Welcome to the enchanting realm of Michigan’s National Park Service properties. Get ready to experience the raw, unfiltered beauty of incredible places that have captured the hearts of countless adventurers over the years.
You might be surprised to see what the Michigan national parks offer — from pristine lakes to ancient forests to a remote island oasis. Also, there’s an intriguing location the NPS calls “history you were not supposed to know.”
And, no trip to Michigan is complete without exploring the automotive industry and the influence of Michigan towns, and a special National Heritage Area protects that for future generations.
Types of Michigan NPS Properties
While it might seem that there are six Michigan national parks, look closely at the end of each title. Only one location is an actual “national park,” which is considered the most prestigious destination the NPS can offer.
This doesn’t mean that other designated sites are less important. They each bring a unique trait that earns the title. Here’s a breakdown of the designation definitions:
National parks are areas of great natural, cultural, or recreational significance. They are usually large and diverse, showcasing iconic landscapes, unique geological formations, and exceptional biodiversity. Yellowstone was the first national park in the country.
National Heritage Area
Natural Heritage Areas are designated regions of special significance, conserving unique natural, cultural, historical, and ecological values. They promote community engagement, sustainable tourism, and local development.
National Scenic Trail
This designated long-distance trail in the United States showcases natural beauty, historical landmarks, and diverse landscapes. Spanning thousands of miles, these trails offer immersive experiences in the great outdoors.
National Historic Site
A national historic site is a protected area in the United States that preserves and interprets significant cultural and historical sites. It commemorates key events, figures, and places.
This designation protects U.S. locations along a significant lake or shoreline. It safeguards the natural and scenic beauty of the shoreline, beaches, and adjacent lands.
National Battlefield Park
These protected areas preserve and interpret significant historical battlefields. They commemorate pivotal military conflicts and the sacrifices made by soldiers.
Why the NPS Designation Matters
The designation all comes down to funding — with National Parks being the “crowned jewels” of the park system. National parks are under the purview of the Department of Interior. Each year, the park service submits a budget for discretionary and mandatory spending.
The Consolidate Appropriations Act of 2023 allowed for an increase in spending for certain park distinctions.
7 Michigan National Parks & Sites and Why You Should Visit
The NPS locations in Michigan span from the heart of Detroit through Northern Michigan and into the far reaches of the Upper Peninsula.
- Designated: 1940
- Size: 850 square miles
- Annual Visitors: 26,000 (2022)
- Entrance Fee: $7
Designated in 1940, the Isle Royale National Park is an island surrounded by Lake Superior’s choppy waters. By boat, it’s about 55 miles from Copper Harbor to Rock Harbor on the island and about 73 miles from Houghton Michigan.
At 850 square miles (including the waters surrounding the 206-square-mile island), Isle Royale National Park is the only designated national park in Michigan, and it stands out for two reasons.
First, it is America’s No. 5 least visited park (26,000 visitors in 2022) — with three Alaska locations and a remote South Pacific location in the top four. Second, it’s the only national park that closes in winter.
“The island is closed from November 1 through April 15 due to extreme winter weather conditions and for the safety and protection of visitors. This closure extends 4.5 miles out into Lake Superior from the island.”Isle Royale National Park Rangers
Getting to the Park
You can only access the island by boat or seaplane. Ferry transportation services are offered, but you’ll pay the vendor-designated price to take the trip. Seaplane rides are also available by private charter or Isle Royale Seaplanes. Chartering your own boat is another option.
Once you reach the island, you’ll be on untouched, remote land. No cars or wheeled vehicles are allowed.
Things to Do
The park is renowned for its fascinating predator-prey relationship between wolves and moose. While visiting Isle Royale, you can explore the shoreline of rocky ridges and churning waters.
Over 160 miles of hiking trails wind through pristine forests, rugged coastlines, and breathtaking overlooks. The island boasts some of North America’s oldest exposed rock formations, aged by the billions.
When you truly want to get away from it all, Isle Royale is the perfect place.
- Designated: 1998
- Size: 16 counties spanning over 10,000 square miles
- Annual Visitors: 15,000+
- Entrance Fee: Varies by location
From the early days of automobile innovation to the cutting-edge technologies of the present, this heritage area celebrates the profound impact of motor vehicles on our society.
It’s only appropriate that exploring the MotorCities National Heritage Area requires a road trip — it stretches across 16 counties, spanning over 100,000 square miles. Some of the cities that it passes through include:
For planning purposes, the MotorCities National Heritage Area doesn’t go north of Flint.
You can buy a passport to be stamped at each of the 30 locations along the way. Along the way, you’ll drive through the legacy of Ford, Chrysler, General Motors, and more — from some of the first cars ever designed to the high-tech and eco-friendly rides planned for the future.
MotorCities National Heritage Area is a testament to the American spirit of innovation, ambition, and perseverance. Its establishment in 1998 was a milestone in recognizing the role of the automobile in American history and culture, and it became the 25th national heritage area in the United States.
- Designated: 1980
- Size: 1,150 miles in Michigan, 4,600 through eight states
- Annual Visitors: Varies by state
- Entrance Fee: The trail is free, but parks along the way might have fees
The North Country National Scenic Trail was designated in 1980 and is the longest designated national scenic trail in the United States. It spans 4,600 miles through eight states from North Dakota to Vermont, 1,150 miles of which are in Michigan.
Also, it’s one of just eight national scenic trails alongside the distinguished Appalachian Trail and Pacific Crest Trail. The NCT traverses regions with rich cultural and historical heritage, showcasing the evolution of American society and the impact of exploration, settlement, and industry on the country’s development.
Things to Do
Along the trail, you’ll venture through Michigan’s UP for an awe-inspiring wilderness experience. Embrace the breathtaking sights of vast lakes, ancient forests, rugged hills, and cascading waterfalls.
In the Lower Peninsula, the trail meanders through Manistee National Forest, an expanse of state and county parks, forests, game areas, quaint towns, and urban spots, offering diverse landscapes and delightful adventures.
North Country Trail Association
The NCTA manages the trail system and provides valuable information along the way. The trail in Michigan can be reviewed by section, which stretches from the UP to the Ohio border:
- Western Upper Peninsula: Wisconsin state line to Craig Lake State Park
- Central Upper Peninsula: Eastern boundary of Craig Lake State Park to Luce County line
- Eastern Upper Peninsula: Luce County to Mackinac Bridge
- Northwest Lower Michigan: Mackinac Bridge to Manistee National Forest
- Manistee National Forest
- West Michigan: Southern boundary of the forest to Kalamazoo
- Southern Michigan: Kalamazoo to Ohio state line
The Difference Between an NPS Property and a National Forest
National parks focus on the strict preservation and conservation of significant natural, cultural, and historical features managed by the NPS. National forests are managed by the U.S. Forest Service, emphasizing multiple uses, including resource management, recreation, and timber harvesting.
TIP: You’ll need a recreation passport if you’re hiking a path through a Michigan state park.
- Designated: 1992
- Size: 800,000 acres between NPS and partnerships
- Annual Visitors: 20,000+
- Entrance Fee: None!
The Keweenaw Peninsula is the northernmost section of the UP, known for its rich mining history that earned it the nickname “Copper Country.” History weaves its threads into the very bedrock of the earth here — with evidence of human mining activity going back at least 7,000 years.
“Pronounced KEY-wah-nah, an Ojibway word that means ‘the crossing place’ or ‘land crossing between two bodies of water.’ It refers to traversing Portage Lake to reach the Keweenaw Peninsula.”Keweenaw County website
Established in 1992 to preserve heritage sites on the peninsula, the 800,000-acre Keweenaw National Historical Park takes you deep below the ground to hear the echoes of miners’ picks resonating through the ancient mine shafts filled with shimmering copper.
You might be more familiar with the Gold Rush out West, but the Copper Rush of the 1840s here was just as significant. Two cities envelop the history here:
- Quincy: Visit the Quincy Mine to learn the technical skills required to remove copper from the mines.
- Calumet: The social structure and community built around a mining industry are detailed here.
Nearly two dozen heritage sites are available to visit — with stops along the shoreline and at historic lighthouses. You can choose between three underground mine tours (or go on all three!).
If you have a kid who loves Minecraft, check out this unique interactive game addition from Keweenaw National Historic Park.
TIP: Pair this with a trip to Isle Royale National Park with ferries that depart from Houghton on the Keweenaw Peninsula.
- Designated: 1966
- Size: 73,235 acres (between two zones)
- Annual Visitors: 926,000 (2022)
- Entrance Fee: $20
The Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore set the bar as the first designated national lakeshore in 1966. More than 73,200 acres and 42 miles of coastline await — 15 of those miles include sandstone cliffs that rise above the rugged waters of Lake Superior.
Vibrant red, orange, yellow, and blue layers dance across the cliffs in a mesmerizing kaleidoscope of colors in the most scenic spots. Plan a boat or paddle trip while you’re here for the best views of Pictured Rocks.
The park offers four seasons of activities, including ice climbing in the winter and kayaking in the summer. Beaches beckon visitors, and sand dunes spike 300 feet above the lake. The park has three visitor centers where you can learn about the glacial impact that formed this stunning region.
“Visitors may notice bright streaks of colors that run down the cliffs. Streaks of brown, orange, white, black, and green almost look like somebody dumped buckets of paint all over the rocks. These colors are the result of mineral staining. Groundwater is constantly leaking out from the porous sandstone. This groundwater has minerals present in abundance as the water falls down the cliffs the minerals meet with the air and stain the rock.”Ranger Zach, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore
Au Sable Light Station is open for tours from June through September. Additionally, Pictured Rocks is along the “Graveyard of the Great Lakes,” where 80 miles of rocky coastline have swallowed at least 45 ships. Some of the shipwrecks still lie there today on the coast or just under its chilly waters.
TIP: Visit Grand Island National Recreation Area while you’re here. It’s less than 1 mile offshore!
- Designated: 2010
- Size: 208 acres
- Annual Visitors: 242,000
- Entrance Fee: Free!
Less than an hour south of Detroit, you can revisit a pivotal moment in American history at the River Raisin National Battlefield Park, which was designated in 2010.
This unique, 208-acre destination in Monroe Michigan is more than just a place. It’s a portal to the past with a story of American sacrifices that you might not have learned in your history classes.
“River Raisin National Battlefield Park (Battlefield) reveals the history you were not supposed to know and is America’s only National Park Service unit dedicated to tell the aftermath story of the War of 1812.”
The entirety of the Battle of Frenchtown can’t be told without exploring the River Raisin Heritage Trail as an extension of a battlefield visit. This battle was a bloody and violent confrontation between Americans and the British, who teamed up with Native American allies.
Two battles followed, with American forces overwhelmed. The following day, the River Raisin Massacre against surviving American forces forever changed the tenacity of our troops to beat the British.
Also, it had long-standing impacts on relationships with several Native American Tribes. Perhaps this is one of the most fundamental stages in the American spirit of rising from tragedy and building resolve to reach our dreams.
- Designated: 1970
- Size: 114 square miles
- Annual Visitors: 1.5 million
- Entrance Fee: $25
Awaken your inner sleeping bear by exploring the 35 miles of coastline and two islands of the 114-square-mile Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. If you could take the best of every location we’ve explored in this article and put it in one spot, that spot would be Sleeping Bear Dunes.
Designated in 1970, this place is about so much more than sand, though it sometimes steals the show. The fine sand beaches are met with the turquoise waters of Lake Michigan, amplified by clear and transparent water, a sandy lake bottom, and unique sunlight angles.
Climbing massive sand dunes or walking the Sleeping Dunes Heritage Trail, will get enough sand in your shoes to explore some of the other attractions.
How Sleeping Bear Dunes Got Its Name
“Long ago, along the Wisconsin shoreline, a mother bear and her two cubs were driven into Lake Michigan by a raging forest fire. The bears swam for many hours, but soon the cubs tired. Mother bear reached the shore first and climbed to the top of a high bluff to watch and wait for her cubs.
The cubs drowned within sight of the shore. The Great Spirit created two islands to mark the spot where the cubs disappeared and then created a solitary dune to represent the eternal vigil of mother bear.”As told on the NPS website for Sleeping Dunes National Lakeshore
This park is made for long visits — with stunning sunrises and sunsets followed by starry skies so brilliant that you won’t want to miss one of the many Summer Star Parties. Winter brings a new aesthetic with snowshoeing and snow tubing being the top two most popular activities.
Lush forests help tell the rich logging history here — with ghost towns abandoned when the mining and logging business went bust. Nearly 20 inland lakes dot the landscape too — with ferry rides to the Manitou Islands creating another place to explore.
TIP: South Manitou Island offers a view of the abandoned Francisco Morazan shipwreck that’s forever lodged in the lake since 1960. Certified divers can learn more in the Manitou Passage Underwater Preserve.
All of the Michigan National Parks & Sites Are Worthy of Exploration
The benefit of visiting an NPS property is that you’ll get preserved land with an ongoing commitment to keep the lands as they are — no developments are allowed on these sacred sites. Too many people don’t realize the amazing expanse of Michigan’s handprint on the country.
It’s worth exploring as many NPS locations as possible. To save money and support the NPS, buy an America the Beautiful pass to get access to more than 2,000 locations nationwide, including most of the Michigan locations.