Camping in Leelanau

Somehow it’s already mid-July. Time feels hazy and confusing, but even though our days and weeks don’t feel terribly different than they did in the spring, the march towards fall and the unpredictable school year that lies ahead is bringing a sort of dread. Somehow I’m simultaneously confident that we’ll be fine in the long run, while also expecting the logistics of managing online learning for three small children while working full time, possibly with no second adult at home (since they may send her back to the school building) to be a hellscape unlike anything I’ve juggled before.

Back in January before we saw any of this coming, I booked three nights at a state park campground that we’d heard people rave about from time to time. I was thrilled to get a spot because it fills quickly. Then COVID happened and we didn’t know if camping would even be a thing. Our other summer plans were wiped out, and when it became clear that camping was still allowed I thought that maybe we should add a few more nights elsewhere if we could find a spot. We were lucky to find a spot at another state park further north, in Leelanau. As we drove we told the kids that we were headed to the very tip of the pinkie of Michigan (and they pointed to their hands to ask where we were for the rest of the drive).

The campground at Leelanau State Park was gorgeous. It’s a rustic site, so only vault toilets and clean drinking water but no other amenities on site, but we think that’s why it was so sparsely populated. There were no huge RVs, and the campsites were actually spaced out beautifully. We had tons of room on either side of our site (full of poison ivy, sure, but we didn’t need to hike through it). If I’m being totally honest the number of spiders also seemed to be off the charts, but I’m a pretty novice camper so what do I know. But those small things aside, we could hear the waves from Lake Michigan from our tent, and see the lake from our campfire!

Camp donuts are one of my favorite things about camping

The Grand Traverse Lighthouse is at the park, and while it isn’t the most stunning lighthouse I’ve seen it was a sweet little landmark.

Our first night we made a serious rookie mistake and left both our trash and the s’mores ingredients out on the picnic table when we went to bed. I think we all just hit a wall of exhaustion at some point after so much driving and camp set up and decided to go to sleep. I’m not sure what time it was when I heard a loud noise and sat bolt upright in the tent. Kristin woke up soon after and we both sat in terror as we heard snuffling and rifling around our campsite. For context, before we left my dad told us all about a story in the news in which a man woke up to find a grizzly bear in his rental house kitchen. K and I were sure it was a bear, until we realized it was just hungry trash pandas. But even raccoons can be terrifying.

The beach at the state park is just a narrow strip of pebbles, so we took a trip to Cathead Bay where you have to hike through the woods to reach the beach, but it’s worth the walk.

We’d recently read a library book called The Hike, so we had some new forest language in our lexicon and the kids enjoyed spotting both snags and nurse logs along the way.

The beach was lovely but the water was freezing. Not just lakewater cold, but ice-bath for a sports injury cold. It actually hurt to stand in it for more than a few seconds. I hadn’t worn my bathing suit and I wasn’t sorry at all, but everyone else made a game out of getting into the water despite the cold and it was incredibly fun to watch.

Once my legs went numb even I enjoyed wading in it to search for Petoskey stones, and I definitely found my groove. I found more than I ever had before. I’d also never bothered to look up exactly what a Petoskey stone is, and in doing so I learned that another stone we’ve been finding for years is apparently a Charlevoix stone, and both are fossilized prehistoric coral!

After the beach we took our bikes to the TART trail in Suttons Bay. The paved trail runs about 10.5 miles all the way to Traverse City. We went late in the day after an already long hike so we didn’t ride very far, but we all agreed that when we return we’ll plan to bike the whole way if possible.

Wednesday was rainy for most of the day, so we planned a visit to Fishtown about 30 minutes away and figured we’d check out what we could. We found a wonderful little bookstore on the main drag because they were advertising unicorn storytime, and how could we pass that up? We ended up buying books and other activities for the kids to pass the rainy day in the tent.

At least the rain brought out a toad friend

This is where things went a little bit south. As we passed the afternoon in the tent it began to leak a little where the rain dripped off of the rain fly and hit the sides. As we mopped up small puddles we started to wonder if we were going to wake up in the middle of the night soaked with no alternate plan. We ultimately decided to make a motel reservation and move out just to be safe. We left camp where it was but packed up all of our duffels and sleeping bags just in case. It was nice to have a shower (and a little HGTV, which has become a hotel tradition in our family – all of the kids immediately ask, “Can we watch house shows?!” when we tell them we’re staying at a hotel). In the morning we went back to camp to make lunch and strike everything (I literally just learned that strike is a camp term and not just a theater one, from a kids guide to camping that we bought on this trip). We were headed two hours south to our next campsite, the original one that started this trip.

We decided to stop and pick cherries on the way out of town, and I’m SO glad that we did. It was hot but the kids loved it. We’d never done such a thing and this part of Michigan is known for its cherries.

We got to Ludington State Park late, around dinner time, and checked in only to be caught totally off guard by what we found. While Leelanau State Park felt like true forest camping, Ludington felt like a crowded tailgate in a parking lot. There wouldn’t have been six feet between our tent and the next one, and the site next to us had four tents and a table full of liquor. This was not our scene, and both K and I felt very uneasy given the current COVID environment. We made the sad yet easy decision to bail out and head home. It was the right call, but I cried for the three additional nights of camping that we’d all expected to have, especially after losing one night to a motel already.

On our way out of town we drove past a public beach with a lighthouse in the distance and, though sulking, I suggested that we pull over. It turned out to be the Ludington Breakwater Lighthouse and I’m so glad that we made the detour, even if it meant that we didn’t get home until close to 2:00 a.m.

Despite our trip being cut short we have a little more summer fun left before school begins. My sister and my niece and nephew are driving up from Charleston to spend two and a half weeks here. I’m so glad that our kids will get some cousin fun during this somewhat lonely time. We’re planning tie dye, a lake house rental, riding bikes around the neighborhood, slip-and-slide, catching fireflies (of course) and other COVID-era summer fun.

One thought on “Camping in Leelanau

  1. When I saw your van back in the driveway a bit earlier than I expected, I wondered. You guys made the right decision, but sorry to hear you got short-changed. I hope you were on the lookout for ticks…they are abundant in Michigan these days. Love all your pics, but the last one is classic!


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