Updated: Jul 13
Michigan is the furthest trip we've taken with our camper. I booked a campsite at J.W. Wells State Park, just across the Wisconsin border in the Upper Peninsula. Most of the trip was camping but we did take the time to venture out a couple of times. When I booked this, I knew Michigan was in the eastern time zone. I didn't realize that where we stayed was actually in the central time zone. This did make it a little difficult because the places we visited were different time zones, which meant earlier wake up times, but we managed through it.
My original plan was to visit Pictured Rocks on Monday and Sault Ste. Marie Thursday. After seeing a ton of positive reviews of Mackinac Island we scrapped Sault Ste. Marie and visited the island instead.
JW. Wells State Park is not the type of campground we generally visit. I like very wooded camping with as much privacy as possible, and it is very open with campsites right on top of each other. The site I booked was on the last loop at the end of the campground, with woods behind us, so we were more secluded than most sites and we ended up really enjoying our site. We were further from the lake than we would like to have been, but none of the sites had easy lake access anyway so it wasn't that big of a deal. There were restrooms and showers in the middle of the campground, a couple of playgrounds and an area with horseshoes.
We left on a Saturday and were completely packed and ready to head out by 6am. It took us just under 7 hours to drive to the campground, filling up on gas on our way out and stopping once more along the way. This was the weekend before July 4th so the campground was packed, but cleared out considerably after the 4th. Once we were done unhooking our camper and setting up camp (and moving the camper two times to get it positioned right and level), we went straight to the beach. It was close to 2pm and the sun was hot. We were sweaty and ready for a rinse in the lake!
We could have walked to the beach, but since we were pretty far back in the campground we drove. The parking area for the beach is huge and there are multiple paths through the woods from the parking lot to the water. We were on Green Bay (which Matthew continued to remind me and insist that we weren't technically on Lake Michigan). The beach area was really amazing. It was all sand as far as you could see and a nice sandy bottom when in the lake. There was an actual beach area with buoys defining the area. Bathrooms, picnic tables and volleyball nets were set just behind the beach area. We set up our towels just down from the beach area. The water was extremely shallow, and you could walk out forever and be able to touch. Matthew walked out and fished for a while, and Whitney and I alternated between tanning and dipping in to cool off in the water.
After the beach we went to the campground office and bought firewood. Firewood tends to be what we spend the most money on while camping, but if you bought 3 bundles it was only $5 each here. Back at camp we started a fire, cooked some hotdogs and relaxed. We went to bed early after a long travel day and early start.
Our second day was another relaxing day. We hung out at our site until we were hot enough to hit the beach and we brought kayaks with us this time. Dragging the kayaks was kind of a pain due to the fact that we drove and walked the path from the parking lot, but it was fun to take them out. Matthew was able to fish a little from the kayak, but with how shallow the water was so far out it wasn't great fishing. We did drive up the road to Ceder River State Harbor so Matthew could fish off the dock, but he didn't have any luck here either.
Every day the campground had activities planned. Nature walks, educational classes, etc. They were all geared towards little kids so we didn't partake in anything, but on Sunday the kids did a bike parade where they decorated their bikes with flags and streamers for the 4th of July. A firetruck led the way as they biked though the campground and it was the cutest thing.
Monday, we got up early and left camp at 8am to head to Munising. I had booked a Pictured Rocks boat cruise for 2pm. Munising is a 2-hour drive from J.W. Wells State Park, and we lost an hour with the time change. It is a super cute little town. We walked around and visited a few gift shops and ate lunch. Then we had ice cream at Miner's Pasties and Ice Cream. The ice cream was delicious, but we had no idea what a pastie was before we came here. Since we had just had lunch we decided we would come back after our cruise to try one.
The boat cruise was spectacular. I would have loved to spend a day exploring the trails around Pictured Rocks or doing the kayak tour, but with how long the drive was we figured the cruise was the best way to enjoy this area with limited time. And we saw the most amazing rocky coastline we could have imagined.
We booked the Spray Falls Cruise with Pictured Rock Cruises. The first thing we saw was the Grand Island as we pulled away from Munising and out of the South Bay into Lake Superior. Grand Island is over 13,000 acres and is a National Recreation Area. There are two natural lakes on the island. Our captain said that most of the cabins/houses on the island do not have electricity, and even less have running water, so this is definitely a more primitive area to visit.
I'm going to do my best to recap our tour and remember all of the names of the sites that were pointed out. First was Miners Castle Rock, a beautiful rock formation resembling a Castle. This is one of the few areas along Pictured Rocks Lakeshore where you can easily access it by land so there were quite a few people assembled on the viewing platform as we went by.
The next section was gorgeous. We saw cliffs with all the beautiful colors dripping down like they were running into the water. The cliffs are sandstone, and over time the water and wind have created caves. The colors that we saw are caused by different minerals transported within groundwater seeping out of cracks in the rock and deposited as stains on the sandstone. Reds and oranges are from iron, the blues and green are caused by copper, brown and black by manganese and the white is limonite.
The Caves of all Colors have a gruesome story attached. Apparently Native American's believed them to be a place of execution by early Indigenous Tribes, with the vermillion coloring thought to be the blood of victims within the caves.
Lover's Leap is a beautiful arch. The water surrounding this formation is a lovely green/blue where it is only approximately 3 feet deep (so the captain made sure to tell us leaping from Lover's Leap is a very bad idea), then moving into a darker blue as it gets deeper further from the arch.
Rainbow Cave is another lovely backdrop against water resembling the Caribbean beaches. The cave has all the wonderful colors dripping from the sandstone. This is the largest cave along the Pictured Rocks shoreline and a favorite for kayakers.
Indian Head Rock is a formation resembling the profile of a Native American Chief. Next is Grand Portal. This is the highest rock formation along Pictured Rocks, reaching over 200 feet high. At one time you could take a small boat through the archway here but a rock collapsing 25 years ago blocked the passageway.
Battleship Rock was one of the coolest things we saw on our cruise. The rock itself resembles a battleship sitting on the water. As our captain moved our boat past Battleship Rock, Battleship Row slowly came into view, revealing several rock formations jetting out into the water mimicking a line of battleships.
Flower Vase Rock and Indian Drum came next. Two very distinct formations that perfectly resemble that of their names.
As we came to Chapel Cove our captain steered and positioned our boat right into the cove. There were only a few feet on either side of our cruise boat before the giant cliffs began. Chapel beach is next to the cove and it was filled with people enjoying the beautiful day.
When I researched Pictured Rocks, this was the destination I had considered visiting by land. There is a trailhead where you can park and walk 3 miles to the beach. From there you can continue on a loop for a total of 10 miles, or you can walk the 3 miles back. The loop will take you along the cliffs and from what I read it is the best way to see the actual cliffs by land.
Chapel Rock is a wonderous formation with a tree growing directly on top of it. The tree cannot sustain itself atop the rock, so the roots suspend across to the main land area behind Chapel Rock. At one time there was an arch supporting the roots, but this has fallen and now the roots suspend across the vacant space.
Spray Falls was the furthest destination on our cruise. This is the only waterfall that continuously flows all summer long. There are many other waterfalls along the lakeshore which flow abundantly in the late winter and early spring when the snow melts, but dry up during the summer.
On our way back to Munising we saw the Grand Island East Channel Lighthouse. The lighthouse is on private property and was built in the 1860s. The lighthouse is made of wood and has been restored over the years. It was only operational until the early 1900s.
As soon as we stepped off the boat Whitney went to wade in Lake Superior.
After our cruise we went back to Miners Pasties and Ice Cream. We wanted to try these amazing meat and veggie pockets. When we ordered they only had the Yooper Pastie available, but assured us that was the best one anyway. Whitney ate another ice cream cone and we sat and enjoyed our dinner. The Yooper Pastie was really good, filled with pork, beef, potatoes, rutabaga, onion and carrots. All this goodness is wrapped in a flaky crust and you can pick it up and eat it like a sandwich. It was delicious.
As we left Munising to head back to our campground we stopped at the Wagner Falls Scenic Site. This is a very short walk to view a waterfall.
Tuesday was July 4th. We had planned to find a spot close to the campground to drive and see fireworks. As we looked at the weather for the next few days, we decided to move our daytrip to Mackinac Island to Wednesday from Thursday to avoid the rain coming Thursday. Mackinac Island was a 3-hour drive from J.W. Wells State Park plus an hour lost with time change, so we planned to be on the road by 6am. Whitney was ok with skipping fireworks, so we stayed at the camp all day.
The beach was great this day, with temps in the 80s and nothing but sun. We spent most of our time at the beach, going back to camp to eat and then back to the beach. We floated, kayaked and laid on the beach tanning. That evening we played horse shoes, had a fire, ate our first s'mores of the trip, showered and went to bed early.
Wednesday we woke up at 5am to get ready to go to Mackinac Island. We drove the 3 hours along Highway 2 to St. Ignace to catch our ferry. It started to rain approximately 30 minutes into our drive. And by rain I mean downpour. Sheets of rain, lines of traffic, limited visibility. Some lightning and thunder. We arrived at St. Ignace just after 10am ready to take the 10:30 ferry to the island. The schedule usually has a ferry leaving every 30 minutes, but on this day there was a bridge tour so we had to wait until 10:50. The rain started to subside right around the time we left, which was a relief. We moved our to avoid the rain and didn't want to be drenched all day.
I booked our ferry and a carriage ride through Mackinac Ferry (Star Line). The ferry ride to the island was approximately 20 minutes. As we approached the island you could see adorable houses lining the cliffs along the waters edge. The sky was still cloudy and hazy so we couldn't see the Mackinac Bridge.
Once we got off the ferry, we went straight to the Mackinac Island Carriage Tours. I wasn't sure if we had to reserve a time or not, as the tickets I purchased in advance were not for a specified date or time. After checking in we went straight into a line and boarded a carriage tour. The carriage was pulled by two horses. We started down main street which is an adorable area with all kinds of shops and restaurants. It is very touristy and a little crowded, but the fact that there are no cars somehow adds to the charm.
Out of the main street area we headed up the hill and approached the Grand Hotel. This hotel was built in only 93 days in the late 1880s. It is magnificent and has a very old-world charm.
Our guides taught us a lot on this tour. Mackinac Island was the 2nd National Park in the United States, with the 1st being Yellowstone. The park was upkept by the soldiers at Fort Mackinac and when the military decided to close the fort, the State of Michigan stepped in to take care of the park. This is why it became a Michigan State Park after it was originally a National Park.
There are no cars allowed on the island. The only transportation is by horse, bike or on foot. Ambulance and Fire is the only exception to this. Even the police officers patrol on bike.
The speed limit here is 25mph. If you go faster than 25mph on a bike or horse, you will be fined $100. They have only 1 doctor on the island. They have 5 veterinarians on the island. Horses greatly outnumber the permanent residents on the island. In the winter they have special shoes with spikes for the horses, resembling that of ice cleats you wear over boots. They salt their streets with a horse drawn salt spreader.
The horses work 1/2 days and then get a full 24 hours off. The guides on our tour are required to take care of their horses as well as lead the tours. They bathe, brush, bridle, etc. their horses each day. A lot of the workers on the island are college students. Most of the employers provide housing to their workers so they aren't dependent on ferry schedules. Their days begin before the ferry starts running in a lot of cases.
The cemetery here is very unique. It is separated by religious denomination. It has multiple sections for religion as well as one section for military service. In order to be buried on the island you have to own land there.
Our tour started on Main Street as I said, and once we reached the horse stables, we changed to a larger carriage. At the horse stables there was a guest center with restrooms, a few shops, donuts, Wings of Mackinac-a butterfly house you can walk through (which we skipped) and a place where you can build your own knife as a souvenir (also skipped). We boarded a new carriage pulled by 3 horses this time, which can seat up to 35 people. This is where we started touring more of the state park and learning more about the history of the island including where we saw the Mackinac Island Cemetery. We also stopped at Arch Rock. Our guide on this part dropped some off at Fort Mackinac and the rest of us off at the Governor's Residence where we could walk back down to Main Street.
We walked to the Grand Hotel once we were off the carriage. It cost $10 to enter if you aren't staying at the hotel. We walked through and viewed all of the historic public areas and walked on the grand porch.
I had planned to have lunch at the Grand Hotel but the buffet was the only thing serving anything besides bar appetizers, and the cost was $75 each, so we just walked through and then headed back to Main Street for food.
The Gate House was the first restaurant we saw on our walk back down the hill, and this restaurant is actually a part of the Grand Hotel. Matthew and I enjoyed a burger and Whitney had a grilled cheese.
After eating we walked Main Street. We went into a bunch of gift shops and purchased some souvenirs, Whitney got some ice cream, and we bought fudge from one of the many fudge shops on the island. Once we were done, we went to catch the ferry back to St. Ignace. The sky was clearer on the way back, so we did see decent views of the bridge from Lake Huron.
After our afternoon on the Island, we drove across the Mackinac Bridge to find a good spot to get pictures. Plus, we now get to say we crossed the longest suspension bridge in the United States. Just across the bridge on the main-land of Michigan is Mackinaw City. I don't understand the same pronunciation and different spelling of the city and island, but I looked it up and it is definitely a different spelling.
We stopped at Alexander Henry Park and walked to the shore of Lake Huron. Here we had fabulous views of the bridge even through a hazy sky, and got to step into the lake for awhile.
Once we were done we started our drive back to our camp. I stopped at a rest area on our way back so that we could step into the water and officially step into 3 great lakes on this trip (since Green Bay didn't count in Matthew's opinion). We got back just after 7pm and sat by the fire and read until we were tired enough to go to bed.
Thursday and Friday were spent relaxing at the campground. We kayaked, laid at the beach, enjoyed sitting by the fire, watched a couple of movies in the evening and played card games. We also went back to the harbor to fish again. We all got sunburned throughout the week. I finished 3 books on this trip, which is rare for any of our vacations to allow enough time to just sit and unwind, but it was such a needed relief.
Friday morning we set our alarms for 4:30 so we could watch the sun rise. The sunrise at this time was 5:08am.
Friday evening we burned our remaining wood and had s'mores again. We packed up everything we had outside of the camper before going to bed this evening. The only thing we had to worry about packing was inside the camper and our kayaks. Saturday morning we woke to rain, so our decision to pack up the night before made our morning a lot more pleasant. We had our coffee and then secured everything inside the camper. We were hooked up and pulling out around 8am Saturday morning to start our drive home. One quick stop at the dump station and to drop our garbage in the trash containers and we were on our way home.
This was a wonderful week in Michigan. A nice mix of exploring and relaxing, with plenty of sunshine and beach time.