Summer Fun in Michigan State Parks
Once the weather gets warm, Michiganders from all over the state know that it’s time to take advantage of the summer sun and get outdoors! But everyone has their own ideas when it comes to what a great day out entails. Lucky for us, Michigan State parks, scenic areas, and recreation areas have something to offer for the thrill seekers, the sunbathers and everyone in between! We’ve listed some ideal locations for every kind of summer explorer.
Michigander Pro Tip: When road-tripping, don’t forget a Recreation Passport! It's required for entry in Michigan State Parks and Recreation Areas.
For the Sightseers
Whether you come from out of state looking for our “greatest hits”, or you’re a Michigander who’s a fan of our many scenic landmarks, Michigan is full of beautiful sights perfect for a photo or two.
STRAITS STATE PARK
Of course no sightseeing list would be complete without at least one mention of Straits State Park. Established in 1924, Straits’ claim to fame is — you guessed it — the Mackinac Bridge! This park offers a picnic area and a picturesque observation deck where visitors can get a good view of the bridge. There’s even a few campsites, and the Father Marquette Memorial, which tells the story of Father Jacques Marquete and how the French and Native American cultures met in the 17th century. This is a great spot for some photos, and an hour-long visit to the memorial, if you’re so inclined.
SILVER LAKE STATE PARK
If you enjoy landmarks that are as interactive as they are scenic, try visiting the Little Sable Point Lighthouse at Silver Lake State Park. While the 100 foot plus lighthouse is impressive from the outside, it’s also a great place to get some steps in – literally! Volunteers from the Sable Points Lighthouse Keepers Association give tours of this lighthouse, all the way up the 130 steps. When you get to the top, there's a panoramic view of the park, perfect for pictures.
image credit: @michigandnr
PALMS BOOK STATE PARK
If natural landmarks are more your style, well, you came to the right state. Michigan is chock full of picturesque natural vistas, most (predictably) involving water. Try visiting the Palms Book State Park, home to Kitch-iti-kipi, the state’s largest freshwater spring! The water is famously crystal clear and ultramarine blue, allowing you to see 40 feet down to the bottom where trout swim, ancient tree stumps lie, and sand shifts and moves like smoke. The open-bottom observation raft allows you to travel right to the center of the lake to get a good look.
WAGNER FALLS SCENIC SITE
The Wagner Falls Scenic Site is equally impressive, home to a waterfall tucked between virgin pine and hemlock trees. Wagner is set apart from many other falls around the state because of its unique formation: though most of the falls is made up of soft sandstone, it’s capped by hard, resistant dolomite, which is not easily eroded. This means the water has not softened the sharp, right angle steps of the falls! A short walk from the parking area will lead you to the observation deck overlooking the falls.
TAHQUAMENON FALLS STATE PARK
If you’re a fan of natural waterfalls, you can’t skip Tahquamenon Falls State Park. The park itself is impressive, covering close to 50,000 acres of mostly undeveloped woodland. But the centerpiece of this park is without a doubt its namesake: The Tahquamenon Falls.
It’s actually made up of two falls, the Upper and the Lower (kind of like our state). The Upper falls is one of the largest east of the Mississippi, with a drop of almost 50 feet, and measuring more than 200 feet across. There has been more than 50,000 gallons of water per second recorded going over these falls! They can be viewed from the river bank or a nearby island, which is reached by a rowboat rented from a park concession. A trip to Northern Michigan isn’t complete without laying eyes on this natural beauty at least once.
Fun Park Fact: Tahquamenon is famous not just for its size, but also its color! The waters have a rich amber color, caused by tannins leaching from the cedar swamp upstream. A perfectly natural and healthy process, this is actually the same reason teabags turn water brown. No wonder some locals call it “The Root Beer Falls”!
For the Weekenders and Sunday Afternoon-ers
If there’s one thing that the parks are perfect for, it’s weekend trips. For those busy with work, or with families to entertain, the weekend can be a goldmine of time to relax or find a new experience to bond over. Once you take a good look, plenty of parks prove to have something for everyone in the family, including the ones who just need a breather.
KEITH J. CHARTERS TRAVERSE CITY STATE PARK
Keith J. Charters Traverse City State Park is one of those sweet and simple parks. Home to a quarter of a mile of beautiful beach, numerous campsites, picnic areas, and a playground, it’s the perfect park for a peaceful Sunday afternoon on the shore, while the kids play on the swings. Plus, being only three miles from downtown Traverse City means a stroll downtown or a dinner out isn’t out of the question.
WARREN DUNES STATE PARK
Another equally relaxing getaway is Warren Dunes State Park, located on the southwest shore of the mitten. With three miles of shoreline (two and a half of which are dog-friendly), six miles of hiking trails, and beautiful rolling dunes that sail 260 feet above the lake, it’s easily one of the better kept secrets of the Lower Peninsula. There’s even hang gliding offered, if you feel like getting a little adventurous!
ROCKPORT RECREATION AREA
An excellent place for families with a lot of different interests and the need for an exciting getaway? Rockport Recreation Area, for sure. This is one of those places that offers something for everyone! There is definitely a sunbathe-worthy beach along the Huron shore, but that’s not all. Stick around ‘till night time to see a lightshow of stars and planets! Rockport is a designated Dark Sky Preserve, meaning it’s worked to reduce light pollution and make the area an especially ideal place for stargazing.
image credit: @visit_alpena
Once you’ve gotten your fill of stargazing (if, that is, you could ever really get tired of it), there’s plenty more to do during the day. Rockport is home to an old limestone quarry covering nearly 300 acres of land and open to exploration by visitors. If that’s not already cool enough, studded throughout the quarry are fossils from the Devonian period! You can even bring the fossils you find home, although keep in mind that the DNR does not allow anyone to take more than 25 pounds of rock or mineral off state property at one time.
Did we mention the Historic Ghost Village? Or how about the fascinating shipwreck, the Portland, located off the coast of the Besser Natural Area beach? Or the many sinkholes on the property? There’s an unlimited amount of unique, hair-raising, and downright enchanting attractions offered at the Rockport Recreation Area, and it’s definitely worth a weekend outing.
image credit: @visit_alpena
For the Hardcore Outdoors-ers and Thrill Seekers
What do you think of when someone says “adrenaline junkie”? Someone who rides all the fastest roller coasters in the park? Or the person who looks forward to the next bungee jumping or skydiving session? You may not know it, but Michigan nature offers some thrills and chills of its own!
MENOMINEE RIVER STATE RECREATION AREA
Take the Menominee River State Recreation Area for example. This land runs along a 17 mile stretch of the Menominee river, which is known to have some of the fastest waters in the state! The river has a mix of fast flowing and smoother stretches, but areas like Piers Gorge are definitely still considered advanced, with class IV rapids.
While the Piers Gorge Unit has a ranger contact station, vault toilets, and a designated parking area, there’s not much other development along the river, which means the ride is not only exhilarating, but has some beautiful views of the surrounding wildlife as well.
SILVER LAKE STATE PARK
If water isn't your thing, there’s plenty of fun to be had on land, too. Silver Lake State Park might be a perfect fit for anyone out there who’s a fan of the land cruisers. This park is home to the only sand dunes that are open to Off Road Vehicles east of the Mississippi, with 450 acres of ORV area! Plus, with a large swimming beach on site, you can go ahead and sunbathe on the sand after you fly along the dunes.
If you don’t happen to own your own vehicle, there’s various places available to rent ones, and even guided tours where you don’t even need to worry about the driving. Who says there’s no such thing as a State Park roller coaster?
PORCUPINE WILDERNESS STATE PARK
Some prefer the fast and furious adrenaline, others prefer to push themselves in different ways. The kind that involves a little sweat, a lot of hard work, and a big payoff. If that’s your kind of thing, check out the Porcupine Wilderness State Park. With 20 miles of designated mountain bike trails and over 90 miles of hiking trails, you won’t find a better workout or bigger challenge in the rest of the state! Being the biggest State Park in Michigan (60,000 acres!) sure has some perks.
And that big payoff mentioned earlier? If you choose one of the many trails that are noted for scenic views or, travel to Summit Peak, you’ll be rewarded with one of the most pristine and beautiful views in Michigan nature.
image credit: @porcupinemountainscvb
For the History Buffs
Maybe you’re into fossils. Maybe you like to read up on old Michigan breweries or 19th century Detroit personalities. Maybe you’ve even got a Greenfield Village season pass (we’re jealous). We’ve all got a little history buff in us, but for those who are willing to travel to learn more, Michigan has no shortage to learn about!
FAYETTE HISTORIC STATE PARK
Fayette Historic State Park offers much of what you would expect from a historical site, with some extra park perks. More than 20 genuine buildings survive the once-bustling 19th century Industrial town on this park wrapped around Snail Shell Harbor. Among them are the blast furnace used to create pig iron, the hotel, the office, residences, town hall, and machine shop, just to name a few. The park offers free guided or self-guided tours. There’s also “live history” presentations throughout the town, and occasionally 19th century-style baseball games.
Beyond the historical presentations, Fayette offers many of the pleasures of any state park: campsites, fishing, hiking, and a boat launch. There’s even scuba diving offered, allowing you to view some of the centuries-old artifacts that have found their way to the bottom of the harbor! Greenfield Village, eat your heart out.
MERIDIAN-BASELINE STATE PARK
A relatively new, but just as interesting historical park is the Meridian-Baseline State Park. While it’s relatively small at about 108 acres, what it lacks in size it makes up for in sheer importance. If you live in Michigan, think about the coordinates of that location. There has to be a reference point for the latitude and longitude of each property on Michigan, right? Well there is, and it’s the focal point of Meridian-Baseline State Park! There’s two concrete and brass monuments marking the very start of all coordinate measurements for the entire state of Michigan, and as of 2015, you can now visit it as a state park!
Fun Park Fact: There are actually two coordinate markers at Meridian-Baseline! A new baseline was marked in 1817, 935.88 feet south of the original marker, due to some discrepancy among the surveyors. Michigan now uses them both! All Michigan land east of the Meridian line is based off the northern marker, and all property west of the Meridian line is based off of the southern marker.
SANILAC PETROGLYPHS STATE PARK
Sanilac Petroglyphs State Park is certainly one of Michigan’s most unique parks. Located in the middle of the thumb-tip, it houses the state’s largest known collection of early Native American stone carvings! Sanilac in particular is also unique in that it’s the first State Park co-managed by both the state and a Native Tribe. The Michigan DNR, Michigan History Center, and the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe of Michigan all work together to manage the preservation and interpretation of these carvings.
Called Ezhibiigaadek Asin, or “Written on stone”, in the Anishinaabemowin language, these carvings are etched into soft sandstone and include symbols like spirals, human figures, and birds. These Petroglyphs were likely carved within the last 1,400 years, with some possibly carved in more recent centuries. While the carvings are of course, the main draw of the park, there is also a one-mile hiking trail that crosses the nearby Cass River, providing a nice blend of outdoor activity and historical education.
image credit: @travelthemitten
For the Nature Enthusiasts
There are plenty of reasons for visiting the State Parks, but one of the most classic is simply to enjoy the riches of Michigan’s natural wildlife. With such a beautiful and diverse landscape, it’s only a matter of time before you run into a Michigander who’s an avid birdwatcher, rockhunter, or wildflower seeker. If you find yourself checking into the Audubon App often, or bringing your wildflower guide wherever you go, these parks are sure to scratch your itch!
PORCUPINE WILDERNESS STATE PARK
We start off our list with a previously mentioned park: Porcupine Wilderness State Park! It’s hard not to excel in several fields when you’re the largest park in the state. Porcupine in particular is great for birdwatching. You’re likely to spot an eagle, hawk, heron, or even a peregrine falcon! Deeper into the forests of the park you’re likely to encounter other species of birds: rare warblers like the blue-throated, green, and Blackburnian varieties, pileated woodpeckers, and blue jays. Bring your binoculars!
PETOSKEY STATE PARK
If you consider yourself a rockhound, there’s no better place to start sniffing than at Petoskey State Park. Two million years ago, Glaciers scraped across our state, pulling and spreading fossils from the Devonian Period (350 million years ago) all over, but depositing a particularly high concentration of them right in the Petoskey area. Now, much of Petoskey State Park shoreline offers the perfect opportunity to beachcomb for those fossils. Who knows, you might even find a Charlevoix stone!
Petoskey State Park also happens to be right near another nature-lover’s haven, the Oden Fish Hatchery. Only a short drive away from Petoskey State park, it’s an easy add on to a day trip! The hatchery raises mostly brook and brown trout, but they’ve gained some notoriety recently for taking part in the Arctic Grayling Initiative and helping to hatch and rear young grayling in order to reintroduce them to our waters. While they recommend calling ahead to make sure their visitor center is open, Oden is certainly visitor friendly, with a gift shop, a fish pond, and even a nature trail!
Michigander Pro Tip: Always look out for fun activities around park areas. Everything from fish hatcheries to downtown restaurants and shops can be found just a short drive away, and are easy to visit the same day if you plan ahead!
ALGONAC STATE PARK
Last though certainly not least on our list is an underrated haven of rare and unique wildlife: Algonac State Park! Being only an hour away from Detroit, not many associate Algonac with undeveloped nature. It’s well-known for being a good spot to freighter-watch, but few know that it’s also home to the highest concentration of rare species found today in any Michigan State Park!
The secret is that Algonac is home to some of the rarest habitats in the state: lake plain prairies and savannas. These sorts of habitats covered 600,000 acres of southeast Michigan before european settlement, but now only 500 acres remain - and over 120 of those acres are located at Algonac! At least 24 rare species of plants and animals live in Algonac State park: purple milkweed, the spotted turtle, and the eastern fox snake, to name a few. The Blazing Star Prairie Trail is a particularly good trail for avid wildflower enthusiasts, as it provides an often changing and spectacular array of wildflowers. Take it from us: if you’re a fan of wildlife, the Algonac State Park is one that you don’t want to miss!
When we say that Michigan is a state of happiness for everyone, we mean it! With a little research, it’s easy to uncover hidden gems and state parks perfect for every kind of visitor or Michigander. The only thing left to do is gas up the camper and hit the road!
The lovely illustrations of each of these parks were created by Michigan artist Jodi Lynn Burton! Jodi has over 10 years of experience working as an illustrator, and her pieces can be found in many artist shops, schools, and homes around the world. You can learn more about her on her website: jodilynndoodles.com.
Have you been to one of these parks? Share your experiences with #mipeninsulas on instagram and facebook!