For Grand Rapidians, ‘up north’ is more than a direction; it’s a descriptor for the 36,000 square miles of backcountry paradise, lake-studded forests, and small town charisma. Virtually everywhere north of Muskegon to Bay City exhibits a culture of laid-back charm and quiet beauty. There’s something for everyone in Northern Michigan year-round, and if you haven’t taken advantage of GR’s location just south of its doorstep, it’s time to get up there!
It doesn’t have to be difficult, either. There are plenty of outdoor adventures to be had within a 90-minute drive of downtown Grand Rapids that don’t require a logistical headache. Don’t let the colder weather keep you from staying active and enjoying these eight spontaneous “Up North” adventures!
1) Have a beach day at Duck Lake State Park
On a clear day, the fall colors are reflected gorgeously at Duck Lake State Park. Take a kayak out on the lake. Enjoy a leisurely paddle down Duck Creek out to the beach, where you can bundle up for a late-season picnic and watch the waves. The “gales of November” are a serious phenomenon in Michigan. If you haven’t witnessed the power of Mother Nature against a Lake Michigan beach, Duck Lake is the place to go. Once you’ve had enough of the wind and the waves, take shelter inland by hiking through the park’s scenic forests.
2) Explore the Manistee National Forest in Newaygo
The famous writer Wallace Stegner once referred to our national public lands as “America’s best idea.” If you’re in Grand Rapids, you don’t have to travel far at all to see what he’s talking about. The Manistee National Forest encompasses over half a million acres of pine forests and mature hardwoods. Dozens of winding rivers and trails meander through the rolling hills toward Lake Michigan, making the region a haven for backpackers, paddlers, anglers, and sightseers. At the Manistee’s southern border lies Newaygo, a town just 45 minutes north of Grand Rapids. Recreation culture runs deep here, and the locals are happy to accommodate you on your next backpacking trek or overnight canoe trip. Be sure to stop at 37-North if you need gear, and Newaygo Brewing Co. if you need advice on how to “adventure responsibly.”
3) Bike through small towns from Montague
Fall is the perfect season for long bike rides, and the Hart-Montague is the perfect trail to hit! The chilly air keeps sweat at bay, the color display keeps boredom away, and new small towns keep motivation in play. Begin your ride in the picturesque town of Montague, on the shores of White Lake. Riding north, you’ll hit a new town every four miles or so until you reach Hart, 22 miles away. If you get hungry on your ride, there are plenty of locally famous options. You can stop for homemade ice cream at Country Dairy in New Era, take on the “Notorious Bear Burger” at the Brown Bear in Shelby, or have Coney dogs delivered to your car at one of Michigan’s last remaining drive-in restaurants, Dog n’ Suds in Montague.
4) Ride the loop at Pines Point in Hesperia
If you’ve ever paddled a river, you know that getting back to Point A from Point B can be a challenge. It’s a hassle to bring two cars, it’s a favor to have someone pick you up, it’s added exercise to stash a bike at the end, and it’s a gamble to hitchhike.
Pines Point in Hesperia is a game-changer. Situated on a large horseshoe bend in the White River, Pines Point allows you to take out just thirty feet from where you put in, thirty minutes later. When you’re finished, simply hop over the narrow ridge and take as many “laps” as you like until you’ve had your fill. In the summer, Pines Point makes for a great tubing destination. There is a campground on site, eliminating the need to drive anywhere after an afternoon on the water. In the fall, the river traffic slows down, but the Pines Point loop still makes for an excellent way to experience the fall colors. You can stay at the campground, or seek out your own perfect site along the White River Trail, which hugs the river for several miles. It’s all part of the Manistee National Forest, which means setting up camp in the woods is free!
5) Explore Mount Pleasant—More than just a casino college town
It’s not very mountainous, but it sure is a pleasant place to visit in the fall. Football season is in full swing for the Central Michigan Chippewas, and Soaring Eagle Casino is always beckoning those looking for a more lucrative way to “fire up Chips.” However, Mount Pleasant is much more than a casino college town. Float the mighty Chippewa River in a canoe or kayak. Hike the trails along its banks. Check out the unique bridges of Deerfield County Park, hang your hammock over Mission Creek, take a bike ride along the river, and grab a brew at Mountain Town Brewing Co! There’s plenty to keep an active person occupied on a day trip or a long weekend in Mount Pleasant.
6) Camp on your own private island in Mecosta
Picture this—you’re paddling a cedar-strip canoe through a chain of quiet lakes, keeping warm with a few layers of flannel and a thermos of hot cider. Loons are calling back and forth through the chilly air, and a dazzling display of color lights up the foliage all around you. After paddling through eight different lakes, you beach it on Tubbs Island to spend the night. After dinner over a roaring bonfire, you keep an eye on the northern skies—you just might catch a glimpse of the Northern Lights.
You can make that “Pure Michigan” dream come true at Martiny Lakes State Game Area near Mecosta. There’s a campground on a small island in the middle of Tubbs Lake, but you don’t need a boat to get there. The island can be accessed via a hidden causeway through the marsh, making it one of the best hidden gems in the area for car-camping.
7) Canoe-camp the Little Muskegon River
Henry David Thoreau once said, “Everyone must believe in something. I believe I’ll go canoeing.” For all you ambitious campers out there looking to change things up, give canoe-camping a try. You don’t have to go far to do it. The Little Muskegon River flows through the southern edge of the Manistee National Forest, but you’ll feel much farther away as you navigate the twisting curves and light rapids. There are multiple places to put in and take out, so your trip can range anywhere from a couple hours to an overnight expedition. Camping is totally free, and you can set up wherever you like.
8) Discover Michigan’s Little Sahara
If there were a list of the “Seven Natural Wonders of Michigan,” the sand dunes of Silver Lake would be among them. At the tip of Little Sable Point lays a collection of windswept dunes so barren you could mistake it for the Sahara. These towering giants rival the height and area of Sleeping Bear and Grand Sable, yet without so much a blade of dune-grass to interrupt the shifting sands, their desolation cannot be matched. The best way to discover the Silver Lake Sand Dunes is by 4-wheeler, dirtbike, or a sturdy 4WD vehicle, but there are also plenty of dunes for pedestrians to explore as well. There’s no need for conventional trails in this open wilderness, so hikers get to forge their own on meandering routes to the beach.
There’s never a bad time to hit up the wonders of Northern Michigan. Clear the calendar and take a spontaneous trip up north!