The Lower Peninsula’s largest piece of contingent undeveloped land is here in Emmet County, about 11 miles west of Mackinaw City and right at the very tip of the Lower Peninsula “mitten.” Wilderness State Park encompasses 10,000 spectacular acres of wetlands, meadows, dunes, forests and 26 miles of Lake Michigan shoreline—offering solitude and beauty befitting its name.
Miles of trails weave through the park, and many are former two-tracks open to mountain biking. The terrain is mostly flat—great for beginner riders and hikers of all skill levels. The diverse and abundant wildlife here has made it a favorite destination for photographers and bird watchers; of particular note is the fact that the park is home to two Great Lakes endemic plant species—Pitcher’s thistle and Houghton’s goldenrod—as well as breeding grounds for the endangered piping plover.
Wilderness State Park is also the site of one of the best beaches in the region. The park occupies a curving peninsula that forms Sturgeon Bay to the west; there, seven miles of sandy, undeveloped shoreline ring the bay to create what feels like endless beachfront (facing into the sunset for extra beach bonus points). Low, scrubby dunes rise up at the back of the beach; smooth stones pock the sand, making this a prime spot for rock hunting. Even at the height of summer, this beach is rarely “busy”—its size alone lends itself to feeling extremely private.
One arena where the secret is out about Wilderness, though, is camping. Even with more than 250 modern campsites, three rustic bunkhouses and nine rustic cabins (some in the woods, some on the water), spaces fill up quickly during peak summertime tourist season. It’s worth noting, however, that Wilderness is open year-round, and its beauty is just as striking in spring, fall and winter. When the snow flies, dedicated campers can ski or snowshoe into the park and cozy up overnight in a cabin; in spring, the meadows and swamps are full of wildflowers; come autumn, of course, the fall colors are spectacular. Of course, for Emmet County residents, Wilderness State Park is close enough for just a beach day, day hike or sunset picnic.
Entrance to Wilderness State Park is free for Recreation Passport holders. Trail maps are available at the ranger station.