With COVID-19 dictating our plans, my family embarked on a summer road trip to Northern Michigan. The Upper Peninsula and northern Lower Peninsula checked every must-have on our list: reasonable driving distance from Northeast Tennessee; adherence to safety guidelines; countless opportunities for outdoor adventure; and plenty of tent camping options.
What is Rustic Camping?
With all the convenience of drive-in sites – but less of the noise, traffic and crowds found in massive state parks – Michigan’s rustic campgrounds are a tent camper’s dream. Located near rivers or lakes, national and state forest campgrounds provide excellent access to fishing, boating and paddling. From each campsite, we took advantage of short walks to the adjoining lakeshore for paddling from dawn til dusk. Many campgrounds link to extensive trail systems for hiking and trail running, and some sites stay open year round for winter camping and cross country skiing.
All campgrounds have vault toilets, and potable water is available from spigots or hand pumps. To open safely during the pandemic, the campgrounds followed enhanced safety and cleaning procedures; in all of our years adventuring, we’ve never seen nicer or cleaner vault toilets!
Each camp site features a picnic table and fire ring. Local firewood is available to purchase from self-serve stations in the campgrounds or roadside in the forests. With no electric hookups and smaller pull-ins, tents and camper vans dominate the scene; smaller RVs are required to power down generators during quiet hours.
While some of the larger and more popular campgrounds take reservations, the majority of sites are first come, first serve. Because we arrived before a holiday weekend, we made reservations for our first stay, but after the Fourth, we had no problem finding first come, first serve sites.
Monocle Lake Campground, Hiawatha National Forest
Booking: By reservation or first come, first serve Number of sites: 39 Fee: $20 per night
Our first stop on the Upper Peninsula, Monocle Lake Campground was an excellent home base for exploring quieter stretches of Lake Superior along the Whitefish Bay National Scenic Byway. Nestled under a mature forest, the 39 sites were shady, cool and spacious.
After setting up our tent, we immediately launched our SUP boards on the lovely 172-acre lake for an afternoon paddle. With clear water and golden sand, the lake shimmered a beautiful amber hue.
We paddled across the lake to a small, secluded beach nestled along the northern shore. After playing in the sand and shallow water, we headed back for dinner.
Within an hour, swirling mist crept in, dropping the temperature and socking in the lake. After dinner, we walked along the shoreline trail to the main picnic area and beach. As the mist slowly dissipated, we had the beach to ourselves for one of the most spectacular sunsets we’ve ever seen.
On the way back to the campground, we went thru the quaint drive-up window at the Dancing Crane Coffee House for an afternoon jolt and generous hand-scooped ice cream cones. Fueled by caffeine and sugar, we took the trail head from Monocle Lake for a short but steep climb up Mission Hill for views of neighboring Spectacle Lake, Lake Superior, and Canada.
After two nights at Monocle Lake, we drove to the U.S. side of Sault Ste Marie for an amazing paddle in the St. Mary’s River. Just an hour after witnessing a thousand-foot freighter pass in the shipping channel, we watched it go through the Soo Locks on its way to Lake Superior. The next day we woke refreshed from our hotel stay (and shower) and headed west to explore Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore.
Pete’s Lake Campground, Hiawatha National Forest
Booking: By reservation or first come, first serve Number of sites: 41 Fee: $20 per night
Only a 20-minute drive from Munising, Pete’s Lake Campground is the perfect escape after long summer days exploring Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. Whether you hike along the shoreline of Lake Superior, paddle the Au Train river, or explore serene inland lakes, you’ll sleep well under the starry skies of this peaceful campground.
Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore
After setting up camp, we dodged an afternoon thunderstorm and headed back to the western entrance of Pictured Rocks. From cascading falls to towering sandstone cliffs, this national treasure has something for everyone.
We spent the afternoon on short walks to Munising Falls, Miners Falls and Miners Castle for our first taste of this unique landscape.
We wrapped up the afternoon exploring the sandy beach and sandstone stacks at Miners Beach.
Chapel Basin Loop Hike
The next day we tackled the iconic 10.4 mile Chapel Basin Loop. If you only have time to do one hike in Pictured Rocks, this is the one. Featuring two waterfalls, Chapel Rock, and more than 4 miles of clifftop views, this mostly level loop is worth every step (and any encounters with biting stable flies).
Hiking counter-clockwise, the first 1.3 miles of the trail followed an easy forest trail to Chapel Falls. Obstructed by trees, this 60-foot waterfall was difficult to photograph but still worth the effort.
In another 1.8 miles, we reached the intersection with Lakeshore Trail and Chapel Rock. The biting flies were almost unbearable on the beach, so we didn’t linger and continued to the most scenic section of the trail.
For the next 4.4 miles, we followed the single track along the clifftops, often only a few feet from the edge.
The loop reached another junction at Mosquito Beach. We changed into bathing suits and found respite from the soaring temperatures. We had just enough time to cool off before storm clouds rolled in.
From Mosquito Beach, we turned inland and hastily hiked the last 2.6 miles past Mosquito Falls and back to the parking lot. We made it to our minivan just as the skies opened. Before heading back to camp, we drove back to town and rewarded our 10-mile effort with coffee and ice cream at the Falling Rock Cafe & Bookstore.
Sand Point and Au Train River
The next day started with cloudy skies and cooler temperatures. Waiting for the skies to clear, we happily spent an hour playing amidst the driftwood at Sand Point Beach.
As the sun broke through, we picked up subs at Bay Furnace Bagels for our next adventure. The slow, meandering Au Train River was perfect for a gentle afternoon paddle. We put in at the south bridge and spent the next several hours leisurely paddling downstream in the sandy, shallow water.
We saw numerous kayaks and canoes on the river, but we were the only ones on SUP boards. We followed the river eight miles all the way to its mouth and Lake Superior. If we had a do-over, we’d take out at the north bridge as the last several miles of the river are more exposed and less enjoyable.
Log Slide Overlook and Grand Sable Dunes
After three nights at Pete’s Lake Campground, we packed up and backtracked to the eastern entrance of Pictured Rocks in Grand Marais. With a long day of driving ahead, we decided to stretch our legs and explore Grand Sable Dunes.
From the Log Slide Overlook, the dunes drop 300 vertical feet over a distance of 500 feet to the lakeshore. Signs warn that the climb back to the top can take an hour or more.
Many visitors only stop to snap a few photos from the top before leaving, but we were rewarded for our descent with miles of empty beach to explore.
We spent an hour happily beach combing; discovering icy cold springs bubbling up from the sand; and repeatedly climbing the endless dunes and running back down at full speed.
Without a doubt, this detour exceeded our wildest dreams and ranked at the top of our trip adventures.
Lake Ann State Forest Campground, Benzie County
Booking: No reservation; first come, first serve Number of sites: 30 Fee: $15 per night+ Michigan Recreation passport or day use fee ($9)
After a sandy bear crawl to the top of the dunes (it took us 8 minutes), we had a long but scenic drive from the Upper Peninsula to the Lower Peninsula’s Benzie County. The no-frills Honor Motel was the perfect stop for the night. The next morning we staked our claim at Lake Ann State Forest Campground, a hidden gem with easy access to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.
Another pristine campground, Lake Ann boasts the additional perk of sitting just two miles from the quaint Village of Lake Ann. With a brewery, coffee house, and ice cream shop, Lake Ann has everything you need in a single block. The well-stocked Lake Ann Grocery lives up to its motto: If we don’t have it, you don’t need it. The Red Door Coffee House makes a mean latte and delicious muffins, while the Corner Cone scoops out generous servings at reasonable prices.
Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore
We spent our last two days exploring Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore and could have stayed for several days more. Popular with tubers, the Lower Platte River wasn’t as peaceful to paddle as the Au Train River, but it was still a great way to beat the heat and take in the scenery. Our girls enjoyed swimming at the mouth where the river banks transition to sand dunes and the water is much warmer than Lake Michigan.
While cloudy skies obscured sunset, we still loved skipping rocks at Esche Road Beach at twilight.
After a late night thunderstorm, the next morning brought overcast skies, light rain and welcome relief from the soaring temperatures. A little drizzle never stopped us, so we took advantage of the cloud cover to tackle the dune climb for 360-views of Glen Lake, Lake Michigan, and the undulating landscape.
After lunch and souvenir shopping in Glen Arbor, we hiked the short trail to Sleeping Bear Point for more beach combing and dune climbing.
Packing List: A Few Essentials & Luxuries
During our summer road trip, we spent seven nights camping in Michigan’s rustic campgrounds. With a roomy rental van and drive-in sites, we didn’t have to worry about space, weight or hauling gear very far.
While we’re still working on our comprehensive camping checklist, check out some of our essential must-haves and favorite tent camping luxuries:
Hand sanitizer, hand wipes and Clorox wipes.
Bucket for hauling dishwater.
Bug spray with DEET – Camping next to lakes means mosquitoes, and lots of them! Bug dope is a must.
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