Things to do in Northern Michigan – Michigan, it’s right in our own backyard. We grew up on the Great Lakes in Ontario and crossing the border at Detroit was a regular event. We always took our easy border crossings from Canada for granted but that all changed in 2020. With the borders locked up for a bit longer, we are feeling nostalgic about our many road trips through Michigan. We realized that we had the chance to do some pretty amazing adventures and to inspire you to visit, we wanted to share the coolest things to do in northern Michigan. I think it will surprise you.
Cool and Unique Things to do In Northern Michigan
Note: Some activities will be affected by COVID-19 but as vaccines roll out and infections drop, the summer of 2021 just might see some travels getting back to normal. Check with the Travel Guidelines for Michigan at Michigan.org
Our northern Michigan travel guide takes you through the Upper Peninsula (or the U.P. as it is known) and the lower peninsula of Michigan. there are so many things to do in northern Michigan to fill up your summer. We are starting our tour of Northern Michigan in Charlevoix and working our way counterclockwise. Charlevoix is a four-hour drive from Detroit and is an excellent place to start your road trip through the Great Lakes State. But when you have the freedom of driving, you can choose to go wherever you want in Michigan. From Lake Superior to Lakes Huron and Michigan, you are going to love exploring the top half of the Mitten of Michigan.
It feels like a mini-vacation to the Caribbean during the height of summer with beaches, scuba diving, snorkeling and paddleboarding fun to be had. But there is plenty of history and nostalgia in the Upper Peninsula as well and we’re going to round up all the things to do up north in Michigan. Let’s go!
One of our favorite places to visit up north in Michigan is the town of Charlevoix. Charlevoix is a picturesque town with a lovely waterfront, microbrew pubs, restaurants and beaches. Make a base here to explore some of the top attractions in Northern Michigan.
- We stayed at the Edgewater Inn downtown Charlevoix and it was a great location that was within walking distance to the top downtown attractions. Check TripAdvisor for details.
- If you don’t have your own car and are flying into Michigan, check out RentalCars.com to compare prices and book your wheels.
Mushroom Houses of Charlevoix
Did you know you can visit Hobbiton in Michigan. Forget about traveling all the way to New Zealand, in Charlevoix, you can tour the amazing mushroom houses designed by Earl Young. He designed 30 unique homes in Charlevoix over a 30 year period. Today you can take a tour of the mushroom houses to see the 28 buildings that are still standing today. See our full tour at Mushroom Houses of Charlevoix – All Hobbits Welcome to Michigan!
Visit a Renaissance Castle at Castle Farms
Michigan has a castle! That’s right, you don’t have to travel to Europe to explore a castle, you can pop into the French Renaissance castle of Castle Farms located just outside of Charlevoix. Built by the vice-president of Sears, Roebuck & Company in 1918, Castle Farms has been restored to its original design. During the 1970s, this was a rocking place when rock promoter Arthur Reibel bought it and attracted high-profile acts like Metallica, Bob Dillan, and the Beach Boys. You will see all the memorabilia from its glory days on a tour. Plan your visit to Castle Farms at their website.
One of our favorite things when traveling the world is finding all the spots that Ernest Hemingway hung out at. He’s been from Pamplona to Havana, Cuba, and Kenya to Key West. But did you know he spent his formative years in Upper Michigan? When exploring the mushroom houses of Charlevoix, you will see his marriage certificate on display at Harsha House before hitting the trail to explore 11 of Hemingways hangouts in Michigan.
21 of Hemingway’s summers were spent in Petoskey, Michigan and you can follow the Hemingway trail when visiting northern Michigan. From the Perry Hotel to Potters Rooming House or his favorite fishing spot at Horton Creek this is a fascinating peek into the man. We took a tour to explore the route of Hemingway with a guide who read passages from Hemingways’ Nick Adams book that was inspired by the scenery around Northern Michigan.
Search for Petoskey Stones
We loved spending time in Petosky cycling along the waterfront trails, searching for Petoskey Stones, and exploring the charming downtown from Bayfront Park. There is a rocky beach at the Petoskey Breakwall where we searched for Petoskey Stones that we tried our hand at, but I couldn’t find Green Stone in New Zealand either, so I just bought a beautiful necklace in Petoskey instead.
Watch the Northern Lights
Everyone thinks you have to go to Iceland to see the northern lights, but while in Michigan, we saw them dancing in the sky. At the Headlands International Dark Sky Park, we had the chance not only to see the spectacular night sky and Milky Way, but the Aurora Borealis put on a beautiful show as well. Check out the Headlands International Dark Sky Website for details.
Visit the Second Best Lake in America
Lake Charlevoix was voted the second-best lake in America after Lake Tahoe by USA Today. With 56 miles of beaches and plenty of marinas for docking yachts, it is also considered the best lake East of the Mississippi.
Visit the Kingdom of Beaver Island
While we are on the subject of castles, why not visit a former Kingdom on Beaver Island. Beaver Island is the largest island on Lake Michigan and there are a ton of things to do there. We caught a floatplane to the secluded Beaver Island where the self-proclaimed King James J. Strang ruled the land as a genuine kingdom from 1848 to 1856. He was eventually murdered by two men that he sentenced to be flogged and once gone, the residents of the surrounding settlements overthrew his followers so that today, Beaver Island is a beautiful oasis in Lake Michigan. See more things to do in Beaver Island at the official website.
- We stayed at the Harbourview Hotel on Beaver Island but you can go camping as well. And there are plenty
Kayaking at Beaver Island
Another great excursion on Beaver Island is to go kayaking with Happy Paddle. The Great Lakes can be unpredictable for kayaking so if you aren’t experienced, it is advisable to hire a guide. Something we loved about Kayaking at Beaver Island was the fact that there are good lakes on the island when the weather is bad. We had high waves during our day, so we instead explored the inland lakes which was a fantastic tour.
But in all seriousness, you can go kayaking anywhere in Michigan, with four of the five Great Lakes located within Michigan, it truly is the land of freshwater.
World-Class Scuba Diving
While you are at Beaver Island, book a day to go Scuba Diving to the wrecks of Lake Michigan. The Great Lakes are littered with shipwrecks and because of the fresh water they are very well preserved. We booked a day with Paradise Bay Charters on Beaver Island and enjoyed some easy dives wrecks just a few meters below the surface of the water. Check out One Mile To Travel for more details.
Divers may also want to visit the only freshwater shrine in the world. Located off the shore of Petosky, a memorial was built to honor those who drowned at sea in Little Traverse Bay. It was originally put there in 1962 as a memorial to a local scuba diver who died, but it was expanded to all who have died since there have been so many shipwrecks in the Great Lakes.
Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore
Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is one of the top things to see in Northern Michigan. Known as the Mountain of Sand, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lake Shore offers 64 miles of sweeping sand dunes and pristine beaches. The Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail is a paved multi-use trail that runs for 22 miles and passes through Sleepign Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.
Mackinac Island transports you to a bygone era of horse-drawn carriages and historic houses making it one of the top places to visit in Northern Michigan. You can only get to Mackinac Island by ferry or plane making it a lovely tranquil escape. Make sure to visit Fort Mackinac, it is the oldest building in Michigan. A visit to Fort Mackinac offers re-enactments of military battles from the 1800s.
Other things to do in Mackinac Island
- Rent a bicycle as the island is eight miles in circumference or rent a kayak to take in the views of the Straits of Mackinac.
- Grab a treat at Mackinac Island Fudge
- Tour the Grand Hotel
- Visit the beautiful Butterfly House
- The famous Arch Rock and stunning views of Lake Michigan.
- Learn about the island’s history while touring Fort Mackinac (and if you are lucky, you might get to fire the cannon!)
We have crossed the Mackinac Bridge on several occasions. In fact, going through upper Michigan is one of the best ways for Canadians to get to Northern Ontario. Contrary to popular belief, this bridge does not take you to Mackinac Island. (at least that is what I thought before visiting) But make sure to stop at Bridge View Park to take a photo of the iconic Mackinac Bridge. It is the fifth-longest suspension bridge in the world.
Old Presque ile Lighthouse
The Old Presque’ile Lighthouse is one of many lighthouses to visit in Northern Michigan. Lighthouses played a huge role in helping ships with navigation on the Great Lakes. The Old Presque’ile Lighthouse dates back to 1837.
Tahquamenon Falls State Park
Tahquamenon Falls State Park is a busy park with excellent waterfalls. One looks like a mini Niagara Falls. This is a pleasant park that requires more than a quick pit stop. Spend a day or two hiking, swimming and simply enjoying the scenery. There are two waterfalls, the upper and lower falls. The upper falls are the larger and more beautiful of the two, but the lower had an option to take a boat or go for hikes.
Jutting out on a long peninsula of Lake Superior we took a detour from our route to see the lighthouse museum. The Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum is an excellent stop to learn of the maritime history of Lake Superior. It’s beautiful here and is home to the oldest operational lighthouse on Lake Superior. The Whitefish Point Lighthouse and it’s a great spot to take in the sandy beach of Lake Superior’s South Shore.
Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore is one of the most beautiful places to visit in Michigan. With 100 miles of trails to explore, one could spend days camping at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. It has extraordinary sandstone cliffs, sea kayaking, hiking, and other watersports, you could spend more than a day here if you wanted.
Painted Rocks Cruises – With limited time, we recommend the Painted Rocks Scenic Cruise. This is definitely the big draw of the area.
Making our way to the other side of Michigan’s Mitt, we now make a base in Alpena to explore all the places to go up north Michigan Lake Huron side. Alpena is another great town to spend some time in.
Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary
If you aren’t up for scuba diving, you can easily visit the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary to explore the underwater wrecks by glass-bottom boat. The sanctuary spans 4300 square miles and houses an abundance of shipwrecks that you can easily explore. Divers will love the clear waters of Lake Huron that range from shallow dives at just a few inches below the water (snorkelers can visit too) to deep dives into the depths of the Great Lake.
The waters off the coast of Alpena are some of the worst on the Great Lakes. Many ships went down in these waters and with 116 Shipwreck in the area, it was declared a National Marine Sanctuary in 2000. It’s such an amazing underwater treasure that it’s attracted the likes of Jean-Michel Cousteau and the discoverer of the Titanic, Robert Ballard. A lot of work goes into identifying and finding these ships and the sanctuary is making sure that they all stay intact for our future enjoyment.
Glass Bottom Boat Tour
If you are not a scuba diver, there is a way to see the ships for yourself in Alpena, Michigan and your tour starts at Great Lakes Maritime Heritage Center. It’s quite a fascinating place to visit. Our tour started with a powerpoint slide show and talk. I normally have no interest in sitting in a theatre and listening to people speak, but our guides were fun, entertaining, and informative. As marine archaeologists, they know what they’re talking about. So much that they’ve been featured on the Discovery Channel and National Geographic on several occasions.
Captain Dan greeted us and we took our seats on the lower deck. At first, we were upset that the entire top deck was full but in the end, it all worked out. If you are planning on going on a glass-bottom boat tour, I recommend being on the bottom. Once you pass over the ships, you are at the best place to see them. We had prime seats around the railing to view the wrecks below.
Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum
One of the best things to do in Michigan for marine lovers is to check out the Great Lakes Shipwreck museum to explore the full-scale replica of Great Lakes Schooner in the center of the exhibit. It’s so lifelike that they even simulate a storm on the sea. We were told that one person has thrown upon this exhibit, so they did their job well. It’s pretty fun walking through the ship and feeling what it might be like to be in the middle of a storm. Those men were brave (or crazy!)
Moving on, we crawled through a maze of tubes hanging over a shipwreck, this is the museum’s way of giving regular folks the chance to see what it’s like to actually dive over a shipwreck.
Science on a Sphere
The most exciting exhibit in the museum is definitely the science on a sphere. I could watch this thing all day. Computers generate global weather patterns, ocean currents, and even simulate natural disasters like the 1994 Tsunami and Japan Earthquake.
Stand up Paddle Boarding SUP
Another way to see the shipwrecks of Alpena is to go Stand Up Paddle Boarding. There are shipwrecks just off shore and is you leave from Waterworks Park you can be over a shipwreck in just a short half mile paddle. Check out Visit Alpena for the complete shipwreck paddle guide.
We also combined our paddle with some snorkeling over the wrecks. Be sure to bring your mask and fins! You can rent all your gear including wetsuits, paddle boards, and snorkeling gear from local dive shops and hire a guide. In Alpena, we went with the Performance Locker located in Mich-e-ke-wis Park.
Rockport State Recreation Area
One of the more interesting hikes we took in Michigan was at Rockport State Park. While you can go mountain biking and hiking along the trails, it is when you step off the path that you find something truly unique. We had a guide show us the mysterious sinkholes that have their own ecosystems. Divers have even gone in to explore some of the sinkholes that are filled with water.
Hunt for Fossils
While exploring Rockport State Park, take a tour in search of fossils. This park is home to 400 million year old Devonian Period fossils. We hiked to an abandoned quarry located just outside of Alpena where fossils litter the ground of the 300 year acres. What makes this park so interesting is that visitors are allowed to take home the fossils that they find.
Before heading back to Detroit, (or on your way home) we are going to stop at Bay City to break up the drive. Bay City is one of our favourite places to visit in Michigan so we had to include it!
Tall Ships Festival
Bay City is a picturesque town located on Saginaw Bay of Lake Huron. We visited during the tall ships festival and we highly recommend it. Tall ships of all shapes and sizes form a regatta every summer and sail from port to port to show off their sails. Some have seen great battles others have not. Bay City is the smallest city on the Great Lakes to host the event and they have a great turn out. Ships rotate towns each year and they make their stop here every three years. Once you enter the dock area, you can walk from boat to boat, touring them inside and out. The festival rotates annually and you can track the tall ships route around Ontario, Michigan, New York and other northern United States here.
The USS Edson
If the Tall Ships aren’t in, you can visit another amazing marine vessel. The battle ship USS Edson is docked full time in Bay City. This ship was a destroyer that served in the Vietnam War. It had seen many battles and had been shelled by North Vietnam forces as well as friendly fire. But here she was, still chugging away. Even if you are not a history buff, the tour is interesting because of the guides. Our tour guide Mike, was a retired marine who could tell us everything about living on a ship. He had been there and done that and had many stories to tell.
Make sure to hire a guide to take you around Bay City. It is worth the cost to just to hear about all the ghosts in town. My favourite ghost story was of Floyd, the Regent Theatre’s resident ghost. There’ve been many sightings over the years. Floyd was the theatre manager in the 40’s who was shot and killed for his bank roll.
He was on his way to the bank to deposit the weekend ticket sales when he was shot and killed by Johnny Woo. I personally think Johnny Woo was framed, he was let off on a technicality 23 years later. If you believe in ghosts and watch a lot of horror films, you’ll agree as Floyd is probably haunting the theatre because his real killer was never found.
If you’ve never sailed before, sailing excursions leave the port each evening to give you a taste of what it’s like. Sailing is one of the best things to do in Northern Michigan. It’s a really mellow trip and if you’ve spent a lot of time on boats this trip probably isn’t for you, but we talked to many people on the tour who had never been on a sail boat before. It’s a perfect tour to feel what it’s like to hoist the sails and have the wind propel you along in silence. You can even help out the crew if you like.
Our crew of three was an impressive bunch. At one point a cooler lid (that should never have been brought on the boat by a naughty passenger – hehe, our guide) flew into the lake and the captain had to turn the boat around and do a rescue. The two young students who made up the bulk of the crew tied themselves onto the side of the ship and waited to retrieve the lid. It’s not easy turning a sailboat of that size around and rescuing an inanimate object, but they made it look easy and within a few minutes we were back out to sea.
When visiting the Upper Peninsula of Michigan you must stop in Traverse City. It was voted as one of the top small towns to visit in the United States and one of the top 10 places to retire in the country. Known as the cherry capital of the world, Traverse City and its surrounding counties supply 40% of the cherry crops in the US. Naturally with all those cherry trees, one of the best things to do in Traverse City is to visit during cherry blossom season to get those instagram worthy photos. Make sure to stop at the road side attraction to snap a photo of the world’s larges cherry pie pan.
And these are the best things to do in Northern Michigan to make the most of your summer. Have you been to other places that we missed?
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