There’s a new year upon us, which presents an opportunity for some exciting travel goals. Fortunately, Michigan is a state that is ripe with opportunity. Whether you live in the state and want to go exploring, or are traveling from afar, these unique destinations are so spectacular, they should be on any traveler’s bucket list. Here are ten places in Michigan everyone should visit at least once.
Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore
Stretching for more than 40 miles along the edge of Lake Superior in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, this American treasure is truly a sight to behold. It’s home to seven waterfalls, an abundance of beaches, sand dunes, forests and a seemingly endless supply of hiking trails. What makes it truly unique is the cornucopia of colors that streak down along the sandstone cliffs. Minerals like iron, copper, limonite and manganese cause the spectacle, but knowing the source makes it no less magical. If you’re able, see them up close by kayak. If you prefer a bigger boat, take a cruise along the shore. Spend plenty of time on land as well, exploring all of this natural beauty. A particularly awe-inspiring view can be found at Log Slide Overlook, where loggers once slid logs down a steep slope into Lake Superior.
Sleeping Bear Dunes
Once selected by Good Morning America viewers as the Most Beautiful Place in America, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is located in the northwestern section of the Lower Peninsula. With 70,000 acres of protected wilderness, there are countless opportunities for hiking, cycling, canoeing, kayaking, swimming, fishing, and birdwatching. A veritable something for everyone. Of course, the park is best known for the huge scalable sandscapes of the Dune Climb. Be prepared, as it is no easy feat to climb up or down a dune, but the views are spectacularly worthwhile. For a less strenuous, but still delightful experience, be sure to also check out the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive. There are twelve stops along this 7.4-mile stretch, the highlight of which is probably #9, an overlook that rises 450-ft above the water. As you explore the shore, plan your day accordingly so that you’re in the perfect place to enjoy a glorious Lake Michigan sunset. While in the area, make sure you pop into the Cherry Republic headquarters in Glen Arbor. Michigan is the tart cherry capital and you can find cherryliciousness everywhere at this unusual roadside stop.
Headlands International Dark Sky Park
As more and more electric lighting fills our planet, it becomes harder and harder to see the wonders of space. That is why the International Dark Sky Association started designating areas of the world as protected sights. Headlands is a 550-acre Dark Sky Park on the shores of Lake Michigan near Mackinaw City. This rustic park is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. During the day, you can explore over five miles of hiking trails through one of the area’s only untouched, old growth forests. Of course, the majesty of it truly comes to life at night. Stay out and stargaze as late as you like or as early as you choose, just note that there is no camping allowed. For a more guided experience, attend one of the many night sky events. It’s a particularly glorious destination during a meteor shower, or if you’re really lucky, you might catch a glimpse of the Northern Lights between September and April.
This tiny little gem sits in Lake Huron, between Michigan’s Upper and Lower peninsulas. It may be small in size, measuring under four square miles, but its reputation is huge. With no motorized vehicles allowed, it draws people from all over the world, eager to disconnect from modern life. Explore natural wonders like the limestone Arch Rock formation. Travel exclusively on foot and by horse carriages and bicycles. Step back in time at Fort Mackinac. Rock gently in a chair on the majestic Grand Hotel porch. Definitely don’t leave the island until you’ve savored some of its freshly-made fudge. There is so much to do on Mackinac, not to mention the simple pleasure of doing nothing. Be sure to watch the sun rise above the Mackinac Bridge in the morning and drop back down in the evening from Sunset Rock.
The Motor City
It put the world on wheels in the early 1900s, was the Arsenal of Democracy during World War II, provided the soundtrack of the 1960s and 70s, and is now enjoying an unprecedented resurgence. No visit to Michigan would be complete without exploring the economic and cultural capital of the state. Head to Hitsville USA where the magic of Motown happened. Visit Eastern Market, one of the nation’s oldest public markets. Stand in awe of Diego Riviera’s automotive frescoes at the Detroit Institute of Arts. Take in a Lions, Tigers, Red Wings or Pistons game. Cruise down the Detroit River on a riverboat or marvel at your proximity to two nations while enjoying the natural beauty of Belle Isle. Dine or indulge in a craft cocktail at one of the many James Beard honored restaurants, or weigh in on an age-old battle of the best between neighboring coney island joints: American VS Lafayette. While in the area, pop down the road a piece to Dearborn to visit The Henry Ford, one of America’s most beloved historic attractions.
Eben Ice Caves
While every other destination on this list is magnificent at any time of year, this one is not. If you visit this spot in the summer you would see little to no water flowing. The caves are formed when melting snow runs over the edge of a tiny cliff and freezes. Each winter, once the ice caves start to freeze, typically around December, visitor’s flock to the tiny town of Eben Junction to explore. Be forewarned, you have to work a little for this one. The hike from the parking area to the ice caves is about .75 miles. The first third is a very flat walk through a generous farmer’s field. There is no charge, so buy a hot cocoa or a snack while there to show your appreciation. The rest of the journey is typically a bit more challenging depending upon conditions so slipping ice cleats over your footwear can prove very beneficial. The trek is worth it once you arrive at these incredible frozen formations.
Lantern Room of a Lighthouse
Unlike the rest of the items on our list, this one does not come with a specific location. Michigan has 3,200 miles of shoreline so it should come as no surprise that it was reportedly once home to 247 lighthouses. Today the coasts are still dotted with over a hundred. Some can only be seen from outside. However, others are open to visitors to climb in and get a good glimpse into another time, and out at a gorgeous view. If you really love the experience, some even request overnight guest lighthouse keepers. Along Lake Michigan, Big Sable Point Lighthouse in Ludington offers tours and the option to climb the watchtower. If Lake Huron is your destination, check out the view atop the Tawas Point Lighthouse. The Lake Superior shore includes the Point Iroquois Lighthouse, which allows guests to climb the 65-ft spiral staircase up toward the beacon. Similarly, the light station tower at Whitefish Point is open to the public, and the spot also features the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum, where you can learn what really happened to the Edmund Fitzgerald and other vessels that sail our freshwater seas. Be sure to confirm that the lighthouse you want to visit will be open when you arrive, and especially if you need a reservation to get up in the tower.
Beer City USA
While cold brews are hardly the only reason to visit Grand Rapids, they are a great one. Home to more than 80 craft breweries, it has become an award-winning beer destination, drawing aficionados from around the world. So much so that it has earned the nickname of Beer City USA. The other claim to fame is as home ArtPrize, the largest art competition in the world. The art competition is currently undergoing a transformation, but you can still marvel at all of the art that has touched the city, particularly after a decade of the competition. Find much of that impressive art at the GRAM or visit Frederik Meijer Sculpture Gardens. Learn about the 70s and our nation’s 38th leader at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum. Stop by the Downtown Market for a culinary lesson or to chat and buy from local entrepreneurs. The John Ball Zoo and Grand Rapids Public Museum will delight youngsters and bring out the kid in you.
Lake of the Clouds
Nestled amidst the Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park, views of this majestic landscape will stay with you for a lifetime, particularly if you visit in the fall. Get up early and make it there for a sunrise over the lake or come later in the day, just before the sun sets and you’ll find a warm glow filling the landscape. In one direction you can see Lake of the Clouds, in the other, the equally photogenic Carp River cutting its way through the hills. The park itself is 92 square miles big, with virgin forest, scenic waterfalls, rugged Lake Superior shore, a winter skiing complex, snowmobile routes, remote rustic cabins, campgrounds, 87 miles of hiking trails, and virtually no roads. If you love the outdoors, this is paradise.
Perhaps the most tranquil of all these choices, this unique U.P. destination can be found just west of Manistique in Palms Book State Park. That’s where you’ll find Michigan’s largest natural freshwater spring. Often referred to as the big spring, especially by those having trouble pronouncing Kitch-iti-kipi, the name actually means big cold water in Ojibwe. Regardless of season, the water stays consistently at 45 degrees, so even in a harsh Michigan winter it is not frozen over. 10,000 gallons of water come up through the bottom every single minute. The result is a flurry of sand activity at the bottom and crystal clear water above it that allows you to see nearly every fish in the spring. To get the most remarkable views of this 45-ft deep natural wonder, you hop on a self-propelled open-bottom ferry and hand-turn a big wheel to work your out into the middle. Then just let schools of fish and Mother Nature entertain you. The show will change on every visit.