Michigan camping: The original staycation

Five spots to check out for late summer / early fall getaways close to home

Hoffmaster State Park via DNR website

Concerns of safety, closures and cancellations have limited travel during the pandemic, making both outdoor activities and nearby destinations popular for even the most brief break from the new norm.

Fortunately for Michiganders, there is no shortage of options: From kayaking to frisbee golf, there are myriad ways to get the best of nature’s (socially distant) benefits. And for many Michigan families and solo adventurers alike, current realities have made camping, in particular, an increasingly appealing choice.

“The summer of camping” may very well be the 2020 season’s tagline, as locals look within a couple-hour radius for entertainment and rest — even if that means pitching a tent in the backyard. Though it isn’t unusual for prime camping sites to book up months in advance, some dates can still be snagged — especially if timing is flexible or weekdays are an option (take a look at this MLive article for more on the Department of Natural Resources’ new interactive map and weekly alert opt-in for short-notice campsite availability). And though COVID has made it difficult to plan anything more than a few weeks out, those looking to make the most of the outdoors this year with their quarantine pod — whatever the season — are penciling in Autumn plans now.

What are some favorite spots? Check out a few options below, in order of distance from Grand Rapids’ city center — starting with some destinations closest to home. What else would you add?

  1. Hoffmaster State Park boasts three scenic miles of Lake Michigan shoreline, and its Dune Climb Stairway is a popular destination for breathtaking views. Six hiking trails make it an ideal site for early fall camping, and, for those who enjoy a boozy beverage fireside, its alcohol restrictions are lifted after Labor Day. The Sandy McBeath Trail, adjacent to Gillette Nature Center, is universally accessible for all to be able to experience the beauty and education of this backdune area. The nature center is currently operating under reduced hours, so call ahead if interested in visiting. The closest of the listed options, this park is only 39 miles away, and can make an excellent day trip, as well.

  2. Muskegon State Park has the best of both worlds when it comes to water access: two miles along Lake Michigan and one mile of Muskegon Lake shoreline. Just 48 miles away, it also offers mini cabins for rent, for those who’d rather skip the tents or campers. The park’s winter sports complex — typically hosting year-round activities like a luge track and a new zip line that was slated to open this summer — is currently closed due to COVID. *Winter camping is available

  3. Manistee National Forest This four-loop campground offers access to the Nordshore Dunes, part of the Ludington Dune Ecosystem. Without RV hook-ups for water, sewage or electric, the site has rustic charm with basic amenities for camping at its simplest. Dispersed camping is an option, for those who’d like to explore the area and set up camp off the beaten path: just be sure to check out these considerations first (like proximity to the water). First-come, first-serve spots are also available.

    Have you heard of Idlewild? Within Huron-Manistee National Forest is a community that had been called “The Black Eden”. Learn more about this historically Black vacation destination, the Native lands and cultures through which the Manistee River flows, and other details that offer crucial perspective in WGVU’s Color out Here: Shaping Narratives with Alice Lyn.

  4. Interlochen State Park is Michigan’s oldest state park, established by legislation in 1917. With access to two lakes — Duck Lake and Green Lake — this park is nestled right next to the well-known arts center of the same name. With both modern and rustic site options, some lots offer 50 amp electrical access; or, you can go off the grid. Cabins and tents are available for rental, as well. Located only 15 miles southwest of Traverse City, camping here can easily coincide with other Northern Michigan sightseeing perfect for summer-into-fall scheduling — with COVID restrictions in mind.

    As you enjoy the benefits of our oldest state park, read more here on the creation of the national park system and what the conservation movement got wrong.

  5. Wilderness State Park near Mackinaw City is an oasis for Michiganders to explore. Worth the extra car time (about 3 1/2 hours), this park offers 12 hikes as well as modern and rustic site options, including six cabins and three bunkhouses for rent. The biggest sell for this campground? A designated dark sky preserve for stargazing nearby, the Headlands International Dark Sky Park. You may not have been able to catch the Neowise comet with this backdrop, but you can seek out optimal times for glimpses of the Northern Lights from this location free of light pollution, making it a bucket-list addition for fall camping. Plus, dog lovers take note: a dedicated dog beach is available here. *Winter camping is available

Camping is so much more than a COVID trend or alternative to out-of-state travel. For many Michiganders, it’s a way to slow down and connect to the natural beauty the state has always offered. Whether diving into it as a new pastime or with renewed appreciation, Michigan’s outdoors should be a place where all are welcome and where personal R&R meets introspection. The ways we are all interconnected — and the power dynamics therein — start with the public and private land we inhabit.

Learn more in Alice Lyn’s latest episode of Color Out Here: Shaping Narratives, “Why inclusion means safety for POC in the outdoors”, available on YouTube here.

For more information and availability, visit the Michigan Department of Natural Resources website (for all except Manistee National Forest: reservations can be made here).


Marissa Fellows is a food and culture writer for GRNow. A lover of oysters, negronis, and all things mid-century modern, she works as a writer, brand consultant, and experience designer. Founder, Goodfellows Creative & Dinner Club GR (@dinnerclubgr).
Connect: Twitter and IG @mcallief | LinkedIn
email: marissa.c.fellows@gmail.com