Michigan’s Outdoor Adventures

Last updated 30th June 2024

Two-hundred and 50 miles of freeway separates Michigan’s bustling city of Detroit and Traverse City, and those miles make a difference. Traverse City is a paradise for outdoor types and the ideal antidote to city life. Miles of natural trails are waiting to be explored by bike or on foot. Or, embrace the outdoor lifestyle by tucking into plenty of farm-to-fork meals and practicing your landscape photography skills. You’d be hard pressed to find a prettier place in autumn, when the city’s rolling hills glow with oranges and sunny yellows and Grand Traverse Bay shimmers sapphire blue.

A Lake as Big as a Sea

In spring and summer the days are pleasantly warm and exploring the sandy shoreline of the great Lake Michigan is a blissful way to while away an afternoon. Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is a 35-mile stretch of protected land along the east coast of the lake. It has been voted “the most beautiful place in America” by the viewers of Good Morning America – as proud locals are happy to report. It’s possible to drive to the top of Sleeping Bear Dune, up winding roads flanked by tall pines on either side. Indian legend has it that a mother bear’s cubs drowned in the lake, and the spirits had pity on the mother and raised her cubs up from the water, and they became the dunes.


The writer on the shore of azure Lake Michigan

Just standing on top of the sandy mountains and looking over the lake is a stirring experience in itself, but kids are inevitably delighted to discover that you can also lie down and roll down the dune to the beach below. But before you give into temptation, take heed of the signs that warn that the walk back up takes two to three hours. If you’re brave enough to put this to the test, make sure you take a bottle of water down with you.

If you book in advance you can arrange a free tour from a park ranger. The powdery slopes are hard to resist and even if you’re not dressed for climbing, before long your shoes will be off and you’ll be scrambling on hands and knees, slipping and sliding in a race to the top – which is further away than it looks.

Wildlife Refuge

Just a couple of hours from Traverse City is Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge, where you can catch an airboat eco-tour with Johnny Panther, an eccentric one-of-a-kind tour guide. The Shiawassee Flats are like the Everglades of Michigan (minus the snakes). One of the state’s richest wildlife habitats, it’s home to beavers, deers, ducks, herons and hundreds of types of birds – all of which come with their own amusing and sometimes saucy story courtesy of Johnny Panther (real name Wil Hufton).

Tours take between three and five hours and are specially tailored to your group’s needs. The kids might be less than impressed with the boat’s 8am departure, but the complaints will soon stop if you’re lucky enough to spot bald eagles perched on top of a dead tree. Johnny’s boat glides into the mist, as his passengers snuggle up in the thick blankets he provides. Spend a couple of hours exploring the tributaries, listening to white tailed deer snorting softly in the marshes and watching pretty wood ducks playing on the river.


A story at every turn of the river: the enigmatic Johnny Panther

Beavers can be seen working on their dams and migrating hawks and blue herons fly over, like prehistoric pterodactyls. In May and June, the cotton trees shed their fuzzy balls and thousands of carp suck them greedily from the water. The water at this time of year looks like glass, with thousands of pairs of orange lips smacking on its surface.

The state of Michigan offers breathtaking natural beauty, wide, bright skies and plenty of family fun, and the jewel in its crown is a capital city that is rising from the dust with an addictive new optimism. Take a chance on visiting Detroit, renting a car and creating your own adventure. You’ll be forever grateful that you looked beyond America’s more tried-and-tested family vacationspots, and were bold enough to experience the wilderness and spirit of Michigan.