Traveler’s Guide to the Best Michigan National Parks

Posted by
Rachel Jorgensen
April 12, 2021
Updated May 04, 2022

michigan national parks
Photo: Monika Simpkins

Michigan’s glacier-carved landscape and 3,288 miles of shoreline are home to lush forests filled with wildlife and mineral-rich soils — and a colorful human history to go with it.

The natural beauty and history of the state are showcased at seven designated parks and areas scattered from the Detroit area to the most remote regions of the Upper Peninsula, all affiliated with or managed by the National Park Service.

Fondly referred to as America’s “Third Coast,” Michigan has more shoreline than any other state (aside from Alaska) and is home to two national lakeshores: Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore and Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. And travelers can explore both places’ unique features and terrain year-round.

Michigan’s lone national park is also the most remote national park in the lower 48. Isle Royale National Park in Lake Superior is accessible summers only, and even then only by boat. It’ll give you a taste of what this area of the world looked like before human development.

But whether it’s your first trip or tenth, you don’t want to skip out Michigan’s other parks, which include a historic park, battlefield park, scenic trail, and heritage area. If you want to truly get to know the state’s history and natural beauty, then you have to go beyond the most well-known sites.

Here’s the full Michigan park guide for the state’s federally managed sites, including everything you need to know about visiting.

Related Read: The 10 Best Lake Camping Destinations in Michigan

Nationally Managed Sites in Michigan

Each of Michigan’s nationally managed parks and lakeshores are worth visiting, and fortunately, some are close enough to fit more than one into a single day.  Five areas on this list are all in the northern part of the state, while the other two are in and around Detroit. All are worthy of a visit (or two or three.)

Isle Royale National Park

Isle Royale National Park coastline
Photo: iStock

One of the most remote and least-visited parks in the nation – only three parks in Alaska see less traffic – Isle Royale National Park is a true wilderness. On Lake Superior near the Canadian border, these isolated islands get you far from the sights and sounds of civilization. Accessed only by boat in the summer, there are no vehicles in the park. So you can count on a peaceful, quiet experience surrounded by only nature and wildlife.

Getting Around

The only way to get around Isle Royale is on foot or by canoe or kayak.

Greenstone Ridge Trail runs through the center of Isle Royale and offers stunning views of the lakes and surrounding wilderness. The trail runs the full 40-mile length of the island and usually takes four or five days to complete. There are also plenty of canoe and kayak routes leading around the park’s coastal bays and inland lakes.

What to do

The park offers more than hiking trails. Whether in the inland lakes and rivers or on Lake Superior itself, the park is an anglers paradise. You can also tour the island by boat, chat with knowledgeable rangers about the area’s cultural and natural history, or even go scuba diving (with the appropriate permits and gear) to see well-preserved shipwrecks protected by the national park (and the always-cold water.)

Related Read: 9 Amazing Places to See Fall Colors in Michigan

Where to Stay

The park has 36 wilderness campgrounds along the hiking and canoe and kayak routes. These are primitive campgrounds with only pit toilets, picnic tables, and fire rings, as well as a few three-sided shelters.

The only lodging within the park is the Rock Harbor Lodge complex on the northeast end. It has 60 rooms, a gift shop, and a grill that serves up fresh lake trout and food that’s especially tasty after a day of hiking or paddling.

Find vacation rentals nearest to Isle Royale National Park.

Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore

Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore
Photo: Monika Simpkins

Sandstone cliffs, waterfalls, hidden coves, forests, beaches; it’s no surprise Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore is one of the most popular natural destinations in Michigan. Running along Lake Superior’s shoreline, Painted Rocks offers stunning views and a plethora of recreation opportunities.

Whether you’re backpacking, day hiking, boating, ice climbing, or embarking on the park’s waterfall scavenger hunt, there’s something for everyone year-round. Be aware that black flies swarm the area mid-May to mid-June and can leave painful and swollen bites. Be sure to wear protective clothing if you’re exploring the park during this time.

Getting Around

The main road through the park is Alger County Road H-58, and most other roads in the park are unpaved and lead to trailheads and campsites.

100 miles of trails meander through the northern hardwoods and offer both views of Lake Superior and access to backcountry camping. Running along the entire shoreline of Pictured Rocks is the North Country National Scenic Trail. Best thru-hiked or explored in small chunks, hikers can expect to see breathtaking views, waterfalls, and beautiful wooded sections. 

What to do

What to do depends what you’re interested in. To get a sense of the area’s geological history, you can go on guided boat tours to learn about the shore’s sandstone formations and hidden coves.

Hiking and backpacking are popular during the summer, as are kayaking, paddleboarding, canoeing, fishing, snow shoeing, cross country skiing, snowmobiling, and even ice climbing. Every February, the Michigan Ice Fest takes place here and offers classes, clinics, and a chance to socialize with other climbers.

Related Read: 9 Unique Places to Stay in Michigan for an Extraordinary Escape

Where to Stay

The park itself has 14 small backcountry camping options that require a permit. There are also three drive-in campgrounds for weekend camping or overnight trips that require a reservation. The town of Munising is close by, where you can find hotels, restaurants, and gear shops in case you forgot something.

Find vacation rentals nearest to Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore.

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore

Sleeping Bear Dunes in Michigan
Photo: Craig Sterken

Named after the park’s most prominent feature – the sky-high dunes overlooking the Caribbean-blue waters of Lake Michigan — Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore has views and history galore. The park covers mainland shoreline as well as South Manitou Island and North Manitou Island. You can study geological history in the park’s glacier-carved landscape, dotted with picturesque beaches and sandy dunes.

You can study the region’s human history in Glen Haven, the park’s historic village, which has a blacksmith, an operational general store, and a lifesaving station visitors can explore. Dunes aside, you’ll also find lush forests, wetlands, bogs, streams, and plenty of space to explore.

Related Read: 11 Cozy Pet-Friendly Cabin Rentals in Michigan

Getting Around

You can drive around the park, but you’ll need to reserve a spot on the ferry to get out to the islands.

On foot, Sleeping Bear is most known for its challenging Dune Climb, a 600-foot climb up pure, windblown sand. Those who make it to the top of this steep hike are rewarded with vistas of Lake Michigan (and a fun adventure back down to the base.)

The Dune Climb isn’t the only hike in the park, however. The lakeshore boasts over 100 miles of trails on both the mainland and on the Manitou Islands. Some of the more popular ones include Alligator Hill Trail, Pyramid Point, and the Empire Bluff Trail. Each hike has its own challenges, vistas, and scenery along the way.

There’s also the 21-mile-long Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail. It connects the parks’ most popular stops to the villages of Empire and Glen Arbor and is open to both cyclists and walkers alike.

What to do

No shortage of options here! Swimming, scuba diving on wrecks, canoeing, kayaking, paddleboarding, and fishing (when conditions allow) are great ways to experience the park from a different angle. In the winter, the trail systems host snowshoers and cross country skiers, and it’s usually far less crowded.

Don’t forget to spend some time learning about the park’s geological history. You can explore the area on a self-guided driving tour around the park, at the South Manitou Island Lighthouse, or in the town of Glen Haven.

Related Read: 8 Best Scenic Drives in Michigan for Dashboard Eye Candy

Where to Stay

There are two campgrounds on the mainland: the Platte River Campground and the D.H. Day Campground; both are open to tent campers and RVs.

There are also campgrounds on the islands. Nearby, the towns of Empire and Glen Arbor have hotels and bed and breakfasts if camping isn’t your thing. And about half an hour away is the larger town of Traverse City, with even more lodging and dining options. Check out the best Traverse City Airbnbs for the perfect spot to stay.

Find vacation rentals nearest to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.

Other Can’t-Miss Parks

Keweenaw National Historic Park

Keweenaw National Historic Park
Photo: iStock

Before the gold rush, there was the great mineral rush, and the Keweenaw peninsula was rich with copper. Early settlers flocked to the area to mine this natural resource, just as the natives had done for almost 7,000 years. Keweenaw National Historic Park offers a step back in time to see the old mines, villages, and lighthouses.

There are multiple museums as well as trails and the chance to give geocaching a go, learning about the area on the way. Several of the old mines are even open for exploring (one by underground tram!)

North Country National Scenic Trail

north country national scenic trail
Photo: iStock

The North Country National Scenic Trail is America’s longest national scenic trail, running a grand total of 4,600 miles across eight states from Vermont to North Dakota. Michigan is home to more of those miles than any other state (1,150, to be exact).

The trail is headquartered in Lowell, Michigan and was born of the National Trails System Act of 1968. The trail is mostly for hiking and backpacking, though other non-motorized use is allowed on some portions. Due to the trail’s length, it covers all types of terrain and hosts a wide variety of flora and fauna.

River Raisin National Battlefield Park

River Raisin National Battlefield Park
Photo: Ken Lund / Flickr

Just south of Detroit in Monroe is the River Raisin National Battlefield Park. It has exhibits on everything you’d ever want to know about the January 1813 battles of the War of 1812. A museum in the visitor’s center hosts hands-on exhibits, videos, artifacts, and more that tell the story of America’s trials and eventual victory.

If you want to stretch your legs, head out on one of several accessible loops with historical markers. The eight-mile Heritage Trail allow even more insight to the history and culture of the area.

MotorCities National Heritage Area

MotorCities National Heritage Area
Photo: Brian Corey

In the state’s infancy, logging and mining gave way to a huge shipping industry. Transportation remained the focus of Michigan’s economy for many years after with the advent of the automobile. In fact, Southwest Michigan has the largest concentration of historic sites related to the automotive industry in the entire world.

The MotorCities National Heritage Area commemorates this history and offers an opportunity to learn about the inventors of the road trip, early vehicles, and the culture around the industry. Pick up a passport book and visit notable sites like the Automotive Hall of Fame or the Ford Piquette Avenue Plant.

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