Dreaming of Travel: Touring Michigan’s Great Lakes
The Iseler Family Summer of RV Travel Leads them to Michigan’s Local Beach Towns.
As we travel across the US in our camper, we are struck by the beauty in the simplest things. As we enter a new state, we have a new tradition of checking out cool kids’ facts and there’s always something new to learn and appreciate.
Michigan touches four of the five Great Lakes and thus is a summer playground for families that love water and nature. We explored Lake Michigan, Lake Huron, and Lake Superior on this trip!
Our takeaway after visiting Michigan is….we’ll be back! There are so many places to visit where you can slow down, take in nature, and breathe! For now, here are our top 3 favorites and some insider tips that we hope will be helpful on your next socially distant road trip adventure or down the road.
A true tie for the #1 spot, we loved Grand Haven and the Pictured Rocks Lakeshore in the Upper Peninsula equally.
1A) Grand Haven
Grand Haven State Park Campground: wow, wow, wow! What an amazing place with beach camping and quick access to town (less than a mile walk along the beautiful canal). When I first saw the pictures, basically parking lot camping, I was a little nervous. That said, you can’t beat the location and proximity to the beach.
The spots felt private and the facilities were well kept. I love a good morning walk and the area’s walkability, in general, is excellent. The lighthouse is at the end of the beach and the water is shallow for a while, which is always nice with little kids.
Grand Haven is one of Michigan’s favorite beach locations and for good reason. They have a variety of lovely Airbnb rentals available in addition to camping options and there is plenty of public beach access.
We visited during our social distance touring and felt that people were respectfully maintaining distance and it wasn’t overly crowded. Expect to see other parents running with strollers, kids fishing, sand between your toes, ice cream galore - happy active people enjoying the outdoors - this is Grand Haven.
The area’s restaurants generally offer ample outdoor seating and there are plenty of to-go options such as Great Harvest Bread Company - the smell when you walk in is amazing. So many bread types and it’s an excellent place to grab sandwiches to take to the beach. Kilwins ice cream is also a top spot for us, and it’s a Midwest staple.
Rock-N-Road Cycle is less than ten minutes from the park for your bike rentals, and Sun Sports Rentals is even closer (at the city beach) for kayaks, paddleboards, jet skis and more. Another favorite activity find in Grand Haven is The Imagination Station Playground behind the YMCA. It is a spectacular playground with options for all ages.
For a fun restaurant excursion about fifteen minutes outside of Grand Haven, Sandy Point Beach House Restaurant is a beautiful indoor and outdoor space with bocce and a lively, relaxed atmosphere. The food is really good. The mac and cheese is made with real cheese, good for kids or adults. We also had a big pretzel, fish tacos (yum!!), a black and blue burger, and steak frites. Every bite was delicious and while the ambiance is quite nice, it still feels very family-friendly.
The Rosy Mound Natural Area hike was a top recommendation from our friend and local ambassador and it was fantastic. About a ten minute drive south on Lakeshore Avenue, the Ottawa County park is beautiful, fun, and challenging with a lot of stairs but totally worth the effort.
There are many trees on the dunes and a boardwalk-like path that ultimately leads hikers to a reward of gorgeous views and the chance to cool off at the lake. The most direct route is less than two miles out and back with restrooms on both ends. With kids under 5, prepare for piggybacks and/or a lot of breaks but fortunately, there are benches and lovely overlook areas throughout.
Make your way to Chinook Pier on Saturdays for the Grand Haven Farmers Market if you’re in town. You don’t want to miss it!
Grand Haven is more than three hours from Chicago which perhaps accounts for the less populated feel that is so vital in maintaining a safe physical distance from others, so it didn’t take long to convince us that (especially now) it ’s definitely worth the extra effort.
1B) Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore Park
This memorable destination spot is truly special. Since camping spaces at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore require advance reservation, we researched and found a gem in Grand Marais, conveniently located at the northeastern tip of Pictured Rocks, with waterfront spots and so much more.
The Woodland Park Campsite is walking distance to town, the inlet beach, the playground, and perhaps most importantly it’s right on the lake. The campsites are first-come, first-served and, as you may imagine, the waterfront ones fill up quickly. From the waterfront spots, there’s a dune and about a 150-yard walk to the beach. The beach is wide and full of beautiful rocks and plenty of space to social distance and roam. There’s a sweet children’s swing overlooking the lake too!
Grand Marais is a quiet, peaceful yet extraordinary waterfront town with public beach access both to the lake where you enjoy a bit more wind and waves or on the inlet with a playground at a bayside park. There are picnic tables along the beach area with sailboats resting and kids playing where we brought our lunch of fish tacos and cheesy garlic popcorn from the Lake Superior Brewing Company, simple and delicious food, definitely a local favorite. We followed lunch with ice cream at Sherpa Shack with genuine Wisconsin ice cream, a wide array of creative flavors, and outdoor picnic table seating.
As an alternative, Twelvemile Beach Campground is located about sixteen miles west of Grand Marais within the park. It has primitive camping spots with individual beach views and access, nicely spread apart. There are also several hiking trails from this twelve-mile long stretch of the lakeshore that also offer wonderful beach access. If you’re visiting for the day rather than camping overnight there’s a small parking lot with a short set of stairs down to the pristine beach.
A noteworthy hike in Pictured Rocks is to Sable Falls. Half a mile out and back you will witness the waterfalls, impressive dunes and Lake Superior. It is short but can be a challenging one with kids because there are many stairs, (168 to be exact). That said, it’s totally worth it and just a mile and a half from Woodland Park Campsite. After passing the waterfall (at about the halfway point), if you push on you’ll be rewarded with spectacular views of Lake Superior. It actually resembles something you may see in the Caribbean though obviously much colder! There are a wide variety of rocks of so many amazing colors and a large dune to climb.
After checking out Sable Falls continue west on Alger County Road another 6 miles or so to check out the remarkable Log Slide Overlook. The platform was destroyed by storms, but the path is still there, but be careful with your little ones because there are very steep dangerous edges. It’s a very impressive site and incredible to imagine it when in use by the local lumberjacks delivering their giant tree trunks down the log chute.
The overlook is the best option with little kids as the dune is very steep and extremely challenging to climb back up. Fun/scary fact: the park service often gets calls to help people that have gotten stranded after underestimating the steepness.
3) Warren Dunes State Park
Approximately one hour from Chicago (nice for a weekend excursion or longer vacation), take a short road trip to Warren Dunes State Park and campground. The spots are big and provide lovely shade.
The dunes are perhaps the most interesting and unique feature of this campground. They sit between the lake and the campground, and it is a challenging one-mile walk up and down really steep dunes. When planning to hang out at the beach, you may want to have someone drop off a car there with your gear ahead of time to maximize enjoyment!
The hike certainly makes your arrival at the lake feel like a true reward. Alternatively, you can drive or ride bikes to the beach. The beach has plenty of space and the lake has what feels like a long sandbar, which provides extra safety and independence for little kids and also provides pleasant water temperatures.
A few of our favorite local finds include Sawyer Market for incredibly fresh produce, a great variety of gourmet foods as well as general grocery items. They also have a full wine, beer, and liquor store. There are farm stands galore - we had no idea the area would be such a mecca for delicious fruit and vegetables!
Another great activity to consider is fruit picking, a great pre or post-beach family activity at Piggotts Farm twenty minutes northeast in Benton Harbor or Garwood Orchard in Laporte, Indiana about thirty-five minutes in the other direction. If you wish to fill your family’s fruit stash but don’t feel like picking, don’t fret, we mentioned the convenient access to farm stands. There are several nearby with every fruit you could dream of with remarkable freshness not found in regular grocery stores.
We had breakfast at the Peasant’s Pantry and were truly impressed. It’s rare to find healthy and delicious breakfast spots in beach towns but the options at Peasant’s Pantry are plentiful. It is the kind of place where you pause to enjoy every bite because it is that good! They have indoor and outdoor seating at a safe distance, and a gourmet market and deli for takeout lunch options. The space is clean and fresh looking and wafting with smells of exquisite pastries and their gourmet coffee bar.
For a local outing, check out Silver Beach in St Joseph. It is a lovely town but while within forty minutes, it’s much busier. As a result, there is a large variety of restaurants and shops. The beach has every rental activity you can imagine and two playgrounds as well - the main playground is in the center of the park and the boat playground on the north side.
We also enjoyed the Mason Jar Cafe located a few minutes from the heart of St Joseph. They serve a wonderful breakfast, brunch, and lunch every day of the week from 7 am to 3 pm (opening at 8 am Saturdays and Sundays). They also serve dinner Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays until 9 pm.
Tip: They often have a long wait because it’s very popular, but you can add yourself to the waitlist on Open Table.
Honorable Mention: Mackinac Island
Mackinac Island is wonderful in many ways. It begins with a beautiful ferry ride with impressive views of the bridge and Lake Huron. It can also be overwhelming in many ways too. It’s a well-known place to visit and as a result, it’s important to plan ahead to optimize your experience. The beauty helps you overlook how crazy crowded it can be but, especially at this time of careful COVID-19 safety measures, we appreciate being prepared and knowing what we are getting into.
For us, the biggest shock came when getting off the ferry and seeing thousands of people flocking the streets with lines out the door in every restaurant and shop. It reminded me of the idyllic Disney world like streets and the sense of going back in time, but that also can come with crowds of people and a commercial feeling, which is particularly unsettling right now.
We are generally very aware of where we go and conscious of our ability to physically distance for our own safety and that of others, and in this case, we didn’t feel comfortable. We were abundantly aware of an initial sense of panic as my husband and I rushed to escape the crowd.
On the bright side, once you get out of the center of town, space is possible. Rent a bike or bring your own and explore the eight-mile island and bike trail. Our outdoor, adventure-seeking life makes biking the most desirable option on Mackinac Island. Riding a bike allows you to explore, provides a sense of freedom, and is a safe way to experience your surroundings while maintaining a healthy distance from others whenever necessary and we suggest Mackinac Wheels (slightly past the densest crowds) or rent bikes at the Grand Hotel!
We escaped the crowds by walking to the Grand Hotel. We found a lovely, quiet table for outdoor dining at The Jockey Club and followed lunch with ice cream at Sadie’s Ice Cream Parlor. After dining, rent bikes on the property and once you’ve decided on your desired distance, check with the concierge for tips for the perfect route. Mackinac island is a biker’s paradise! Follow up your sightseeing and exercise by wandering over to enjoy the playground at the Mackinac Island Public School on Main Street, located just half a mile from the ferry.
As you can tell, we loved Michigan and can’t believe that we hadn’t experienced yet, it’s wonderful in so many ways so be sure to add it to your travel bucket list!!
What’s your favorite Michigan outdoor paradise? Share your highlights on Instagram @gethappyly and we may include it in our upcoming Top Seven Road Trip Destinations in Michigan feature as we continue to fan out across the country covering our favorites in every state!
Explore more of our Dreaming of Travel series in a music lover’s paradise like Memphis, or find your happy place on Bear Lake: An Adventurer’s Oasis. If you’d prefer, Make Nature Your Focus in Harper’s Ferry, Plan Your Next Adventure in Savannah, Explore Grand Teton or Yellowstone, Dream about a Tubing Adventure in Salida, Colorado, or check out the recent blogs by Colin Boyd to further fuel your wanderlust in the Dry Tortugas or at Mojave National Preserve.
If you have a perfect getaway or a favorite landscape, please reach out to us at email@example.com and we will be excited to cover it!