Unique Michigan Destinations for Budget-Savvy Travelers

Michigan is filled with top-rated destinations and attractions, both indoors and out. From museums and zoos to historical sites and national parks; from city markets and fantastic eateries to Rail Trails and beaches. Michigan is well-known for it’s scenic beauty, small towns, and fun cities. And the best part is that you don’t have to spend a lot of money to enjoy what Michigan has to offer. All it costs you is time, and spending time at these Michigan treasures is time well spent.

Read more on some low-cost things to do in the Great Lakes state, courtesy of The Awesome Mitten’s Jackie Mitchell.

Visit a National or State Park

Michigan is home to one national park (Isle Royale), two national lakeshores (Sleeping Bear Dunes and Pictured Rocks), and over 100 state parks. In fact, you are never more than half an hour from a state park, forest campground, or trail system for hiking or biking in Michigan. You can access most of the national lakeshores for free. Climb a dune, explore trails, hike to a waterfall or lighthouse, or spend the day on a beach. The annual $11 Recreation Passport for your vehicle will gain you entrance into the entire state park system where even more trails, dunes, waterfalls, and beaches await. Camping is a nominal nightly fee in any of the national or state parks. Many parks also offer free interpretive talks, children’s activities, and a variety of programs.

Tahquamenon Falls State Park is a must-see for residents and visitors alike

Photo Courtesy of Alex Beaton and The Awesome Mitten

Go to a Drive-In Movie

There are 10 drive-in movie theaters in Michigan, scattered all around the lower peninsula. In the heyday of the 1950s, there were over 100 drive-in theaters in Michigan. While only a few remain, they are again growing in popularity. With arcades, putt-putt golf, playgrounds, and a picnic-like atmosphere, what better way to spend a Friday or Saturday night with family or friends than taking in a couple movies the old fashioned way? Ticket prices are similar to regular movie prices, but the double-feature makes a drive-in a deal for movie-goers. Danny Boy’s Drive In, Michigan’s newest theater that opened in 2012, offers a $20 carload special, for up to 6 people, and a $5 food ticket that allows you to bring in your own food and drink.

Take a step back in time and enjoy a drive-in movie

Photo Courtesy of Danny Boy’s Drive-In

Heidelberg Project

Started in 1986 as a response to blight affecting his neighborhood, Detroit-native artist Tyree Guyton began turning his childhood home on Heidelberg Street into a work of found-object art. Now stretching over the entire city block, Guyton, community residents, and other artists have turned abandoned houses, vacant lots, and even the streets themselves into a provocative community art project that hosts over 270,000 visitors a year. Facing skepticism and legal issues with the city from the beginning, the Heidelberg Project has evolved into a landmark of Detroit, winning numerous awards and revitalizing the local economy. Despite its grassroots popularity, the Heidelberg Project as it currently exists will be dismantled over the next few years. If you haven’t yet experienced the Heidelberg Project, now is the time. Organized tours have a fee, but just visiting the area is free.

Be a Lighthouse Keeper

Michigan’s lighthouses are iconic. If you’ve ever been to the shore of one of our Great Lakes, chances are you have a picture of a lighthouse, standing guard against the storms of Michigan’s inland seas. You might have even imagined you were the keeper of the light, living romantically at the edge of sand and surf. What you may not know is that it’s possible at one of the twenty lighthouses available with accommodations in Michigan. Four lighthouses are bed and breakfasts, five are vacation rentals, five offer couples or families the chance to be keeper for a fee (only a few hundred for a week or two), and six are available through a volunteer application. A listing of operational lighthouses and information can be found at the US Lighthouse Society website.

The Round Island Light House is as picturesque as any spot in Michigan

Photo Courtesy of Alex Beaton and The Awesome Mitten

Visit a Ghost Town

Dozens of abandoned towns dot Michigan’s landscape. Many are in the Upper Peninsula, where the copper and logging industries once boomed, causing towns to rise up around mills and mines. When they resources ran out, the towns were left to ruin. Today, only a few foundations or headstones might mark the place where a town once stood. Sometimes the structures are preserved. The largest abandoned town is Fayette, which is now preserved along the shores of Lake Michigan in the Upper Peninsula at Fayette Historic State Park . Entrance to the park is free with a Recreation Passport.

Are you brave enough to visit a Michigan ghost town?

Photo Courtesy of Fayette Historic Park

What Michigan treasures do you enjoy without spending a lot of money?

Jackie Mitchell writes for Awesome Mitten and works at Michigan State University. She enjoys hiking, kayaking, and camping with her family in any Michigan State Park.

7 Michigan Myths to Tell Around the Campfire

Whether they start with “I heard that…” or “my friend knew someone who…” urban legends have been a part of growing up for generations. Some are meant to entertain, others are meant to teach a lesson, and many others are more than a little spooky. One thing remains consistent: they are too unbelievable to take seriously, yet too believable to dismiss. Guest blogger Joel Heckaman from The Awesome Mitten put together this list of 7 myths and urban legends in Michigan that you can explore for yourself this summer.

1. The Singing Sands of Bete Grise

On the south side of the Keweenaw Peninsula is a beautiful beach that contains more than meets the eye. The legend is that a Native American woman lost her love to Lake Superior and, because she spent the rest of her life on the beach crying and calling out to him, the white sand still calls to him to this day. You can reawaken her voice by making the sand sing with the palm of your hand, by patting or brushing the surface. However, it only works if you’re on the beach at Bete Grise. Take the sand anywhere else, and it loses its voice.

A sunset at the Keweenaw Peninsula

Photo Courtesy of Amy Shook

2. Le Griffon Shipwreck 

Between the Upper Peninsula and Green Bay, there is a chain of small islands in Lake Michigan. Somewhere in this area (no one knows for sure) is a mysterious shipwreck that is considered a historic “holy grail.” The first full-size cargo ship to sail the inner Great Lakes, Le Griffon was built by explorer Robert de La Salle in 1679. The ship was a work of art, featuring a majestic griffin (half lion, half eagle) figurehead on its front and an eagle on its stern.

Le Griffon started her maiden voyage up the Niagara River to Lake Erie, gave Lake St. Clair its name while passing into Lake Huron, and stopped in Mackinaw City for Sunday Mass before landing at Washington Island, at the mouth of the Green Bay. There, the crew loaded the ship to the brim with valuable furs and other goods, while La Salle stayed ashore to make plans for further exploration west. Le Griffon departed for a return trip to Niagara slightly more than a month after its initial departure.

Woodcut of Le Griffon from "Nouvelle Decouverte."

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Unfortunately, the ship and crew were never seen or heard from again. Many assumed that Le Griffon was lost during a fierce storm shortly after leaving port. Others reported that the ship was boarded and burned down or destroyed. This could have been the work of rival fur traders, local Native American tribes, or nearby Jesuits, all of whom were threatened by La Salle’s plans for westward expansion. La Salle believed that the weary crew, who had been forced to build the ship in harsh winter conditions with limited resources and under the constant threat of attack, had finally been convinced to mutiny by the untrustworthy pilot. He figured that they made off with the cargo before sinking the ship. We may never know what happened to Le Griffon, and the only clues lie in remains that may never be found.

3. Torch Lake Monster

With all this talk of bizarre things on or in the water, it makes you wonder what else might be down there. One famous lake monster, somewhere in the deep, clear waters of Torch Lake, has been preying on unsuspecting visitors and campers of YMCA Camp Hayo-Went-Ha for generations. Dave Foley, a counselor at the camp in the 1960s and ‘70s, takes credit for starting the myth, which was later popularized in a song by fellow counselor and folk musician Bob Thurston. “One eye is brown, one eye is blue / His body covered all in icky green goo,” the lyrics sang. The presence of 50-pound muskies in the lake likely contributed to his tale. But another legend speaks of a sea panther, claiming that Torch Lake contains a monster with the head of a cat and the body of a lizard. Did Foley make up a monster story to entertain campers, only to stumble upon something even scarier?

4. Old Presque Isle Light

Let’s take a step out of the water for a moment and visit another one of Michigan’s great defining features: lighthouses. Ships traveling between the Straits of Mackinac and Lake Huron need to make a turn at Presque Isle, on the northeast corner of the Lower Peninsula. Old Presque Isle Light was built in 1840 to help guide safe passage, but it deteriorated quickly. In less than 30 years, it was replaced by New Presque Isle Light slightly farther north, which is still in operation today.

Old Presque Isle Light has been known to shine at night without electricity or a bulb

Photo Courtesy of Joel Heckaman

Old Presque Isle Light was refurbished as a museum in 1977, with George and Lorraine Parris hired as the original caretakers. They loved their role so much, George didn’t want to leave, even after his death in 1991. Lorraine first saw the lighthouse fully lit in 1992, despite all of the wiring being removed or disconnected for decades. Since then, sailors, pilots, and spectators from across the harbor have reported seeing the yellow glow, long after the bulb was removed from the lens. Many have also seen a figure in the lantern room, and others report mysteriously helpful coincidences around the lighthouse. The Coast Guard does not have an official explanation, but it sounds like George is still enjoying the lighthouse while helping visitors from the other side.

5. Paulding Light

Another inexplicable light shines in Paulding, a town near Sleepy Hollow on the west edge of the Upper Peninsula. Heavy woods surround the area, and a stretch of northbound Old US-45 ends abruptly at a sign from the U.S. Forestry Service. “This is the location from which the famous Paulding Light can be observed,” it reads. “Legend explains its presence as a railroad brakeman’s ghost, destined to remain forever at the sight of his untimely death.” Power lines and a service road cut straight through the trees as far back as the hills will let you see, and it’s in this clearing that sightings of the Paulding Light have happened almost nightly since 1966. Some explain the light with different ghost stories, while others contend it’s swamp gas or car headlights. Until you see it for yourself, there’s no way to be sure.

6. Dogman 

One of the most popular urban legends in Michigan involves a tall, dog-like creature with piercing eyes and a screaming howl. Neither a werewolf nor Bigfoot, instead you’ll find Dogman roaming the northern woods of the Lower Peninsula. Steve Cook, then a DJ at a Traverse City radio station, claims that he started the myth when he made up a song about Dogmen titled “The Legend” as an April Fool’s Day joke in 1987.

A potential photo of Dogman in the Upper Peninsula in 1968

Photo courtesy of CR Productions

Cook clearly underestimated this legend, as people quickly started calling in to corroborate the stories of their encounters. One man recalled an incident with the beast from 1938, when he was approached by a pack of dogs. Several scattered when he fired his rifle into the air, but one simply stood up tall and glared at him before sprinting away. The first reports of Dogman date back to 1887, when two lumberjacks saw a creature with a man’s body and a dog’s head, but there are also similar reports from French fur traders dating as far back as the early 1800s.

An unusual animal attack in the nearby town of Luther in 1997 seemed to confirm Cook’s prediction of a ten-year cycle for Dogman attacks, but video evidence of an attack in 2007 turned out to be a hoax. With the next round of Dogman sightings expected in 2017, will modern technology finally allow us to capture proof of this beast when it appears… and will you be brave enough to face it when it does?

7. True Love’s Kiss

Not wanting to leave you too freaked out about our great state, our list ends with an urban legend that will make you feel good. At least three universities have versions of this story, and it’s likely that many more have something similar.

At Michigan State University, the gorgeous Beaumont Tower stands above the trees in the middle of north campus. The spot itself has its own historic value, but today’s legend involves a kiss in the courtyard. A couple who kisses at this spot, either in the tower’s shadow or at the stroke of midnight, is destined to marry. One is only a “true Spartan” once they have kissed under the tower.

Each entrance to the University of Michigan’s Diag has its own charm, but the Engineering Arch has a special romantic importance. The legend is that college sweethearts who kiss under the arch at midnight will be destined to marry. This is more common as mythology than practice, but it’s a popular place for alumni to go for wedding or engagement photos.

The CMU seal is one of the most iconic landmarks on campus

Photo Courtesy of Central Michigan University

The seven-foot tall Central Michigan University seal has stood in front of Warriner Hall for generations. For just as long, there has been a legend that anyone who kisses their lover in front of the seal, at the stroke of midnight and under a full moon, will be together forever and destined to marry. And just when you thought you were done with ghost stories… the myth involves two star-crossed lovers who were supposed to meet under the seal at midnight to run away to get secretly married. The girl arrived early to wait eagerly, while the night kept getting colder and colder. The boy’s car broke down, and he was delayed several hours. He arrived to find her still there, frozen to death, determined to wait for him until the very end. As he cried and scooped her into his arms, he kissed her one last time and died of a broken heart. It’s said that the lovers were reunited in the afterlife, and their spirits visit the seal at midnight to bless lovers at their alma mater.

Heckaman

What stories, myths, and urban legends did everyone tell where you grew up? Let us know in the comments!

Joel Heckaman is a longtime Michigan resident who loves the culture, scenery, beer and music of the mitten state. He is a Michigan State University alumnus and founder of the Middle of the Mitten local music festival. He is also a social media professional with experience working with MSU, UM, TEDxDetroit, the Big Three and other proud Michigan brands. You can find him talking about many of these things, as well as cheering on the Spartans and Red Wings, on Twitter and LinkedIn.

Roadtripping Along Michigan’s Sunrise Side

Start planning your summer road trip through the Mitten State. Guest blogger Shannon Saksewski from The Awesome Mitten share places to explore along Michigan’s Sunrise Side.

Memorial Day marks the unofficial beginning of summer in Michigan. Swimming pools open, barbecues become commonplace, and the weather errs more toward warm than cold. Summer weekends are built for road trips, and there’s plenty to explore in the Mitten. If you’re ready to grab some car snacks, pop in a mix tape (or, well, the modern-day equivalent), here are a few ideas for exploring Michigan’s Sunrise Side, from south to north:

Photo Courtesy of Bruno Vanzieleghem.

Photo Courtesy of Bruno Vanzieleghem.

Detroit

If you haven’t been to Detroit in a while, you should consider making a visit. The city’s experiencing a rebirth. While it’s one thing to read about urban renewal, experiencing changes first-hand is impactful both personally and regionally. When you’re in town, make sure to check out Detroit’s thriving restaurant and bar scenes, incredible opportunities to experience live music and the visual arts, and a season packed with festivals.

Ypsilanti

A college town with a lot to offer both residents and guests, Ypsilanti is one of Southeastern Michigan’s hidden gems. Only 35 miles west of Detroit, and ten miles east of Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti’s roots are both academic– it is home to Eastern Michigan University– and working class. These influences form the foundation of a welcoming, entrepreneurial, diverse town. While in town, spend some time at the local museums, grab a mind-blowing meal at Beezy’s or Bona Sera, a beer at the ABC Microbrewery (formerly the Corner Brewery), or a coffee at the Ugly Mug. Not keen on these suggestions? There are plenty more to explore!

Ann Arbor

Photo Courtesy of Bruno Vanzieleghem.

Photo Courtesy of Bruno Vanzieleghem.

If you’re visiting Ypsilanti, it’s likely that you’ll visit Ann Arbor as well (and probably Detroit, too). Regardless of whether you side toward Sparty or the Wolverines, spending a few hours on the University of Michigan’s campus is likely to be rewarding. Take a walk across the Diag on Central Campus, or visit one of the University’s many museums and open spaces.

Off-campus, those who prefer outdoor adventure can rent a kayak or other watercraft along the Huron River, and then picnic at one of the beautiful local parks. If you prefer restaurant dining, or a well-crafted cocktail, spend some time at one (or many) of Ann Arbor’s many restaurants and bars.

Flint

Around 65 miles north of Detroit, Ypsilanti, and Ann Arbor, roadtrippers will find Flint. Many people road trip their way past Flint, (wrongly) assuming that the town, which was built on the back of the challenged automotive industry doesn’t have much to offer explorers. In fact, Flint offers a host of art museums and galleries, a thriving farmers’ market, and an active downtown. Instead of driving past Flint on your way up north, pull off the highway and spend some time getting to know this east side city.

Photo Courtesy of Shannon Saksewski.

Photo Courtesy of Shannon Saksewski.

Bay City

Downtown Bay City, built along the Saginaw River, is simultaneously quaint and stunning. Along the river walk, public art is on view and parks are available for sitting and enjoying the water– all within a couple of blocks of the locally-owned shops and restaurants. From spring through fall, Bay City and other towns in the Great Lakes Bay region host a plethora of festivals to which all are welcome.

Alpena & the Sunrise Coast

For those roadtripping from an area south of Alpena, do yourselves a favor and exit I-75 in Standish. Find your way to Old US-23, and head north until you get to Alpena. You’ll drive along a beautiful coast, through Au Gres, Tawas, Oscoda, and Harrisville (among others), each offering cabins and other lodging on the coast of Lake Huron. Situated on the shores of Thunder Bay, Alpena is a beach-lover’s dream. For those who prefer to explore, there’s plenty to do. Have an interest in nautical history? Spend some time at the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary, and then take a cruise with Alpena Shipwreck Tours.

In addition to these towns, what others on Michigan’s east side do you like to explore? What are your recommendations for a #PureMichigan adventure?

Saksewski_informal_croppedShannon Saksewski is a life-long resident of Michigan. Professionally, she is a healthcare strategist focusing on consumer experience.  She was trained, and has experience in, psychology, social work, and business at the University of Michigan.  Outside of work, she enjoys cooking, traveling, writing, and experimenting with local beer and craft cocktails.  Connect with Shannon on Twitter (@ssaksews), or LinkedIn.