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Looking forward to turning your camping dreams into a reality this year? The Great Lakes are an obvious escape for midwestern vacationers, but the campgrounds can be especially congested this time of year. Lucky for us, these lakes are ginormous, and it’s easy to get away from the crowds if you know where to look.
Get ready for sand-crusted swimsuits, reading by firefly light, and wet and wild adventures that can only be found in and around the greatest lakes on earth. Here are some hidden gems for Great Lakes camping that will help you escape the throngs and embrace your inner mermaid.
Split Rock Lighthouse State Park, Two Harbors, Minnesota
No matter what recreational pleasure calls to you, you’ll find it at Split Rock Lighthouse State Park on the rocky shores of Lake Superior. Hikers and backpackers can easily connect to the world-famous Superior Hiking Trail, a 296-mile footpath that follows Lake Superior’s wild and scenic shore.
The paved Gitchi Gami State Trail is a work-in-progress, but one that will eventually let you hop on your bike and cover 86 miles of shoreline from Twin Harbors all the way to Grand Marais. The famous Split Rock Lighthouse, built in 1909 after several tragic shipwrecks occurred near the rocky shoreline, is one of the most photographed lighthouse in the United States.
You’ll also find pristine, pebbly beaches, scenic waterfalls, and primitive, shoreside camping. Secluded backpacking, boat-in, and cart-in campsites are what make camping here so special. Each and every campsite is secluded and many are right on Lake Superior, with incredible views of the lake and her magical sunrises.
What we love about Split Rock Lighthouse State Park: Camping is available year-round!
Something to consider: There are no restaurants, gas stations, or stores nearby, so make sure you come prepared.
Fisherman’s Island State Park, Charlevoix, Michigan
Despite the fact that Fisherman’s Island no longer exists as an island, this tract of unspoiled Lake Michigan shoreline is still a ruggedly charming getaway for hikers, boaters, anglers, and lovers of wildlife. Characterized by lush forests, a plethora of native wildflowers, rolling sand dunes, and boggy wetlands, you could spend weeks exploring this conglomerate of incredible ecosystems, and bonus – this is one of the most beautiful campgrounds on Lake Michigan.
Rustic campsites, some nestled right in the dunes, are divided up between north and south units with a mile-long sandy beach between them for swimming and sunbathing. The swimming area is quite shallow, even if you venture far from shore, and the sandy bottom is easy on the feet, making this a perfect spot for families with youngins in tow. You may find crowds on the hottest of summer weekends, but the rest of the year, Fisherman’s Island is blissfully quiet camping on Lake Michigan.
What we loved about Fisherman’s Island State Park: Waterfront camping right on Lake Michigan!
Something to consider: According to locals, the beach here is a great spot to hunt for Petoskey and Charlevoix stones. We had no idea what we were looking for, so do your research ahead of time.
Big Bay State Park, La Pointe, Wisconsin
Located on Madeline Island, the largest of all the Apostle Islands in Lake Superior, Big Bay State Park can only be reached by boat. If you don’t have access to one of your own, simply hop aboard the Madeline Island Ferry in Bayfield, for a 25-minute cruise across the lake, which will set the stage for your midwestern island vacation.
Once you arrive in La Pointe, it’s a 6-mile drive, walk, or bike ride to Big Bay State Park. You’ll be greeted by towering sandstone bluffs and an expansive sandy beach. This gorgeous Lake Superior campground is spacious and there’s plenty of privacy, especially at the walk-in campsites. Once settled, get busy exploring the miles of trails, quiet lagoons, hidden sea caves, and fabulously cold water of Lake Superior. It’s an island paradise if ever there was one.
What we love about Big Bay State Park: The sea caves are really cool. You can see them from the trail, or rent a kayak for a closer look.
Something to consider: Raccoons are a little too friendly.
Indiana Dunes National Park, Porter, Indiana
Just a stone’s throw from the metropolitan realm of Gary, Indiana, the spectacular Indiana Dunes National Park boasts some of the most biologically rich ecosystems in the nation. This 15,000-acre park on the shores of Lake Michigan contains more than 1,100 native plant species, world-class birding, and 50 miles of hiking trails.
Although the park sees a lot of visitors in every season, you’re always a short walk, swim, or paddle from total solitude. The Dunewood Campground takes reservations for roughly half of its 67 campsites and it’s the only choice for Indiana Dunes camping unless you head outside the park to a private campground.
The rest of the sites are available on a first-come, first-served basis, so claim your spot early to give yourself plenty of time for exploring. The 13-walk-in sites are prime real estate and worth every extra step you have to take to get there.
Dunewood Campground is totally forested, which is heavenly during the summer months.
What we loved about Indiana Sand Dunes National Lakeshore: Hiking along the dunes and the sandy beach.
Something to consider: Consider camping out here before or after the kids go back to school. It will make it much easier to get a spot.
South Manitou Island, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Glen Arbor Township, Michigan
First of all, if you haven’t been to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, it’s time to plan your trip. This incredible natural landscape makes quite an impact with its ginormous sand dunes, miles of sandy beaches, and great opportunities to get out on the water in various forms, including tubing, scuba diving, and paddling!
To escape the summer crowds and find totally secluded camping on Lake Michigan, you do have to put in a bit of work. South Manitou Island is only accessible by private boat or passenger ferry. There are a few different camping options on South Manitou Island, but the most remote is the lovely Popple Campground, with only seven sites on the northern tip of the island. You do have to hike 3.5 miles from the ferry dock, but that first Lake Michigan sunrise will make it all worth it!
If you want to skip the long hike and still pitch your tent near the beach, check out The Bay Campground, which is a short walk from the ferry dock. No matter which Lake Michigan campground you choose on South Manitou Island, be sure to bring your own water filtration system. There’s no potable water available.
What we loved about camping on South Manitou Island: Hiking through the massive cedar trees!
Something to consider: There’s lots of poison ivy on the island.
Ready to embrace everything you love about summer? These Great Lakes camping spots are sure to entice you with their beauty and solitude, and those massive lakes? They’ve been waiting for you to discover all of their secrets!
Need more midwestern vacation ideas? Check out these posts!
- The Best Things to do Outside in Marrietta, Ohio
- The Best State Parks in the USA
- Why Lake Leelanau is the Perfect Michigan Vacation Spot
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