Google “Michigan Road Trip” and you’ll instantly be bombarded with waterfalls, ghost towns, microbrews, you name it. But what if deep down all you really want is the Kid Rock “All Summer Long” version of Michigan: ‘splashing through sand bars, talking by the campfire, catching walleye from the dock, drinking whiskey out of the bottle and smoking funny things’?
It’s no secret that winters here are brutal thanks to the lake effect, but that just means that when summer rolls around, those of us from the Mitten State go hard soaking up every morsel of sunshine fun we can. If recharging with the simplicity of uncrowded beaches and endless water is what you’re after, gather up your pop cans like a real Michigander, recycle them into gas money at the nearest Meijer, and head out to explore the 3,288 miles of winding roads that trace the Great Lakes coastline.
Michigan offers the quintessential summer vibe—think rolling and giggling your way down massive dunes that spill onto sugar sand beaches, meandering through quaint coastal towns while licking an oddly fluorescent but somehow yummy Superman ice cream cone, skipping stones over the glassy water of cliff-protected bays, diving to see shipwrecks, kitesurfing epic lake waves that rival any ocean, and falling asleep by a bonfire under endless stars. Michigan has even been known to give an occasional Northern Lights show, though they usually are closer to early spring or fall.
While there are five Great Lakes, your time is most efficiently spent focusing on Lake Huron, Lake Superior, and Lake Michigan. Michigan has five national parks and a whopping 101 state parks and recreation areas. To narrow it down, here are our top picks for summering it up on the Great Lakes, starting on the east part of the state (known as the “thumb” section), heading up to the wild Upper Peninsula, then leisurely winding your way south down the more touristy coast of Lake Michigan.
Don’t crash into the turnip rock. | Craig Sterken/Shutterstock
Ease into laid-back scenes around Lake Huron
The thumb area of Michigan’s mitten-shaped Lower Peninsula juts into Lake Huron and is a laid back, often overlooked region of the state. It’s also known as the Sunrise Coast, and morning people will be rewarded with consistently fantastic sunrises over the water.
Start out with a bang in the larger coastal town of Bay City with a cruise on a tall ship by BaySail Appledore. If you’re around in August, head up the Lake Huron shore to the small town of Caseville, known for a funky 10-day Cheeseburger festival inspired by Jimmy Buffet. Keep going to Albert E. Sleeper State Park and Port Crescent State Park to the east, offering sandy beaches with calm waters and nearby wooded hiking trails.
Paddlers should continue on to check out Port Austin at the tip of the thumb for its picturesque Turnip Rock that rises dramatically above the lake’s surface. Pro tip: Port Austin Kayak offers rentals and guides if you didn’t travel with your own equipment. This cutesy coastal town also happens to have one of Michigan’s largest farmer’s markets (road trip snacks!) and annual festivals celebrating lady slippers and polka, because why not. It also has a rare status as a Dark Sky Park.
Wine and Cheeseburger
Wine and Cheeseburger: Harley and Lara Pair Falafel with Wine
Mackinac Island is a quaintness overload. | Sidhu50/Shutterstock
North of Bay City, you’ll pass through the “Cape Cod of the Midwest,” Tawas Point State Park. This is a chill campground where you can swim or fish offshore of a golden stretch of beach.
Everyone thinks of Lake Superior as having all the shipwrecks, but if you follow the coast up to Alpena, Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary is the resting place of more than 100 shipwrecks on the bottom of Lake Huron. You can take a glass-bottom boat tour or rent a paddle board and glide over the smooth waters where the ruins lie, but the truly adventurous can dive.
Keep hugging the coast to Mackinac City where you can ferry out to Mackinac Island, a carless island known for indulgences like horse-drawn carriages and fudge—take advantage of the laid back bliss before you head up to the much more savage Upper Peninsula.
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It’s as if these Pictured Rocks knew they were rocks made for pictures. | Posnov/Moment/Getty Images
Gawk at cliff shorelines in the Upper Peninsula of Lake Superior
You could honestly spend the entire summer road tripping the rugged Upper Peninsula of Michigan. From Mackinac, head north straight to Tahquamenon Falls with its 50-foot drop and 200-foot wide falls. Tahquamenon comes from an Ojibwe word meaning “dark berry,” and nothing screams summer like being able to stuff yourself with wild berries (consider it dessert for the local pasties you also need to eat).
From here, drive west to Miner’s Beach at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, which has colorful sandstone cliffs towering over gorgeously clear water. The best views are from the water, so definitely rent a kayak or take a glass-bottomed boat tour. Let’s be clear, Lake Superior is icy. We’re talking “Wim Hof ice bath” icy. But at Sand Point just east of Munising, the water is shallow and makes for swimming that’s a bit more enjoyable.
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Hidden among the deep forests and wild shores of Lake Superior, you’ll uncover one of the most scenic areas in the States.
Marquette is so cute it’s blushing. | Photo by Kristen Smith/Moment/Getty Images
Fuel up in Marquette—the “big city” ‘round these parts—before heading to the Black Rocks Beach within Presque Isle Park. It’s tucked between two cliffs and treasured for its vast collection of smooth Lake Superior stones.
Continue on to Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park. If you cross paths with a moose or a bear, you may finally realize just how backwoods you’ve traveled. Here you’ll find the very picturesque Lake of the Clouds, arguably one of the most Instagrammable places in Michigan. If fishing is your jam, there is catch-and-release bass fishing here.
If you feel like leaving the car behind for a bit, boat over for a few days to Isle Royale National Park, a carless island in the middle of absolute nowhere in Lake Superior, to explore hiking trails that just may have more moose and wolves than people.
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Maybe don’t roll down this hill at Sleeping Bear Dunes. | Nick Li/EyeEm/Getty Images
Return to civilization and art around Lake Michigan
Heading back down south, after you cross the Mackinac Bridge to leave the Upper Peninsula, go rock hunting on the beach at Petoskey State Park. Michigan’s state stone is the Petoskey stone for a good, more-than-meets-the-eye reason: While the fossilized, ancient coral appears to be a boring dull gray when dry, when you get it wet, it shows a trippy and intricate hexagonal pattern.
If you want to treat yourself, book a night or two at Hotel Walloon on nearby Walloon Lake—Tommy’s can even hook you up with water ski or boat rental. Work off those UP pasties by either kiteboarding along the M-22 with Broneah or climbing the massive sand dunes at Sleeping Bear Dunes that rise 450 feet above Lake Michigan’s surface (trust me, running down is fun but climbing 450 feet in hot sand is no joke).
Little Sable Point Lighthouse: not so little. | Frederick Millett/Shutterstock
When you decide that you most certainly did not road trip all this way for hard work, do things the lazy way and dune buggy your way through the 3,000 acres of dunes along more than four miles of lakefront that is Silver Lake State Park.
Further south you can camp at the dog-friendly P.J. Hoffmaster State Park in Muskegon. The state shoreline is a convenient location for making a side trip to Michigan’s Adventure, an amusement park that, while not as extensive as others across the country, has a water park that will be sure to bring out your inner child.
From here, head on down to finish out in Saugatuck, an artsy community that’s sort of like the bedazzled LGBTQ belt buckle of the so-called Bible Belt that runs through West Michigan. If you’re into spooky haunted forests, abandoned psychiatric institutions, and towns that just oddly disappeared under sand, start by looking up the local legend of the “Melon Heads.” And if you’re not into that sort of thing, well, definitely don’t, because it gets super creepy. If you didn’t dune buggy in Silver Lake, you get another chance here with Saugatuck Dune Rides, through a place that is said to have inspired Oz in the Wizard of Oz.
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Cathy Brown splits her time between traveling the globe writing for Lonely Planet and CNN, working with Indigenous rights in the Brazilian Amazon, and hanging out at home in her garden and hosting permaculture and medicinal plant retreats.