15 Michigan summer vacation ideas we bet you’ve never tried

The trouble with the typical Michigan summer travel guide is that if you’ve lived here long enough, chances are you’ve seen and done it all. So when brainstorming for our annual travel round-up, we decided to compile a list that contains some unexpected, unforgettable experiences to shake up your summer — including a few really adventurous picks for even the most seasoned Michigan traveler. Read on for our suggestions, start making some reservations, and get ready to enjoy the best summer yet.

Canyon Falls. Photo courtesy Keweenaw Convention & Visitors Bureau

Explore an underground mine: Hardhats are your first hint that the tours are anything but ordinary at Adventure Mining Co, a historic Keweenaw copper mine that operated from 1850 to 1920. Several tour types offer experiences for all ages and abilities, ranging from easy guided walking tours to rappelling, crawling and hiking through the mine’s depths.

Take a ride in a dune buggy: It was nearly a century ago when Malcom Wood offered Silver Lake’s first “dune scooter” expeditions in a reconfigured Ford Model A for 25 cents a ride. The dune buggies have evolved since then (think four-wheel drive and aircraft tires), but Mac Wood’s Dune Rides are still bringing family friendly, rollercoaster-style fun to coastal West Michigan’s mountains of sand.

Hike the “Grand Canyon” of the U.P.: Canyon Falls and Gorge presents one of those rare opportunities to see an impressive natural phenomenon for very little effort on the visitors’ part. A 15-minute easy, scenic trail through hardwood forests leads to a spot where the U.P.’s Sturgeon River builds from a series of rapids into a waterfall that plunges into a deep, narrow box canyon lined with towering trees. It’s simply beautiful and a must-stop if you’re cruising US-41 near L’Anse.

Fayette Historic State Park

Fayette Historic State Park near Garden on Tuesday, May 17, 2022. The historic townsite manufactured charcoal pig iron between 1867 and 1891. (Drone image by Cory Morse | MLive.com) Cory Morse | MLive.com

Visit a ghost town: Once a bustling industrial community on the tip of the U.P.’s Garden Peninsula, Fayette is now a ghost town contained within Fayette Historic State Park, where the old buildings’ brick facades and weathered dock pilings are striking against Lake Michigan’s sparkling blues. Guided and self-guided tours available; stay overnight at the onsite modern campground.

Go whitewater rafting: Adventure seekers don’t have to leave Michigan to find world-class whitewater. The wild and beautiful Menominee River in the far western U.P. features exhilarating Class III and IV rapids, which you can ride on a public or private guided rafting tour with TrueNorth Outpost based in Norway, Mich. Not quite ready for roaring rapids? The Sturgeon isn’t quite whitewater but as the fastest river in the Lower Peninsula, it still serves up a fun, challenging paddle; check out Big Bear Adventures in Indian River for river trips.

Kayak Mackinac Island: Sure, a bike ride around Mackinac Island’s perimeter is a classic Michigan experience. But some of the best views of the island are from the water, so this year consider trading the pedals for a paddle on a guided kayak tour. Great Turtle Kayak Tours’ routes showcase the island’s sunrises and sunsets, and landmarks like Arch Rock. Paddleboards are available for rental as well.

Model T fleet

The Model T fleet at Gilmore Car Museum. | Photo courtesy of Gilmore Car Museum

Drive a Model T: Driving a Model T Ford, which became one of the world’s first mass production cars a century ago, isn’t as easy as simply getting behind the wheel — for starters, there’s no gas pedal. Gilmore Car Museum’s Model T Driving Experience puts you inside one of these iconic, authentic “Tin Lizzies” and teaches you how to drive it, complete with a certificate to commemorate your cruise through history.

Walk through an old-growth forest: The logging boom of the late 1800s left much of Michigan a desolate sea of tree stumps, yet a few precious tracts of untouched forest escaped the ax. Thanks to the individuals and communities who recognized their importance, you can still pay homage to these ancient woods. Find old-growth pines at Estivant Pines Nature Sanctuary in Copper Harbor, Hartwick Pines State Park in Grayling, or Red Pine Natural Area in Roscommon; virgin beech-maple forest at Warren Woods National Natural Landmark in Three Oaks; and old-growth oak-hickory forest at Russ Forest National Natural Landmark in Cass County.

Surf Lake Michigan: Who says surfing is strictly for the ocean? Sleeping Bear Surf & Kayak in Empire offers surf instruction right here on our big, beautiful, salt-free sea. Even if Lake Michigan isn’t dishing up whitewater the day of your lesson, you’ll take away the basics and a new respect for the sport, while enjoying plenty of laughs along the way.

See a new side of Detroit: Detroit’s early 20th century rise as a wealthy industrial city left it with an incredible collection of historic architecture, ranging from Art Deco skyscrapers to opulent, glittering theaters. Learn the stories behind these places on a guided walking tour with Preservation Detroit, the city’s oldest preservation organization. Most tours take place Saturday mornings, with private tours available as well.

See a shipwreck from above: The Great Lakes could be notoriously unkind to ships, and as a result, our waters are littered with thousands of shipwrecks — many of which have never been discovered. Glass Bottom Shipwreck Tours in Munising allows you to peer into the depths of Lake Superior at two particular wrecks that lie below like an underwater museum, with one mere feet under the surface of the water. Reservations are recommended.

Escape to a nature paradise: Michigan has no shortage of pretty parks and preserves, but there’s something extra special about Grass River Natural Area in Bellaire. The 1,500-acre nature preserve provides habitat for an incredible array of flora and fauna, including rare orchids and 147 species of birds. All-ages programming, a nature center and an accessible section of trail complete with braille interpretive signage make this a magical escape for everyone.

Michigan Legacy Art Park

The Michigan Legacy Art Park’s summer concert series features musicians performing in a rustic amphitheater in the woods. | Photo courtesy of Michigan Legacy Art Park

Catch a concert in a hidden forest: Part nature preserve, part outdoor sculpture gallery, all tucked away on the grounds of Crystal Mountain Resort, Michigan Legacy Art Park is the definition of a hidden gem. The 30-acre park gets an extra dose of magic on Friday evenings during its Summer Sounds series, when musicians take the stage in a rustic outdoor amphitheater. Fireflies and live music mingling in the woods? Perfect.

See another side of Sleeping Bear Dunes: Make this the summer you skip the park’s popular spots to explore the quieter sides of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. A few ideas for starters: Take a day trip to South Manitou Island to see a lighthouse, ghost town, shipwreck and more; see adorable yet endangered piping plovers on Sleeping Bear Dunes Tour Co.’s guided plover walks; hike the park’s new Kettles Trail, a 3-mile trail (with a universally accessible portion) through a unique glacial-carved landscape.

Sail the inland seas on a pirate ship: Aye — kids and their grownups can live like pirates for a few hours on themed cruises in several Michigan ports. In St. Ignace, the Star Line Ferry hosts family friendly and “nauti-pirate” (21+) cruises to or from Mackinac Island on the pirate ship Good Fortune; in Traverse City, the 1800s replica tall ship Manitou offers ice cream cruises and live-music sails featuring jigs and ballads from life on the sea; the Michigan Maritime Museum’s 19th-century replica Friends Good Will schooner has kid-friendly “pirate chaser” sails all summer long.


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