Michigan is one of the nine states I’ve never visited, so I was excited to check it out on our trip. We planned to spend about 2 weeks there, and I hoped that would be enough to see the major sites, but to be honest, I didn’t really know much about the state or what there was to do. It turns out, there’s a lot more to do than you can fit in 2 weeks.
PJ Hoffmaster State Park
The one thing I did know about Michigan is that the beaches along Lake Michigan are great. I knew this because a former coworker with a summer house there told me all about it. I decided that would be our first stop. We were only booking it a couple weeks in advance, though, so our options depended almost entirely on what was available. There are quite a few state parks right along the lake, so that was my goal. I saw a few that had sites right on the beach, but of course those were already booked. We got lucky, though, and grabbed one of only two spots still available at PJ Hoffmaster State Park, located about halfway up the western lakeshore of Michigan.
The sites weren’t right on the lake, but the park itself was, and it was a short walk or bike ride to get to the beach. Another bonus was that the beach that is accessible from the campground is not the same one that the general public uses, so it didn’t get overly crowded. It is a large campground, with close to 300 sites, but it’s all in a forested area with quite a bit of space between each site, and it was a great spot to camp.
We also learned that this area, along with many other parts of the Lake Michigan shoreline, are lined with sand dunes. I grew up visiting beaches along the east coast, and we always enjoyed it, but when you’d look back at the beach from the water, all you’d see lining the beach were hotels and businesses. There’s something special about looking back at the beach from the water and seeing no development at all. Just trees and big piles of sand. It was a great place to relax and swim.
Filling the Water Tank
Our fresh water tank was empty when we arrived. There was a fill station near the entrance to the campground, but when we checked in and picked up a campground map, we saw a water spigot was located right next to our site, so we figured we’d fill up from that instead. We got to our site, and we checked to verify that the water spigot was close enough for us to reach when parked. It was, so we pulled in and set up. Once we set up, we went to connect our water hose, and we realized that the water spigot did not have a threaded spout, so we couldn’t actually connect our hose to it. Ugh.
We have a 5 gal water jug, and there is an inlet we can use to pour water into the tank, so we gave that a shot. It worked, but we had to pour slowly to avoid spilling all of the water, and lifting 40+ lbs of water for an extended period of time was not easy. Additionally, we couldn’t use our water filter with this method. We knew there had to be a better way. We did some internet research, and it appeared that it should be possible to use our water pump to fill the tank, but there were no exact instructions for our system. It took the better part of an hour, but after trying numerous methods of connecting hoses and flipping switches, we finally figured it out. We could connect an input hose from the water jug to our winterization system, and that would pull water in. It wouldn’t fill the fresh tank, though. It just filled the lines (which is what you’d want if you were winterizing). We had to connect our outside shower to our tank fill input and use that to get the water into our holding tank. It was a little convoluted, and it was slow, but it meant we could set the water jug down while filling, and we could use our water filter. It was a hassle at the time, but I’m glad we learned how to do it, because I’m sure we’ll need to again in the future.
The Upper Peninsula
Our next stop was St. Ignace, just across the Mackinac bridge and into the Upper Peninsula. This wasn’t part of our original Michigan plan. I wanted to head further north and stay in Tahquamenon Falls State Park; however, campgrounds in that area were booked up, and we were short on time to really make it work. A few days before we were traveling, we decided to stop in St. Ignace instead. Since our plans were thrown off, and since we didn’t exactly know what we’d be doing in the area, we decided to skip reservations and play it by ear. I found a casino in the area that had an RV camping area, and it was first come, first serve, so we decided to aim for that. It was our first time leaving for a new location without having a campground booked in advance.
The combination of casino camping and no reservations made Sushila uneasy, but I assured her it would be fine. They had plenty of sites, and from the reviews I read, if all the sites were booked, you could boondock in the casino parking lot instead. It wasn’t going to be a scenic location, but it seemed like a safe bet. Turns out, it wasn’t. When we pulled into the casino, the RV parking lot was blocked off. We pulled into the main parking lot, and a couple other RVs were parked there, but we weren’t quite sure if it was allowed or not. I went inside to verify, and I learned that they were hosting a demolition derby that weekend, so the RV area was closed, and no camping in the main lot was allowed either. We had to find a new spot. Ugh. Not the adventure we were hoping for at 5 pm on a Thursday.
We frantically started searching for other options in the area. We still had a fallback of camping at the visitor center in town. It was right along the highway, and we’d have to move the next morning still, but at least it was something. We wanted to find a spot for the weekend, though. We called a handful of RV parks in town, but everyone was booked for the weekend. A little further from town, we saw a place that described itself as “rustic”, which is usually a sign of an old, run down place that you don’t really want to be. We called, and they did have a space for us, so we went for it. We didn’t have high hopes, though. To make it worse, as we’re getting close, we had to turn down an unpaved road leading into the middle of nowhere. Nothing about it felt good.
We finally get to the campground, and we stop at the office which is really just someone’s living room. The owners were nice, but we still weren’t feeling wonderful about the place. We ask about spots to park, and she points out across the campground and says, “our biggest sites are between the well and pavilion. Pick whichever one you want.” As we drove out, we realized that all the sites she was referring to were right along the lake. The Great Lake. Lake Huron. We picked the biggest site and backed in. Our RV was 10 feet from the water. To top it off, the RV was level without needing any leveling blocks - the first time that’s happened on this entire trip.
Sometimes you get lucky and things just work out.
Headlands International Dark Sky Park
While researching things to do in the St. Ignace area, I came across the Headlands International Dark Sky Park.
An IDA International Dark Sky Park (IDSP) is a land possessing an exceptional or distinguished quality of starry nights and a nocturnal environment that is specifically protected for its scientific, natural, educational, cultural heritage, and/or public enjoyment.
There is a dark sky park in Pennsylvania, and we often talked about taking a long camping trip there from NYC, but we never ended up doing it. Now was our chance. To make things even better, it was the weekend of a new moon, the skies were clear, and the Northern Michigan Astronomy Club was holding their monthly meeting that weekend. There would be talks by astronomers, and there would be telescopes set up for viewing. Even though we had a long day of travel, we headed back out to visit the park.
We arrived in time for a lecture by Nicolle Zellner, Professor of Astronomy at Albion College, who talked about searching for meteorites in Antarctica. After the lecture, we headed outside to the viewing area. They had an area with multiple telescopes set up, and there was a terraced hill for seating. In addition to being a clear night, and one day from a new moon, there were four planets visible in the sky at the same time - Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. We relaxed, looked through the telescopes, and enjoyed another lecture by the center’s head astronomer about nebulae. Finally, once it was really dark, we were treated to the best views of the night sky I’ve ever had. The Milky Way was so clear. We saw shooting stars. There were experts to point out things to see in the night sky. There was nothing more I could ask for.
When we returned to the RV, the sky was still clear, and the stars were still brilliant. Since I didn’t bring my tripod to the dark sky park 1, I got it out once we were home, and I spent an hour taking pictures of the night sky. I’m sure my sky photography could use some improvement, but I’m really happy with how my pictures turned out.
The next day, we headed out to Mackinac Island. The island is a National Historic Landmark, and no motor vehicles are allowed on the island. They allow bikes, though, so we packed them up and took the ferry over. The ferry ride was short, and we were treated to a great view of the Mackinac Bridge2.
Mackinac Island could be awesome. There are tons of roads and trails for biking. There are scenic overlooks. There are cute little shops. There are historic buildings. The water is as clear and blue as the Caribbean (although a bit colder). Horse-drawn carriages are used instead of cars. All of those things would make me want to visit. There were just too many people.
Moving down the main street was like walking through times square, but it was worse because you had to avoid bikes and horses, too. It calmed down a little bit once you got away from the dock area, but even then, it wasn’t great. Despite having a two-lane road to bike around the island, there were still numerous times when we had to stop because the entire road was blocked by people stopping. It wasn’t even always at a point of interest. People would just stop and block the road completely to chat or have a snack.
Crowds don’t really bother me. I guess they never really did, but after living in New York City for 10 years, I’ve been completely desensitized to it. What does bother me are crowds of people who don’t know how to behave in a crowd. New Yorkers get a bad rap for being rude, but we’re only rude when you stop in the middle of the sidewalk rather than stepping to the side. Don’t slow everyone else down. It’s incredibly selfish. That’s how I felt on Mackinac Island. It was like no one had any idea that other people might exist. It was frustrating.
If we were ever in the area again, I’d probably try to go back; however, I’d make sure we were there as early as possible to try to avoid the bulk of the crowds. We’d also bring bathing suits so we could enjoy the water.
Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore
We hoped to visit Isle Royale National Park while were in Michigan. It’s the largest island in Lake Superior, and the third largest in the contiguous United States. You can only access it by private plane or boat. No wheeled vehicles are allowed on the island (including bicycles). The primary activities there are hiking, backpacking, and boating. There are only two towns on the island, one at each end, and many people will backpack from one to the other, taking about a week. We didn’t have the time3 for a week-long backpacking trip, but we planned to do an overnight trip.
You can access the island from Michigan or Minnesota. From Michigan, the closest point is a 3 hour ferry ride. That seemed reasonable enough, and the ferry runs both ways every day. When we went to book tickets, though, the ferry was completely sold out. Our only option was a ferry that left from further away. That ferry was a 6 hour ride each way, and it only ran in one direction each day. We were going to have to spend 12 hours on a ferry for about the same amount of time on the island. Additionally, the ferry departed the island at 9 am, and the closest campground was a 2-3 hour hike, so we’d have had to pack up our camp at like 5 am. The stars were not aligning for this trip to work out. We actually booked tickets for it anyway, but after further consideration, we decided to cancel them. We’ll need to return to the area to visit Voyageurs National Park in Minnesota anyway, and accessing Isle Royale from Minnesota is much easier. We’ll plan better next time.
This left us with a few free days in the Upper Peninsula. I came across Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore while researching things to do in Michigan, and it was high on my list of places I wanted to visit, so we picked that as an alternative. We didn’t have a campground reservation in the area, but there was a first come, first served national forest campground in the area, so we aimed for that. Unfortunately, we missed the last available spot by about 10 minutes. There was another casino with RV parking available right across the road, but it didn’t look like a great spot. We passed the Munising Tourist Park campground on our way in, though, and it looked decent, so we gave them a call. They were all out of regular spots, but they said they had an overflow lot we could park in. We took it.
The overflow lot ended up being basically a normal campsite. It still had water and electric hookups, and it was a pull-through spot. The only difference was that we had no picnic table, which we don’t tend to use anyway, and it was cheaper than a normal site. Additionally, the campground had a beach along their Lake Superior shoreline, and while our site wasn’t right on the water, we could see the water from our back window, and it was less than a minute to walk to it. We’re now two for two on ending up in great spots when we arrive without reservations!
Pictured Rocks did not disappoint, either. The park itself has many beaches and hiking trails, but to really see the rocks for which it’s named, you need to be on the water. We took a sunset cruise along the shoreline, and it was amazing! The shoreline has over 15 miles of sandstone cliffs that rise up to 200’ above the water. The rock has been carved by the water into numerous arches and caves, and since the sandstone is porous, water seeps out of the side, depositing colorful minerals on the surface. The views here rivaled any that we’ve seen so far on the trip.
We wanted to explore the park from the land, too, so we headed in to hike the Chapel Trail/Mosquito Falls loop. The park rangers highly recommended the hike, and it’s one of the few that go through a section of park that can’t be accessed by car. The trail started at the end of a long, completely washboarded dirt road. The road was only about 5 miles long, but it took over a half-hour to drive.
The hike winds through a deciduous forest before arriving at Mosquito beach along the lakeshore.
From there, it follows the lakeshore along the North Country Trail to Chapel rock. Our cruise followed along the same section of shoreline, and it was interesting to see the rocks from both perspectives.
Finally, the hike looped through the forest, past Chapel falls, and back to the parking lot. The hike was almost 11 miles long - our longest so far on the trip - and our feet were pretty sore by the end. It was a beautiful hike, though, and I would definitely do it again.
We leave Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, spend a night in Wisconsin at a Harvest Hosts winery, and then stop in Rochester, Minnesota, to visit Sushila’s sister, Chandra. We spend a long weekend catching up with her, and then we move on to South Dakota.