From dark sky preserves to an urban oasis, the east coast of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula doesn’t just provide sandy beaches for sunbathing and taking in a great beach read. While all these state parks are on Michigan’s east coast, they aren’t necessarily on Lake Huron. One example is Belle Isle Park, situated on the Detroit River, between Michigan and Canada.
As a native Michigander, some of these parks have favorite memories from camping in my youth, while others are new discoveries. Each park offers a standout feature you won’t find at other parks. These seven incredible east coast Michigan State Parks are worth exploring.
1. Tawas Point State Park, East Tawas
Tawas Point State Park is a bit off-the-beaten-path, as once you leave Interstate-75, you’ll have about 30 miles on a highway to reach your destination. However, the drive gives you a chance to decompress. Once you get to the 183-acre state park that sits on a sliver of land forming Tawas Bay, you’ll find plenty to keep you busy.
At Tawas Point State Park, Lake Huron offers a sandy beach with shallow, warm water, perfect for swimming.
Tawas Point Lighthouse is the only lighthouse designed in the Victorian-era style on the Great Lakes for those who love maritime history. I loved the lighthouse tour, learning about the keepers of the era, and climbing the tower to see a panoramic view of Lake Huron.
Birdwatchers from throughout the region enjoy this park in the spring and fall, where it’s a layover for migratory birds. You’ll see hundreds, so be sure to take your binoculars. If you’re a photographer, take your long lens to get some close-ups of birds in flight.
The campgrounds at Tawas Point State Park are modern, and they also offer lodging accommodations. They have yurts, cabins, lodges, and mini cabins. So, if you’re looking for a less rustic campground, this park is a good option.
Pro Tip: The lighthouse offers a lighthouse keepers program, where you can be a lighthouse keeper for a week in the summer, providing tours of the former lighthouse keeper’s quarters and the light tower.
2. Belle Isle Park, Detroit
Tucked away on an island in the Detroit River, just minutes from downtown Detroit, Belle Isle Park is truly an urban oasis. It’s just over the MacArthur Bridge, approximately 3 miles from the Renaissance Center. While you can get back to nature here with the Belle Isle Nature Center, lakes, kayaking, canoeing, and fishing opportunities, you can also find some more urban activities.
The Belle Isle Aquarium, the oldest aquarium in the nation, reopened in July of 2021 after a $1.3-million renovation. The aquarium added new tank scaping to the exhibits, upgraded the lobby to its original splendor, and added new fish. The green tile in the arched ceiling is a stunning original feature. Plan to spend an hour in the aquarium. You’ll see over 100 species of fish native to the Great Lakes and some from around the world.
The Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory covers 13-acres, including a lily pond and formal garden. The conservatory houses five distinct areas — a tropical house, a cactus house, the palm house, a sunken fernery, and the show house. In the show house, they feature a rotating exhibit of flowering plants.
Dossin Great Lakes Museum tells the story of Detroit’s role in maritime history. In addition to the indoor exhibits, it has a variety of outdoor artifacts on display. One exciting element is the anchor from the Edmund Fitzgerald, a freighter that sank in Lake Superior in 1975, losing all 29 men aboard.
Another unique item in the park is the Livingstone Memorial Lighthouse, the only lighthouse in the United States built from marble.
Pro Tip: The parking is directly in front of the aquarium and the conservatory, so you don’t need to walk far to visit them on a typical day. The park offers a track chair at no charge to assist those with mobility challenges to explore the park easily.
3. Thompson’s Harbor State Park, Rogers City
Located on Lake Huron’s shore and featuring 7 and a half miles of beach, Thompson’s Harbor State Park is rustic. Since this park is largely undeveloped, it’s a favorite for wildlife enthusiasts and birdwatchers. With 6 miles of trails, hikers and bikers will have fun in the summer, while snowshoeing and cross-country ski enthusiasts can enjoy the park in winter. The park is open for all seasons, and camping is available in winter.
Thompson’s Harbor State Park features two rustic cabins for those who want more comfort than a tent provides. Cedar Haven Cabin and Stone Path Cabin each sleep six people with a sofa bed and two sets of bunk beds. Each cabin contains vault toilets, outdoor hand pumps, and a gas stove and lanterns. So, while you’re still roughing it, you’ll be more comfortable than a sleeping bag on the ground.
Pro Tip: Also, in Rogers City is Up North 23 Restaurant and Lounge. Situated on the Lake Huron shore, it’s the perfect place to enjoy a meal on the deck with a view of the lake. The chef sources ingredients from local farmers, which includes the components for the famous house-made barbecue chips. The restaurant’s owners are potato farmers so you won’t find a fresher chip.
4. Albert E. Sleeper State Park, Caseville
Situated on Lake Huron’s Saginaw Bay, almost at the top of the thumb, Albert E. Sleeper State Park sits on 723-acres that include wetland, woodlands, and sandy beaches. The park was named after Albert E. Sleeper, the Michigan governor who created the Michigan State Park system.
The park is only 5 miles from the quaint beach town of Caseville, making it a convenient day-use park for picnics. With half a mile of sandy beach, the proximity to town makes it a great place to stop in and cool off with a swim. The beautiful sandy beach features dunes, but they are much smaller than those on Lake Michigan.
Boating and fishing are also popular pastimes at Sleeper State Park because they have seven state boating access sites and a few public fishing piers near the park. The Saginaw Bay offers exceptional salmon, perch, walleye, and lake trout fishing.
Tucked behind the foliage, you’ll find 226 camping sites situated in east and west loops. The campgrounds in the west loop are flatter and more extensive. If you’re past wanting to sleep in a sleeping bag on the ground, Sleeper Tentrr Safari Tents are the perfect glamping alternative. They have queen size beds, just BYOB (Bring Your Own Bedding.)
Pro Tip: While it’s not typical for Michigan State Parks to have Wi-Fi, Albert E. Sleeper State Park has it. Cell phone service is generally spotty in Michigan’s thumb region.
5. Bay City State Park, Bay City
Located on Saginaw Bay, Bay City State Park features Tobico Marsh, freshwater coastal wetlands that are one of the most significant on the Great Lakes. To learn more about the marsh, visit The Saginaw Bay Visitor Center, which provides various learning programs for visitors. One example is the annual Bay City State Park Winter Festival, where they don’t require a recreation passport or fishing license during the festival. Park Interpreters have various projects available, like crafting an ice fishing pole or building a birdhouse. Once you’ve made the ice fishing pole, you can go out on the pier and try your hand at ice fishing. In addition, park Interpreters are on hand to lead various educational workshops for the entire family.
Pro Tip: You’ll want to bring along your binoculars or the long lens for your camera because the opportunities for viewing birds and wildlife at Bay City State Park are frequent. The park has a reputation for having a wide variety of bird species.
6. Onaway State Park, Onaway
Sitting in Presque Isle County on Black Lake is Onaway State Park. One of Michigan’s oldest state parks, it’s 158 acres with the campground beautifully positioned among the white pines, Michigan’s state tree. If you’re anxious to get out on the water, the park has canoes, rowboats, and kayaks for rent. Or if you’re interested in some fishing, they call Onaway the “Sturgeon Capital of Michigan.”
Ocqueoc Falls is 10 miles east of the park and the largest waterfall in the Lower Peninsula.
Pro Tip: When you visit Onaway State Park, Historic Mill Creek Discovery Park and Michilimackinac State Park are only 45 miles away. Both state parks are good additions to your Michigan east coast state park tour. Read more about these parks on TravelAwaits‘ 9 Fantastic Experiences In Michigan State Parks.
7. Port Crescent State Park, Port Austin
Sitting on the tip of Michigan’s thumb on Lake Huron’s Saginaw Bay, Port Crescent State Park features 3 miles of sandy beaches. We enjoy taking walks along the wooden boardwalk at sunset. Port Crescent State Park is one of seven dark sky preserves in Michigan, so watching the stars on a warm Michigan summer evening will be an evening to remember. The park offers a viewing platform for stargazing near the day-use parking lot, where you’ll find the least light pollution.
Since you’ll be there for the evening sky gazing, you might as well stay overnight. The park has a camper cabin and a modern campground.
Pro Tip: Once you’re tired of cooking over a campfire, make a reservation at The Farm Restaurant. Every item on the menu is made from scratch.
Michigan state parks and beaches offer a variety of outdoor experiences for the whole family: