I cannot begin to describe the struggle of combining social responsibility with planning a vacation during CoVid. After fully dreaming and booking/cancelling the California Road Trip, we mentally wandered to Washington State & Oregon, followed by the realization that flying and quarantining for two weeks didn’t exactly sound opportune. However, I now have three back-pocket adventures for the future! Maine was contemplated, but they have some of the strictest CoVid entrance rules in the country (smart–can’t be mad). Where else to drive without spending 24 hours in a vehicle? Michigan, naturally! After growing up snowmobiling in the Upper Peninsula, roaring through beautifully silent, snow-decked forests and thickly iced lakes and attending the University of Michigan & exploring the Great Lakes, how could I not seize the opportunity to visit again? I loved it there always and am still making a case for moving back…or at least for a lake house, someday. For this adventure, my husband took serious convincing, envisioning normal lakes: slightly slime muddy, ability to see the shore all around, fish nibbling toes and much tubing. Granted, I did not try to explain beyond showing him a couple photos online. Just trust me, I said. You’ll be happily surprised. And he was floored 🙂 The Great Lakes are stunners…so much so, that we hiked over 60 miles in 7 days!
The most difficult portion of the planning process? Condensing the potential stops to our week’s worth of time. Michigan has many gems, so I’ll include several conceivable extensions to the adventure as well! Without exaggeration, I could have spent a month hiking and swimming with absolutely no cell reception and been the happiest clam on the planet.
- Grand Rapids
- Nordhouse Dunes
- Empire Bluff
- Sleeping Bear Dunes
- Traverse City
- Mackinaw City
- Pictured Rocks
- Saint Ignace
- Ann Arbor
Shoddy maps, Days 1-3 and 3-6
Packing & Planning list:
Because we were mixing hotels with camping, we opted for full test mode of our backpacking gear and backwoods/primitive sites. I love balancing pure nature with a smidge of city/creature comforts, but everyone has their own preferences. It would be wonderfully simple, particularly via Michigan State Parks or recreation.gov, to plan to camp for the entirety of the trip in varying degrees of isolation, provided you book at minimum a month in advance. Apart from the normal summer athletic gear, here are some must brings!
- The Great Lakes require many flying leaps!
- Large cooler
- Stocked with lunch sandwich supplies to save a chunk of change and avoid worrying about food when remote
- Sweatshirt for chilly lake air nights
- Any and all bug repellants
- Ability to be okay without any cell service
- Cash for pasties
- A good camera (Canon all the way, baby)
- Long, lightweight pants
- Particularly in the Upper Peninsula, you will be supremely thankful you brought these. The stable flies will chop your skin and do not seem to mind DEET.
- Good trail shoes or hiking boots
- Don’t be a noob. Flip-flops will not cut it to walk 2.5 miles to a beach.
- Flip-flops for the near beaches
- Water shoes for Sleeping Bear Dunes. Sand is hot on the toes.
- Backpacking materials. Because primitive camping on Nordhouse Dunes cannot be bypassed!
- Lightweight tent
- Good mats–worth spending a bit of money
- Smores sticks
- Sawyer water filtration
- Sleeping bag
- Folding chair
- Rope to hang wet clothes
***Note: during CoVid-19, it is wise to always check A) state requirements for travel and B) local ordinances/what is actually open!
The adventures and the photos!
Day 1: Grand rapids.
After a shortly sweet visit to family in Toledo, we embark upon our great Michigan road trip! In just 2.5 hours, we land in the middle of downtown Grand Rapids. A well-laid out, attractive city, she’s situated around the Grand River with great paths for meandering. I splurged on the hotel room for once; because of the ‘rona, there were plenty of steep discounts from which to choose. Homewood Suites were perfectly situated for our walking brewery tour and had a gorgeous rooftop bar that seemed to be popular for the bachelorette parties. Speaking of breweries: if you love beer, the outdoors, and sweet summer evenings, Grand Rapids is the place for you! And me 🙂 And Jeremy, too, I suppose!
She has a wonderful combination of old and new with clear, bubbling streamwater sounds in the background. While roaming the open breweries, we experienced late afternoon and evening on a Saturday–v. pleasant!
We probably walked more to the tune of six miles, as we couldn’t resist the river trails. Note for non-Corona times: it seems there are some interesting museums! Anyhow, as far as the breweries go…there wasn’t a dud in the bunch! They all had their own particular vibes, and we appreciated the emphasis on stouts and porters as opposed to IPAs. Founders, of course, is spectacular…incredible coffee beers! Marry my two favorite drinks? Yes, please. Mmm that Frangelic Mountain Brown…Then, Grand Rapids Brewing Co.! All of these places had flight options, but here one chooses six different beers. Yes, Rainbow Universe was my favorite. When these odd times are over, GR Brewing would be a prime visit if you like to combine drinking with games (who doesn’t?!)–huge game room off to the side.
Thereafter, we wandered the riversides and headed towards City Built Brewing, stopping at Atwater along the way. Both Founders and City Built had very tasty food, but I’d imagine they all do! Once night fell, we were on our way to our rooftop bar with a sparkling view over the glowing city, and just a staircase walk later, flooped into our comfortable bed.
Day 2: Muskegon, ludington & Nordhouse dunes
First Lake Michigan day! I shot out of bed at 5:30 am, I was so excited. Jeremy was not excited about this. First stop: Pere Marquette Beach in Muskegon, less than an hour from Grand Rapids. We could have visited Grand Haven as well, but I rush enough in my daily life to not want to overload the vacation life. Additionally, we had dreams of being able to play beach volleyball after ogling the Internet pages…most towns along the coasts of Lake Michigan have beautiful sand volleyball courts of some sort! The beach itself was gorgeous: a wide swath of white sand, perfectly clear, deep blue, bone-chilling water, a walk out to a lighthouse…and a cross fit competition with massive crowds of overly sweaty humans. CoVid caused the take down of the 24 volleyball courts at this particular beach, but muscular people competition was somehow okay. I’m not sour about it. In any case, the beach walk and chilly swim were amazing, always worth a stop!
After a couple of hours beaching and exploring, a sandwich out of the back of the car and onwards! An hour later, we arrive at Ludington Beach State Park, in my opinion, the best first stop for Lake Michigan exploring. Park alongside the road (actually a mile before the actual state park), climb through a dune, and bam! Your own personal beach. For as beautiful as the beach was, there was almost no one else.
We scramble over a dune, wander up to the right towards a trash sculpture, then head back south. To the south, there are some stellar climbing dunes, offering heart-pounding workouts and gorgeous 360 views.
After scarfing down a pizza in Ludington and watching the ferry pull into the harbor (it may or may not have traveled from Wisconsin?!), we traveled approx. 40 minutes to our camping area for the night: Nordhosue Dunes Wilderness. While you can rent out the typical bay, we opted for the mostly free primitive camping on the beach! Couldn’t pass it up; not a chance. They have the typical permit box by the map: 5$. Directions on getting to the appropriate parking lot following, as you will certainly lose service. Think about black bear precautions before taking a bunch of smelly foods like tinned fish (long story) to your campsite! The following map from usda.gov.
After parking at the observation platform, we shouldered our 5th grader-sized packs and trudged off towards the lake. Lake Michigan is maybe 1/16 of a mile from the parking lot; if you stay along the tree line, there is a mildly less strenuous 1/2 mile walk from there, as opposed to hiking over the dunes with all the gear, to the backwoods camping areas. Regulations will say that you must camp both 400 ft from the ocean…I mean lake….and 400ft from the trail, but it was evident where others had camped and built fires, so we just copied. Check out these views! This was by far my favorite sleeping place.
Perfect, no? And sleeping on sand > stones and lumps. The next morning, we rolled out of our tiny tent, packed up & left no trace. Rubbing sleep sand out of the face, there’s nothing like cracking open your eyes to the endless expanse of Lake Michigan from atop a sand dune. Bestill my beating heart…but, on to the next place!
Day 3: Empire Bluff Trail, Sleeping Bear Dunes & Traverse City
An hour and a half of driving to our next scenic Lake Michigan point: Empire Bluff, just outside the cute, minute town of Empire. There is also quite the tasty local ice cream shop in town for after hiking the actual dunes–10/10 recommend. A very easy jaunt from the parking lot at 1.5 miles round trip, Empire Bluff Trail is appropriate for all ages and athletic abilities. The trail is wide and convenient for four-legged friends as well. At the bluff view point, well…wonderful views of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore!! I love different vantage points, and it certainly makes our dunes hike appear more intense! Check it out:
After loping along the Empire Bluff Trail, the excitement for the dunes was building. I wanted a colossal change of scenery, and we found it! In a day, we vacillated between dense forest, clear, refreshing blue expanses of water and sky, and what looked like a more verdant version of the Sahara! Headed in direction Glen Arbor (which I hear is also quite quaint and worth a visit), Dune Climb Trail is clearly marked, but lacking in a clear map. Let me save you some trouble: “mile marker” post 27 is near the shore of Lake Michigan. We begin at 1 on the dune seen from the parking lot; Alltrails claims the hike is 3.5 miles round trip, but, by the time you’ve bumbled about a bit, it is closer to 4.5-5. Do wear something on your feet–the sand gets very toasty by midday!
We, of course, thought the lake beach was just beyond the sand dune…and then the next sand dune…and then the next sand dune. What can I say–they play tricks on the eyes. Beautiful tricks. I can’t use words or photos to describe the place; you just have to visit! And expect the legs to get a workout 🙂 I could really feel it in my glutes the following day! To the best of my memory, there were five mildly steep dune ascents and descents (running down/sliding down the dunes is amazing–I can only imagine the winter tubing and saucer opportunities!!) before reaching the beach area along Lake Michigan. It looked like something I had imagined for California! Very worth the entire hike.
Heads up: the water is cold!! Shockingly, this was the coldest swim of the entire trip. Lake Superior felt balmy in comparison–it was like rolling into an ice bath, ribbons of freezing cold snaking around your bones. Afterwards, however, we felt amazing. Upon reading into the thing, we learned that it’s apparently awesome for your circulatory system. Makes sense, and would definitely repeat. You really feel extra alive afterwards, and the intense chill was welcome after the toasty dunes traverse! Speaking of, on to Traverse City, a 45-minute drive from the Dunes!
Traverse City is considered one of THE places to visit on a Michigan road trip, and with strategically good reason. There is an airport nearby, and it is situated perfectly for day trips to Sleeping Bear Dunes, the Leelenau Peninsula (see optional potential add-ons at the end of this page), Torch Lake, and the Charlevoix & Petoskey areas. Traverse City proper is a wonderful walking city with easy access to the West Arm of Traverse City Bay. The bay itself is silly, with a thin arm jutting deeply into the middle and topped with Mission Point Lighthouse at the latitude approximately halfway between the Equator and the North Pole. There are a couple of wineries here as well, and one can drive to the Lighthouse. Back in Traverse City, there is a lovely walkway along the bay and sand volleyball courts. A lab was gleefully diving in and out of the water after his branch, and kids were bobbing about without freezing. We are learning; bays are great because they are shallower (and I suppose some water is somewhat trapped), warming it up a bit. For hotel or Air B&B stays, I would almost forcefully suggest staying by the West Arm–we chose the East, because it is cheaper, but the traffic over there is a nightmare. Road construction has been on-going since before 2015, I think!
Although we were worn after our Sleeping Bear Dunes excursion, we had to wander along the water. Suddenly famished, we discovered Scalawag‘s and almost inhaled their fried white fish and chips. 10/10 recommend. The fish pieces were massive! Then, because I cannot ever get enough of the lake views, we had a drink outside of Apache Trout Grill and people/boat watched and wandered the Bay Trail along West End Beach. Beautiful sunset time.
Day 4: Charlevoix, Petoskey, & Mackinaw City
While Traverse City is potentially the best town location-wise for upper Mitten exploration, Charlevoix and Petoskey improve upon walkability and intriguing sights. Although smaller in population, the towns are even quainter (my opinion), and I love sleeping in a different place every night. We zooped out of Traverse city in the morning and picnicked in Charlevoix at the park overlooking the harbor. Expert tip: pay attention to the drawbridge and try not to leave until 10 – 15 minutes after it was scheduled to open! I believe it opens every half hour. But it is fun to watch the boats line up, waiting their turn, and walk out to the squat, barn house-red lighthouse! By the lighthouse, the water is incredibly sea foam green. In town, the main drag and side streets are lined with local shops packed with things you don’t need and never knew you could need but strongly desire to now have. About an hour from Traverse City, it’s the perfect midday leg stretcher or multiple-day stay as a launching point. I’d love to take a sailboat out one day!
Half an hour later, we are in Petoskey! A bit hillier, the town is also perfectly walkable, with great coffee shops for that afternoon pick-me-up. Both Populace Coffee and the Roast & Toast are delicious. I love coffee almost as much as lakes, what can I say? Sadly, I’m horrid at taking photos of towns, so you’ll just have to visit and see for yourself! Upsides on Petoskey: free parking is available, and the nearby Petoskey State Park has a beautiful beach, volleyball, and water that doesn’t freeze your feet off! To be like Dory, I just kept swimming, and swimming, and swimming.
As the afternoon dwindled away, time to head to our final stop: Mackinaw City, 45 minutes. She’s a bit of a sleepy town that has fallen on hard times, sleepier and harder now that CoVid has hit. After dropping off our belongings in a gigantic, fake log cabin hotel, we walk to the place with the best wings in town: the Keyhole Bar. Indeed, they were quite tasty. Mackinaw City, of course, is known for the ferry that hops over to Mackinac Island, which we skipped. Although I’ve heard it is also quite beautiful and worth a look-see. Anyhow, Mackinaw City was small and conveniently walkable from our hotel. E. Central Ave is lined with small tourist shops, a large mall, much fudge, and a few restaurants. Pancake Chef had an incredibly tasty buffet the next morning, I must add. From there, beautiful parks, trails, and technically Lake Huron wind up to the Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse and beach. V. nice, and a perfect stopover point before making the drive up to Pictured Rocks on the Upper Peninsula! (I can never let Jeremy live down the time he thought it was part of Wisconsin.)
And, because this is far better than any of my photos, here we have Mackinac Bridge in the fall! At one point the longest suspension bridge, it is, at five miles, still the fifth longest in the world. Driving across is a perfect perspective for some jaw dropping!
Day 5 & 6: Pictured Rocks!
A couple of hours northwest and here we are!! Full report here, because I couldn’t wait to write about it: Pictured Rocks, I Love You! The UP is a bit out of the way, but every visit is worth it! Could spend an entire week + up there, hence why most of my potential add-ons are here. So much beauty!
Glen Arbor and Leelanau: Leelanau is both the county in which both Sleeping Bear Dunes and GLen Arbor lie, as well as a peninsula with an island feel. Because the peninsula is only 5-7 miles wide, you are surrounded by Caribbean blue water and white sand beaches! From Glen Arbor, you can kayak down the Crystal River, which, as you can imagine, is quite beautiful. MI-22 is a beautiful drive as well. Do’t forget to visit Fishtown and some of the wineries! Leelanau wines are wonderful.
Dark Park: Headlands International Dark Sky Park. We had planned to wander here at night, but alas, the sky was solidly stock with thick, gray clouds the nights we were nearby. I’d been once before, and the sheer quantity of crisp, clear stars and shooting violet comets are worth the excursion and slight lack of sleep! However, we weren’t too sad about it–camping in remote areas lends itself to some amazing stargazing!
Log Slide (included on initial map): If we were to do it over, I would begin exploring Pictured Rocks from the eastern/ Grand Marais side and include a third day for additional exploration. I would certainly choose to go all the way down to the bottom–no doubt!
Two Hearted River: Apparently, Hemingway wrote a story about this place…and the Bell’s beer named after it happens to be my favorite IPA! But best of all…THERE ARE OTTERS! You can camp, fish, and kayak about, and the scenery is said to be magnificent. The camping area is first-come, first-serve at the mouth of the river–looks amazing!
Marquette and Copper Harbor: Because they are a bit far when doing the Mitten and UP in one trip, I lump them together. Both are fantastic destinations for anyone who loves outdoor activities! And in the winter…dream up the winter sport, it exists here. Ideally, if time were endless, we would go from Pictured Rocks to Marquette to Copper Harbor and then loop back home through Wisconsin. From cliff jumping at Blackrocks to hiking Sugarloaf Mtn to exploring the (dare I say) city, there is something for everyone at Marquette! 3% of Michigan’s population lives in the UP, with Marquette being the largest city at about 20,000 people. More Marquette adventures here! Marquette to Copper Harbor (the northernmost point of Michigan) is about a 3 hr drive. If you’re lucky, you can see the northern lights in the winter…and so, so much snow. Isle Royale is 50 miles off the coast and also worth the ferry trip in the summertime. There are moose!
In the fall: Tahquamenon Falls. The Upper Falls drop approximately 50ft and are considered some of the largest falls east of the Mississippi. I always see friends with photos from here, so I’m imagining it to be rather impressive! The falls are located in a 50,000 acre state park of the same name, and, as in much of the Upper Peninsula, hiking and cross-country skiing opportunities abound. A pair of moose live here as well! I’ve always wanted to see moose in the wild. Elk are already so massive; it’s difficult to imagine something even larger!
Any other ideas?! Let me know–I’ll always return to Michigan 🙂