10 Memory-Making Family Vacations in Michigan

Family on beach
Photo courtesy of gatheringtwigs

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There’s nothing better than a Pure Michigan road trip. Travel the routes that form lasting family memories. From hands-on museums to sugar-sand beaches, from summertime festivals to scenic hiking trails, and from amusement parks to urban escapes—we have it all. So, pack up the kids and hit the road. Take the neighbor’s kids, too. These family-friendly journeys won’t break the bank.

1. Join a Festival in Grand Rapids

There’s nothing Grand Rapids likes more than a good festival—and most of the city’s celebrations are free. Grand Rapids springs to life in June with the Festival of the Arts. Inspired by the giant red Calder sculpture, La Grande Vitesse, way back in 1969, the festival includes six stages of music, dance and visual arts. The city’s newest celebration, the Grand Rapids Asian-Pacific Festival launched in 2017 with a spotlight on martial arts and Asian dance performances, origami workshops and Asian-inspired food and beer. Other festivals worth checking out include the GRandJazzFest, the Polish Festival and Hispanic Festival and the granddaddy of them all, ArtPrize, featuring more than 1,500 art installations and a voting process that allows every single visitor to choose their favorites.

2. Visit Amusement Parks in the Great Lakes Bay

Rain or shine, families can count on a weekend of fun on Michigan’s Great Lakes Bay, tucked alongside Michigan’s thumb. In Frankenmuth, a 50,000 square-foot indoor water extravaganza awaits at Zehnder’s Splash Village Hotel & Waterpark, with squirting water toys and a relaxing lazy river; wildly twisting water slides and family-sized cabanas. Take a spin around the Roll Arena, ranked among the nation’s top 10 roller rinks by USA Today, or bring the family to Valley Lanes Family Entertainment Center for 32 lanes of bowling and indoor miniature golf, both in Midland.

3. Find Culture in Ann Arbor

It’s no surprise that the University of Michigan’s hometown is chock-a-block with educational events to inspire and enlighten the entire family. Begin at the Hands-On Museum. Displays range from colorful baby-friendly building blocks to interactive Michigan flora and fauna exhibits for the big kids (and adults). Vegetable gardens, stargazing and butterflies engage visitors at the Leslie Science and Nature Center, while dramatic presentations of The Wizard of Oz and Strega Nona entertain at the Wild Swan Theater. Don’t go home hungry! After the show, feast on lip-smacking—and healthy—sandwiches, cheese and baked goods at Zingerman’s Delicatessen.   

4. Hit the Beach in Traverse City

When the summer sun beats down, there’s no better—and no more affordable—place to cool off than at one of Traverse City’s Lake Michigan beaches. Bryant Park Beach ranks among the best. Picnic areas, a playground, golden sand underfoot and a lifeguard on duty makes this park a favorite with kids and their parents. Clinch Park offers waterside playground equipment as well as the expected sugar-sand beach right in town, while the relatively quiet Good Harbor Beach promises a more laid-back experience, views of the Manitou Islands and a crystal-clear stream leading from northern Michigan’s white pine forests and emptying right into Lake Michigan. Just a short drive out of town, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore ranks as the cream of the crop. The NPS-approved strand provides stunning dune climbs perched above the Lake Michigan surf.

5. Shoot Instagram-Worthy Bridge Pics in St. Ignace

There are few sights more quintessentially Michigan than the ivory-white towers of the Mackinac Bridge over the Straits’ deep blue waters, linking Michigan’s Upper and Lower Peninsulas. Pitch a tent at the Straits State Park for stunning views of the 5-mile bridge—views that become even more jaw-dropping after dark, when the span is illuminated by a hundred glimmering lights. Hardy water sports enthusiasts brave the frigid waters paddling kayaks beneath the Mighty Mac’s massive towers, while experienced divers explore the world beneath the water’s surface, spying on centuries-old shipwrecks in the Straits of Mackinac Underwater Preserve. Plan your visit in late summer and you’ll be one of the lucky few to participate in the one-of-a-kind Mackinac Bridge Walk, allowed only on Labor Day.

6. Ride the Dunes at Silver Lake

Since 1930 the brilliant red, 20-person dune buggies at Mac Wood’s have been carrying visitors deep into the Silver Lake sand dunes along the Lake Michigan shore. The buggies sweep to the top of golden dunes reminiscent of scenes from Lawrence of Arabia before careening wildly down the other side. Between hills, buggy drivers explain the natural forces that created the only dunes system in Michigan open to ORV traffic. Drive your own boat across sparkling Silver Lake for an afternoon of waterskiing or picnics at the foot of the dunes. Or head to Silver Lake State Park’s Lake Michigan beach for sunbathing and swimming in the Big Lake. Climbing up stunning Little Sable Point Lighthouse promises sweeping views in all directions: the dunes, Silver Lake and Lake Michigan.

7. Sail Michigan’s Blue Shores

Michigan’s oldest lighthouse, Fort Gratiot Lighthouse, sits watch over Port Huron’s shore. Tour the soaring white lighthouse, which was first constructed in 1825 and sits in the shadow of the graceful Blue Water Bridge to Ontario. There’s nothing quite like sailing Lake Huron for appreciating the beauty of the Great Lakes and Michigan’s shoreline. Take a cruise aboard the Bermuda rigged schooner Jade Lady with Lady of the Lakes Sail Charters, or climb aboard the Jakab, a vintage yacht that sails the St. Clair River all summer long.

8. Plan an Urban Escape in Detroit

The glass and steel towers of downtown Detroit form a glittering backdrop for adventures along the city’s riverfront. Spend a day on the Riverfront, enjoying the inexpensive, family-oriented activities that blossomed alongside Detroit’s renaissance. Michigan-themed birds, fish and frogs adorn the Cullen Family Carousel, which sits just steps away from the wildflowers and wetlands of William G. Milliken State Park, Michigan’s only urban state park. Rent one of the city’s inexpensive Mogo bicycles and pedal along the RiverWalk to Mount Elliott Park, with its squirting water toys and splash pad. Or cross the bridge to Belle Isle State Park. Set in the middle of the Detroit River, Detroit’s favorite greenspace includes a swimming beach, an aquarium, a nature zoo, kayak rentals and the best location for shooting pics of Detroit’s skyline.

9. Explore the Upper Peninsula’s National Sites


Hike along Lake Superior-washed cliffs and through towering white pine forests, paddle the length of a pristine harbor and keep your eyes open for the resident moose population. Isle Royale National Park offers a spectacular getaway, whether your family prefers rustic backcountry camping or a comfortable cottage stay at Rock Harbor Lodge. Isle Royale is just one of Michigan’s remarkable national landmarks, most of which call the Upper Peninsula home. Head to Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore for Instagram-worthy hiking trails and boat cruises past orange-and-red sandstone cliff faces and arches. Or learn about the Upper Peninsula’s rich copper mining heritage at the Keweenaw National Historical Park. Hiking trails, historical museums and mine visits tell the story of mining on the Keweenaw Peninsula, from 7,000 year-old Native American copper operations to the great mineral boom of the 1800s.

10. Enjoy Beach-Themed Americana at Michigan’s Beachtowns

Michigan’s pristine Lake Michigan beaches have been drawing travelers since Henry Ford’s automobile made the family road trip possible. Visit the quirkiest of the state’s historic Beachtown relics for a fun blast from the past. In Grand Haven, the Musical Fountain dances all summer long, its watery spray illuminated by multi-colored lights and swaying in time to music ranging from Beethoven to Brad Paisley and Taylor Swift. Or catch a traditional baseball game, played without helmets or gloves, at the House of David retreat just outside of Benton Harbor.