Designed to capitalize on the lumber boom, the tiny 19th-century town of Watervale now offers a premiere, step back in time Northern Michigan vacation spot filled with hiking, biking and fabulous food.

A short distance from the skeletal remains of a pier that was used in the shipping of lumber, dune grass sways in living testament to the power of preserving Northern Michigan nature. Alongside the inn, where bachelor loggers once boarded, a rock garden memorializes the contributions of the families who enabled the Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy to create expansive nature preserves. And all around the property, forests and marshes grow thick and dense on once-logged-over land, protected for the sake of their beauty, environmental importance and the enjoyment they provide to those who love the outdoors. A lumberman built Watervale as a tiny Northern Michigan town—complete with school, post office, market and government—all dedicated to harvesting trees with 19th-century industrial might, but today it stands as a testament to an opposite notion, a place to check out from the 21st-century digital rush and honor nature in its full form.

Perched on the Lake Michigan shore and owned by a family committed to tradition, The Inn at Watervale makes an idyllic home base for adventure-seekers of varied interests and skill levels. Hiking, paddling (river and big water) and cycling (road and trail) are a stone’s throw from Watervale’s front door, and there is no better time to explore everything in Northern Michigan than late summer and early fall.

couple on dune grass

“September, to me, is the best kept secret in Northern Michigan,” says Watervale’s Jennie Schmitt. “Lake Michigan’s still warm, there are really fun waves, and there aren’t many crowds. It still feels like summer, but without the chaos of it all.”

Schmitt helps run Watervale, which is owned by her mother and her mother’s two siblings. The original Northern Michigan town named Watervale was built by a logging company in 1892 to house its employees and their families, but within just a few years, the company went bankrupt and the people abandoned the little burg. It was left to waste until Schmitt’s great-great uncle, Dr. Oscar Kraft, purchased it in 1917.

“He had a lot of very elaborate plans when he initially purchased it, and I think the Depression is what kind of saved it all from happening because nobody could afford to do anything,” Schmitt says. A map in the dining room shows what Kraft envisioned: a golf course, a tennis pavilion, a country club.

screen porch

Watervale embraces a mile of Northern Michigan frontage on Lower Herring Lake and a mile of pristine Lake Michigan beachfront, perfect for swimming, paddling or surfing. The resort is surrounded on all sides by Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy preserves, with networks of trails for hiking, mountain biking and running. Cyclists seeking curvy, rolling, lightly traveled road routes find them nearby too.

“There are so many great scenic trips right around here,” Schmitt says. “The nice thing about this part of Benzie County is there just isn’t the car traffic that you get north of Frankfort on M-22. You get down on some of these side roads and you won’t even see a car. It’s relaxing, not to mention stunning.”