Island looking out over its own quiet bay.
During prohibition, the north side of the island was used for a dropping place for illegal booze. Caves are carved into the rocks and the bootleggers would leave casks of liquor there. Later someone from the mainland would come by and pick it up when the coast was clear.
For many years the island was owned by CCI and then the U.S. Forest Service took it over. Their mandate was to turn it into an interpretive recreation area. They have done just that. Highlighting the natural and the historic, Grand Island is a treat for the senses as well as the imagination. Signs placed throughout the island help interpret and visualize the whole that is Grand Island and its past.
To get to the island, a ferry service runs from the mainland to the island from May to the beginning of October, there is ferry service for both passengers and gear including bikes and kayaks which run all day. You can even rent some from them right there at the ferry. The only vehicles allowed on the island belong to the residents and the U.S. Forest Service. Snowmobiles are allowed in the winter and ATVs only after October.
The two established campgrounds at Murray and Trout Bays have camping sites, but camping is allowed throughout Grand Island where there are established tent sites. The U.S. Forest Service has made some incredible choices for site locations. No where in the park are you far from a designated campsite. Water sources and pit toilets are also scattered about the island along the trails.
In the winter, Grand Island has become the place of choice for snowmobilers and cross-country skiers. Past winters have seen estimated visitors of over 3,000 visiting the unique winter wonderland that the island has to offer. From January through March the bay is frozen solid and access to the island is safe and simple. Powell Point Landing, which is one mile west of Munising, is the closest access from the mainland and it is only a half-mile jaunt across to William’s Landing on Grand Island. From there you are free to travel the seemingly endless miles of trails and roads that provide some of the finest winter fun the U.P. can offer.
Ice climbing has become the new exciting winter sport that is seeing quite a few enthusiasts in the winter. Many of the cliffs seep spring water and in the frigid months, these freeze into giant ice columns. With the right kind of gear and skills, the sport is exhilarating and is attracting new participants all the time.
Grand Island is a small Isle Royale that is a lot closer and easier to get to. It can be enjoyed in a day or as long as your time allows. It is a showplace for nature that displays the variety and beauty that is so prevalent in the Munising area. No matter what time of year that a visit is made, the island lives up to its name. From the immense ice formations that hang from the shoreline cliffs, to the intense fall colors that adorn the mixed hardwood and pine forest, to the lush colors of spring and summer, there is ever changing beauty that will present something different every trip.
Grand Island is a recreation playground that is in a class by itself. The island is accessible to all, and there will be no one that can’t enjoy Grand Island in whatever adventure they want. The island is a wonderful experience that few are making use of. At the height of season there are many campsites available and a day trip to the island either hiking or biking can be a great way to get acquainted with the place. Spending time in this Alger County paradise should be a part of any Munising area trip. Go beyond the overlook and take some time to not just look at the view, but experience it first hand.
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Copyright by Mikel B. Classen