Aurora, Forest, Coast: A Travel Guide to the Natural Wonders of Michigan
Running along soft sandy beaches surrounded by towering dunes. Taking in the swirls of the Northern Lights. Feeling the powerful spray of a rushing waterfall. Cresting forested ridges as spectacular views open before you. These are experiences any outdoor adventure lover would welcome — and Michigan offers all of them and more. The Great Lakes State steals the spotlight as a premier adventure destination for those hungry for the rush of exploration.
It doesn’t matter if your preferred mode of adventuring is kayaking, surfing, hiking, biking, skiing, ice climbing, or something else entirely. Choose only one, or try them all if you want — because you can. Nicknamed “America’s Third Coast,” Michigan is home to the longest freshwater coastline in the nation, thanks to its borders along four Great Lakes. To balance all that blue is an immense amount of green — forested land covers more than half the state, including three protected national forests. You’ll also find more miles of rail trails here (2,623, to be exact) than in any other state, with entire networks of railroad track converted into multi-use trails.
We’ve put together a comprehensive guide to exploring each distinct and distinctly exciting region of Michigan, from the outskirts of Detroit all the way up to the Upper Peninsula. Get ready for a newfound appreciation of Mother Nature in all her forms.
Out on the lake
With its aquamarine waters, Torch Lake — running north to south just east of Grand Traverse Bay — conjures visions of the Caribbean. It also happens to be Michigan’s largest lake by volume and is home to legendary sandbars perfect for catching one of the most stunning sunsets you may ever witness.
Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, meanwhile, won “The Most Beautiful Place in America” on ABC’s Good Morning America, and the moment you see the brilliant sapphire waters of Lake Michigan from the top of a 460-foot sand dune, you’ll understand why. Explore the 20-mile Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail and test your endurance on the steep 3.5-mile Dune Climb.
The powerful waves of Lake Michigan can be reminiscent of the mighty ocean — and yes, you can ride them just the same. Surfing and bodyboarding on Lake Michigan are growing in popularity as more surfers discover these shreddable freshwater waves. Check out Sleeping Bear Surf & Kayak for lessons so you can graduate from kook status.
North of Harbor Springs, State Highway M-119 narrows and winds for a 20-mile stretch that’s known as the Tunnel of Trees. The surrounding forest floor is carpeted with wildflowers in the spring; the trees blaze with color in the fall. But really, it’s spectacular any time of year thanks to the fairytale-like canopy that domes over the area.
As the sun sets, stargazers should make their way to Headlands International Dark Sky Park, one of three internationally designated dark sky preserves in the state. You can plan your visit for whenever suits you — the park is open 24/7, 365 days a year.
Also part of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, though located several miles offshore, the Manitou Islands are accessible by ferry from the mainland. There are thousands of acres of wilderness to explore here, including the “Valley of the Giants,” a stand of old-growth white cedars more than 500 years old.
Mackinac Island, located on Lake Huron between Michigan’s Upper and Lower Peninsulas, is aptly named the “Jewel of the Great Lakes.” It almost feels frozen in time, in a good way: impeccably kept 19th-century Victorian architecture and no cars in sight (as in, they’re not allowed). Your best options for getting around are by bike, foot, or buggy. Fill up on decadent fudge — a staple in Mackinac — then explore the dramatic limestone bluffs of Mackinac Island State Park, which covers most of the nearly four-square-mile island.
But if you’re ready to get your heart pumping, know that Silver Lake Sand Dunes at Silver Lake State Park welcomes off-road vehicles. In fact, these are the only dunes east of the Mississippi open to ORVs, and people come from all over to have fun riding around the 2,000-acre sand dune playground.
Beaches and Rivers
When in Western Michigan, you get your pick of beautiful beaches to enjoy. Families will love Silver Lake State Park’s big, swimmable beach along the Lake Michigan shoreline. The park also has its own inland lake — Silver Lake, naturally — with warmer, calmer waters perfect for swimming or kayaking. Then there’s Grand Haven State Park, arguably the most majestic of all Michigan’s beaches. Its scenic pier features two lighthouses and waves that can crash into them so dramatically it’s like they’re posing for your next Instagram post.
Leisure paddlers may find a new favorite kayaking destination in New Buffalo, where the Galien River Marsh Water Trail offers six miles of slow-moving, scenic waters. Rent kayaks for the Galien River, Silver Beach, Warren Dunes, and more through Third Coast Paddling.
For those who enjoy hiking and backpacking, make sure to check out the North Country National Scenic Trail, headquartered in Lowell. This 4,800-mile route runs through seven other states and stands as the longest national scenic trail in the United States. Michigan is the lucky state to be home to the most trail miles. Take your time here as you wander along crystal clear streams, prairies, valleys, and more.
If you find yourself still longing for the outdoors come nightfall, get yourself to Dr. T.K. Lawless Park, located to the southwest of Kalamazoo. This is another of the state’s International Dark Sky Parks, where nature puts on quite a glow-in-the-dark show.
On the shore
Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, along Lake Superior, holds 15 miles’ worth of dramatic, rainbow-hued sandstone cliffs rising upwards of 200 feet from the water. For the best view of the cliffs, explore via kayak rentals and guided tours. You can also book a boat cruise from mid-May to mid-October.
When you’re ready, return to land and wander the lakeshore’s many trails that lead to remote streams, waterfalls, and hidden beaches. For those who like to feel the magic of long walks on the sand, Twelvemile Beach might just be your jam.
The Northern Lights
Although they can happen any time of year, the Northern Lights shine brightest during the longer fall and winter nights — no traveling to Norway required. The south shore of Lake Superior, with its high latitude and pitch-black skies, provides optimal viewing of the aurora borealis from August through April. There are no designated dark sky preserves or international dark sky parks in the U.P., but there don’t need to be: once you cross the Mackinac Bridge, the light pollution all but disappears. The entire peninsula is basically a dark sky preserve.
During these chillier months, just outside of Marquette, the Eben Ice Caves form when melting snow freezes as it runs over a small cliffside. These are the most accessible of the U.P.’s ice caves, reachable via a brief hike. Don’t forget your ice cleats!
Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park on the northwestern edge of the UP, is Michigan’s largest state park. Explore the small group of mountains known as “the Porkies,” home to forests, waterfalls, rivers, and more than 90 miles of hiking trails. This is the place for backcountry camping.
The Upper Peninsula is rich in waterfalls, with more than 300 of them ranging in vertical drop from five to 48 feet. Tahquamenon Falls in the northeast is the biggest showstopper. Its dramatic Upper Falls plummets nearly 50 feet and spans 200 feet across, making it one of the largest east of the Mississippi. You’ll find the Lower Falls four miles downstream, where five smaller falls surround an island that can be reached by rowboat (rentals are available at park concessions).
For truly remote backcountry, put Isle Royale National Park on your list. One of the least-visited national parks, it consists of one main island surrounded by 400 smaller ones and overflows with undeveloped wilderness. Accessible by ferry (which takes a little over three hours) from Copper Harbor or seaplane (about an hour) from Hancock, getting to Isle Royale is neither quick nor easy, and its remoteness isn’t for everyone. Bring your tent and your kayak — the best, and really only, way to explore the hundreds of surrounding islands — and plot your escape from the rest of the world.
Out on the lakes
Lake Huron is massive, with the longest shoreline of any of the Great Lakes and more than 30,000 islands dotting its waters. No wonder, then, there’s a lot to explore: sandy beaches and dunes, rugged limestone, coastal wetlands, dense forests, diverse river systems, and nearly 1,000 shipwrecks, some of which are visible from the water’s surface. The wreck of the Dorcas Pendell, for example, is an easy 20-minute paddle from Harbor Beach.
Eastern Michigan can turn anyone into a kayaking enthusiast with the 7-mile, out-and-back trip to Turnip Rock in Port Austin. The rock formation seems to defy the very laws of gravity. Don’t forget to check out the sea caves and Thumbnail Point, another rock that juts out into the water, too.
Afterwards, take a break and head to the idyllic Palmer Park to pick a viewing spot along the world’s longest freshwater boardwalk.
Lake Huron has become a serious destination for divers in recent years. Go beneath the surface and explore the Sanilac Shores Underwater Preserve, the final resting place of at least 16 shipwrecks. Lake Huron is also home to the country’s largest freshwater sanctuary, known as Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary. With 200 shipwrecks preserved, divers and snorkelers of all levels can find a site to explore. (There are also glass-bottom boat tours if you prefer to stay above water.) About two miles off the shore near Lexington is an ancient underwater petrified forest in 40 feet of water — its trees have been carbon-dated to nearly 7,000 years old.
Tawas Point State Park has been called the “Cape Cod of the Midwest” and serves as a stopover point for hundreds of seasonal migrating birds, including bald eagles, making it a popular spot for birdwatching. A historical site of significance here is the Tawas Point Lighthouse, the only true Victorian era-style station on the Great Lakes. From the park you can also access the 16.2 miles of the Tawas Bay Multi-Use Trails, part of Michigan’s Iron Belle Trail.