Area photographers share some of their favorite Northern Michigan vacation spots to escape to, paired with tips on where to explore, eat and stay. Find the Northern Michigan summer vacation vibe you crave with a sojourn at one (or more) of these destinations.

Ludington State Park, Ludington

Photo by Angela Brown

To find the spot where Angela Brown captured the magic of what she calls the twinkly time of day, just follow the Big Sable River’s downstream flow to where river and Lake Michigan converge on the shore of Ludington State Park. Along the way, keep alert for the great blue heron that perch near wading fishermen, hoping to catch the fish first. Then rent a canoe at the park store and paddle the meandering water trail. If it weren’t for signs that mark the way, you might feel like an early explorer here, the first to discover these overgrown bayous and ponds and spot a deer on the shore or eagle overhead. Says Brown: “I was amazed at how beautiful it was, the way the light was cast across the water feeding into the lake.” 

Eat: Pack a picnic and nestle into a beach dune by following one of many paths that head to the lake from the park’s access road. Luciano’s Ristoranti (231.843.2244) offers pasta take-out; Biercamp Market (231.843.6328) a full-service deli with an impressive selection of beer and wine. Stay: Hike-in spots at the park’s Jack Pine campground get you closest to the sound of lapping waves. Or listen from the comfort of your bed at Snyder’s Shoreline Inn (231.845.1261).

Torch Lake, Antrim County

Photo by Paul Masck

The water radiates a Caribbean blue and runs so clear that, on still days, you can see the meandering path of a crawfish etched into the lake bottom some 20 feet down. Whether it’s urban legend or truth that National Geographic once named Torch Lake one of the world’s most beautiful lakes is beside the point; those who catch a glimpse believe it true. The name comes from an Ojibwe phrase meaning place of the torches, for the native practice of attracting fish by torchlight.

Eat: Siren Hall in Elk Rapids is a favorite way to enjoy fresh local seafood, sleekly presented and supplemented by that flown in from the coasts (231.264.6062). Stay: Lovely hilltop views from The Torch Lake Bed and Breakfast. Kayaks provided or book the sandbar cruise (231.599.3400).

10 Cool Things You Didn’t Know About Torch Lake and the Chain of Lakes

Grand Hotel, Mackinac Island

Photo by Anjanette Merriweather

The iconic sight of Hackney horses hauling a British-style coach, complete with a tuxedoed driver in top hat, past this famed geranium-scented porch is one worthy of the bucket list. Photographer Anjanette Merriweather caught this panorama of the Straits of Mackinac from the storied Grand Hotel porch (reputed to be longest in the world), where the Edison phonograph was demonstrated and where four presidents and a who’s-who list of celebs have strolled.

Eat: Anyone can enjoy afternoon tea at Grand Hotel for $56 with a $10 entry fee for non-guests Stay: Grand Hotel is a great splurge on a stay that includes its traditional multi-course dining (800.334.7263). Or opt for Mackinaw City, where the Waterfront Inn offers a true bridge-view bargain (800.962.9832).

Meet Carleton Varney, the Decorator Behind Mackinac Island’s Iconic Grand Hotel


Grass River Natural Area, Bellaire

Photo by Brian Confer

Lush. That’s the word that came to photographer Brian Confer’s mind when he first hiked the pathways of the Grass River Natural Area, near Bellaire. No desertlike sand dunes here, just watery richness as boardwalks wind through woodlands, the ponds teeming with life. Wandering’s encouraged, and the silence of dusk has a special allure. But creative programming tempts, too, say, on scheduled pontoon trips to loon hangouts or photo safaris with camera phones.

Eat: Short’s Brewery, in Bellaire, is a must for creative deli fare and pizzas, buzz-worthy brews and family-friendly acoustic acts (231.498.2300). Stay: Try the Applesauce Inn, know for its gourmet breakfast spread (231.533.6448).

Isle Royale National Park

Photo by Aaron Peterson

Photographer Aaron Peterson admits that he once snubbed Stoll Trail, just off the Isle Royale ferry landing, as not adventurous enough for a true National Park explorer. And then he hiked Stoll. What he found, he says, was a dramatic path that hugs a shoreline of lapping waves and jet black volcanic boulders accented dramatically by hunter orange lichens—in short, some of the island’s most spectacular (and easily reachable) views. Peaceful Duncan Bay Narrows takes a bit more effort to reach since water’s the only navigable route to the campground at the base of some fjord-style harbors. You can get there via kayak, rentable at Rock Harbor Lodge. At camp, rise with the sun to catch the call of loons, the scampering of a family of fox, maybe a sailboat puttering out from a sheltered cove.

Eat: Peterson starts and ends each Isle Royale trip with a burger at Rock Harbor Lodge, paired with a Widow Maker Black Ale. Stay: Lodge rooms and cottages at Rock Harbor offer comfort and a view (906.337.4993); first-come, first-served backcountry shelters offer more adventure, but bring a tent in case they are occupied.

Isle Royale National Park Isn’t for the Faint of Heart

Wilderness State Park, Mackinac Straits  

Photo by Ed Wargin

Head to Wilderness State Park’s southern edge for a swim on sugar sand. Steer to the north rim for cobbled beaches (pictured above). Hunt for treasure amid the stones, like this improbably placed shell engulfed in the rich orange twilight. Beaches are plentiful, with 19 continuous miles of shoreline in the park, and they’re left natural, so rare plants and birds, like the tiny piping plover, thrive undisturbed. And that’s as it should be in this corner of the state notable for the wild feel of its shoreline and skies.

Fickle weather, a hallmark of the Northwest Lower P., means always-dramatic skies, particularly when—as in this shot—the light is trapped between storm clouds and the horizon, photographer Ed Wargin says. Find the shot spot by driving to the park’s northernmost end and exploring the beach just off the parking lot. While Wilderness’s southern end conjures images of bucolic summer, this stretch along the Straits of Mackinac feels fittingly wild. And stick around until after dark. The remote park is so free of light pollution that it’s seeking official dark sky designation and planning astronomy programs.

Eat: Find authentic Polish cuisine and quirky decor at Legs Inn (231.526.2281). Stay: The park’s rustic, shoreline cabins book early for a reason. Try a weeknight if you’re hoping to slip in last minute. Also available, 250 campsites (800.436.5381).

Arcadia Overlook, Arcadia  

Photo by Angela Brown

Most people lug their gear (or picnic basket) the entire 210-step climb to the top of Arcadia Overlook, then shoot (or eat). And so did photographer Angela Brown, but on her way up she stopped to capture this perspective—she liked how the rising boardwalk offered a sense of promise. Do climb to the newly built top deck, where Brown found a couple toasting the view. From here, one of Lake Michigan’s highest points, you can look down upon one of its deepest.

Eat: Four miles south on M-22, toast a Lake Michigan view while enjoying the locally focused and stunning al fresco dining at Arcadia Bluffs Golf Course (231.889.3009). Stay: Arcadia House Bed and Breakfast offers an in-house massage followed by a garden Jacuzzi (231.889.4394).

Grand Traverse Bay, Traverse City

Photo by Angela Brown

To capture the quintessential feel of the Traverse City region, photographer Angela Brown finds herself drawn to the sailboat masts that flicker in Grand Traverse Bay harbors at twilight each summer eve, the action of downtown Traverse City visible at a distance across the bay. A favored spot for photography or a beach cookout, the Greilickville Harbor Park is notable for the nautically themed playground and this just-after-sunset view of sailboats that whispers serenity, beauty, peace. Actually hoisting a sail and catching some wind is an option, too, on a microbrew, ice cream or otherwise themed outing of the schooner Manitou (231.941.2000).

Eat: Apache Trout Grill serves you this view and great food (231.947.7079). Stay: West Bay Beach Resort (231.947.3700) also lets you step out the door and head out for a sail. The catamaran Nauti-Cat docks here for its affordable day cruises and offers options for the party crowd and younger set. Opt for the kids cruise to Hula Hoop on board (231.947.1730).

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore

Photo by Mark Lindsay

Cliffs of soft sand seem to pour into the deep blue depths of Lake Michigan all along the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, evoking a gasp even from photographers well familiar with this spectacular landscape. Photographer Mark Lindsay finds creative relief in the solitude of nature, something he seeks during hundreds of hours exploring the park. Lindsay captured this image from a bluff on Port Oneida, looking southwest to Sleeping Bear Point.

Eat: Tiny Burdickville, near the southeast shore of Big Glen Lake offers elevated Euro fare at the French La Bécasse (231.334.3944) and Northern Italian Funistrada (231.334.3900). Also several options in Glen Arbor: burgers and whitefish at Art’s Tavern (231.334.3754) and Boone Docks (231.334.6444), Italian at Nonna’s (in The Homestead, 231.334.5150). Stay: The Glen Arbor Bed and Breakfast puts you at the heart of the village—walking distance to bookstores and paddling outfitters (231.334.6789). Or splurge on The Homestead for amenities like golf, spa and a lakeshore view (231.334.5100).

14 Reasons to Treat Yourself to a Sleeping Bear Dunes Vacation at The Homestead

Pictured Rocks Spray Falls, upper peninsula, summer

Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Munising 

Photo by Aaron Peterson

Spray Creek runs as a tiny meandering stream, easily overlooked until it throws itself in spectacular fashion over the side of a rugged cliff and launches a 70-foot freefall into Lake Superior, says photographer Aaron Peterson of ever-impressive Spray Falls, in Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore (906.387.3700, Peterson captured a rainbow across the spray by camping west of the falls at Chapel Beach, a do-able 1.75-mile kayak trip that allowed him time to watch the waning sun hit the falls and still paddle back to camp before dark. The so-called golden hours are most impressive at twilight, Peterson says, when the sun best illuminates the many-colored streaks in the sandstone. For this kayak-seat view, try the guided trips or a rental from Northern Waters Adventures (906.387.2323).

Catch the falls from above by hiking the moderately challenging six-mile round-trip on Lakeshore Trail from a parking spot at Beaver Lake Campground. At cliff’s edge, look down for a glimpse of the 1856 shipwreck Superior at the falls’ base. Or, easiest of all, take a Pictured Rocks Boat Cruise.​

Eat: The perfect Yooper food, the pasty, is at its flaky best at Muldoon’s in Munising. Order the decadent pumpkin pie pasty with whipped cream (906.387.5880). Stay: The Sunset Motel on the Bay, Munising, offers affordable lake-view suites and a guide to three waterfalls within easy hike distance (906.387.4574).

The Best Things to Do and See at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore on Your Michigan Summer Vacation

Photo(s) by Aaron Peterson