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Fall Camping in Michigan: The Best Time To Head Outdoors in the Great Lakes State

Fall Camping in Michigan
Getty Images: AnjoKanFotografie

Fall just may be the ideal time to camp in Michigan.

As we roll through October many people are packing away the tents, kayaks, and camp cookware. They believe another season of camping is long over and done. Especially in states like Michigan where the temperature starts dropping as the leaves start falling. However, they are missing out on one of the best camping experiences out there. As Michigan offers some of the best fall camping one can find anywhere.

Whether you are planning an extensive backpacking wilderness getaway up north over the Mackinac Bridge to Michigan's upper peninsula or something simple close to home in your local RV park, the camping fun does not have to stop just because of a change in the fall foliage.

In fact, some of our most memorable recent trips to our local state forest campground or state park. Today we will give some tips for planning a fall camping trip in Michigan. We will also give a few suggestions on places to visit on your trip.

How to prep for fall camping in Michigan.

Fall Camping in Michigan
Travis Smola

One thing to remember before camping here in autumn is the weather can be a bit unpredictable. One just never knows when a storm is going to blow across Lake Michigan and turn into a snowstorm. If you are planning to camp anytime from mid-September onward, make sure you are prepared with warmer clothing. Long sleeve pants, shirts, and some light jackets are not a bad idea. Bring an extremely warm sleeping bag because it could be 90 degrees during the day and 40 at night. Trust me, I learned from experience to always prep for the worst in Michigan during the fall. Especially when it comes to tent camping.

If you are planning to stay in an RV, it is almost a moot point. Unless of course you are planning on rustic camping with no electrical hookups. Then you will want to consider how cold your trailer or RV might get overnight. If I'm staying in a campground with electric camping options, I usually book those just so I can run a small electric heater in the tent.

Being prepared for possible cold is really the most important and only thing you need to prep for. Nothing ruins a backcountry trip quite like shivering until your teeth rattle. However, you should also consider some campgrounds may close early for the winter. For example, I stayed in Bewabic State Park in the U.P. a few weeks ago and was surprised to learn there were only a few days left before they shut down for the year. I do recommend booking close to the closing dates if you can though. There were few campers in Bewabic and many of the best campsites that are usually booked were open for the night, even without a reservation.

You will usually encounter early closures in the U.P. There are a few places, like Tahquamenon Falls State Park, that stay open for camping year-round. One might think things slow down near closing. While that is true in some areas, the popular parks are the complete opposite in Michigan. You will likely need reservations for many of the most popular state parks and National Forests during peak fall color times. Especially for popular places like Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore or Ludington State Park.

Fall activities while camping in Michigan.

Fall Camping in Michigan
Travis Smola

One cool thing about the Great Lakes State is many campgrounds, especially the state park ones, have fall or Halloween-themed weeks filled with fun and activities for the whole family. One of my local favorites, Fort Custer Recreation Area, has an annual "Harvests & Haunts" fest in the park every year and campers regularly decorate their campsites in a spooky theme.

Outside the campgrounds it may be a little cold to go swimming, but a walk on the sandy beach of any of the Great Lakes is usually still beautiful. One of my favorite recent fall stays was Port Crescent State Park a few years back. With the leaves off the trees, every campsite in the park had a view of Lake Huron.

Fall is the ideal time of year to hit the biking and hiking trails in Michigan. In the upper peninsula, the beauty of the hundreds of waterfalls is usually only amplified by the fall colors. The same goes for a paddling adventure down a gentle stream or river this time of year. The fishing is also often still good in many areas. Especially with panfish that tend to go on a feeding frenzy ahead of the really cold weather moving in.

My personal favorite activity to pair with camping this time of year is geocaching. There is nothing like a modern-day scavenger hunt in a scenic place like the forests around small towns like Munising or Paradise in the U.P. Especially since most of the mosquitoes and other biting insects of the forest have died off.

When is the best time to camp in fall in Michigan? And where should I go?

Fall Camping in Michigan
Travis Smola

Some of the best fall camping happens around the first and second weeks of October when fall colors are usually at their peak in the northern part of the lower peninsula and the upper peninsula. The cool temperatures make for some of the best sleeping weather in a tent too. The Great Lakes are usually spectacular this time of year too. You can really appreciate the raw power and danger of Lake Superior once you see the huge waves that are normal this time of year. Mid-October is also a couple weeks into Michigan's archery deer season, making it a good time of year for a little hunting trip.

As for locations to go, I personally love any of Michigan's state parks. Many also offer cabin rentals if you do not want to rough it in a tent. Two of my personal favorites are Union Bay campground in Porcupine Mountains. It is just a short drive to the Lake of the Clouds overlook which offers one of the most scenic views in the state. Straits state park is another fantastic camping spot that offers breathtaking views of the Mackinac Bridge.

If you feel like the drive all the way up to Copper Harbor in the Keweenaw Peninsula, consider stopping at Fort Wilkins State Park where you can take in a bit of history at the old army post. The views from nearby Brockway Mountain will show you the whole peninsula. We already mentioned Tahquamenon. The lower falls have an excellent modern campground that is open year-round giving you plenty of time to enjoy the beautiful Tahquamenon River area. Chapel Beach campground in Munising is another solid U.P. option for anyone who wants a medium-length hike of just over three miles to a prime and scenic backcountry spot.

Fall Camping in Michigan
Travis Smola

In the lower peninsula, west and south Higgins Lake State Parks in the greater Houghton Lake area for some fantastic late season fishing. In the Grayling area there is some great hiking and logging history to be enjoyed in the beautiful Hartwick Pine State Park campground. Along Lake Michigan, consider staying at DH Day Campground in Sleeping Bear Sand Dunes National Lakeshore for a semi-modern camping experience. There are also a few backcountry campgrounds in the area for anyone looking for a fall wilderness experience.

Farther south in the lower peninsula, consider Sleepy Hollow state park which does not just have a season appropriate name. Lake Ovid provides some prime fishing opportunities and there are miles and miles of hiking trails to explore. We enjoyed a rather nice stay with Tentrr at the Highland State Recreation Area just outside of Detroit earlier this year too. They also have a regular campground if a canvas tent is not your thing. And the picnic areas and hiking trails are beautiful.

Michigan is the ideal place to get one last camping trip in before the snows start to fly this winter. Give it a try this year and you will likely have a new fall tradition on your hands.

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For more outdoor content from Travis Smola, be sure to follow him on Twitter and check out his Geocaching and Outdoors with Travis YouTube channels

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Fall Camping in Michigan: The Best Time To Head Outdoors in the Great Lakes State