Travel

This Midwest State Has All the Summer Island Vibes You’ll Ever Need

Camp, kayak, eat some fudge, and explore century-old shipwrecks.

mackinac island
Mackinac Island in the summer | Narrow Window Photography/Shutterstock
Mackinac Island in the summer | Narrow Window Photography/Shutterstock

When you imagine summertime in Michigan, you may think of picturesque lighthouses on the coast of Lake Michigan and $1000-a-night rentals for any cottage even remotely “up north.”  But rather than hanging with tourists in hot spots like buzzy Grand Haven or upscale Holland, adventurous locals in search of unplugged seclusion ferry or kayak their way out to one of the many island getaways in the Great Lakes.

Some are wonderfully kitschy (looking at you, Mackinac!) and highly developed, with B&Bs, jet ski rentals, and gourmet restaurants. Others are pretty savage, with zero cell service, rugged camping, and gray wolves and curious black bears roaming around. Divers after a challenge can seek out thousands of shipwrecks—some 70 to 105 feet below the surface—that have been perfectly preserved thanks to the cold, fresh water; meanwhile, summertime stargazers can enjoy some of the best night skies in the US. 

Top all that with Michigan staples like Rocky Road fudge and Superman ice cream, and it looks like you have some epic new summer vacation plans. Here’s where to enjoy an island getaway in the Great Lake State.

Mackinac Island 

Up first: the tourist favorite. Easily accessible by ferry from St. Ignace, this car-free island on Lake Huron tends to draw crowds because it’s just so darn wholesome. Leap back in time as you explore the town’s 100-year old Victorian architecture by tandem bike or horse-drawn carriage, and stay cool with a shaved ice from Scoops

If your budget permits, book a stay at the Grand Hotel, home to the world's longest porch and the Cupola Bar, where you can catch the best views in town. Take in a leisurely dinner of whitefish and a lilac lemonade at the Pink Pony, consistently voted one of America’s best restaurants for outdoor dining thanks to their patio, which juts out over the water. Leave room for Kilwin’s famous rocky road fudge.

Isle Royale

Michigan’s largest island—the state’s only national park—isn't for everyone. It’s around 60 miles northwest of Copper Harbor in Lake Superior, about a 3.5 hour ferry ride out. There are no cars allowed, so you’ll get around by hiking, boating, canoeing, and kayaking. You might cross paths with foxes, beavers, and mink; there’s also gray wolves, but they tend to stick to themselves. 

There are over 165 miles of relatively rustic trails (we recommend the well-marked, 40-mile Greenstone Ridge Trail) and 30 different campgrounds spread throughout the island. Head over to rocky Rainbow Cove for sunset; on a clear day, the Rock of Ages Lighthouse and Minnesota shoreline can both be seen from the beach. Serious divers can check out Lake Superior’s infamous shipwrecks; the historical vessels are protected by the NPS, but they do sign off on guided dives.

The Manitou Islands 

Two islands make up this part of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. North Manitou, 12 miles from Leland in Lake Michigan, is accessed by a somewhat choppy ferry ride. There are zero permanent residents, so beavers, chipmunks, deer, bald eagles, and the endangered piping plover are the real locals. Here, you’ll have 20 miles of shoreline, 23 miles of hiking trails, and inland Lake Manitou to explore. 

South Manitou has huge, gorgeous white cedar trees, a lighthouse, and the Francisco Morazan shipwreck, which you can explore without diving gear. You’ve also got Florence Lake, whose soft, sandy bottom makes a perfect swimming hole. Day visitors should plan hikes with enough cushion to catch the ferry back to the mainland—the trails may take longer than expected.

Beaver Island

Located 32 miles northwest of Charlevoix, this large Lake Michigan island has a quirky history. In 1856, it was home to an American religious colony, ruled by the self-appointed “King Strang,” the leader of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints at the time. No one seemed to blink an eye—the Strangites, as they called themselves, flourished under his rule and became a political power in the region.  “King Strang” was even elected to the Michigan House of Representatives... twice.

Now one of the more developed and populated islands in Michigan, Main Street bustles with activity in the summer. You can book a motel, B&B, or condo, rent a jet ski, or even bring your own dirt bike over on the ferry (which runs from April to around Christmastime). There’s even two pet-friendly airlines, Fresh Air Aviation and Island Airways, that serve Beaver Island daily year-round.  

Grand Island

Just a few minutes off the coast of Munising—a stone’s throw from the famous Pictured Rocks and the Alger Underwater Preserve, known for its “sea caves,” shipwrecks, and underwater interpretive trails—you’ll find lesser-known Grand Island. It’s part of the Hiawatha National Forest, so be prepared for a nominal park fee—currently $5. You can take a quick ferry between May-October, but for maximum fun, try paddling over in a kayak. Dramatic sandstone cliffs dominate the coastline, so grab directions on where to port before you leave the mainland.

Once you hit the shore, rent a mountain bike and explore over 20 miles of trails. You can reserve a campsite or book a stay at the Grand Island Cabins—but one of the best things about Grand is that rugged camping is allowed, no permit necessary (with a few requirements). Fair warning: there are a black bears on the island, so if you plan to wild camp, bring plenty of rope to tie your food up in a tree before you go to bed.

Drummond Island

Just a mile or so off the mainland, Drummond Island in Lake Huron is known as the "Gem of the Huron." One of the largest freshwater islands in the US, it attracts all kinds of travelers: summer yachters drawn to its many available slips and well-marked passages; ATV enthusiasts, who come for the over 100 miles of trails; hunters of whitetail deer, bears, and small game; and fisherman after pike, perch, and walleye. But if you’re after a more resort-like stay in nature for the weekend, rent a cottage that comes with its own boat and enjoy access to not just one, but two golf courses

Government Island

Government Island—also known as Island No. 6 of the Les Cheneaux Islands—is the place to play out your Into the Wild fantasies (minus the poisoning, of course). It’s not for the faint of heart, but if you’re an expert outdoorsperson after a challenge, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better escape in the Great Lake State. Government is only accessible by small boat, kayak, or canoe; if you paddle out from Cedarville, your arms better be in good shape. Map out routes ahead of time and come ready with plenty of supplies. There are campsites on the island, but it wouldn't be weird if you were the only one there. For those who are really passionate about boats, consider taking a class at the Great Lakes Boat Building School in Cedarville before your trip and make your own transport out to the island.

Harsens Island

Even locals who live in nearby Detroit have barely heard of Harsens Island. Located on the largest freshwater delta in North America, it’s a marshy place that’s about as far east as you can go without heading into Canada. Get there with Champion's Auto Ferry, which has run 24/7/365 for generations. 

The true owner of the 140-mile waterfront has been disputed since the end of the American Revolutionary War. The Brits, the Americans, and the Walpole Island First Nations people just across the border in Canada have staked claim in the past, making it a place history buffs can really sink their teeth into. The waterways and canals are tranquil, and the St. Clair Flats are on two ancestral migration routes, so each spring and fall hundreds of thousands of ducks, geese, swans and other birds fill the air here—ideal conditions for bird watching from a paddleboard.

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Cathy Brown splits her time between traveling the globe writing for Lonely Planet and CNN, working with Indigenous rights in the Brazilian Amazon, and hanging out at home in her garden and hosting permaculture and medicinal plant retreats.
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