Two friends, 9.5 days, five lakes - road trip edition
July 28, 2018 6:22 PM   Subscribe

My friend and I are planning a road trip! We will be leaving from upstate New York around noon on August 19th, returning sometime in the evening on the 28th. We have one single overarching goal: to swim in all five Great Lakes.

We’re looking to spend most of our time on Huron/Michigan/Superior. He lived in Buffalo for several years and did not like it much, so we’d like to aim for briefer stops to Ontario and Erie; maybe someplace that has changed a lot since the 80s?

We’re mostly planning on car camping, and are looking to get something like an AirBnB twice over the course of the trip - maybe the 21st/22nd and 25th/26th. We would very much like these stops to have a lake view if at all possible, but it’s not a total deal breaker if they don’t. We’re also trying to find places we can park and sleep overnight that are on/near the lakes. Basically the more water the better. We both have passports so crossing over into Canada is possible, but we’re concerned it could eat up too much time and/or end up being frustrating.

This is more of a small town/outdoors trip; we’re not very interested in the big cities, though we’re open to swinging by/through if there’s a really compelling reason and the city isn’t awful to drive into/out of.

Things that interest us both include: Museums, historic sites, fairs (crafts, flea markets, antiques, livestock shows, etc, maybe a distillery (not a brewery or winery), interesting performances/art installations (especially plays or opera), hikes, bike trails (we would need to rent bikes), etc. We're not big foodies, but we do like a good meal (fish being a particular favorite), so suggestions for that are welcome.

So - What should we see? Where should we camp and where would be the best spot for an AirBnB stay? Are there little known beaches/coves we could visit? Bonus points for places that feel somewhat solitary.

Bonus question: is Mackinack Island worth stopping at or will it be a busy touristy place?

Note: I have seen this and this, which have yielded a couple interesting ideas but do not approach the core question.
posted by Urban Winter to Travel & Transportation (6 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore was one of the unexpected highlights of my cross-country road trip. It has really nice car camping sites, and you'll be sleeping just on the other side of the dunes from the lake. The dunes are really fun to climb - and slide down in slippery sand - and the view of the lake (and the swimming) on the other side is awesome. include it in your itinerary!

Check the info on the Brig Niagara to see if you can catch the ship intersecting with your itinerary. The museum in Erie is good, but much better if the ship is there - or if you can catch the ship on a public sail or dock visit.

Really enjoyed a short visit to Frankfort, Michigan, on Lake Michigan, too.
posted by Miko at 7:25 PM on July 28, 2018 [5 favorites]

Swim in Lake Michigan at Sleeping Bear Dunes national lakeshore ($20 per vehicle for 7 days). There are campgrounds in the park but it is likely they are already booked up.

Swim in Lake Huron at Hessel Beach Park which has free parking. Brevort Lake campground is nearby, back over on Lake Michigan and has openings on the night of the 23rd.

Lake Superior is cold, even in August, but Sand Point beach in Pictured Rocks has good reviews but limited parking.
posted by soelo at 9:06 PM on July 28, 2018 [1 favorite]

I can’t recommend camping spots but for a rough itinerary, I'd cross into Canada at Niagara by the Lake and stop at Prudhomme's Landing antique market. There are a bunch of outdoor vendors on the weekends. You could head south to Lake Erie and drive highway 3 along to some place like Turkey Point. You can eventually follow the shore of Huron up to Tobermory, take the ferry to Manitoulin and climb Cup and Saucer. It was one of the first spots to emerge from the glacial lakes at the close of the last ice age. The rocks are worn smooth in spots along the path to the top. Mainitoulin is a special place. You can cross back to the mainland on the notprthnside of the island and continue on to Superior and Michigan. One thing thst's funny about Ontario and Erie on the Canadian side is that most to the shoreline is private property the province enforces a lot of bullshit property rights laws that allow owners to restrict access to the beaches. There aren't all that many public beaches outside of the provincial parks.
posted by bonobothegreat at 9:32 PM on July 28, 2018 [1 favorite]

Mackinac is a beautiful island, but also a tourist trap and probably not what you're looking for. The Straits State Park is right on the water though, and would (technically) check off two lakes for you. Not really the most secluded place though.

Woodland Park Campground in Grand Marais Michigan is also not secluded, but right on Lake Superior and you can walk to town to get some killer whitefish. It's first-come-first-served so you may have to stalk people as they leave to get a spot, esp. on the weekend. It's super-crowded up there with kayakers. Marquette has a nice tourist park but it might be a bit far.

Traverse City has a huge state park right on Lake Michigan with a beach across the street. It's about a four mile ride into town, and yes there's a distillery. It'll be tough getting a site on the weekend here. Petoskey has a couple of pretty nice campgrounds and bike paths too.

Going through Erie PA? Never stayed in Presque Isle but it looks pretty nice.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 9:34 PM on July 28, 2018

I grew up along Lake Michigan just north of Milwaukee, so I'm most familiar with that area. I've camped at Harrington Beach State Park, Kohler-Andrae State Park, and Point Beach State Forest. All have nice camping areas, and at Point Beach we stayed in a cabin that was right next to the beach. At Harrington Beach, most people go to the beach at the end with the parking lot, but if you walk/ride the shuttle to one of the other beaches it's usually pretty secluded. In Manitowoc there's the Wisconsin Maritime Museum, which has a submarine you can go on. The Interurban Trail goes from about Belgium all the way to Milwaukee, connecting with the Oak Leaf Trail. When the Interurban goes though Port Washington it goes down to the lake shore. Just north of the marina there's a park with a beach. Port Washington also sometimes gets in tall ships, and there's a nice little farmers market. Green Bay's farmers market is very nice, with lots of food stands and in an area with good restaurants.

A few years ago I went backpacking at Pictured Rocks and the Porcupine Mountains, and those were lovely, with secluded little coves and photogenic bluffs.
posted by abeja bicicleta at 4:39 AM on July 29, 2018

I'm from Michigan and have spent some time camping in the Upper Peninsula (UP), which I think will be just the type of area you're looking for: not particularly crowded, scenic, small towns. And you can spend time on both Lake Superior and Michigan with a relatively short drive between them.

I don't have a recommendation for routes until you're in Michigan, but then I'd recommend following Hwy 23 along Lake Huron, then up the the UP. Head towards Grand Marais/Pictured Rocks, then make your way west to the Keweenaw Peninsula. On your return, head to the southern edge of the UP, stop at Kitch-iti-kipi, then take Hwy 2 back east. It's a gorgeous drive and there are lots of stops where you can pull over and swim in Lake Michigan. One of my favorite campgrounds is along that stretch.

I personally don't love the Michigan State Parks for tent camping - sites are often crowded, tent sites are usually not separated from RV sites, and the sites are small. I much prefer the state and national forest campgrounds, though they are rustic. A couple years ago I also tent camped at this private campground on the shore of Lake Superior that was really lovely.

I highly recommend a drive up the Keweenaw Peninsula. Check out the town of Calumet on your way up to Copper Harbor, and take the gorgeous Brockway Mountain Drive. Take a hike at Estivant Pines and visit the Fort Wilkins State Park for some history, and cap it off with a good meal at Harbor Haus Restaurant in Copper Harbor.

Many of the reservable waterfront campsites may already be booked, so you may have to wing it a bit (I think most of the state/national forest campground sites are first come, first served). Don't discount spending nights at sites on inland lakes or rivers in the UP - those are some lovely spots and will be less crowded/more available than Great Lakes sites (and they're often just as pretty).

Cell service is spotty in the UP, so I recommend having a good paper map - the Michigan Gazeteer has saved my tail many times.

I also love and recommend northwestern lower Michigan - the Leelanau Peninsula, Old Mission Peninsula, Sleeping Bear Dunes - but don't have much in the way of camping recommendations for that area.
posted by Empidonax at 9:30 AM on August 2, 2018

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