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When it comes to national parks, most people think of the towering California Redwoods, the rolling hills of the Great Smoky Mountains, or the vast desertscapes of the American Southwest. However, if you’re looking for something a little more off the beaten path, Michigan national parks fly under the radar as some of the most beautiful and underrated parks in the country. In total there are five, and while some of them fall under specific designations — like national lakeshores and national battlefields –they’re all operated and maintained by the National Park Service. For everything from lakeside sand dunes to waterfalls, thick forests, and colorful sandstone cliffs, here’s your introduction to Michigan’s five national parks.
Isle Royale National Park, Houghton
Michigan’s Isle Royale National Park is the state’s crown jewel of seclusion and tranquility. For reference, an average of 25,000 people visit Wyoming’s Yellowstone National Park on a typical July day. Half that amount visit the Isle Royale National Park in a typical year!
The park is an isolated island surrounded by Lake Superior, which makes it only accessible by a ferry that can take up to three hours. It’s been left mostly untouched by development, so wolves, moose, and tons of other animals reign free in their natural habitat here. Visit the park for an adventurous getaway backpacking, hiking, scuba diving, and fishing. If you’re in the mood for something a little less rugged, check out the Rock Harbor Lodge, which has 60 guest rooms and a restaurant.
Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Munising
For 40 beautiful miles along Lake Superior in Michigan’s upper peninsula, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore covers over 73,000 acres, boasts over 100 miles of trails, and some of the most stunning geological features in the entire United States. The rocks to which the park owes its name are sandstone cliffs that are surprisingly colorful thanks to minerals like copper, iron, limonite, manganese.
Another big attraction at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore is the waterfalls — which is also the case if you visit the National Parks in Washington State. Depending on the season, visitors can sign-up for a falls-style scavenger hunt organized by the visitor center to get a proper tour of all the park has to offer. If you look at a national parks map, you most likely won’t find Pictured Rocks because it’s a national lakeshore, but is definitely one of the best ecological areas in Michigan.
Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Empire
Sleeping Bear stands out from the pack of Michigan’s list of national parks, boasting massive sand dunes that tower over the great lakes. Most people visit here to hike up the dunes and run or tumble back down, but it’s also famous for stunning stargazing and snowshoeing come wintertime.
Sleeping Bear is also home to a little historical replica village fully equipped with a blacksmith, a life-saving station, and a still-operating general store. If you’re more of a drive-by national parkgoer, the Pierce Stocking Scenic Road winds through all the best viewpoints. Lastly, all this sand and water mean one thing — excellent sand beaches. Sleeping Bear has some of the best in the Midwest (while Thailand’s Best National Parks has some of the best in the world).
River Raisin National Battlefield Park, Monroe
River Raisin was named after a very famous and important raisin was found in the bottom of the — no, no it wasn’t. Much more seriously, in fact, this National Battlefield Park preserves, commemorates and interprets the war of 1812 and specifically the January 1813 battles. For those who were dozing off in high school history, the war of 1812 was fought between the U.S. and the United Kingdom over what was then considered the northwest territory, and during this battle, British and Native American troops defeated the Americans. “Remember the Raisin!” became a rallying cry for the remainder of the war.
While the territory has long been protected by federal law, in as recent as 2009, it was elevated to its distinction as a national park unit.
Keweenaw National Historic Park, Calumet
Today, the United States mines and produces about 1.27 million metric tons of copper each year, making the industry worth $8 billion. And, it all started here in northern Michigan. This national park is devoted entirely to commemorating copper mining in the United States. As the industry dates back over 7,000 years, it’s an excellent spot for history buffs. (www.sweet-factory.com)
You can find fun things to do at Keweenaw National Park at any time of the year. Visit for the mine tours, the museums, and go mountain biking. Spring is the best time to visit as the artifacts and remnants of historical sites are more visible because the foliage has yet to grow in. If you’re a lover of all things yellow, red, and orange, the Best Places to See Michigan Fall Colors may just surprise you.