“The whole state is like a Shire,” a stranger once said of my native Michigan.
It never occurred to me, but he was right. Here cliffs tower over Lake Superior and falls plunge into mystical rivers. Peninsulas are dotted with rolling glacial hills, craggy rock formations, and sprawling dunes. Tiny towns — one with actual Hobbit houses — welcome visitors with the promise of pasties and fudge. Thousands of miles of pristine coast frame impossibly dense forests. North to south, east to west, the state is bursting with scenic wonder.
Finding a great place to camp amid this beauty is unsurprisingly easy. But finding a spot that feels undiscovered, where you won’t have to compete with squawking families at Sleeping Bear’s campgrounds or the suburban refugees posted up at Pictured Rocks or Higgins Lake? That requires a little more legwork. Read on for intel for some of our favorite less-traveled overnight spots in the Midwest’s Middle-earth. But all our favorite spots. You’ll have to stumble on those yourself.
The Manitou Islands
Northeast Lake Michigan
There is no electricity and scarcely a pit toilet on The Manitou Islands. The dense, tree-covered mounds of sand and rock surrounded by dunes and beaches are a deep dive into true wilderness. Visible from western Michigan’s Leelanau Peninsula, the islands sit 12 and 16 miles into Lake Michigan, and according to Ojibwe legend are the cubs of the massive mother now known as Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. South Manitou has designated camping sites, fire pits, a lighthouse, settler graveyards, and several maintained trails. North Manitou has trees and beaches. And both are accessible by ferry. The islands are surrounded by at least 50 shipwrecks from the bygone glory days of trade and commerce on the Great Lakes. It’s one of Michigan’s finest “roughing it” experiences, and easily one of the most gorgeous places in the country.
MORE: Wait… isn’t South Manitou haunted?!
Northwest Lower Peninsula
On rare rocky shores of Lake Michigan — ideal for Petoskey stone collecting — sits this small, spacious, and relaxed campground. It’s rustic, but the lack of showers (that’s what the lake is for) means it doesn’t attract as many crowds as most lakeside campsites. Heavily wooded sites protect from the lake’s constant winds, while the windy lakefront sites protect from biting flies and mosquitoes that are the bane of existence for all Michigan outdoors lovers. There’s a historic lighthouse to tour on the grounds, if that’s your bag, and it’s a relatively short trip to Northport for supplies.
MORE: Dive deep into the Leelanau’s stellar wine scene
The central eastern shores of Lake Huron — The Thumb, as it’s known to locals — does not get the love it deserves. Lake Huron is a vast inland sea — ever cold, and ever pure. On what’s considered Michigan’s “sunrise side,” you don’t have to deal with rich locals in boat shoes like the west side of the state. It feels more free over here on the east coast — more wild — and this little state park even has a Dark Sky preserve. Watch the sunrise and sunset from your campsite at this privileged peninsula, just a short drive from the Detroit area.
MORE: The best towns on Michigan’s coasts
Northwestern Upper Peninsula
The most majestic landscapes in the state belong to the western UP, and The Porkies are the best place to experience it. Because of its isolated location, this park with its mountains, lakes and rivers, is rarely packed, save for the big summer holiday weekends, and even then the term “packed” is used lightly. Choose from rustic to backcountry camping, and even cabin, yurt and tiny house rentals. Here is the place to really get away from it all.
MORE: These are the best hikes in the Upper Peninsula
Western Central Upper Peninsula
This state park spans more than 8,400 acres and has no drive-up campsites. Everything must be accessed by foot, including campsites and yurts. With six lakes and many trails, Craig Lake is the ideal place to connect with the potency of the UP. Be bear-prepared while camping here, as several black bears call this park home. And truly, never underestimate a raccoon’s desire (and ability) to open your cooler and ruin your breakfast plans.
MORE: The UP is basically one big campground. Here are more tent-pitching hotspots.
Northeast Lower Peninsula
Another eastside dream, this state forest is home to the largest elk herd east of the Mississippi (nerd alert!) — which is extra cool considering they were hunted to near extinction in these parts and are now flourishing. This campground is so far back in the woods, that you might be tempted to film your own Blair Witch documentary or even an amateur Evil Dead remake. The forest is deep and dark here, and you can easily lose direction. Dip your toes in the icy river and enjoy the sounds of nature as you sit around your campfire.
MORE: Camping advice for amateurs and survivalists alike
Central Western Lower Peninsula
Enjoy your own private duneside campsite in the walk-in section of this state park, along a beautiful stretch of sandy Lake Michigan shoreline. Big Sable Point Lighthouse is open, and the only people you’ll see are those who are willing to do the hiking to get there, passing by your backcountry site. Hiking abounds, and this is an ideal location for birdwatchers and just a short drive from Ludington, from which all points north on the coast are absolutely stunning and mostly uninhabited.
Northwest Lower Peninsula
This rustic gem has a beautiful beachfront and enough space between sites to make you feel like you have the campground to yourself, which if you go during the middle of the week or slightly off season, you probably will. Despite its close proximity to busy Charlevoix, the city-going folks tend to stay there, and this little nook of great swimming and hiking often goes overlooked.
MORE: Somehow, Charlevoix remains underrated to out-of-staters
Crooked Lake Rustic Campground
South Central Lower Peninsula
Close to Detroit and just a short drive from Ann Arbor, this campground is just south of Hell (no, really) and part of the Pinckney Recreation Area. With access to dozens of miles of hiking and mountain-biking trails, this campground has a backcountry feel without the need to fully abandon civilization. Crooked Lake is the answer to all the Facebook posts that pop up direly asking, “What’s a good place to camp close to Detroit?” You’d be surprised at how Up North it can feel in this area, widely recognized as the longtime vacation hangout for mafia types and regular folks who could afford a second home. Before metro Detroit sprawled, this region of lakes and hills was considered “out of town.”
Northeast Lower Peninsula
Possibly the best kept secret of the upper east side, this campground has sites directly on a quiet stretch of Lake Huron (which, honestly, describes most stretches of Lake Huron). Overlooking majestic Thunder Bay, it’s close enough to Alpena to get your city comforts (think Up North ranch dressing, Margarita fixingsm and classic rock radio), yet nestled in seclusion within Thunder Bay River State Forest. Pack for cool nights and prepare to fully unplug from societal realities.
Northwestern Lake Superior
As its name suggests, even for those who don’t parlez vous French, this is one exceptional island. So exceptional, in fact, that it’s Michigan’s own (and only) national park. Closer to Minnesota than Michigan, you have to cross the profound and wild water domain of Lake Superior by boat or plane to reach it. Once there, you can luxe it up at the island’s resort or any number of its camping sites, typically reached by pilgrimage, hiking, canoe, or kayak. The island is home to fox, moose, eagles and more wildlife. It’s the least-visited national park in the lower 48, too, so solitude and clear skies here are all but guaranteed.
MORE: Check here before heading to any national park
Megan Frye is a writer from Michigan who, if nothing else, truly has her pee squat down. Tweet her at @fryechild about the cassette tapes for your battery powered boombox that you would never leave behind when you go camping.