From waterparks to historic tours and all the lighthouses in between, here are a few ideas for Michigan vacations that your family will never forget
MICHIGAN—School may be back in session soon, but you can still make the most of a Michigan summer while you’ve got it.
With kids at home for summer vacation, it can be tempting (and fun) to sit inside and max out on screen time. But with so much natural Michigan splendor around us, summer also presents perfect opportunities to make the most of the great outdoors, and with how inexpensive a Michigan vacation can be, you’ve got plenty of chances to create great memories with the family.
We’ve rounded up some of our favorite Michigan travel destinations perfect for scheduling a family-friendly vacation on short notice.
Mackinac Island and Mackinaw City
Fun fact: The reason Mackinac Island is spelled with a “c” and Mackinaw City is spelled with a “w” is due to pronunciation. The city was built after the island and the settlers wanted it spelled the way it was pronounced. Despite these diverging histories, both the island and the city still make great getaways. In fact, Reader’s Digest called Mackinac Island, specifically its Grand Hotel, the best last-minute travel destination in Michigan.
Though the summer may be winding down, now is the time to plan trips for the Mackinac Island Fudge Festival, held Aug. 25-27. The festival is packed to the brim with fudge-related fun, like the Fudge Olympics, fudge-making demonstrations, family games, Fudge Guest, and much more. But even outside the festival, you’ll still find plenty of demonstrations as well as outdoor recreation. Kayak around the island with help from Great Turtle Kayak Tours, bike around the island, take a horse-drawn carriage tour, or check out Mackinac’s famous haunted history after dark.
Even beyond the tourist mecca that is Mackinac Island, there’s plenty of Michigan to explore in the area. One of the top attractions is Historic Mill Creek Discovery Park, where there’s plenty of historical demonstrations recreating life in an 18th-century sawmill. But it’s also a great place to try out zip lining at the Eagle’s Flight Zip Line, scale a five-story climbing wall at the Treetop Discovery Climbing Wall, and take in scenic forest views on the Forest Canopy Bridge. Stargazers and sunset viewers alike will love the Headlands International Dark Sky Park, an area protected from light pollution so you can get closer to the stars than ever before.
Pictured Rocks and Munising
America’s first national lakeshore might be in the remote Upper Peninsula, but the drive is definitely worth it. Visitors to Pictured Rocks have come away taking some of the most breath-taking and Instagrammable photos on Earth. The eponymous rocks are mineral-stained sandstone cliffs that have been colored by groundwater trickling down the cliffsides. It’s a great place for hiking, swimming, fishing, and more.
Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore now charges fees for an entrance pass, but there are fee-free days, including Aug. 4 in celebration of the Great American Outdoors Act. Kayaking is popular here, but be forewarned, even experienced kayakers find the waters of Lake Superior treacherous. You can enjoy a safer kayak experience with a kayaking tour group from Paddling Michigan. With Paddling Michigan, you can also find lodging in cabins, yurts, and safari tents.
A safer waterfront experience can be found at Pictured Rocks Cruises, the only boat tour authorized by the National Park Service. The tours are two to three hours, with special sunset rides available for maximum beauty. Children under 4 ride for just $1.
Also in the park, you can find the Au Sable Light Station, with tours available periodically for $5.
Even more family-friendly fun can be found at Shipwreck Tours in Munising. This provides a tour via glass-bottom boat of shipwrecks entombed within the Lake Superior bays near the Pictured Rocks. This educational tour is particularly popular with children, who love to observe the lake depths just a glass panel away.
West Michigan’s coast has plenty of gorgeous beach towns, but one of the best options for a summer getaway is Grand Haven. The Lakeshore Trolley provides the perfect family-friendly vacation transportation, operating for free from noon-10 p.m. The trolley hits many important stops in downtown Grand Haven and beyond. You can also schedule pick-ups at any location within three-quarters of a mile from the trolley route.
Grand Haven’s iconic attraction is the Grand Haven Boardwalk along the Grand River. The boardwalk intersects with downtown shops and restaurants. Its two lighthouses can be found along the southern pier. Though they are not available for tours, these lighthouses are Grand Haven’s most recognizable feature. They are two of the most photographed lighthouses in the Midwest.
Downtown Grand Haven’s most unique attraction is a three-tiered grass stadium on the banks of the Grand River, the Lynne Sherwood Waterfront Stadium. At dusk, you can catch a 25- to 30-minute show of water and lights, set to popular music, at the Grand Haven Musical Fountain. For about a week, from July 28-Aug. 6, Grand Haven will host its annual Grand Haven Coast Guard Festival, during which a variety of tribute and cover bands will perform in the stadium. There will also be a kid-friendly carnival, as well as special events like the Cardboard Boat Race Competition, ship tours, kids parade, and more.
Another Grand Haven event is the Sand Sculpture Contest. Hosted on Aug. 12, the family-friendly event at City Beach features sand sculptors who spend two hours crafting a sand creation.
Aside from special events, Grand Haven provides a great beach getaway for most of the year. Grand Haven State Park is among the more popular beaches, with a designated swim beach along with a pavilion and picnic areas. Grand Haven City Beach is closer to town and also quite popular. Kirk Park is nearby, providing a special beach where dogs can roam off-leash.
Little Traverse Bay and Lake Charlevoix Area
In northern Michigan, Petoskey and Charlevoix are two of the best-known beach towns along Lake Michigan. But this area also includes Boyne City, Walloon Lake, and Harbor Springs. All in all, there’s plenty of family-friendly coastal fun.
One of the biggest draws to the area involves looking for Petoskey Stones, fossilized coral that looks like rock. Some of the best locations for hunting Petoskey Stones include Petoskey State Park, North Point Nature Preserve, Fisherman’s Island State Park, and Magnus Park.
Both Charlevoix and Petoskey feel like fantasy destinations. Downtown Petoskey has a historic Gaslight District that, true to its name, is lit with historic gas lights. One popular attraction is the Mushroom House Tours in Charlevoix, which can be done either with a tour guide or self-guided. The Mushroom Houses are stonework homes with rounded roofs, doors, and windows. They resemble hobbit homes from Middle-earth. All are privately-owned residences originally designed by self-taught architect Earl Young. Charlevoix also has Castle Farms, a historical attraction and wedding venue built over a century ago that resembles a castle. Other outdoor recreation options include SkyBridge Michigan, the world’s largest timber-towered suspension bridge; Avalanche Bay, an indoor water park; and plenty of watersports options like pontoon boat and jet ski rentals.
Michigan Renaissance Festival and Holly
Fantasy lovers of all ages are delighted every year by the Michigan Renaissance Festival. This festival transports you to Hollygrove, a fictional English village set in the Elizabethan era. But don’t worry about strictly period garb—you’ll also see pirates, elves, fairies, witches, and fantasy heroes of all kinds. Though many states have their own renaissance fairs, the Michigan Renaissance Festival is perfect for late summer. Opening weekend kicks off on Aug. 19.
The festival takes place every weekend until mid-October and there’s a different theme each weekend. Patrons of the festival will be awed by live jousting shows, as well as 17 stages of entertainment and a rich village full of artisan goods. For additional fees, patrons can also purchase optional exclusive experiences like a meet-and-greet with birds of prey or a special game called The Quest, which involves breaking a fairy curse.
Outside the festival, the Holly area also has family-friendly outdoor activities. One of the best attractions is the Holly State Recreation Area, a park of 8,000 acres that includes a campground and cabins. It’s a great place for hiking, boating, fishing, disc golf, and more. The water park attraction WhoaZone can be found at Heron Beach, a large sandy beach within the park that features the Wibit Aqua Park, a floating inflatable obstacle course on the water. There’s also a special kid’s zone specially designed for children ages 4 to 6. It also has rentals for single and double kayaks, canoes, and paddleboards for use on the water. You can also just rent lounge chairs with an umbrella or privacy cabana for a relaxing beach experience.
In Muskegon, you don’t have to choose between the amusement park or the water park. You get both for the price of one at Michigan’s Adventure, which also includes the WildWater Adventure Water Park. Not only is this water park outdoors, but Grand Rapids Kids named it the Best Water Park in Michigan.
Between the two parks, you will find more than 60 different rides and slides, including 15 water attractions. The centerpiece of WildWater is the Funnel of Fear, a tornado slide over 63 feet in height—the only tornado slide of its size in Michigan. But if death-defying heights aren’t your cup of tea, no worries. There’s plenty of family-friendly ways to spend the day, including the Lazy River, Beach Party, and all-new Half-Pint Paradise meant specifically for the youngest guests.
The rest of Michigan’s Adventure has a variety of rides, including seven roller coasters. But there’s also amusement park favorites like the Tilt-A-Whirl, Thunderbolt, and the Giant Gondola Wheel. Camp Snoopy provides a Peanuts-themed kids’ area that includes family-friendly roller coaster Woodstock Express and other kid-friendly rides.
Outside of the amusement park life, Muskegon has plenty of reasons to visit all on its own. Take a cruise on Lake Michigan or Muskegon Lake for the most gorgeous sunsets. Muskegon State Park includes 3 miles of shoreline perfect for swimming. It also includes the Muskegon Luge Adventure Sports Park, which features an Olympian-designed luge track—one of only four in the U.S.—that’s available year-round. There are plenty of other recreational activities for the summer, like a zip line course, climbing rock wall, and archery field. Muskegon is also a popular location for paddle sports.
Silver Lake Sand Dunes
It might be hard to find places where you can rent a dune buggy or other off-road vehicle. But Silver Lake Sand Dunes are the only sand dunes in Michigan where you can drive an off-road vehicle. The sand dunes cover 2,000 acres of land and several miles of Lake Michigan coastline.
Despite how tempting a dune buggy may be, how you travel the dunes is up to you. If you don’t have your own dune buggy, you can rent one onsite. If you’d prefer something more guided, Mac Wood’s Dune Rides will take you on a 40-minute dune tour that’s friendly for all ages. There’s also a pedestrian area of the dunes where no vehicles are permitted, perfect if you just want to explore the sands the old-fashioned way.
Aside from the dunes, there’s plenty to do in the surrounding area. Check out Craig’s Cruisers for your opportunity to ride go-karts or kiddie karts, glide out on a zip line, try a round of mini-golf, get out on the water in paddle boats or bumper boats, or just enjoy the arcade games. Lewis Adventure Farm and Zoo in nearby New Era offers family-friendly attractions like a splash pad, giant slide, gem mining, and animal encounters. The Little Sable Point Lighthouse offers seasonal tours for a fee.
Michiganders love the experiences of camping in cabins and camping on the water. But “Up North” cabins are rarely a community. That’s what sets the Au Sable Riverview Resort in Grayling apart. Grayling is considered the best spot to start canoeing down the Au Sable River, one of Michigan’s longest rivers. But at the Au Sable Riverview Resort, located on the banks of Au Sable, you get a whole cabin to yourself without straying too far from a hotel experience.
All cottages and cabins have their own kitchen, full bathroom, screened porch, gas grill, and a television. All cabins also have Wi-Fi, air-conditioning and heat, and a community fire pit. The resort is an excellent place to experience world-class fly fishing, even if you’re a beginner. Other outdoor recreation opportunities include canoeing and kayaking, hiking, biking, birdwatching, and more. The onsite market allows for the purchase of fly-fishing apparel as well as gourmet food items, adult beverages, convenience items, and even fishing and hunting licenses.Partnerships allow fly-fishing guides and instructors that can improve the skill level of anyone interested in fishing. The resort also maintains a guide of all the canoe and kayak rentals nearby. Also in the Grayling area is Hartwick Pines State Park, the largest state park in the Lower Peninsula and a great place for hiking and biking. The Visitors Center is an educational experience providing the history of Michigan’s forests and logging industry, complete with a “Living Tree” that talks. Grayling is also home to the W.J. Beal Tree Plantation, which is not only a great place for a nature walk but possibly the oldest documented tree plantation in North America.
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