5 Places You Won't Believe are in Michigan

I'm currently living in Michigan, and sometimes there isn't time or enough vacation days left in the year to travel abroad - so instead I'll explore destinations closer to home. Just because they aren't far away doesn't make them any less special! I've taken family and friends to these locations when they've visited, and I think they are consistently as blown away by what Michigan has to offer as I am. 

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore

Sleeping Bear Dunes is a National Lakeshore along the coast of Lake Michigan, and it's about a 4-hour drive from Detroit. If you're close enough to Sleeping Bear to drive there, it's a great option for camping. And, it's one of the few national parks that will allow dogs, so if you're looking for a vacation you can bring your furry best friend(s) on, it's a great option for that as well! 

Personally, I'm not a camper, so I can't provide much advice on that front. But I have stayed in hotels in the area. Most of the bed and breakfasts close to the park are small and get booked up pretty far in advance, but that's ok - I prefer to stay about 20 or 30 minutes to the East so that I'm in the middle of Sleeping Bear Dunes and Traverse City and can visit both in the same trip. 

You can take in the main sights that Sleeping Bear Dunes has to offer in a single day, but there are around 100 miles of trails, a museum, rivers, lakes, and more to explore if you want to spend more time there. Whichever way you choose to go, you first have to make your way to the Philip A. Hart visitor center to purchase a park pass that covers your entrance and parking. Prices are very reasonable, only $25 per vehicle when this was written in October 2022, and the park rangers there are happy to answer questions and offer advice to customize your trip.

Once you have your ticket you can take the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive to get the lay of the land, with viewing stops every so often. Both times I’ve been to Sleeping Bear Dunes, some or all of the scenic drive has been closed for road repairs, but I’m sure that they are in great shape now with all the work that’s been done on them!

At one of the stopping points on the scenic drive, there is a bigger parking lot with access to a trail and the Sleeping Bear Dunes Overlook. The trail takes you past a steep dune drop off that goes down to Lake Michigan. The scale of the dune is incredible and people will go to the bottom and time themselves to see how quickly they can make it back up. It looks like you could scale the dune quickly, but it turns out that’s not really the case. My husband and I didn’t try it ourselves, but watched for a while, and the fastest we saw anyone make it back up was around 45 minutes. If you want to go down, make sure you budget at least that long for the trip.

Then there are two main hikes that I like to take. The first is the Empire Bluff Trail hike, towards the south end of the park. There’s a small parking lot at the base of the trail, and then it’s an uphill, but fairly easy walk on a 0.75-mile, well-maintained path through the forest up to some amazing views. Make sure you get that park pass before coming here, and display it in the window, or you’ll likely come back to a ticket on your dash from the park rangers.

The second hike that I enjoy, Dune Trail, is behind the Dune Climb. The Dune Climb is one of the main attractions at Sleeping Bear, so there’s a large parking lot at the base of the climb (also requires that park pass) with restrooms, water fountains, and picnic tables in the area. It’s not as steep as the dune on the scenic drive, so you can enjoy running down the Dune Climb without having to worry too much about the journey up. Once you’ve done that a couple times, check out the Dune Trail hike to Lake Michigan. 

It should be noted that this hike is much more difficult than the Empire Bluff Trail hike, because the entire thing is through sand. Since children are light and full of energy, you’ll see them running along the trail and might be deceived into thinking it won’t be strenuous at all. Don’t fall for it! It’s about 1.75 miles each way, through sand, and up and down large dunes. I’m warning you just so that you’ll be mentally prepared though, not to deter you! Get ready for it to take you the better part of an hour and a half to two hours each way depending on how quick you’re moving. 

The hike takes you across the dunes to a pristine Lake Michigan beach that isn’t very crowded at all! If you walk a little way down the beach, you’ll likely have a big area all to yourself. So, bring a backpack with plenty of water and perhaps a picnic lunch, take a dip in the lake to cool off, and relax for a bit before making the hike back.

My husband, sister, and I did this hike during the summer and it was only 80 degrees or so since Sleeping Bear is in northern Michigan. What’s great about that is, the sand isn’t hot enough to be uncomfortable to be on barefoot, but it was warm enough that we were almost completely dry from our dip in the lake by the time we got back to the car.

Also keep in mind when you’re planning your trip that it rarely gets hot enough to heat the lake up past 70 degrees. For water, that’s pretty chilly! You can easily change into a bathing suit at the Dune Climb restrooms, but since I didn’t plan on swimming for long in that temperature water, I didn’t bother. I prioritized wearing clothes that I was comfortable walking in (I did choose water wicking clothes though to help dry out faster), and just wore those into the lake.

Traverse City and Old Mission Peninsula

Traverse City is known as the cherry capital of the world. If you’re able to make a trip there in April, go then! You’ll see the cherry trees blossoming all around the city and surrounding countryside and can enjoy the yearly Cherry Festival. I haven’t been in April yet, but there are different activities to enjoy at Traverse City and Old Mission Peninsula year-round too.

Traverse City is at the base of Old Mission Peninsula, so both are about a 4-hour drive from Detroit. If you visit during the summer, it can be nice to stay on the lake – some of the hotels have private beaches that are worth playing a slightly higher price per night for. During the other seasons, I would recommend staying at one of the bed and breakfasts in the wineries on Old Mission Peninsula or 15 to 20 minutes away, in between Traverse City and Sleeping Bear Dunes.

If you’re staying in between, you’ll find yourself really close to the Light of Day farm and tea shop! It’s a 25-acre farm that is hand-harvesting, drying, blending, and packaging tea for visitors to enjoy.

In Traverse City, the former Traverse City State Hospital has been converted into a collection of shops, salons, restaurants, and more, called the Village at Grand Traverse Commons. Check out the both the inside of the Village, and the manicured grounds yourself, or on a guided tour.

Also, make sure spend a day exploring the Old Mission Peninsula. Towards the bottom of the Peninsula is an old lighthouse located at the 45th parallel, exactly halfway between the equator and the north pole. From May to November, you can go up to the top of the lighthouse and enjoy the views from the top.

Then all the way along the Peninsula you’ll find wineries that offer tastings. The climate in Michigan is not great for dry wines such as Cabernets, Merlots, etc., but the wine makers there grow them anyway. I would recommend avoiding those at most of your tastings, sampling the sweeter wines on the menu, and leaning into the experience rather than expecting to find your new favorite Cab. One cool thing that you might find, however, is an ice wine. Those are made when the wine makers wait until after the grapes freeze on the vine to pluck and process them. Being frozen first changes the taste of the wine, and plays into Michigan’s strength of getting really cold in the wintertime.

For the beer drinkers out there, Jolly Pumpkin is another great option on Old Mission Peninsula. I just stuck with wine during my visit, but my husband enjoyed the flights that Jolly Pumpkin had to offer and I was happy to get food off of their full menu rather than the snacks the wineries tended to have.

Also, all the wineries that we visited on Old Mission had parking lots, but on a nice day you could easily walk, bike, or even snowshoe between tastings, depending on the time of year. The wineries are small and close together, making whatever mode of transportation you prefer possible.  

Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore

About 6 hours from Detroit is Munising MI, where Pictured Rocks and several big waterfalls are located. This is another Michigan location that I think is best to visit in the summer months. Summer starts late in Michigan’s upper Peninsula, so plan your trip between late June and early September for the best weather.

Munising is a really small town, so if you want to stay near Pictured Rocks make sure to book your accommodations well in advance. There also aren’t a ton of restaurants, and what there is consists mainly of fast-casual restaurants with food that’s a little on the greasy side. If you get tired of the same restaurants easily or you have dietary restrictions, you may want to limit your stay to only 2 or 3 days. That should give you more than enough time to see most of what Munising has to offer.

The best way to see the Pictured Rocks is from the water – from land, you can’t fully see or appreciate the cliffs rising up from out of the lake. And for tours on the water, you have two main options: kayaking and taking a Pictured Rocks cruise. The cruise is excellent for small kids, individuals not confident in their kayaking abilities, or anyone that wants to see the shoreline without having to exert themselves. The schedule changes daily and the boat will travel all the way down and back up the Pictured Rocks, with a tour guide explaining what you’re seeing and spouting off facts about the area the entire time.

Kayakers can rent kayaks by the hour to take out on their own from the beaches, or can book a tour with a guide. If you take the cruise first, and then decide to kayak, the by-the-hour option seems like a good one. But if you’re going to skip the cruise boat tour, the guided kayak tour is the way to go. Either way, keep in mind that Lake Superior is really large, so the water never gets very warm and can get rough with large waves in inclement weather. In fact, if the weather is not good enough, the boat tours can all be cancelled. If you check the website, cruise status for the current and following day will be announced.

Note: when I say beaches, they are not what that word normally brings to mind. The “beaches” in Munising are entirely made up of rocks, not sand, that will hurt to walk on without shoes. Bring some outdoor shoes, water shoes, or even some thick flip flops in a pinch if you want to be able to launch a kayak or explore the beach areas.

Just because the views are better from the water doesn’t mean you shouldn’t also explore the Pictured Rocks by land. There are trail heads and hiking trails all along the shoreline, so that you can do as much or as little hiking along the lake as you would like. As I mentioned, you can also walk along the beaches (with the right shoes) to explore little areas along the water line without having to rent a kayak.

One thing that isn’t ideal about the trails are the bugs, though. There are a ton of flies and mosquitos in the Upper Peninsula that won’t leave you alone if you don’t use plenty of aggressive bug repellant. So, spray yourself down in something that includes Deet before heading off on your hike! It will be much more enjoyable that way.

In addition to the shoreline trails, there are several waterfall hikes in the area that are worth going on. The trails are all well marked and maintained, and have plenty of parking at the trail head. The ones that I’ve been to are Munising Falls, Miners Falls, Mosquito Falls, and I would recommend seeing all of them. The trail to Munising Falls is only 800 feet long and is paved, so it’s a great option for anyone that doesn’t want to have to walk far.

Miners Falls is further from the parking lot – a 0.6-mile gravel and dirt path that you can take to the falls and back.

Mosquito Falls is much smaller and less impressive than Munising and Miners Falls, and is the furthest away from the parking area. However, I enjoyed the 1.5-mile hike through the woods to see it.

Other options include Chapel Falls, Spray Falls, Bridalveil Falls, Horseshoe Falls, Tannery Falls, Wagner Falls, and more!

Silver Lake Sand Dunes

You won’t find anywhere else quite like Silver Lake Sand Dunes East of the Mississippi River – these are the largest dunes in this half of the country. About a 4-hour drive from Detroit, it’s a great weekend getaway option.

Plenty of people bring their own off-road-registered vehicles to Silver Lake, but there are rental options if you are part of the majority that don’t own an off-roader. I rented a 2-seat RZR through Wild Bill’s ATV Rentals, and it handled the dunes very nicely. There are also rental places in the area that will rent single seat 4-wheelers, 4-seater buggies, and even Jeeps.

There are a couple of things to consider if you’re renting. First, you have to rent by-the-hour in advance during the busy season (summer weekends). The State Park ORV area is only open from April 1st to October 31st. While I was at the rental office gearing up, there were multiple groups that came in and tried to do a day-of rental, and they all got turned away empty handed. That being said, try to pick a rental option that gives you enough time, but not so much that you’ll be spending money for time you don’t need. My husband and I had our side-by-side rental for 2 hours, and that seemed pretty optimal to give us both time to drive around.

Second, the dunes are right by the lake, so the wind is more aggressive (even when you aren’t zooming around), and the cold air off the lake makes the park more frigid than you’d expect. I took my jacket off and left it in the car at the rental agency, and regretted that decision the entire time we were on the dunes.

Finally, there are areas in the park for all levels of drivers. If you aren’t comfortable going up the giant hills, don’t feel like you need to go up them to have a good time! If you lose control of the side-by-side and crash or roll it, the rental agencies will hold you accountable for paying for the damages (you sign a waiver saying you will be responsible for those before you go to the park). But I enjoyed watching other people race around and do the first dune climb, almost as much as I enjoyed racing up it myself. 

When we were driving around, we saw several dogs, so they were clearly allowed in the park but likely came with people that were in their personal vehicles - I don’t think the rental agencies accommodate bringing any dogs along.

When you’re not zipping around the sand dunes, Silver Lake has several other things you can do. There are multiple mini golf courses, go karts, and several ice cream stands in the little downtown area. There also is, of course, Silver Lake, which I recommend hiking to. 

To get to Silver Lake on foot, go to the Silver Lake State Park Pedestrian Dune Access parking lot on N Shore Drive. On busy weekends, the parking lot might be completely full, and you’ll have to sit in line waiting for someone to leave. Get there early or late in the day, or have an Uber drop you off at the entrance to avoid that. Again, with the right transportation, the park was dog friendly, and several people had their dogs with them when I was there. 

The parking lot does have a few restrooms that are open to the public. That certainly makes it easier to wear a bathing suit initially, but change into dry clothes before you leave if you want. Also, there aren’t any concession stands or vending machines, so make sure to bring a few bottles of water, and if you’ll be there around lunch or dinner, consider packing a picnic lunch to enjoy on the beach too!

Once you’re parked, there are trails that go up the side of the hill. The trail is fairly short but steep, and then you’ll emerge from the trees into the sand dunes that surround the lake. You can walk to the North and overlook the off-road park. Even if you already went, watching cars come up over the end of the big dune run is still entertaining. If you go to the West instead, you’ll find yourself at Silver Lake. The water is clean and clear, but too chilly for me to swim in at any time but the height of summer. I went on Memorial Day weekend and the off-road park was PACKED, but the pedestrian park was big enough that it doesn’t feel crowded at all. The parking situation helps to limit the number of people that can easily be at the lake, so there was plenty of room for everyone to spread out and have their own section of beach. 

While we were there, we saw several boats drive up and drop groups off, so if hiking up and over the sand dunes doesn’t interest you, that could be a good alternative way to get to there.

Mackinac Island

Mackinac Island is a really unique place to visit because it’s completely car-free. It is technically open year-round, but the best time to visit is May through October when the weather is nice and all the businesses on the island are open. During that time, the small hotels and bed and breakfasts get booked up really quickly. Make sure to reserve a room well in advance to get your preferred hotel and dates. Also, not all of them have air conditioning since that area of Michigan rarely gets hotter than 80 degrees, so if you run hot and need AC, check for that before booking anything!

The Grand Hotel usually has more availability because of how large it is, but prices there are a little rich for my blood – usually upwards of $400/night. I prefer to spend between $100 and $200 per night for one of the smaller places and just get a day pass to visit the Grand Hotel instead. I also recommend staying a street or two back from the main drag - a lot of the tourists that come in on the ferry and day trip to the island stay on the main street, so anything along that road will be pretty noisy as soon as the ferry starts dropping people off.

To get to the island, you’ll have to take that ferry I mentioned from St. Ignace in the Michigan’s upper peninsula or from Mackinac City in the lower peninsula. The ferry stations are about a 4.5-hour drive from Detroit, and there’s plenty of paid parking available at both. You can leave your car there just for the day or longer term, depending on how long of a trip you have planned. The ferries accommodate dogs and bikes, so lots of people bring those along with them.

If you want to see everything the island has to offer, I suggest staying for 3 days, but if your sufficiently motivated (or don’t want to spend the money on the hotels there) you can fit a lot of stuff into just 1. For a shorter trip I would prioritize biking, taking the trail up to the arch, and eating fudge.

If you didn’t bring your own bike, there are plenty of rental shops along the main street right where the ferry drops you off. I especially love that the shops rent out tandem bikes! My sister and I went with the tandem option and had a blast even though neither of us is usually very into biking on our own.

There’s a paved road running around the perimeter of the island specifically for bikes (remember no cars allowed), and while there are a ton of people at first, the crowds quickly thin out as you get further from the docks. It nominally takes about an hour and a half to complete the 8.2-mile loop around the island, but I always take longer than that because I stop several times to hang out along the shoreline away from the crowds.

On the bike loop you’ll see where you can stop and walk up to the arch. It’s not too far of a walk back to that spot. I just went after returning my bike so I didn’t have to worry about keeping track of it. And if you don’t feel like stopping or walking back, you can always take a horse and carriage tour that will bring you there instead!

If you have the time and energy, there are trails from the arch to other landmarks on the island. The smaller shops have maps of the hiking trails that you can grab, but there are plenty of signs you can follow if you aren’t much of a map person. The trails will lead you through the forest to a giant rock formation called Sugar Loaf, an old fort, a small cave, a park and more - budget about 2 hours to see everything.

After you’ve worked up an appetite biking and hiking, make sure to try the famous Mackinac Island fudge! There are a bunch of different fudge shops along Main Street. They all offer the basic fudge flavors and then branch out with specialties. I like to try a few individual pieces from each shop to find my favorite, and then load up a souvenir box from that shop right before I leave to take home and share with friends and family. Also, a couple of the fudge shops usually have someone making the fudge in a front room or window so you can see how they get the final product, which I found mesmerizing.

Other things to do on the island include mini golfing, going on a horseback trail ride, checking out the (small) art museum, browsing the shops, touring the historic fort (the one close to the main street, different than the one you hike through the forest to), and exploring the Grand Hotel.

There are a few things to keep in mind if you want to go to the Grand Hotel. First and foremost, check the website to see if the dress code is currently being enforced and plan accordingly. When I visited, women had to wear pants with a blouse, a skirt, or a dress, and men had to wear jeans or slacks inside. Second, don’t feel like you have to go inside to see some of the hotel. There’s a little boutique ice cream shop near the entrance with some unique flavor options, and you can see the grounds and get some great pictures in front of the hotel on the hill approaching it. And finally, if you do decide to go inside, the porch is a really relaxing place to hang out. There are rocking chairs set up around the huge wrap-around porch on the second floor where you can order food and drinks with some great views of the hotel grounds and the lake.


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