(© Ian Plant) Lake Superior is the largest of the five Great Lakes of North America, and is the largest freshwater lake in the world by surface area. Known by the native Ojibwe people as Gichigami—”big water”—mighty Superior can be at times tranquil as a mirror, and at others as violent as a hurricane. It is also one of the most scenic natural features in the United States. There’s virtually no end to the photographic opportunities on Lake Superior, ranging from brightly colored cliffs, to glittering sand beaches, to sandstone sea caves sculpted by centuries of wind and waves.
Perhaps the best way to access many of Superior’s most wild and scenic places is by boat—but take note that Superior is notoriously fickle, and even a calm day can suddenly turn into a tempest. A sea kayak (my preferred mode of travel) is best suited to Superior’s mercurial moods, as they are built to handle heavy waves and winds. Rough weather, multi day trips, and open water crossings should only be attempted by experienced paddlers, or by less advanced paddlers who are professionally guided.
I just recently returned from shooting three of my favorite Superior locations on the U.S. side of the lake. Here they are!
Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore (Michigan, USA)
This is easily one of the most beautiful places on Lake Superior. The “pictured rocks” are tall sandstone cliffs rising straight out of the deep waters of the lake, stained with a rainbow of pastel colors from mineral seeps. There’s even a natural arch, dozens of waterfalls, and five hundred foot high sand dunes. A kayak is a great way to explore, but finding a place to land can be difficult, as deep water often goes right up to the cliffs. Miles of shoreline trails lead to stunning overlooks from up high. A long hike led me to this view; I stayed until twilight for this photo, walking back five miles in the dark.
Canon 5DIII, 15mm, ISO 400, f/8, 1/40 second.
Tettegouche State Park (Minnesota, USA)
This is one of my personal favorite locations, containing a mix of scenic waterfalls, hundred-foot high shoreline cliffs, and many subtle scenes such as the location I photographed below. The rocky shoreline in the main portion of the park is perfect for sunrises. Or, you can drive to the top of Palisade Head, a high cliff above the lake, to enjoy top-of-the-world views.
Canon 5DIII, 19mm, ISO 100, f/11, 0.5 seconds.
Apostle Islands National Lakeshore (Wisconsin, USA)
The Apostles are a kayaker’s dream, and are best known for sandstone sea caves found in a few specific locations within the park. The best caves are found on Sand and Devils Islands, both of which can only be reached by boat; there are also significant caves on the mainland, also only accessed by boat. Be extremely cautious when entering a sea cave to photograph, as even slight waves get magnified within and you can end up getting smashed against the rocks if the lake gets rough (this is not an idle warning; fatalities have occurred). Finding shallow water within the caves so you can set up a tripod can be difficult, such as with the photograph below. Also, a wet suit is advised, as Superior’s waters can be very cold even in summer. Winter bonus: if enough of the lake freezes, park staff opens the “ice trail” leading to the mainland sea caves, which fill with giant icicles during the winter, turning them into beautiful ice caves.
Canon 5DIII, 15mm, ISO 100, f/14, 6 seconds.
Before planning a photo trip to Lake Superior, check out Craig Blacklock’s classic The Lake Superior Images, which in my opinion is easily one of the most beautiful photo books ever produced. Blacklock spent years photographing Superior, culminating his photo adventures with a multi-month circumnavigation of the lake in his sea kayak. But don’t just try to recreate Blacklock’s shots; Superior is sufficiently vast for you to find places and compositions that are your very own!
You can see more of my Lake Superior work on my website.