May 2006 Issue
Venture across the border for beaches, wilderness and outdoor recreation in Michigan's state parks.
Amy S. Eckert
Michigan is at her best in the summer. Winter's icy winds soften into cool lake breezes. Barren trees transform into verdant forests. And the Great Lakes' icy shores become downright balmy, attracting thousands of sunbathers and swimmers.
The Wolverine State offers all of this and more at state parks scattered across its Upper and Lower Peninsulas. From hiking and swimming to racing down sand dunes in a speeding off-road vehicle, Michigan's parks provide a wide array of activities. And with 97 parks to choose from, visitors are never more than a short drive away from a relaxing weekend outdoors. Here's a look at some of the best.
Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park
From Detroit, it takes almost as much time to drive to New York City as it does to drive to the Porcupine Mountains. Set in the northwestern corner of Michigan's Upper Peninsula just a few miles from the Wisconsin border, the Porkies, as they're known by locals, rank among the state's most remote parks.
But the Porcupine Mountains also rate as one of Michigan's most idyllic locations. Some 60,000 rugged acres encompass rocky crevasses and ledges unknown in Michigan's sandy Lower Peninsula. Mountainsides stand thick with hardwoods, the largest tract of old-growth timber in the Midwest, sheltering whitetail deer and black bears. The park's northern shore is bordered by Lake Superior; inland, lakes and streams teem with brook trout. And then there's the park's jewel, Lake of the Clouds, set high in the mountains - an outdoor photographer's dream come true.
Automobile traffic is permitted in portions of the Porcupine Mountains, but the best way to experience the Porkies is to get out of the car. Almost 100 miles of trails lead hikers up and into the park's heights, past more than 60 waterfalls and along 15 miles of Lake Superior shore. Those who just can't stand to move slowly through the woods can mountain bike along select wilderness trails, and boaters and sea kayakers can explore the park's northern boundary from the water.
Campers have several accommodation choices in the Porcupine Mountains. Backcountry camping is permitted in designated sites, while rustic and modern camping facilities are located at Union Bay and Presque Isle. Rustic cabins and a comfortable 12-person lodge are also available for rent.
Tahquamenon Falls State Park
Tahquamenon Falls State Park is the land of Longfellow's Hiawatha: "by the rushing Tahquamenaw" Hiawatha built his canoe. The centerpiece is, naturally, the park's waterfalls. Upper Tahquamenon Falls is the most impressive of the cascades, one of the largest east of the Mississippi, with a span of more than 200 feet and a drop of nearly 50. Four miles downriver, the Lower Falls divide into five smaller cascades that rush past and around an island.
The Tahquamenon Falls are known for their impressive size in a state with few waterfalls; they've also been known since the days of the Voyageurs for their brown, foamy waters, often compared to root beer. The water takes its color not from rust or mud, but from naturally occurring tannin leached into the water from nearby cedar, spruce and hemlock stands. The foam is caused by the churning action of the falls on the river's extremely soft water.
But while the falls are the chief draw to Tahquamenon Falls State Park, there is much more. Nearly 23 miles of hiking trails pass through the park, 16 of which are part of the North Country Trail system that stretches from New York State to North Dakota. There are also canoe and kayak rentals, camping, picnicking and playground facilities.
Mackinac Island State Park
Mackinac Island is one of Michigan's best-known vacation destinations, famous for fudge, the Victorian-era Grand Hotel, horse-drawn carriages and bicycles (the island is off-limits to motor vehicles). Yet few people know that 85 percent of the island is state park land. In fact, Mackinac Island was designated America's second national park in 1875 (Yellowstone was the first); it became Michigan's first state park 20 years later when the federal government relinquished control to the state.
While shopping for fudge and dining at the Grand Hotel remain highlights for visitors to the island, it is away from the ferry docks along 60 miles of wooded roads and trails that the park's true beauty shines. The best way to explore the park is via bicycle along the 8 miles of M-185, the nation's only state highway without motor vehicle traffic. The flat, paved route circles Mackinac Island and offers an easy ride and unsurpassed views of two Great Lakes - Michigan and Huron - and the graceful Mackinac Bridge.
Inland, bicycling is a bit more strenuous. Rent a horse-drawn carriage if you're not up to it, or take a guided carriage tour. The island's hilly inland paths carry visitors past limestone formations such as Arch Rock, Sugar Loaf and Skull Cave. Bicyclists and carriage riders can also travel to Fort Holmes, built in 1812 at the island's highest point, and Fort Mackinac, built in 1783 above the ferry docks.
At day's end, head to the shore again, the only place in the world where you can watch the sun rise over one Great Lake and set over another.
Leelanau State Park
If Michigan's Lower Peninsula is a mitten, Leelanau State Park sits at the tip of the little finger. Route 22 provides the best, most scenic course to the park, heading north out of the resort town of Traverse City. As the road makes its way north, it hugs the eastern coast of the Leelanau Peninsula, meanders past some of Michigan's finest wineries and passes through tiny resort towns home to summer cottages, art galleries and coffee shops.
Once past the town of Northport, Route 201 continues the winding trip north to the hardwood forest, dunes and pebbly beaches of Leelanau State Park. Over 1,300 acres of parkland is crisscrossed by 8 miles of foot trails, including a short handicap-accessible trail that runs along the shore of Mud Lake.
But the park's most popular site is Lighthouse Point, where the attractive Grand Traverse Light has been standing guard for nearly 150 years. The charming white and red lighthouse is open for tours and houses a museum about Great Lakes lighthouses, shipwrecks and local history. Lighthouse Point is also home to a small, rustic campground located right on the Lake Michigan shore, a picnic area and playground, and is a popular place to look for Petoskey stones, the fossilized freshwater coral that was deposited by glaciers throughout northern Michigan.
Ludington State Park
Even Michiganians (who are accustomed to great beaches) are wowed by Ludington's miles of pristine shoreline and wild dune vistas. Heading north out of Ludington, M-116 curves toward the "Big Lake," breaking through thick stands of pines as it approaches the beach.
When the road reaches water's edge, the pines give way to unhindered views of Lake Michigan. To the west, sunlight glints off the water and warms sunbathers and swimmers; to the east stretch miles of sand dunes scattered with sparse dune grass and the occasional weathered pine tree. This is Great Lakes beachfront at its best.
A half dozen free parking areas are located along the 4-mile beachside stretch of M-116, popular stops for those content to swim and play in the sand without the expense of a state park permit. But the modest fee for entering the park is easily offset by additional beachfront access, an excellent visitor center, playground and picnic facilities, bike paths and Big Sable Point Lighthouse. The 1867 tower is enclosed in attractive black and white striped steel plates to enable the light to withstand Lake Michigan's strong winds. The lower level of the lighthouse includes a small museum and gift shop.
Ludington State Park also offers nearly 350 campsites at three campgrounds, access to Hamlin Lake, with calmer (and warmer) inland lake water and, for those who can't resist checking e-mail, free wireless Internet access in select park locations.
Silver Lake State Park
Silver Lake State Park claims its share of gorgeous Lake Michigan beaches, but it is the 2,000 acres of dunes that draw people each summer. Like something out of a World War II desert movie, the park's mountains of sand seem to go on forever, dry, windswept and starkly beautiful.
Visitors enjoy spending time walking through the dunes, listening to the familiar squeak of the golden quartz sand beneath their feet, and testing their stamina up and down the shifting banks. Keep your eyes open for fulgarites - glassy, molten-sand tubes formed when lightning strikes the dunes.
But the most popular Silver Lake activity is speeding over the dunes in off-road vehicles. (This is the only beach in Michigan where it's legal.) Steep inclines, changing slopes and sudden drop-offs add a thrilling element of danger to the pastime, and draw thousands of Jeeps, dune buggies, trucks and ATVs, all eager to exhibit their power and have fun. Those who don't own off-road vehicles aren't left out. Mac Wood's Dune Rides offers thrilling dune tours in 20-passenger vehicles, and reservations are never required (unless you're traveling with a group).
Swimming is a natural pastime at Silver Lake State Park, with beaches along Lake Michigan as well as the smaller inland Silver Lake (an enticing alternative when Lake Michigan's waters are too rough or cold for swimming). The lodging of choice at Silver Lake is camping. There are plenty of private campgrounds in the area but the state park is the best, offering clean, quiet, shady sites right on Silver Lake's shore.
Holland State Park
A day at the beach is simple and easy at Holland State Park. A pleasant drive west of the city of Holland leads visitors directly to the park, where cars park right on the beach and families need take only a short walk across the sand to reach the splashing waves of Lake Michigan.
While Holland State Park attracts beach lovers of all ages, it is truly a family destination. Swimming, sunbathing and dune climbs appeal to young and old. Swing sets and other playground equipment entertain children away from the water, near a generous collection of picnic tables and grills. Bathhouses provide privacy for changing in and out of swimsuits. Holland's famous red Holland Harbor Lighthouse, known affectionately as Big Red, stands guard over the channel that leads to inland Lake Macatawa. And a beachside concession stand sells shaved ice, drinks and other summertime necessities.
Holland State Park is known as much for its excellent campground facilities as its Lake Michigan beach. Reservations fill up quickly in the Beach Campground, where campers set up housekeeping right on the park's golden sand. Farther away, but still an easy walk to the beach, Lake Macatawa Campground offers more shade and easy access to a vast network of bike paths that extend along the lakeshore and into the city of Holland.
Saugatuck Dunes State Park
Saugatuck Dunes State Park may be Saugatuck's most romantic spot - and that's saying something in a resort town of cozy B&Bs and gourmet restaurants.
The pleasure begins along the 14 miles of wooded trails that crisscross the park's 1,000 acres, all of which lead eventually from the parking lot to the beach. The Beach and Livingston Trails offer the most direct and easiest routes to the water; the South and North Trails are more strenuous and considerably longer.
Saugatuck Dunes State Park's trails wend over mildly rolling hills, sand dunes of an earlier century that have since given way to sassafras, white pines, oaks and maples. In late spring and early summer, the forest floor yields pink lady slippers and trilliums; in the summer, Canada mayflowers and honeysuckles take their turn blooming. Footpath spurs lead up sandy dune climbs in places, offering breathtaking views of Lake Michigan and the surrounding countryside from atop 200-foot ridges. And except for the occasional sailboat, it's easy to believe the views haven't changed since the Ottawa Indians populated the area.
After a walk of a mile or more (depending upon the chosen route) the trails end at a secluded sugar-sand beach, uncluttered by bathhouses and food vendors and remarkably free of people. Here the shore is bordered by more sand dunes, tempting visitors to test their strength and climb up the shifting banks for commanding views of the lakeshore and a wild run back down afterward. And there's nothing more romantic than watching the sun set over Lake Michigan in the evening.
When You Go...
Admission to Michigan state parks costs Michigan residents $6 a day or $24 a year; nonresidents must pay $8 a day or $29 a year. Fees are assessed for vehicular traffic only. Pedestrians enter free of charge. For detailed state park information, visit www.michigan.gov/dnr; to make a campground reservation visit www.midnrreservations.com or call 800/447-2757.
Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park, 33303 Headquarters Rd., Ontonagon, 906/885-5275
Tahquamenon Falls State Park, 41382 W. M-123, Paradise, 906/492-3415
Mackinac Island State Park, Mackinac Island, 877/847-0080. www.mackinacisland.org
Leelanau State Park, 15310 N. Lighthouse Point Rd., Northport, 231/386-5422
Ludington State Park, Lakeshore Dr. at M-116, Ludington, 231/843-2423
Silver Lake State Park, 9679 W. State Park Rd., Mears, 231/873-3083
Holland State Park, 2215 Ottawa Beach Rd., Holland, 616/399-9390
Saugatuck Dunes State Park, 138th Ave. and 65th St., Saugatuck, 269/637-2788