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A Complete Guide to Michigan’s National Parks

It’s no secret that Michigan is one amazing state, a destination for great beer, music, architecture and, of course, people. But a lot of people don’t know that Michigan is so much more. Did you know that here in the Mitten State we are surrounded by four huge freshwater lakes? Or that Michigan is home to not one, but five national parks? 

Dubbed “Pure Michigan,” our amazing state is an outdoor lover’s paradise. Our national parks—many of which are also historic and lakeside—attract more than 2.5 million visitors each year. And the best part? Some of them are just a few hours’ drive from Ann Arbor

To celebrate our gorgeous national parks (and one scenic trail) we outlined them right here. Read on for a brief overview of each park and a list of our favorite stops within each. After you’re finished reading, head down to the comments to let us know what Michigan national park you plan to explore this summer!

If you’re planning on camping in one of these national parks this season, we recommend visiting each individual park’s current camping guidelines before visiting. You will most likely need a camping and/or campfire permit to camp. Some campgrounds also require reservations and parking is not always allowed or guaranteed. Have fun!  

 

Drive time from Ann Arbor: 1 hour 

The River Raisin National Battlefield Park was the site of the costly Battle of Frenchtown, in which 397 Americans were killed and 547 were taken as prisoners after surrender to the British Army and Native American coalition during the War of 1812. In February of 1956, the site of Michigan’s most deadly event was added to the National Register of Historic Places and eventually marked as a national park in 2010. 

Today, this peaceful national park is known for its educational resources, including artifacts and exhibits; demonstrations; and battle reenactments. You can also explore the wonders of nature here too through hiking, fishing, kayaking and more! 
Drive time from Ann Arbor: 3 hours 
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Photo courtesy of Anandhi Chandran via the North Country Trail Association

While the North Country National Scenic Trail isn’t technically park, it is maintained by the National Park Service and contains some of the prettiest scenery in the entire state. This iconic trail spans several states—from New York to North Dakota, cutting through Vermont, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota—and stretches 4,700 miles, making it the longest trail in the National Trails SystemBut it spends most of its time here in Michigan (1,150 miles!), running along the entire length of the Mitten and the Upper Peninsula. 
While you’re definitely welcome to hike the entire thing, the North Country National Scenic Trail is headquartered in Lowell, where you can enjoy a small bite of everything the NCT has to offer. Enjoy a stroll on the Lowell Riverwalk, take a hike through stands of red pine and maple, overlook the river, or have a picnic at one of the scenic picnic tables. 
Drive time from Ann Arbor: 4 hours 
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Miles of sand beach, bluffs that tower 450 feet above Lake Michigan, lush forests, clear inland lakes, and lots of unique flora and fauna make up the natural world of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. This popular national park is located along the northwest coast of the Lower Peninsula. It covers a 35-mile-long stretch of Lake Michigan’s eastern coastlines as well as the North and South Manitou Islands. 50 years old in 2020, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is famous for its diverse natural features, including forests, beaches, dune formations and ancient glacial phenomena. The lakeshore also contains many cultural features, including the 1871 South Manitou Island Lighthouse, three former stations of the Coast Guard, and an extensive rural historic farm district. 
Here, you can experience a variety of activities, but many come for the Dune Climb: a 460-foot climb that ends in an exciting run back down to the bottom. The whole trip takes about 3-4 hours, depending on fitness level and the weather
Drive time from Ann Arbor: 5.5 hours 
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Unlike anywhere else on Lake Superior, Pictured Rocks offers you the opportunity to explore miles of pristine beaches, 100 miles of trails, towering sandstone cliffs and the serenity of northern woodlands. This national park, which was founded in 1966, is one of the most popular tourism sites in the state, offering hiking, camping, sightseeing, paddling and other opportunities for year-round fun. The waterfalls in particular are a visitor favorite, free flowing in the warmer months and ice curtains in the winter. 
The park itself derived its name from the 15 miles of colorful sandstone cliffs, reaching up to 200 feet above lake level and naturally sculptured into a variety of shallow caves, arches and formations resembling castle turrets and human profiles. The colors of the cliffs come from the large amount of minerals in the rock, which are left behind when groundwater leaches out of the rock and evaporates, creating streaks of iron (red), manganese (black and white), limonite (yellow and brown) and copper (pink and green).
Drive time from Ann Arbor: 8.5 hours 

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Showcasing Michigan’s mountain and lakeside beauty, Keweenaw National Historic Park, located on the northernmost part of the state, has a history that dates back almost 7,000 years. The oldest and largest lava flow known on earth is located on the Keweenaw Peninsula, producing the only place on the planet where large scale, economically recoverable, 97%-pure native copper can be found. 

Keweenaw’s copper mines have always drawn people to northeast Michigan, even after they closed, eventually becoming historic landmarks offering both beauty and education. Todaythe park, which was established in 1992, is a destination for those looking for natural serenity and a peek into Keweenaw’s storied copper history. As of 2014, the Keweenaw National Historic Park operates in cooperation with 21 heritage sights throughout the peninsula including the Adventure Mining CompanyThe Calumet TheatreFort Wilkins Historic State ParkHanka Homestead and many others. You can learn more about all of them (and get information on how to visit) on the National Park Service’s website.  

 

Drive time from Ann Arbor: 9.5 hours  

When on the hunt for peaceful, uncrowded things to do in Michigan, visiting Isle Royale National Park is on the top of our list. There are only three remote Alaskan national parks with fewer annual visitors as Isle Royale National Park. While it’s absolutely gorgeous, boasting strikingly quiet soundscapes and dense forest, Isle Royale is closed all winter and you need to take a ferry or flight to get to the island in the middle of Lake Superior waters. The isolation has kept it as one of the only pieces of true wilderness in the country, but the trouble to visit is still definitely worth it. 

Because of the lack of vehicles on the island, you’ll have to get around by foot, kayak or canoe. While the Rock Harbor Lodge offers 60 lodge rooms along the shoreline, many opt to backcountry camp at sites spread throughout the island, hoping to catch a glimpse of Isle Royale’s wildlifewhich includes red foxes, wolves, moose, otters, beavers, and a variety of unique birds, amphibians and more. 

Before you leave, don’t miss out on the chance to join a Moosewatch Expedition, which is one of the country’s longest running predator-prey studies—studying the interplay between the island’s wolves and many moose. 

 

Let’s Get Wild! 

They don’t call it “Michigan Pure” for nothing! Our amazing state is packed full of gorgeous landscapes for us to enjoy. Which of these national parks do you plan to explore first? 

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