A Camper’s Paradise

From 26 miles of sandy shoreline to dark-sky viewing, Wilderness State Park shines as a sprawling haven
Miles of glorious Lake Michigan terrain lure campers, hikers, beachcombers, and wildlife enthusiasts to Wilderness State Park.
Miles of glorious Lake Michigan terrain lure campers, hikers, beachcombers, and wildlife enthusiasts to Wilderness State Park.
Photo courtesy of Joel Marotti

Roughly 11 miles west and seemingly a world away from bustling, tourist-filled Mackinaw City is Wilderness State Park — a sprawling, unspoiled escape featuring 26 miles of Lake Michigan shoreline.

No other Michigan state park situated on any of the Great Lakes offers more, and nearly 70 percent of its 10,500 acres (16.4 square miles) are designated as wilderness or natural areas, making it the Lower Peninsula’s largest slice of contiguous, undeveloped land.

Burr Mitchell, the park’s supervisor since 2010, loves his front row seat to watching people — some whose families have been regular visitors for decades — become immersed in all the outdoor paradise offers.

“I really enjoy the variety of people we get,” Mitchell says. “I hear all the time from Michigan families about how their parents took them here 30 years ago and now they’re taking their kids. The park just gets into their hearts and keeps them coming back.”

Trails Galore

Nearly 25 miles of trails, including a 10-mile stretch of the North Country Trail, traverse the park’s variety of landscapes, from along the shoreline into the remote interior. The paths wind through open and forested dunes; coniferous, boreal, and hardwood forests; meadows; ponds; and cedar swamps and other wetlands.

A 6.2-mile loop that begins where the NCT crosses into the southwest corner of the park offers the best way to experience the dunes, and includes a section of a miles-long stretch of sandy beach on Sturgeon Bay.

“One outstanding feature of the park is the sand dune areas,” says Dennis Fay, of the North Country Trail’s Harbor Springs chapter. “For the most part, they’re forested, contain many small ponds, and stretch about a half-mile inland from the lake. The trails over them contain plenty of ridges and valleys.”

An overnight backpacking option combines the O’Neal Lake Trail with portions of the Nebo, Sturgeon Bay, and Swamp Line trails for a 13-mile loop. Backpackers spend the night at the scenic and secluded O’Neal Lake Campground.

A 4-mile loop begins near the two main campgrounds and combines portions of various trails. Hikers can see a stream full of beaver activity, the top of Mount Nebo and its Lake Michigan view, and small ponds laden with marine life.

The endangered piping plover, which nests in the park, is one of more than 100 bird species that migrate or nest there. Black bear, beaver, bobcat, deer, fox, and mink often can be seen while exploring trails, along with endangered plants like Pitcher’s thistle and Houghton goldenrod.

“We have 17 animals considered species of concern or endangered, and nine kinds of plants of concern,” Mitchell says. “The park is one of the last bastions for the piping plover and is its primary nesting location in the Great Lakes Basin.”

The 11 miles of trails open to mountain biking feature mostly flat terrain. The trails can be combined with park roads to form longer loops.

Stargazing is an absolute must — the park is designated as a Dark Sky Area, with excellent visibility.
Stargazing is an absolute must — the park is designated as a Dark Sky Area, with excellent visibility.
Photo courtesy of Maribeth Kiczenski

Camping Options

Significant renovations since 2016 have left the park with 278 campsites, ranging from full-hookup to walk-in, tent-only rustic sites, all within a quarter mile of the swimming area on Big Stone Bay. The 179 sites on the north side of Wilderness Park Drive are closer to the lake.

“The variety of camping right on Lake Michigan, from rustic to modern, is really attractive to people, and the renovations have modernized the campgrounds (originally designed in the 1950s) for how camping is done now,” Mitchell says. “We put in more tent-only sites after finding out that 32 percent of all our campers are tenters, to accommodate them.”

The 25 tent-only sites are spacious, have fire rings, and are well within view of Lake Michigan. Reaching them requires no more than a 150-yard stroll from parking areas. There are also two rustic backcountry campsites, both near picturesque inland lakes.

Another option is renting one of six rustic cabins, four of which are near Lake Michigan. All have bunk beds, a table, chairs or benches, a wood stove, a vault toilet, a hand-operated water pump, a fire pit, picnic table, and a charcoal grill.

Stargazing is a must, because Wilderness is designated as a Dark Sky Area, with arguably even better visibility than the nearby Headlands Dark Sky Park.

Beach Life

The Mackinac Bridge can be seen from two areas near the main campgrounds on Big Stone Bay that are sandy and ideal for swimming: one near a picnic area east of the park’s headquarters and another near the Lakeshore Campground’s west loop. Crystal-clear water and a sandy lake bottom extend for about 100 yards from shore. There’s also a designated beach area for dogs.

On the park’s west side, Sturgeon Bay boasts 7 miles of pristine, sandy shore with dunes rising up at the back of the beach and stones littering the sand, making it an ideal place for rockhounds.

Nearly every inch of the park’s shoreline is ideal for taking in stunning sunsets or viewing passing freighters.

Kayaking Tips

Sturgeon Bay, south of Waugoshance Point, offers calmer kayaking in shallower conditions than the open Lake Michigan waters north of the point, but there are days when both sides are suitable for paddling. Kayakers can check out Temperance Island and Waugoshance Island.

“Obviously, both sides can be a joy to paddle on calm days over crystal-clear water,” says Anthony Arabie, of Mackinac Island-based Great Turtle Kayak Tours. “Sneaking around Waugoshance Point to paddle around the few small islands there is always cool.”

Fishing Waters

Fly-fishing for smallmouth bass near the shore of Waugoshance Point is the main angling attraction, but the park is also good for pike, carp, and lake perch.

A boat launch is located about 400 yards west of West Lakeshore Campground for those who wish to cast while on the water. There’s also a fishing pond near Pines Campground, and O’Neal Lake contains bluegill, as well as smallmouth and largemouth bass.

“Our guided fishing trips on foot in the park are pretty popular,” says Drew Oliver, head guide at Boyne Outfitters in Boyne Falls. “The shoreline of Waugoshance Point has several little coves and inlets, which make it an outstanding fly-fishing area.  Earlier in the season, cooler water provides a good habitat for pike, and the time after smallmouth season is ideal for carp. They put up more of a fight on the fly rod, but I like the challenge.” 

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