Lessons and Highlights from a Camping Trip to the Upper Peninsula


A big part of our motivation to move north to Traverse City was to shake things up a bit in our lives and have some new experiences. So back in early February Heather and I started mapping out some things we wanted to do this summer, and camping with the kids was high on the list. Neither of us has camped much, so we thought it would be a fun adventure.

We wanted to get away for five nights, so tent camping was out of the question. I’m sure that, every day, thousands of parents sleep in tents with three young kids with no problems. But that’s not us. At least not yet. Remember, we’re new to this. In this sense – that is, tent camping with young kids – we’re with author Dave Barry who said, “Camping is nature’s way of promoting the motel business.”

So we jumped online and found a 1971 25-foot Airstream camper available to rent on Airbnb. It had a stovetop for cooking, mini-refrigerator, spaces to sleep (kids in one space and parents in another) and a bathroom. Okay, that’s more our style, so we booked it.

We next had to figure out where to go. We have never taken the kids to Mackinac Island, and Heather and I haven’t been there since we were kids, so we knew we wanted to tie-in a visit to the Island. I had also never been to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and so we decided to knock off three summer bucket-list items – camping, Mackinac, the UP – in one fail swoop. We booked Michigan State Park campsites online for Wilderness State Park just east of Mackinaw City, Muskallonge State Park which sits between Muskallonge Lake and Lake Superior in the UP, and Petoskey State Park.

Our plan was to leave Saturday of the week that school let out for the summer. In retrospect that timing may have added an unnecessary, additional layer of stress to the trip because of how busy that week turned out to be with end-of-school-year activities, but we (meaning Heather) managed to get the kids and ourselves packed up for the trip.

It was a great vacation in many ways. The kids seemed to have a blast throughout and – from Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore to Tahquamenon Falls – we visited and explored places of stunning natural beauty for the first time.

It was also pretty exhausting, which is why I hesitate to call it a vacation. My good friend always reminds me that traveling with young kids is not a vacation – it’s a “trip.” Overall, it was effort well spent, as it was a formative experience for all of us.

I thought I’d share some thoughts with you about our trip, as well as some highlights in case you’re thinking of heading north yourself.

In Camping as in Life: Five Universal Truths

#1 – Ask the Question
As I’m sure most married couples with kids can attest, the morning of the day of departure for a family vacation is ripe territory for a husband/wife argument. The kids are going nuts with excitement, the parents are stressed out trying to get everyone dressed, packed up and fed before leaving. Often there is still packing to do. It’s no time to introduce other variables that can tip a fragile peace into battleground territory.

So it probably wasn’t the best time for my male ego to take over, adding fuel to the fire.

I woke the morning of our departure with a start. I had just bought a new SUV with a towing package so I thought I was all set for the trip. But it occurred to me that I may have been missing parts that I needed to tow the trailer, which was scheduled to be dropped off at our house at 9:30 a.m. Keep in mind that I had never really towed anything before, so I was speculating – I didn’t really know one way or another.

Heather suggested I call the people we were renting the camper from to see if they had all the equipment we needed. Great idea. What did I do instead? I drove around town at 7:00 a.m. Saturday morning looking for an auto parts store that was open where I could buy a hitch ball mount while Heather was left home to deal with the kids/food/packing.

And, yes, the people we rented from provided all the equipment we needed – hitch, sway bars, etc. – to tow the camper. But what was I going to do – reveal my ignorance by asking a question I should already know the answer to? Come on now.

So that started things off on a not-so-great note. And then came the bike rack.

The people we rented the camper from also let us borrow their bike rack for our car. About 10 minutes after the guy dropped off the camper and bike rack, Heather came outside to find me with the bike rack on the ground, a mess of straps and bars at my feet, and me kneeling over in the driveway watching YouTube videos on how to mount a Thule bike rack.

Heather: “You didn’t ask him how to use the bike rack, did you?”

Jay: “No, but it doesn’t look that bad.”

You get the picture. And I won’t even go into the banana nut muffin story.

The first lesson: In an already stressful situation, ask the questions. Your ego will survive intact.

#2 – Preparation is Key
We like to be spontaneous when we travel, having a rough idea of what we want to do and see, but leaving plenty of time at the margins to adjust course. Camping, however, requires more preparation.

Some of the best moments of our camping trip were those we thoroughly prepared for. We had lots of fun preparing meals – we generally ate breakfast and dinner at the campsite and found a restaurant to grab lunch at while were were out exploring. We made a few dishes in advance – fresh pasta sauce, a casserole, etc. – that made it easy to prepare good meals, and had plenty of other simple items on hand such as italian sausage, corn on the cob, and eggs that we could cook with.

At times I give Heather a hard time about the amount of stuff we travel with but in this case (as is most others), the extra sunscreen, bug spray, first aid kit, paper towels, beach toys, etc. came in handy throughout the trip.

The most jarring moment on our trip came from being caught off guard a bit. We arrived at Wilderness State Park on the first day of our trip and had a great day. We didn’t get the kids down to bed until 10 p.m. that night, in part because it stays light forever and in part because we were all in a 25-foot camper with no separate rooms or spaces. All was going well until about 2:30 a.m. when one of our just-turned-3-year-old twins woke us up, wheezing and with a barking cough. She was having trouble breathing and speaking.

We’re not quick to rush our kids to the doctor every time they have runny noses, but she was having a hard time and we figured we didn’t have the luxury to wait-and-see given where we were. So I loaded her in the car while Heather stayed back with the other two girls.

Cell service was spotty so I wasn’t able to immediately determine where the nearest hospital was, so I headed east toward Mackinaw City. When I was able to pick up a signal I learned that I had to head to St. Ignace – over the Mackinac Bridge and 30 minutes away. This turned out to be my first trip ever to the UP.

Our daughter received some treatments and ended up being fine. In fact, when we asked her what her favorite part of the trip was she said the stickers she got from the doctor! However, we learned an important lesson, our second of the trip (which of course seems obvious in retrospect): When entering a new environment, particularly a remote one, prepare and study your surroundings in advance so that if (or more likely when) something goes wrong, you’re ready for it. Next time we go camping I’ll know where the nearest hospital is.

#3 – Camping is Hard Work, and it’s Okay to Quit While You’re Ahead
We made a few mistakes in planning our trip. One turned out to be booking campsites at three different campgrounds for a five night trip. It turns out that’s a lot of moving around when you’re camping.

Each time we pulled into a new campground we had to fill up with water, get the camper backed into our spot, unhitch the camper from the vehicle, set the support and safety beams and blocks in place, hook up the electrical, get all the outdoor chairs, tables and other items set up outside, and put away the bungee cords keeping drawers from flying loose, among other tasks. Packing up involved the same steps, except in reverse.

Then there’s the day-to-day stuff – cooking, cleaning, hauling trash to the dumpster and the kids to the public bathroom/showers. Camping is a lot of fun, but it’s work too. Between the hiking and exploring we did for fun during the day, and the physical nature of camping with the kids, we were pretty wiped out every night by 10 p.m.

In retrospect we should not have booked the third campground we went to – Petoskey State Park. That’s not because it’s not a great campground, we just overbooked ourselves and moved around a bit too much.

We pulled into Petoskey, it was raining, and the kids and ourselves were dirty and in need of hot showers. We must have been quite a sight rolling into City Park restaurant wearing quasi-clean, mostly mismatched clothes, wet from head to toe.

Being only one hour and fifteen minutes away from home in Traverse City, Heather and I discussed cutting our trip one day short. We decided to stick it out, however, because we always seem to cut our family trips short by one day and this time we weren’t giving in and giving up. We made it, but between the rain, and the dirt and the rowdy group of guys in the campsite across the road who kept us up late, it was a bit of a rough last night. Fortunately Heather and I were able to fire up the 4G Wifi in the car and pick up the signal in the camper so we could watch Netflix on the iPad rather than staring at the ceiling.

The third lesson: While I’m proud of us for sticking it out and making it the distance, the wiser decision may have been to decamp before the last night. Sometimes you need to quit while you’re ahead {tweet that} – especially when you’re camping and it’s raining.

#4 – The Good Stuff Comes in the Little Moments
Our three year old twins are most definitely clinging to the vestiges of their terrible twos. They are getting better, but we still deal with lots of tantrums and whining when things don’t go their way (and often when they do go their way).

It was interesting (and perhaps not surprising in retrospect), then, to observe the environments in which our kids had the most fun and were the most well behaved.

The best moments came at the campgrounds, with the kids kicking the soccer ball around, chasing bugs, riding bikes and roasting marshmallows.

These were the moments that were most enjoyable for Heather and I too. It’s when we had a chance to sit by the campfire, listen to music and have a beer. This is why I think we’ll do a lot more camping in the future. It’s a time to really and truly unplug – you have no choice, most times you can’t even pick up a data signal on your phone – and spend quality time together free from distractions.

The most challenging time period in terms of child behavior was our trip to Mackinac Island. It was the day of the Lilac Festival, there was a parade and live music playing, so there was no shortage of activities going. I think that was, in fact, the problem. Too much stimulation, too much ice cream and fudge in the windows, too many horses and bikes in the streets – too much and too many. The twins insisted on taking a tour around the island in one of the horse drawn buggies, but when we learned that was a two-hour excursion, we opted for fudge as a distraction.

Here’s the fourth lesson we learned: When camping, as is true in most aspects of life, it’s often the little moments that are the best moments.

#5 – Go Slow and Be Humble
Every time I seemed to get a bit cocky about my camping skills, I was swiftly put back in my place.

At our first campground, the campsite we reserved was particularly narrow and trees on the opposite side of the road made turning at a sharp angle difficult. I was nervous, as I was warned that other campers enjoy the spectacle of a newbie attempting to back in a 25-foot trailer, particularly when the trailer is a 1971 Airstream.

Somehow I managed to back it in expertly. After unhitching the trailer from our vehicle I declared: “I’m getting good at this.”

It was a couple of hours later when I noticed that the trailer sat at a precarious angle due to the fact that I had not cranked the front end down after unhitching. I also had forgotten to place wood blocks behind the wheels to keep it from rolling.

I didn’t forget that again. And so when we departed the first campground without incident and hit the road on our way to the UP I looked over to Heather and, while slowly nodding, said: “Like a pro.”

That’s about the moment that I realized that I forgot to plug in the electrical from the camper to the car, meaning the camper had no brake or signal lights working.

Fortunately we finished the trip without any major incidents. I went slow and stopped commenting on my supposed skills. Each time we arrived at or left a campground things went more smoothly as we became more accustomed to backing in, pulling out, what to attach and detach. That said, as we pulled out of our last campground, a guy came running up beside our SUV waving his hands.

“What the hell does this guy want?” I muttered.

“You left the door to the camper open,” he said.

Lesson five: When learning a new skill, go slow, be humble and double-check everything.

Five Highlights

We explored and discovered a great deal on our trip. Here are a few quick highlights:

  • Wilderness State Park is beautiful. It’s right on the shores of Lake Michigan in the woods. There are lots of great trails in and around the campground and the beach is what you’d expect – sugar sand and crystal clear (chilly) water. It’s an easy 15 minute drive from Mackinaw City if you want to explore the forts there or plan a day trip to Mackinac Island.
  • Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, the town of Grand Marais on the shores of Lake Superior, and Tahquamenon Falls are among the many must-see stops in the Upper Peninsula. We’ll be going into greater detail about all there is to see and do in the UP in an upcoming Field Guide so stay tuned.
  • We haven’t been to Pond Hill Farm north of Harbor Springs in years and we were excited to see some of the changes they’ve made. We enjoyed checking out the farm’s craft beer tasting room and vineyard. They also added two new squash rockets for firing vegetables into the grazing area for the sheep.
  • Mackinac Island is even more beautiful than I remember. We’ll take the kids back, but maybe not until the twins are a bit older. Heather and I are thinking that it would be a great place for a quick, kid-free weekend getaway.
  • We had lots of encounters with wildlife throughout the trip. Most sightings were serene – birds soaring overhead and fishing gliding gracefully. A few encounters were a bit more exciting. I came up close and personal with a number of raccoons, porcupines and deer during my late night dash to the hospital, luckily avoiding all. I also had to rip a leech off of Emma’s ankle that she must have picked up while wading in Muskallonge Lake. We thought it was a piece of seaweed until it started wiggling.

Finally, kudos to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources for running such a great park system in our state. From the ease and relative clarity (keeping in mind we’re dealing with a state agency here) of the online campsite registration system, to the speed with which the onsite DNR personnel check campers in, to the cleanliness and beauty of the campgrounds themselves, we were extremely impressed.

If you’ve been thinking about taking your family camping but you’re apprehensive, I say go for it. We had a great trip, full of new memories and experiences. We didn’t know what we were doing, but we figured it out as we went – you will too. We’ll definitely be planning another trip later this summer (maybe just a bit shorter), we’re excited for more adventures and looking forward to discovering some new parks! What are your favorite camping spots?