Michigan State Parks offer the best of the Great Lakes and offer year-round fun. Winter in Michigan’s State Parks features cross-country skiing, snowmobiling, ice fishing, snowshoeing, and fat-tire biking. In spring, from mid-May to mid-June, gourmets will love looking for morels. Summer is my favorite time of year for boating, paddling, and general fun in the sun. Fall is an excellent time to hike the trails and take in the spectacular fall color.
With over 75 parks in the Michigan State Parks system, you can find some unique activities that add to the outdoor fun you typically find in Great Lakes State. While these places offer hiking trails, boating, and other outdoor activities, they also have something special about them. Here are nine awesome Michigan State Parks adventures arranged from north to south.
1. Raft ride in Palms Book State Park, Manistique
Tucked away on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, about 11 miles from Highway 2, at the end of Highway 149 near Manistique, lies Palms Book State Park, home of Kitch-iti-kipi, translated to Big Springs. The special thing is the clear water with Caribbean-like colors. The water is so clear that you can watch the brown trout swim below the surface of the water. Water gushes out of crevices in the limestone at more than 10,000 gallons per minute. The pond measures 40 feet deep and over 200 feet wide, making it the largest freshwater spring in Michigan.
A self-propelled observation raft designed for groups enables you to see the springs up close. The raft has an open center with guardrails for additional visibility. They attached the raft to a rope so that a visitor can drive the group to the center of the pool for optimal visibility.
Pro tip: The raft and the path to the springs are ADA-accessible.
2. Explore the old ironworks town in Fayette Historic State Park, Garden
On Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, between Manistique and Escanaba, about 17 miles from Highway 2, you’ll find the abandoned town of Fayette. Fayette Historic State Park is a well-preserved city with 20 historical buildings. From around 1867 to 1891 the community focused on the production of charcoal pig iron. Some of the production buildings are the machine shop and the blast furnace. They also have other original facilities including a hotel, various offices, the town hall and apartments. In addition, they offer guided tours or take a self-guided tour.
Although entry to the village is free, you will need a Michigan State Parks Recreation Passport to enter the park. My favorite day to visit is the second Saturday in August, which celebrates Heritage Day. Additional activities then complement the experience.
Pro tip: If you want to stay in the area but don’t like camping, the Fayette Furnace Hill Lodge is another option. Originally the manager’s house, this cabin can accommodate up to 10 people, has a converted kitchen and a four-part bathroom with a flush toilet.
3. Hike to Tahquamenon Falls in Tahquamenon Falls State Park, Paradise
Located in Paradise, a town on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Tahquamenon Falls State Park features two waterfalls and 35 miles of hiking trails. I enjoy the park in the fall when the colorful fall foliage accentuates the stunning Upper Tahquamenon Falls. With a diameter of more than 60 meters and a gradient of 15 meters, it is the largest waterfall in Michigan and the third largest east of the Mississippi. The Lower Tahquamenon Falls are four miles downstream and have several smaller drops. Rowing boats can be rented at the lower falls. In addition, this state park has interpreters who offer guided tours to the falls.
Pro tip: The park offers people with reduced mobility free track chairs so that they too can explore the park.
4. Explore the fort in Mackinac Island State Park, Mackinac Island
History buffs should take time out to explore Michigan’s first state park, Mackinac Island State Park. To bring history to life at Fort Mackinac, there are historical demonstrations and reenactments. The fort, a military compound, has a history that begins with the War of Independence. Its story continues through the War of 1812 and the Civil War. It has 14 restored buildings including the oldest in Michigan. I enjoy learning history from the lecturers in period clothes through their demonstrations and guided tours. In addition, they demonstrated what the life of a Fort Mackinac soldier was like through an electrifying drill, tactical and firearms program.
Pro tip: Mackinac Island is accessible by ferry and air. There is no bridge. Motor vehicles are not allowed on the island. Hiking, horse riding and cycling are typical ways to explore the island.
5. Go on an adventure at historic Mill Creek Discovery Park in Mackinaw City
Historic Mill Creek Discovery Park, once called Historic Mill Creek State Park, is a Michigan State Park and Historic Site in Mackinaw City. The more than 600 hectare park was once a water-powered sawmill from the 18th century. We saw what life was like through tours and demonstrations at Mill Creek’s At Work Sawpit and Sawmill Demonstrations. In addition, guided hikes illuminate life beyond the sawmill with more than 5 km of hiking trails.
Pro tip: Historic Creek Discovery Park typically takes at least 2 hours to experience.
6. Watch archaeologists at work in Michilimackinac State Park, Mackinaw City
While in the area, we also stopped at Colonial Fort Michilimackinac in downtown Mackinaw City. Michilimackinac State Park is a separate state park from Historic Mill Creek Discovery Park. The fortress has 13 reconstructed buildings showing life in the late 18th century when the area was important for the fur trade.
An interesting fact about this site is that it is one of the most extensive continuous archaeological digs in North America. Archaeologists are at work every day at Colonial Fort Michilimackinac. In addition, professional archaeologists work on site and answer questions about their work.
Pro tip: The entrance to the visitor center is under the Mackinac Bridge.
7. Star Gaze At A Dark-Sky State Park, Alpena and Rogers City
You don’t have to travel to Iceland or Alaska to see the Northern Lights. Michigan has several dark sky state parks in the northernmost part of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula where you can sometimes see the aurora borealis. Negwegon State Park, Thompsons Harbor State Park, and Rockport State Recreation Area have the lowest measurable light pollution in the Great Lakes region.
Negwegon State Park in Alpena is under dark skies, which makes it a great place to see the stars with the naked eye. With a little luck, you can see the swirling Milky Way.
If you want to camp to continue your stargazing, Thompson’s Harbor State Park has two cabins. Each rustic cottage can accommodate up to six people with a pull-out couch and two bunk beds. Both locations have gas hobs and lanterns, outdoor hand pumps, and vaulted toilets. Though you rough it up, it’s a bit more protection than a tent.
Pro tip: While Mackinaw City’s Headlands International Dark Sky Park isn’t a state park, it’s a prime spot for observing the night sky and the only one in Michigan to have the international designation. Even if you’ve been to Headlands International Dark Sky Park before, a new season brings a new line of stars into view. With a different group of glittering stars, you’ll see a whole new show every time. Sometimes you can even see the Northern Lights.
8. Decipher the petroglyphs at Sanilac Petroglyphs Historic State Park, Cass City
Located in Cass City, a town in the Thumb region of Michigan, Sanilac Petroglyphs Historic State Park features a range of petroglyphs. These petroglyphs are rock drawings made by chiseling into the surface of the rock, while painting on the surface of a stone is called a pictogram. The Native Americans of the area created these petroglyphs. The enclosure to protect the petroglyphs is open seasonally, but the park is open all year round. In addition, the park offers free guided tours every half hour from Wednesday to Sunday. Tours start at 10 a.m. with the last tour starting at 4:30 p.m.
The park also features a mile-long hiking trail featuring a 110-year-old white pine, the Michigan State Tree, and the remains of a 19th-century logging camp.
Pro tip: Entry to the petroglyphs is free and does not require a Michigan State Parks Recreation Passport.
9. Explore the Walker Tavern in Cambridge Junction Historic State Park, Brooklyn
In Brooklyn in Michigan’s Irish Hills, Cambridge Junction Historic State Park, and Walker Tavern Historic Site, you’ll find a humble one and a half story farmhouse. The Walker Tavern was built around 1832 and was a respite for travelers on the arduous five-day journey from Detroit to Chicago. Today the tavern and two other historic buildings make up the 80-acre state park. A reconstructed barn and public house contain exhibits about travel and work in the 1840s and 50s. Additionally, the visitor center at the colonial-style Hewitt House, built in 1929, tells the story of early automotive tourism in the Irish Hills through quirky roadside attractions including the Prehistoric Forest, Frontier City, and Mystery Hill.
Pro tip: While in southeast Michigan, there are several wineries to explore. Closest to the state park, Cherry Creek Cellars is also located in Brooklyn, where the Burtka family has made wine for four generations. The winery is fun to explore as the winery is in an old school house.