Thursday, July 18

Michigan Camping Trip (Sleeping Bear Dunes + Petoskey)

A travel blogger, I am not. But we took our first trip in our DIY camper van and, guys - it was too good not to share. Like I'm still thinking about it two months later and I cannot recommend this trip enough. It was beautiful. The views were stunning, and it was perfect for our little adventure loving boys.

So here is a quick rundown of the details. Partly to help if you want to plan your own trip (it's just a hop and skip for my Midwestern friends!) and partly so I can remember the details later. Mom brain and all. :)

You can check out all the posts about our DIY camper van here.

Sleeping Bear Dunes

We drove straight up to Sleeping Bear Dunes from Indiana and got there just after dinner time Friday, so we checked in at Platte River Campground for the night. The campground was $31/night for a site with water and electricity, and we also had to purchase a $25 Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore Vehicle Pass for all the exploring we planned to do the next day (they are available at the campground office). Guys, this is one of the best, most beautiful  campgrounds I've ever been to. It was super shady, there were plenty of trees so the camping spots felt very private, and the spots were a great size with plenty of room to park and/or set up a tent. I can't wait to stay there again, and stay longer next time so we can explore the trails and hike from the campsite to the lake! Unfortunately it was a whirlwind stay this time because Saturday morning we ate breakfast, checked out, and hit the dunes to see the many, many stops on my list. Sleeping Bear was bucket list for me, and I researched all the best stops to make the most of our trip. And guys, there are a lot of options. Here's a list of all our stops, and which ones we would definitely visit again:

Otter Creek @ Esch Beach
One of our hands-down favorite stops of the whole trip. It's just a quiet little beach where Otter Creek spills out into lake Michigan. We went early in the day, but it seems to be off the beaten path and we had the place to ourselves (several other stops that day were crowded). It was beautiful and so much fun for little boys. They would have splashed around there all day if we let them. This is a must-stop when we go back!

Esch Beach

Otter Creek @ Esch Beach

Empire Bluff
One of many overlook stops along the dune. The views up there are stunning! We got some of our best photos of the trip. But overall, it was a pretty long hike for the boys with little payoff (there's not really anything to do besides walk and take photos - you're not allowed off the trail so there's nowhere to run and climb). Now that we've seen it, we probably wouldn't stop again. Especially not with the kids. It was also pretty crowded at the top (although it was a holiday weekend).

Empire Bluff

Pierce Stocking Scenic Overlook Drive 
Another favorite. The drive alone is beautiful, but there are also 12 stops where you can park and see different areas of the dunes. Guys, it was amazing. We parked at four stops I had highlighted from a list (you can see a full list here) but when we go back I'd love to spend more time revisiting our favorites and checking out a few more! Here are the stops we visited:
  • #2 Glen Lake Overlook - Easy stop. The boys liked spotting "Alligator Hill"
  • #2.a Picnic Mountain - We stopped here for our picnic lunch and found a nice shady spot, but we saw a picnic area with better views later. I don't remember what stop it was, though.
  • #3 Dune Overlook - Another easy stop with a beautiful view of dune landscape. (We could see stop #4 Cottonwood Trail and I would love to walk it another time with bigger kids.)
  • #9  Lake Michigan Overlook + #10 Sleeping Bear Dunes Overlook - Hold the phone, peeps. This stop (two-in-one!) was the highlight of the drive. No words or pictures can describe how amazing this view is. You start at the top of a 450 dune that drops into Lake Michigan. It is stunning. Be warned, they do not recommend climbing down the dune! If you make it down, the return climb is extremely strenuous and people tend to get stuck. Seriously, guys. Obey the warning signs. Stop #11 is just a little further down the trail and has a beautiful overlook where you can see the islands! And in between the two? A magical land of smaller dunes the boys had a regular old heyday playing on. We spent at least an hour at this stop alone!
  • #11 North Bar Lake Overlook - Everything is disappointing after Stop #9.  

Stop #9 Lake Michigan Overlook

Stop #10 Dune Overlook
"The Dune Climb"
This is a classic Sleeping Bear Dunes stop and another great place for the kids to climb and play. It's basically just a big dune you can climb (hence the name), followed by another dune, and another.... but if you keep going for a mile or so you can actually make it all the way to Lake Michigan. Nathan and the boys made it to the second dune... while I stayed in the shady van with a tired baby and read my book. Thank goodness because I did not want to climb that thing. Keep in mind we'd already had a pretty full day of dune climbing by this point. Overall not my personal favorite stop but the boys loved it!

Heading back down The Dune Climb

Pyramid Point Overlook
Our last stop, and another one of the best. When you stack this against the hiking at Empire Bluff and the Dune Climb, this is the one that was well worth the climb (even with all these little rascalls). Pyramid Point was a bit off the beaten trail and much less crowded than some of our other stops (the Pierce Stocking Drive and Dune Climb were both pretty packed). And this view was the best we saw on the whole trip (but if you're not up for a big hike, stop #9 was a close second and a much easier walk). We got here in late afternoon and were getting tired, but we made the hike up to the lookout and just loved it. Not gonna lie - it was hard getting up there after a busy day. Next time I would love to start here and get the hard work in first, then head to the easier stops.

Pyramid Point

Once we were up there the boys played a while, we enjoyed the view, then we hiked back down to pick up dinner and head to our next campground. We did make a short stop on the way at Ice Cream Peddlers in Elk Rapids, MI. Perfect treat after our busy day!


Petoskey, MI is famous for it's unique fossils, aptly named Petoskey Stones!
We got to town after dinner and again headed straight to Magnus Park campground to check-in for the night. We were ready for bed after a full day of dune hiking! This campground was $32/night and was a polar opposite to Platte River campground. There weren't many trees (but it was shady along the backside of the campground), the campsites were packed together, we had to drive to the gas station to get firewood, and... it was tucked in between a hospital and a water treatment plant (although once you were in the campground you couldn't see either). Like, totally not an ideal set-up. But we booked the trip with less than a week notice and this was the only campground that had any spots open. And here's the thing - we still had a great time. Despite all those downfalls, this campground is literally ON THE BEACH. Like we could walk past the neighboring campers and straight into Lake Michigan. And that pretty much made up for everything. And this beach wasn't like anything I had ever seen before. There was no sand. It was all smooth stones (including Petoskey stones waiting to be discovered!). So we spent Saturday night at that campground, spent most of Sunday exploring the surrounding area and hunting for stones, then spent Sunday night at the same campground before heading home. Here's the run-down of our Petoskey are activities:

Hunting for Fossils
It's what their famous for! And I never would have guessed how excited our boys would be to find these little treasures, or just how many hours we would all spend splashing around the edge of Lake Michigan in our rainboots (it was still a little chilly in late spring!) And the little boys spent all those hours endlessly throwing stones into the lake. Everyone had fun. Definitely one of the highlights of our trip! You definitely need this guide to finding and polishing Petoskey stones (they're easier to find when they are wet!), and here is another helpful chart of the other fossils and rocks you may find while you're hunting.

Our rock collection from Magnus Park
Little Traverse Wheelway 
This bike and walking trail runs along the beach right through the campground. We didn't have time to walk it this trip, but I would check it out if we ever go back.

Michigan Beach Park
This beach was 24 minutes away in Charlevoix, MI and the internet told us it was one of the best places to hunt for Petoskey stones. There was a little playground the boys liked and the beach was nice... but after an hour of hunting we barely found any Petoskey stones. We found way more back at the Magnus Park beach that night. So from the fossil-hunting standpoint, it definitely wasn't worth the trip (and that was another hit for Magnus Park winning us over). However....

Michigan Beach Park
The Mushroom Houses 
Right across the street from Michigan Beach Park is a little neighborhood that is home to the "Mushroom Houses." You know I love houses, and I loved this stop. It's just one block that you can walk around and take photos of the houses (they are all privately owned so you need to stay off their property). The walk was short and easy for all the boys who weren't as interested in these fascinating homes. Then we hopped back into the camper van and visited another neighborhood a couple miles away that you can drive through to see a few more Mushroom Houses. You can print out a wonderful self-guided tour here with all the info you need to find them!

The Mushroom Houses

Magnus Park Beach
Hands-down (Do I say that too much? It feels like a maybe.) our favorite fossil hunting spot and a super convenient walk from our camper. We had hours of fun here - we would run out there before breakfast, after dinner, and any other time we had a few minutes (or hours) free. The big boys hunted fossils and the little boys tossed rocks.

Magnus Park Beach
Our bookend boys and my two early risers. Hitting the beach before breakfast!

All the Other Details

This is everything else you'd ever want to know about our trip, what we packed, and what we ate!

Menu (we packed lots of sandwich stuff for times we were busy or didn't want to start a fire. Or in some cases couldn't start a fire. I was going to grill the sandwiches one day, but it just wasn't happening. Cold sandwich supplies = rolling with the punches):
  • Friday Dinner: pick up food on the way
  • Saturday Breakfast: eggs and sausages
  • Saturday Lunch: sandwiches, snap peas, and grapes at the dunes
  • Saturday Dinner:  pick up food on the way to Petoskey
  • Sunday Breakfast: eggs and sausages
  • Sunday Lunch: sandwiches, snap peas, and fruit 
  • Sunday Dinner: Mexican skillet (my new favorite camping meal!)
  • Monday Breakfast: pancakes and more sausages (they like to cook things on sticks, okay?)
  • Snacks: Fruit, applesauce pouches, popcorn, cookie smores
Here is a printable list I made for packing our camper van. You can download it and print your own!

You can check out all the details of our DIY camper van here.

Our Route: we started at the south end of the Dunes and worked our way up the coast before heading to Petoskey.

That's a wrap for our Michigan trip! I'd love to hear your favorite campgrounds and sights (bonus points if they're in the Midwest, but we'd also love to go all over the country when we get a chance!). I'll leave you with a bunch more photos of our favorite sights (and sites):

Platte River Campground

Otter Creek @ Esch Beach

Otter Creek @ Esch Beach

Otter Creek @ Esch Beach

Empire Bluff Overlook

Empire Bluff Trails
A super pretty hike!

Empire Bluff

Pierce Stocking Drive Stop #3

Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive Stop #9

Stop #9 - Standing on the overlook, watching a long line of people trying to make it back up the dune.
Stop #9

Stop #10

Stop #10

Stop #11

The Dune Climb - on top of the second dune

 Pyramid Point Overlook

Michigan Beach Park

The Mushroom Houses

Magnus Park Beach

Fossil Hunter at Magnus Park

Magnus Park

Magnus Park sunset while our rainboots dry out by the wheel. I will never not take rainboots camping after this. They were perfect.
Campfire Reading (Henry and the Chalk Dragon!)

The only way to eat a s'more: with real chocolate chip cookies.

Pancakes around our growing rock collection.

Dipping rocks in the dishwater to see the Petoskey patterns appear.
We went from tank tops on Saturday to winter coats on Monday!

Tiny pancake eater. A clip-on highchair is a game-changer for camping with a baby! Plus it folds flat for easy packing.

We added a coffee percolator to our camping supplies for this trip and it was my favorite thing! Warm water for dishes, hot chocolate for the boys, and tea for mama. We bought this one at Walmart. And yes, the handle did catch on fire. But other than that it was great!

Mama's tea cup. I took the boys thirfting and we all picked our own "camping cups" so we're only out $0.60 if one gets broken. Plus regular cups are much less likely to burn little hands than enameled camping mugs. 

Crashed after a busy day. Check out all our DIY insulated window shades and all our other DIY camper van posts!


  1. I've really only been to Detroit, but this looks like a beautiful part of Michigan to explore!

  2. This makes me miss Michigan so much! I've been to many of those stops!

  3. This shows me a part of Michigan that we haven't seen. We literally stayed in a historical German house as our airbnb and explored the museums over there. Would be nice to get to do this the next time we go. :)