Nature’s Artistry: The Contours and Colors of Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore 

Nature’s Artistry: The Contours and Colors of Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore 


Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, located along the southern shore of Lake Superior, is a stunning display of nature’s artistry. Every year, over a million visitors come to see where the blue waters of Lake Michigan meet the colorful sandstone cliffs and create a masterpiece of nature. For the geology buffs, Pictured Rocks is an outdoor museum of rock formations that have been around for millions of years, exquisite examples of the effects of the elements. 


Not a geology buff? While it’s certainly possible to enjoy the views without any background on sandstone art, “museums” are more fun with a guide! We’ve collected a few notable rock formations to watch for as you kayak your way along the shoreline on a Paddling Michigan Kayak Tour


But first! Two noteworthy features of geologic formations: the contours and the colors.


Art by Wind & Water: The Contours 

The land in Northern Michigan used to be covered by glaciers, and as the glaciers moved, they left deep grooves and scratches in the bedrock which can still be observed in the park today. Over millions of years, the grooves filled with sediment, and the sediment formed layers of sandstone, shale, and conglomerate. Wind and water pounded the sandstone into hundreds of interesting shapes, creating the unique contours we see in Pictured Rocks today. 

Art by Oxygen & Iron: The Colors 

One of the most striking features of Pictured Rocks is the colors of the sandstone cliffs. The hues vary from deep red and orange to white, brown, black, green, and blue, and occur when minerals in the water are exposed to air as it runs down the side of the cliffs. The reds and oranges come from iron, white from limonite, brown and black from manganese, and the blues and greens from copper. The more oxygen present in the water, the deeper the color palette.


And now for the art show…

There are dozens of cliffs and caves carved into the sandstone, and each one is a masterpiece.  We’ve highlighted some of the most famous geologic formations of Pictured Rocks you may see while on your tour. 


Lover’s Leap

Lover’s Leap is the most photographed rock formation at Pictured Rocks and a favorite stop for kayakers on our tours because you can paddle right through the arch formed in the sandstone. 

Indian Head Rock

This enormous formation can be seen on our Paddle & Hike tour, and when the sun hits the rock face just right, it resembles an Indian Head carved into a vertical expanse of sandstone. 

Rainbow Cave

A colorful stop on our kayak tour, Rainbow Cave is the largest cave on the Pictured Rocks Shoreline. Visitors can paddle inside for a close-up look at the many colors created on the sandstone walls. 

Miners Castle

Kayakers on our Morning and Afternoon Delight tours visit these caves that have been eroded into narrow, curved passages, resembling the landscape of a far-off planet. A favorite stop for paddlers!

Kissing Rock

Another favorite of photographers, Kissing Rock is a tall formation that appears to lean into the cliff beside it, forming a narrow passage below for Paddler’s Choice and Paddle & Hike kayakers to pass through. 

Caves of the Bloody Chiefs

These low caverns can be seen from your Paddling Michigan lunch stop on Mosquito Beach, and they get their name from the colorful legends passed down by the Native American people. 

Grand Portal Arch

Even after erosion caused portions of Grand Portal Arch to fall in 1900 and 1999, it remains one of the most magnificent rock formations on the shoreline. The rubble from the collapse now blocks the portal where boats once passed through.

Battleship Row

This rock formation juts out over the lake and appears to be a formidable row of warship sterns, but it peacefully welcomes visitors on our Paddle & Hike tour. 

Chapel Rock

Chapel Rock is the final stop on our Paddle & Hike tour and is most notable for the tree growing on top of the rock formation. The white pine is estimated to be about 250 years old, and its roots span the gap created when the arch connecting the rock to the land collapsed in the 1940s.

Painted Coves

The Painted Coves soar 200 feet above the shoreline and are a stunning display of the various colors created when the minerals in the water oxidize on the sandstone. 

Flower Vase

This geologic beauty has a wide base and a narrow neck that widens at the top like a vase. The trees and vegetation on its peak form the “flowers.” This formation has been a landmark in this area since the 1800s when fur traders noted it on their maps. 

We hope you’ve enjoyed your tour!

Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore is a testament to the power of nature to create stunning landscapes. Unlike art in a museum, the elements continue to alter the canvas, so the beauty of it all is ever-changing and endlessly awe-inspiring.


We’d love for you to join us and explore this artistry for yourselves! The geological formations, along with the beaches and waterfalls of Pictured Rocks, can be seen on our kayak and hiking tours.  


For the easiest vacation planning, Paddling Michigan has bundled our most popular tours with lodging and dining options in all-inclusive packages to suit every vacation style.

Book now to reserve your dates! We can’t wait to host you.