When it comes to size, Jackson ranks as the 33rd largest city in Michigan (32,000-plus residents), with the surrounding county of the same name claiming 14th place with a population of roughly 158,400. As a weekend getaway, this classic Midwestern town earns unexpected praise.
More than 125 lakes and 200-plus miles of rivers, four wineries, 41 large wall murals, historic sightseeing, and downtown dining top the list of noteworthy to-dos, as recommended by its residents.
WATERWAYS: “Our lakes are picturesque, clean, and livable. Many are all-sports lakes with public access, so the recreation and enjoyment is endless,” says longtime Jackson-area resident Greg Allushuski, who moved there full time after years of living in Ann Arbor.
“Wolf Lake is paradise for us. It’s part of a chain of eight lakes in the eastern part of the county that are brimming with fish, have many channels to explore, and aren’t crowded with watercraft or homes,” the Wolf Lake property owner adds. “Country living around our lakes is fairly simple, friendly, unhurried, and peaceful. What could be better?”
WINE-MAKING: Jackson surprises with some hidden gems that can be found off the beaten path. “Our wine adventure in January was awesome,” says Jesse Houston, of Sterling Heights. He and his wife, Melissa, have visited the area three times and enjoy the local offerings.
“We really like the Chateau Aeronautique winery. It’s our favorite one in the area. They have a Cab Franc high-end that’s $80 a bottle. It’s an amazing experience tasting that wine. Cherry Creek Cellars is also nice. They had an igloo we stayed in for an hour while we enjoyed a very nice bottle,” he says.
For visitors, Houston recommends making sampling stops at two of the wineries “and then finish your outing at a very good (modern American cuisine) downtown restaurant called Veritas.”
PAINT THE TOWN: From 15 murals in 2018 to 41 today, the Bright Walls Mural Festival has attracted international artists to Jackson to paint colorful artwork on buildings around town.
“The Bright Walls are truly magnificent. When people think about street art, they often think about graffiti or art that’s hastily put up,” explains Jacqueline Austin, owner and event director at Think Jackson and co-event director of the Bright Walls Mural Festival. “Our murals are large-scale pieces of art that reflect not only the artists’ vision, but also represent our community.”
Those are only three highlights. The following stories showcase more examples of the adventures awaiting in Jackson, where “It’s time to get out and play!”
Paddling the Grand River and the network of lakes provides hours of affordable adventures for all experience levels
The crew at Quiet World Sports knows the best way to enjoy Jackson’s inviting waterways, especially those around the county that are connected to the Grand River.
Quiet World’s owner, Kat Kulchinski — an American Canoe Association trained instructor in kayaking and paddleboarding — says venturing out on the water is, hands down, the best way to get the most from and enjoy the area’s beautiful resource. “It’s always a great time, and amazingly affordable,” she says.
The staff will outfit visitors of all experience levels for hours of scenic outdoor adventures in both single and two-person kayaks, or on stand-up paddleboards. Rentals ($20 for four hours) are available from Memorial Day through Labor Day.
“The Grand River (with headwaters in Jackson County) is the longest river in Michigan at approximately 250 miles,” Kulchinski says. “Quiet World Sports sits on Vandercook Lake in Vandercook Lake County Park, which is fed both by the Grand River and by natural springs.
“From Vandercook Lake (where Kulchinski grew up), our customers can paddle kayaks or stand-up paddleboards on the Grand River to four additional lakes in the area — Brown’s, Williams, Cove, and Mud lakes. Folks with their own equipment can launch at the local trailhead and paddle all the way to Lake Michigan at Grand Haven.”
The river and lakes are ideal for beginners and intermediate paddlers because the local network is mostly flat or gently flowing water, with minimal boat traffic. Kulchinski recommends Clark Lake, the county’s largest, as “the place to be” for power watersports.
She adds that the local lakes “are great for fishing, birding, and generally relaxing in nature and sunshine. Vandercook Lake is also good for swimming, and the park is ideal for picnicking and group gatherings. Jackson County parks are gems.”
The avid paddler likes to compare outings on Jackson’s local waterways to an Up North experience, minus the long-distance travel. “We have wetlands and woodlands and trails galore. We also have plenty of wildlife, including bald eagles, osprey, deer, birds, fish, small mammals, fox, and more,” she says.
EASY ACCESS: Jackson County and the Michigan DNR last fall installed a seasonally accessible kayak and canoe launch in Vandercook Lake County Park at the new trailhead of the Grand River Water Trail (michiganwatertrails.org).
FUN OPTIONS: Twin Pines Campground and Canoe Livery in Hanover, on the Kalamazoo River, rents canoes and kayaks. The Beach Bar Gear Garage, on Clark Lake, also rents paddleboards.
Quiet World Sports
A Walking Tour
Vibrant large-scale artworks on dozens of downtown buildings add a charming touch to the Jackson experience
What was launched five years ago by Jackson Young Professionals, who wanted to “put their mark” on the downtown business district, later expanded into the impressive Bright Walls Mural Festival project.
“It started with the idea of doing a single mural, which at the time wasn’t something that was being done in Jackson,” recounts Jacqueline Austin, co-event director of the Bright Walls Mural Festival, and owner and event director at Think Jackson.
“It quickly blossomed into a much larger project. Our Bright Walls team decided that we could bring international art to our small town and change not only the way Jacksonians viewed street art, but also shine a light on Jackson as a place that showcases unique, high-quality, large-scale artwork.”
Austin says the festival made its debut in 2018, with the installation of 15 murals. “This launched our ability to attract well-known artists from around the world. The Bright Walls team curates the artwork from artists who meet specific criteria, including experience in mural painting, a style that’s attractive to a wide audience, and a unique point of view.”
Today, most of the 41 colorful murals are clustered near each other. Austin says visitors can do a casual walking tour that takes them past 38 of the murals in about 90 minutes. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, three murals were installed just beyond the downtown, but Austin says they’re easy to find. In 2021, the festival team coordinated with international artists to print their artwork on vinyl, and those pieces were installed on electrical boxes throughout downtown.
While the Sept. 8-11, 2022, Bright Walls Mural Festival in Jackson is shaping up to be the final event, the artwork it inspired will live on.
“We always knew there would be a maximum number of murals we could install in the downtown area. It was originally planned to be a three-year project, but it expanded to five years due to the pandemic,” Austin says. “Bright Walls has inspired other murals in the Jackson area, and we hope to keep inspiring artists to add murals throughout the county and in their own communities worldwide.”
To continue the tradition, the festival team will host several fundraising events this summer, including hosted walking tours of the murals leading up to the big event. The free community weekend festival features live painting, live music and entertainment, youth activities, artist educational panels, and more.
“We have tons of fun stories about the murals, the artists, and the process of planning such an event. The best way to tell these stories is by viewing the murals,” Austin says. “The project is strongly rooted in placemaking and community development strategies. The murals are positioned in tight clusters with connecting pieces, so they’re walkable. We add lighting to the murals to brighten up the area and make it safe, and we add signage to help facilitate movement around the area.
“We deliberately choose areas that need activation or aren’t typically used for this type of activity,” she continues, “and we work with the local business owners to encourage visitors to experience all aspects of downtown, including the amazing restaurants, boutique shopping, and urban parks along the way.
“The murals are beautiful, diverse, and accessible. They were designed with the intention that you walk them. You can get up close and personal with them. We want you to take pictures with your favorites, and make memories with the murals in the background. We love seeing pictures when families and friends explore the murals and let the pictures tell the story of their adventure.”
Although she’s very familiar with each of the murals, Austin says her favorites change with her mood each day. “Every time I walk past one, I can find something that I love about it,” she says.
SOME FAVORITES: The 2019 mural by David Rice (No. 35 on the Bright Walls map). “It’s a beautiful scene of flowers and butterflies that was added to one of the worst walls we had available. The wall is a remnant from a building that was torn down a couple decades ago. When we prepped the wall, it was nicknamed ‘The Bird Hotel’ because it’s so porous, it has lots of spaces for birds to build nests.”
The 2019 mural by Key Detail (No. 27 on the map). “It’s a true example of how artists are able to incorporate Jackson’s history into their artwork. Detail did research on our community and was able to include the ‘Jackson’ automobile, which was built here in our community, and the lady in his piece is wearing a corset — which was another large industry in our town.” — Ron Garbinski
Bright Walls Jackson
Wine aficionados and newcomers to Michigan-made vintages discover delightful selections along Jackson’s winery trail
Jackson as a wine-making hot spot? That’s sure to surprise many who indulge in the fruits of the vine.
“When people think of Jackson, they typically don’t think of the number of local wineries Jackson is home to. There are some true hidden gems sprinkled all around the county,” says Olivia Pageau, a wine enthusiast and marketing specialist with the Jackson County Chamber of Commerce.
The region’s collection of small wineries seems so private and secluded that you often hear visitors say they feel as if they’re sampling different vintages in a northern Michigan or California wine country setting. They’re also excited to hear about all the options, such as the Michigan-made wines from local favorites Sandhill Crane Vineyards, Chateau Aeronautique, and Cherry Creek Cellars. Each one features an interesting backstory waiting to be discovered by those visiting for the first time.
The wineries’ settings offer a variety of appealing scenery, ranging from a wraparound porch overlooking the vineyard at Sandhill Crane to a gazebo-style tasting room at Chateau Aeronautique.
Since the best tips usually come from locals who’ve experienced the wineries, I asked Pageau to share her insights. Here’s a sampling:
- “Chateau Aeronautique’s founder, an international airline pilot, built his winery in his airplane hangar on a grass runway. Since then, it’s grown to become a beautiful aviation-themed tasting room that locals love.”
- “For something a bit livelier, Chateau Aeronautique is hosting a variety of classic rock tribute bands throughout 2022. You can find a list of who will be performing on its website.”
- “Cherry Creek’s tasting room is in an 1870s historic schoolhouse. The warm wood and vintage feel wrap each visitor in an atmosphere that’s perfect for wine-tasting.”
- “Whether you’re looking to sit back and enjoy live music with a flight of wine or trying something such as Wine & Yoga, Cherry Creek Cellars offers events on all ends of the spectrum. It plans to bring back live music every weekend, come summer, out on the patio. Cherry Creek has big plans for hosting future events, so stay tuned!”
- “Sandhill Crane plans to offer a number of themed dinners throughout 2022. With a delicious café and incredible pairings, it’s something you shouldn’t miss. Although I can’t discriminate against any local winery, I have to say the charcuterie boards at Sandhill Crane can’t be beat. The variety of options they have and the room for customization will please just about anyone.”
- “Some of the wineries take reservations for small, private events. If you’re looking for the perfect spot to host a shower, rehearsal dinner, or intimate birthday party, look no further than one of these wineries.”
MORE TO SAMPLE: Grand River Brewery also produces wines under the name Sleeping Bear Vineyards. They’re offered at the brewery’s 85-year-old remodeled downtown Jackson location.
All of these wineries sound rather tempting, and provide more delightful reasons to stop by and savor a taste of Jackson.
Cherry Creek Cellars
Sandhill Crane Vineyards
Grand River Brewery
Suggestions to round out your visit
SHOWTIME: The historic and ornate Spanish Renaissance-style Michigan Theatre opened as a Vaudeville venue in 1930. With a capacity of 1,226, it now hosts a variety of films and live performances including national touring acts, local theater productions, and comedy shows. michigantheatre.org
LIGHT THE NIGHT: The Cascades, an illuminated, colorful, man-made waterfall, is one of the city’s top attractions on summer nights. It’s located within the boundaries of downtown’s Sparks Foundation County Park, where there’s live music during the summer at the Rotary Bandshell.
LOTS TO DO: The Ella Sharp Museum features area history, fine art displays, and diverse exhibits from around the world. The Hurst Planetarium is on the museum grounds, which also includes a 562-acre active county park with an 18-hole golf course, mini-golf course, disc golf, pavilions, pickleball courts, more than 11 miles of biking and walking trails, flower gardens, and a launch site on the Grand River. ellasharpmuseum.org
TAKE A SIP: The June 11 Art, Beer & Wine Festival at Ella Sharp Park — one of the city’s big-time annual events — attracts wineries and breweries from around Michigan for wine and beer tastings. There will be local artists’ booths, live music, food trucks, and more.
UP AND AWAY: Visitors can get up close and personal with hot air balloons and their pilots, many from around the Midwest, during the annual July 22-24 Hot Air Jubilee at Ella Sharp Park. Activities include morning and evening flights, balloon and helicopter rides, car and art shows, live music, and food vendors.
FORE!: Jackson features the second highest number of golf courses (20) per capita in the country. golflink.com
PRISON LIFE: Take a guided tour of Michigan’s first state prison, which was built in 1842, with Historic Prison Tours. The 2.5-hour storytelling interactive adventure covers the original building architecture, lots of inmate stories and tales of plotted escapes, examples of prison living conditions, and information about how the prison played into the chronicles of Jackson. The former prison complex closed in 2007. Today, the site is known as Armory Arts Village and is home to galleries, workspaces, apartments, and the castle-like structures from the old prison complex. historicprisontours.com
HIT THE TRAIL: The 12-foot-wide, 10.5-mile asphalt Falling Waters Trail follows a picturesque rural route of the old Michigan Central Railroad that stretches from southwest of the city limits to the village of Concord. Designated as a Jackson County Park, it features a sculpture installation near the Weatherwax Trailhead and lots of scenic stops along the way. Bike-sharing rentals are available. The trail crosses the Kalamazoo River and travels through the lakes and springs that form the headwaters of four major Michigan rivers. co.jackson.mi.us