Camping around Lake Michigan
For a beach vacation on a budget, stay at cabins and campgrounds in state parks.
No summer vacation is more fun than a Circle Tour of a Great Lakes — and nothing is more of a pain than planning one.
Fans of sand and sun love Lake Michigan, which is lined by state and city parks with gorgeous stretches of sand and dunes. You can't buy a better beach vacation at any price, but you have to plan ahead.
Planning is tricky because you pass through four states, 30 state parks and two big metropolitan areas, each of which floods beaches with hordes of sun-worshippers on weekends.
You have to navigate around big festivals that fill every hotel and campground within 50 miles — if you arrive in Traverse City without a reservation during National Cherry Festival, for example, you'll be sleeping in your car.
Nearly every desirable place in tourist areas has a two-night minimum on weekends, so you'll either be spending two nights or staying in a Super 8.
And you can't count on getting walk-up campsites: In Michigan, the most popular beach parks are 100 percent reservable, and weekends are booked immediately when reservations open six months in advance.
If you want to camp indoors on a summer weekend in Michigan state parks, it's best to reserve the mini-cabins, rustic cabins, camper cabins and guesthouses along this Midwestern Riviera a year in advance.
But midweek openings stay available much longer, especially in state parks on the Upper Peninsula. For more, see Michigan's great lake cabins.
For more about Michigan's beach parks, see America's freshwater Riviera.
For last-minute stays, look for parks with rustic or hike-in sites, which are slower to be reserved. For example, Harrington Beach State Park, between Milwaukee and Sheboygan, has plenty of sites a stone's throw from Lake Michigan.
On Lake Michigan, you don't need to spend much for a great beach vacation. Here's how to do it.
Trip Tips: Camping around Lake Michigan
When to go: The last half of June and August are good times to travel; the tourist areas are crowded in July and the first half of August. Allow at least a week, more if you want to tour Door County or add a side trip to the Soo Locks at Sault Ste. Marie (only an hour from St. Ignace on the Mackinac Straits).
Planning a route: The entire Circle Tour of Lake Michigan is about 1,160 miles, including the Door Peninsula.
You can shorten the route and avoid Chicago-area traffic and industrial Gary, Ind., by talking the Lake Express High-Speed Ferry between Milwaukee and Muskegon, Mich. The crossing takes 2½ hours.
You can cut the route even shorter by taking the the S.S. Badger Car Ferry between Manitowoc, Wis., and Ludington, Mich. The crossing takes four hours.
Beaches: For a guide to some of the best, see America's freshwater Riviera.
Camping: You can camp in a tent or RV, or you can stay in a rustic cabin, mini-cabin, camper cabin or fully equipped lodge.
All of the state parks below offer modern camping except where noted. In a pinch, stay in a state forest; they're not on the beach, but they're nearby.
In Wisconsin, campsites can be reserved 11 months in advance. All campsites in parks along Lake Michigan are completely reservable.
A daily vehicle permit is $8 for ($10 at Peninsula State Park), $28 for an annual resident's permit. Non-residents pay $11 ($13) daily, $38 annually.
Harrington Beach State Park between Port Washington and Sheboygan. This park has a mile of beach and a new campground that has separate electric and non-electric loops and includes five walk-in sites and a kayak site.
It also has one of Wisconsin's popular accessible cabins for people with disabilities, $30. Reservations open Jan. 10.
Kohler-Andrae State Park just south of Sheboygan. It has one accessible cabin for people with disabilities, $30. It sleeps six and has a kitchen, bathroom and screened porch. The park also has an accessible beach trail and two beach wheelchairs.
Each has a boardwalk to a white-sand beach on Lake Michigan plus a fire pit, pump and latrine, but no electricity. There's also a covered pavilion for eating. Reserve up to 11 months in advance.
The state forest's modern campground also is close to the beach and nature lodge/concession center.
Door County has four state parks with camping. Potawatomi State Park in Sturgeon Bay has one accessible cabin for people with disabilities, $30. It sleeps six and has a kitchen, bathroom and screened porch.
It also has two accessible campsites. Peninsula State Park has the most coveted camping sites in Wisconsin. The park is almost like a resort, with beaches, bicycle trails, a professional theater and a golf course, and it's adjacent to shopping and restaurants in Fish Creek and Ephraim.
Newport State Park near Ellison Bay, Wisconsin's only wilderness park, has some rustic sites that are walk-in but gorgeous: Backpack Sites 14 and 16, on Lake Michigan and a stone's throw from Europe Lake.
Upper Peninsula of Michigan
In Michigan state parks, campsites can be reserved up to six months in advance at Michigan DNR Reservations, 800-447-2757. If you're reserving online, beware: You have to complete the reservation in 15 minutes or all your work will disappear.
At some campgrounds, particularly at the 15 beach parks on the west coast of Lake Michigan, 100 percent of sites can be reserved, so it's crucial to reserve early for summer weekends.
For a guide to Michigan state parks and recreation areas, call 517-373-9900.
The non-resident annual parks permit is $31. The daily admission for a vehicle is $9. Michigan residents can get an annual vehicle permit by paying an additional $11 on their license plate renewals.
Michigan also has a wide variety of camper cabins, mini-cabins, rustic cabins and lodges that can be reserved one year in advance. For more, see Michigan's great lake cabins.
In the mini-cabins, rustic cabins and camper cabins, campers must bring all bedding, cookware and tableware. Bunkbeds and mattresses are provided. Cooking must be done outside, where there are picnic tables and grills or fire rings. Pets are not permitted inside.
Camper cabins are large and sleep up to six people with two sets of bunk beds in their own rooms and a futon in the main living area. They're on scenic lots overlooking lakes, bays and rivers and have a covered front porch.
They have microwaves, refrigerators and coffee makers, and some have ceiling fans and toasters. All are universally accessible.
Mini-cabins generally are slightly smaller than a rustic cabin and sleep four. Some are accessible, and some aren't.
Rustic cabins are on quiet, isolated sites and accommodate two to 24 people.
There's a wide variety of lodges and cottages. All include fully equipped kitchens, and bedding and towels are provided. Many have washers and dryers and some have televisions and DVD players.
J.W. Wells State Park between Menominee and Escanaba, one two-bath historic stone lodge with a fireplace that sleeps 12, and five rustic cabins that have propane heat and sleep eight to 12.
Fayette Historic State Park on the Garden Peninsula, semi-modern camping only, and one 1970s house that sleeps 10.
Indian Lake State Park near Manistique, two mini-cabins.
Straits State Park in St. Ignace, two mini-cabins.
Mackinac Island has a state park, but no camping.
Northern Lower Peninsula
Wilderness State Park just west of Mackinaw City, three bunkhouses that sleep 24, and six rustic cabins that sleep four to eight.
Petoskey State Park in Petoskey, two mini-cabins.
Fisherman's Island State Park in Charlevoix. Rustic camping only.
Traverse City State Park in Traverse City, one three-bedroom, two-bath cottage that sleeps 11, and two mini-cabins. This park, which occupies a wooded sliver of land along the highway, is connected to the beach by pedestrian overpass. It has 350 sites and gets very crowded in peak season.
Leelanau State Park at the tip of Leelanau Peninsula, two mini-cabins, rustic camping only. The park is the home of the 1852 Grand Traverse Lighthouse, which can be toured. Many of the campsites have views of the lake, though there's no beach.
The park doesn't have showers, but you can use the ones at Traverse City State Park for $2.
Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore around Empire. The national park includes campsites at D.H. Day campground near Glen Haven; backcountry sites on South Manitou and North Manitou islands; and near the Platte River, which has showers. Some sites can be reserved.
The Empire Township campground is five miles from town and has showers, 231-326-5285.
For more, see Grand sand.
Orchard Beach State Park near Manistee, one mini-cabin and one camper cabin with refrigerator, microwave and coffee maker. Many of the sites in this blufftop park have views of Lake Michigan, and they're connected to a lovely beach by stairs.
Ludington State Park just north of Ludington, three mini-cabins, one each in three campgrounds. This park along the dunes has a beach on an inland lake, a tubing river and many naturalist programs and concerts.
Southern Lower Peninsula
Charles Mears State Park just south of Ludington, one two-bath lodge that sleeps eight.
Silver Lake State Park just south of Ludington.
Duck Lake State Park just north of Muskegon, no camping.
Muskegon State Park in Muskegon, two mini-cabins.
Hoffmaster State Park just south of Muskegon.
Grand Haven State Park in Grand Haven, one three-bedroom, two-bath lodge that sleeps eight.
Holland State Park in Holland, two two-bedroom camper cabins with refrigerator, microwave and coffee maker. This very popular park has a strip of asphalt just behind the Lake Michigan beach for RVs and a regular campground closer to Lake Macatawa. Alcohol is prohibited.
Saugatuck Dunes State Park in Saugatuck, no camping.
Van Buren State Park south of South Haven.
Grand Mere State Park south of St. Joseph, no camping.
Warren Dunes State Park near Sawyer, three mini-cabins (three-night minimum). It has a rustic as well as modern campground, a short hike through dunes from the beach. Alcohol is prohibited.
Michigan City Campground in Michigan City, just east of Indiana Shores National Lakeshore, rents air-conditioned sleeping cabins that sleep six and have covered porches, microwaves and refrigerators.
Full-service camping cabins have kitchens and bathrooms. It's privately run and is five miles from the beach. There's a heated pool. Two-night minimum on weekends.
Illinois Beach State Park near Waukegan, north of Chicago, has 178 wooded campsites that can be reserved and 66 that are first-come, first served. Reserve up to 180 days in advance (it is listed as Adeline Jay Geo-Karis Illinois Beach State Park).
The beach is beautiful but neglected; there are no bathhouses or concession buildings, only latrines and pop machines.
The park includes the Illinois Beach Resort & Conference Center, the only hotel in the state that's right on Lake Michigan. It has a restaurant and an indoor pool.