March 15, 2022

I Failed Michigan Travel Planning 101

This post is the final installment in the series documenting our trip to the states of Minnesota and Michigan back in the summer of 2015.  Our daughter, Kyra, was 16 and out of school on summer vacation, so she joined us on our two week whirlwind tour of the M&M states.

Sometimes, when the title of a blog post catches your eye, you have to wait until the end of the post to reach the punchline.  Not so today, my friends.  I’ll clue you in to the moral of the story first, and then follow up with all of the sordid details later.

How did I fail Michigan Travel Planning 101?  It’s actually quite simple.  I just didn’t allow enough time in our itinerary to truly enjoy this magnificent state.  In fact, we weren’t even all the way home before I was envisioning a return trip to really do Michigan justice.  I did a lot of things right when planning our short stay in Michigan, but I made some rookie mistakes, too.  That’s tough to admit for someone with more than 40 years of travel planning experience.  Read on for the details of my successes and failures.

Failure!  Two weeks is a fairly short excursion for us, and my guess is that there were some calendar constraints that impacted the length of this trip.  However, since I can’t even remember what I had for supper last night, there’s no chance that I’d be able to look back more than five years and figure out why only two weeks were allocated to this whirlwind tour.  So, I was working with just 15 days to visit two states, including travel time out and back.  My first and biggest failure was allowing only four full days to hit the highlights in the state of Michigan.  Needless to say, we missed a lot of highlights.

Success!  I did make sure that our quick visit included Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (UP).  From watching the sun rise over Lake Superior to visiting Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore to witnessing freighters navigating the Soo Locks, our experiences in the UP were exquisite.

A beautiful way to start the day on Lake Superior

Success!  Always preferring public campgrounds to private ones, we camped at Bay Furnace Campground, a USDA Forest Service facility on the shore of (Great) Lake Superior.  The campground (and day use area) is located in the Hiawatha National Forest near Munising.  There are no hookups, but drinking water, vault toilets and a dump station are available.  What we sacrificed in amenities we more than gained back in natural beauty and history lessons.

Bay Furnace Campground - Site #27

The ruins of Bay Furnace are just a short walk from the campground and near the Lake Superior shoreline where the town of Onota once stood.  Pig iron was made in the furnace from 1870 until 1877 when everything in town but the furnace was destroyed by fire.  Bay Furnace is one of the last remaining structures of its kind on the UP; it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1971.  The furnace sat idle from 1877 until 1992 when the ruins were stabilized in order to preserve them and the site’s history.

Preserving the state's history

Failure!  Do NOT make the same mistake we did when visiting Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore.  Although we were traveling with our kayaks, we have smaller “lake” kayaks suitable for the type of inland waters that we usually explore.  Not having “sea” kayaks, we didn’t put our kayaks in Lake Superior, and chose, instead, to “picture the rocks” from land.  Despite some incredibly stunning views, our land tour was not nearly as rewarding as a water tour would have been.  I was rather envious watching these lucky ducks launching their kayaks for the start of their guided tour.  Note to self: Don’t make that mistake again.

We normally prefer our solitude, but a tour like this would have been a smart choice.

Success!  Our visit to the city of Sault St. Marie on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula was an unqualified success.  Start with lunch at the Lockview Restaurant – across the street from the observation area at the Soo Locks – and add the good timing that allowed us to watch a couple of B-I-G ships navigate the locks that afternoon, and you come up with a remarkable and unforgettable experience.

The Lockview Restaurant - spelled as one word on their website

You know what they say about real estate – it’s all about location, location, location.  Well, the Lockview Restaurant’s location couldn’t be better.  Patrons who, by design or good fortune, end up with a table on the second floor have the best view of the observation area across the street at the locks.  Lunch was tasty, but we were anxious to finish up and head over to see this U. S. Army Corps of Engineers’ project in action.

Soo Locks Observation Area

The Soo Locks is an engineering marvel that connects Lake Superior to Lake Huron, allowing ships from as far west as Duluth, Minnesota, to safely traverse the Great Lakes and waterways of the northeast all the way to the Atlantic Ocean.  Three of the four locks (the Poe, MacArthur and Davis locks) are currently operational.  The fourth lock (the Sabin lock) was decommissioned in 2010.  The Poe Lock will accommodate freighters greater than 1,000’ in length, but it’s amazing to see ships of any size navigate the locks.  At the risk of appearing to be people who enjoy watching grass grow and paint dry, I will say that we probably would have been content to pull up a couple of camp chairs and watch the show all afternoon.

The downbound self-unloading bulk carrier "Algowood" entering a lock

The staff at the Soo Locks updates a whiteboard with vessel arrival information on a daily basis.  That's extremely helpful if you just stop at the locks due to happenstance.  You'll be able to tell what ships, if any, will be locking through while you're there.  For planning ahead though, the Marine Traffic website (link HERE) is a great resource.  This website tracks ships on the move all over the world – it’s actually rather mind-boggling to see how many little boat icons are floating on the world’s waterways at any given time.  If you’re planning to visit the Soo Locks, I’d suggest that you check Marine Traffic early in the day so you’ll be able to time your visit to coincide with the passage of ships through the locks.  If you’d like to navigate the Soo Locks yourself, boat tours in the area can make that dream a reality.

Tug "Joyce L. Vanenkevort" guiding a cargo barge upbound after exiting a lock

Failure!  Well, sort of.  I actually knew that Mackinac Island was a Michigan highlight, but this trip simply didn’t allow us the time we’d need to explore and enjoy the island.    Instead, we skedaddled southbound from the UP over the Mackinac Bridge (another engineering marvel at 8,614 feet) with gorgeous views of the Straits of Mackinac.  Crossing this bridge while towing a travel trailer is definitely not something I’d choose to do on a windy day.  YIKES!

The Mackinac Bridge connects Michigan's Upper Peninsula to its Lower Peninsula.

Safely back on solid ground, we headed for the west coast of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula or “mitten.”  Our base camp for exploring Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore and its environs was another USDA Forest Service campground in the Huron-Manistee National Forest near Ludington called Lake Michigan at Manistee.  That seems like an odd name for a campground, but there you have it.

Lake Michigan at Manistee Campground - Site #54

Success!  Even though I used the term “sacrificing amenities” earlier in this post, honestly, we don’t consider it much of a sacrifice.  We’re self-contained with a kitchen, bathroom and large water tanks.  We can easily go a week without the need to empty our black and gray holding tanks, and the lack of electricity is addressed by running our Honda generator periodically according to campground rules.  That allows us to camp in sites that we consider exceptionally attractive with beautiful views and/or easy access to nature’s playgrounds.  

Lots of lovely woods here in a National Forest located directly on a Great Lake

Lake Michigan at Manistee was no exception.  Despite the fact that we had no water or electric hookups and the nearest dump station was seven miles away on the main highway, we were thrilled with our choice of campgrounds.  We settled into a lovely, wooded site and our camping loop offered a walking and biking path that led directly to the shore of Lake Michigan.  The beach was not the wide and sometimes crowded type we usually find at the ocean.  Here, the beach was narrow with a wild feel to it – so different, so peaceful.  But, looking out over the water toward the horizon, you’d never know that you weren’t at the ocean.

Lake Michigan's untamed shoreline

Success!  We lucked out with an absolutely perfect summer day on which to explore Sleeping Bear Dunes.  The sunlight on the water was magical and the dunes, well, the dunes were huge.  You know, they didn’t look so high from the parking lot, but Kyra headed up first and she looked really small really fast.  Not that I remember, of course, but I will bet you a dime to a dollar we all slept well that night.

Dune Climb at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore

Success!  And failure!  Less than 10 miles from Sleeping Bears Dunes, we stumbled across the attractive and enchanting town of Glen Arbor.  The Find of the Day was the Cherry Republic, a tiny complex consisting of a shop with endless samples and a charming little cafĂ©.  (Michigan grows a LOT of cherries!)  They speak Cherry at the Cherry Republic and if it’s made with cherries you can probably buy it there.

Shop until you're cherried out at the Cherry Republic!

By the way, the smaller print on the sign reads: “This hall is dedicated to the farmers and all the good food they grow.  Without them there would not be a Cherry Republic . . . and we would all be out in the woods right now scavenging for grubs and worms to eat.”   I do appreciate an establishment that gives credit where credit is due in such a cheerful and whimsical way.  Lunch was excellent, and here I am almost seven years later, still longing for more of the cherry barbecue sauce we brought home as a souvenir.  Why did we not bring home more tasty treats from the Cherry Republic?!  Note to self: Leave extra room in the travel trailer for “souvenirs” next time.  Hmm.  I wonder if they have an online shop.  Be right back - gotta go check.  Yes, they do!  So excited!  The Cherry Republic has six locations throughout the state, and I’m going to hit them all when we go back to Michigan.

Alan and me enjoying our Cherry Sodas at the Cherry Republic

THE END!  It’s time to cue the sad goodbye music, as our visit to Sleeping Bear Dunes was the last stop on our itinerary for this M&M trip - a 3,000+ mile expedition to explore the states of Minnesota and Michigan.  Like so many of our travels, this one was full of unique experiences, scrumptious regional foods, magnificent views and fun-filled adventures.  The next time through, though, we’ll be visiting for more than two weeks.  And I’m stocking up on Cherry Barbecue Sauce.



  1. You really needn't be stressed about the things you may have missed. The stories and photos in your journal reflect so much more effort than most folks who just go, look and, inevitably, forget. I finally gave up the idea that I will be able to see everything that is supposedly essential, especially as the energy wanes in these sunset years. But you and I have our treasured documentation that will allow us instant time-travel back to the clarity of a beautiful experience that, for those not so predisposed, will be a nebulous memory at best or even total vacuity at worst. So, while I understand your frustration in timing, which I share myself, we can be thankful for the wisdom of documenting those wonders we have seen, realizing that no one can see them all.

    1. You're right, Mike. Between this blog and the thousands upon thousands of photos we've taken, Alan and I should be able to enjoy our travels time and time again for many years to come. One thing about travel memories that has always struck me as intriguing is the way two people on the exact same trip can remember different things. I can't tell you how many times I've said to Alan, "Hey, do you remember . . . " Then he replies, "No." Or he brings a place or an adventure into the conversation and my response is, "Where was this? When?" It's fascinating what makes an impression. By the way, while it may be true that no one can see it all, I'm going to give it my best shot. Best regards to you and Sandy!

  2. Hi, Mary,
    Loved your pictures! The Great Lakes are so amazing and the scenery around them so unique. Helen and I visited Sault St. Marie and had lunch near the locks, but neither of us recognized Lockview restaurant although that looks like a place we would choose. We did visit Mackinac Island however, and I highly recommend it for a day trip (too expensive otherwise for me). When we drove over the Mackinac bridge, we were in the tail end of a very long "tractor parade" that traveled at about 15 mph. What a hoot! Thanks for sharing--brought back some great memories. Joe

    1. Hi, Joe! Michigan's Mackinac Island and Upper Peninsula are favorite destinations for many travelers. The island is definitely on the itinerary for our return trip. As for the Mackinac Bridge, I can tell from our photos that Alan kept to the center lane, following another RV. We couldn't get over that thing fast enough for me. Even though I don't like heights, I don't have a problem with bridges. But just thinking about the possibility of wind gusts on the Mackinac did make me a bit tense. I successfully overcame the urge to jump out of the truck and kiss the ground when we reached the Lower Peninsula. Saved myself (and Alan) quite a bit of embarrassment, I'm sure. Hugs to Helen!

  3. Even though your time in Michigan was short, you certainly made the most of it! It's so much fun for me to read your post and to know we'll be going to all of the places you talked about on our summer/fall trip. In fact, one of the last reservations I need to make is at Sleeping Bear Dunes as soon as the reservation window opens. And we're definitely hoping to kayak at Pictured Rocks. Your post is making me even more excited about our trip! Thanks for sharing your memories.

    1. Laurel, I'm happy to hear you enjoyed the post, but you do realize this is going to come full circle, don't you? I'll be watching for your trip reports later this year so that I can take advantage of your Michigan travel expertise when I plan our return trip. I have a feeling that a lot of good intel is going to come from this trip of yours and Eric's - many thanks, in advance, for your efforts on our behalf!

  4. I have visited Michigan, mostly for a marketing job I had years ago, but I've not spent much time actually exploring all that it has to offer. I've always wanted to visit Mackinac Island. It sounds like you saw a lot and have tons more to see when you return.

    1. With the exception of Mackinac Island, I never really thought of Michigan as a hot spot for tourism. Yet thousands of people prove me wrong every year, and to the extent that I would be hesitant to travel through the state without camping reservations. I know we just barely scratched the surface on our very short visit. Plans to rectify that are already in progress!


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