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Great Lakes National Parks: Our Itinerary

by Bonnie
Great Lakes National Parks Itinerary

Over the past several years, we’ve been on a mission to visit all 50 states before our 10th anniversary. And, of course, as many national park sites as we can along the way! After trips to New England and the Pacific Northwest, the time finally came to visit the Great Lakes national parks. This was a trip we had been looking forward to for quite a while and, thankfully, it did not disappoint!

In all, we visited 20 national park sites in Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota. We spent almost 6 weeks in June and July on our Great Lakes road trip with our RV. Unfortunately, we did not make it to all of the sites that we wanted to and we had to return home early to get some much-needed repairs on the camper.

The East Channel Lighthouse sits on Grand Island to safely guide ships to the mainland.
East Channel Lighthouse on Grand Island at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore.

I have to say, the Great Lakes region sure does have variety. Here you’ll find historic sites, battlefields, lakeshores and even a remote island. There really is something for everyone!

If you’re looking to visit the Great Lakes national parks, along with a few additional sites, this road trip itinerary will get you there.

(Disclaimer: When we link to places you can buy our stuff or places we stayed, we are using special codes which earn us commissions on the sales at no additional cost to you. Please see our Review Policy  for more information.)

Nashville, TN – 1 night

Since we live just outside of Atlanta getting to the Great Lakes area takes some time. We chose to break it up a bit and stayed in Nashville for our first night. This also gave us a chance to hook up the camper to electricity, cool the refrigerator cooled, buy some groceries and otherwise prepare the camper for a summer on the road.

Read all of our campground reviews here.

This process would be a lot easier if we didn’t live in a condo in a downtown area. Still, an easy start to a long summer road trip is not a bad thing.

Nashville Shores campground
Our campsite right on the lake at Nashville Shores campground.

We stayed at the I-24 Campground just south of Nashville and that was a good spot for one night. The campground itself is reasonably nice, though there did seem to be a good number of long-term or permanent residents. Overall, there did not seem to be too much junk piled up, though, so it really wasn’t too bad.

This was good for an overnight stay and we would certainly stay here again. I doubt it is anywhere we would stay for more than a night or two, though. If you are looking for a place to stay for several nights in Nashville, we recommend Nashville Shores.

Read more about things to do in Nashville.

Lincoln City, IN – 3 nights

For our visit to the two sites in southern Indiana, we camped at Lincoln State Park in Lincoln City. Other than some very uneven campsites and oddly placed water hookups, it is a nice campground. We would have preferred a place with sewer hookups, but options were extremely limited in this area. Despite having to drive about 30 minutes to Walmart to get a longer water hose, we enjoyed our stay, especially its proximity to the Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial.

Lincoln Boyhood Home NM, one of three Indiana National Parks
The memorial plaza and visitor center of the Lincoln Boyhood Home National Memorial.

From the state park, it’s an easy one-mile hike to the national memorial across the street. We spent the morning touring the visitor center, the historical farm and hiking a few trails. About half a day is enough for the Lincoln Boyhood NM.

George Rogers Clark National Historical Park is located in Vincennes, which is a little more than an hour’s drive from Lincoln City. The site sits on the Wabash River and includes a small visitor center, a towering memorial with an exhibit inside and a good size park. You’ll need an hour or two to watch the introductory film, tour the memorial and enjoy the park. 

George Rogers Clark NHPark, one of three Indiana National Parks
The memorial at George Rogers Clark National Historical Park.

If you have more time in Vincennes, I’d suggest you check out Grouseland, the home of President William Henry Harrison. 

Read more about the Indiana National Parks.

Lebanon, OH – 4 nights

From southern Indiana, we headed to Ohio, which is home to 8 National Parks sites and 2 affiliated sites. We spent 3 days in the Dayton/Cincinnati area visiting 4 of these sites. We based ourselves at the Lebanon/Cincinnati KOA. The campground was a typical KOA with plenty of campers and activities on the weekend. Thankfully, the weeknights were a bit more peaceful.

The parlor in the Taft House
The parlor in the Taft House

In Cincinnati, you’ll learn more about the 27th President and the 10th Chief Justice at the William Taft NHS. There’s plenty more to do in Cincinnati if you have the time. Alas, our summer was packed with just visiting the park sites so we did not have time for any additional stops.

In Dayton, the Dayton Aviation Heritage NHP remembers Wilbur and Orville Wright and Paul Dunbar. There are several different sites within the park. Be sure to visit the Wright Brothers bicycle shop and the field where they tested and perfected the world’s first airplane. Paul Dunbar, a gifted African American writer, is honored at the house he shared with his mother.

A recreation of the Wright Brothers' 1902 glider.
A recreation of the Wright Brothers’ 1902 glider.

Also a part of the Dayton Aviation Heritage NHP is the Museum of the US Air Force, located on Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. This is an interesting stop for anyone, but particularly those with an interest in flight and military aircraft. We spent several hours here and easily could have spent more time.

Just east of Dayton is the Charles Young Buffalo Soldiers National Monument. Young served with the Buffalo Soldiers, was the National Park Service’s first black superintendent and the highest-ranking African-American officer in the US Army during World War I. When we visited, in the summer of 2019, the park was still very new, with tours being done by appointment only. Be sure to check their web site or call ahead if you plan on visiting.

This was the home of Colonel Charles Young, one of the first black graduates from West Point and a commander of the Buffalo Soldiers.
This was the home of Colonel Charles Young, one of the first black graduates from West Point and a commander of the Buffalo Soldiers.

Our final stop in this area was the Hopewell Culture National Historical Park in Chillicothe, about an hour southeast of Dayton. The earthen mounds of the Hopewell people are recreated and the visitor center tells the history of the Native Americans who once lived in this area. An hour or two is probably enough time for a visit. 

Read more about the Ohio National Parks.

West Branch State Park (Ravenna, OH) – 5 nights

For our visit to Cuyahoga Valley National Park and other sites in the Cleveland area, we camped at West Branch State Park, just east of Ravenna. I have to say, this was one of the nicest state park campgrounds we have ever camped at. Our site was almost perfectly level and surrounded by trees, providing privacy. The bathrooms were immaculate and there were even washers and dryers. 

Station Bridge in Cuyahoga Valley National Park, one of the few Great Lakes National Parks.
Station Bridge across the Cuyahoga River at Cuyahoga Valley National Park.

The drive to Cuyahoga Valley NP was a bit long, but it was worth it for such a fantastic campground. Cuyahoga Valley is not a traditional “National Park,” but there are plenty of opportunities for hiking and exploring. It certainly is worth at least a day. You could easily spend two days if you want to ride the train and do several hikes or bike the Towpath Trail.

Read more about visiting Cuyahoga Valley National Park.

The First Ladies National Historic Site is an interesting site with rotating exhibits. While I enjoyed our tour of the McKinley home, the exhibit itself was a bit underwhelming. The house tour takes about an hour. You can view the current exhibit while you wait on your tour.

The Ida Saxton McKinley home
The Ida Saxton McKinley home at First Ladies National Historic Site.

Our final day in this area was spent visiting the James A. Garfield National Historic Site, with a quick stop at the David Berger Memorial on the way. The tour of the Garfield house is interesting and takes about an hour. You can spend another hour or so watching the film and looking through the exhibits.

Toledo, OH – 3 nights

For the final few sites in Ohio, we stayed just west of Toledo. Honestly, the campground we stayed at was one of the worst we’ve been to, so I won’t recommend it. I do remember seeing a couple of campgrounds just east of Toledo that probably would have been better options. 

Pathway to the memorial statue at Fallen Timbers National Battlefield Park.
The Fallen Timbers battle memorial.

In this area, you can visit Fallen Timbers Battlefield and Fort Miamis (a very new park site) and River Raisin National Battlefield Park in a single day. River Raisin is a very small park in Monroe, MI, which is just north of Toledo. An hour is certainly enough to tour this park as there is very little here beyond a small visitor center and a couple of interpretive signs.

When we visited in the summer of 2019, Fallen Timbers was not fully developed. Indeed, the visitor center was not even complete when we were there. We did see a few hiking trails, but the weather was not great on the day we visited so we skipped them. Our visit lasted less than an hour. Hopefully, more will open in the coming months and years.

Perry's Victory and International Peace Memorial
Perry’s Victory and International Peace Memorial

The highlight of this area is Perry’s Victory and International Peace Memorial, located on the small island town of Put-in-Bay in Lake Huron. I’d liken the town to the “Key West” of the Great Lakes. While the national park itself will only take an hour or two to visit, you could easily enjoy a weekend or longer hanging out in town and checking out all the bars and various attractions. This is certainly a place that would be a fun getaway for a family or group of friends.

Check out our guide to the Ohio National Parks.

Indiana Dunes State Park – 3 nights

From Ohio, we headed back to Indiana for Indiana Dunes National Park, the most recent park to earn the “National Park” designation. In fact, most of the signage still said Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. While I hope that the designation change brings more awareness to the park, the truth is that it didn’t really feel like a “National Park” to us. 

Trail to the beach along Lake Michigan at Indiana Dunes National Park.
One of the trails down to the beach in Indiana Dunes National Park.

We enjoyed a few hikes; the Cowles-Bog Trail, in particular. Additionally, the Century of Progress homes are certainly unique. Still, the surrounding steel mills and power plants are a bit jarring. The history of the park and the preservation of the area really does highlight the struggle between conservation, growth and politics. 

In terms of camping, the campground at Indiana Dunes State Park is one of only a handful of options and may have been the only option for an RV. Since the state park is located within the boundaries of the national park, it sure is convenient. And, yes, the state park is worth a visit. In fact, I’d argue the state got the “better” land.

Read more about Indiana Dunes National Park.

Empire, MI – 3 nights

Continuing north along Lake Michigan, our next stop was Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. I have to say, of the three National Lakeshores, this was probably our favorite! We enjoyed driving the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive and hiking the dunes right on the lakeshore. One day is enough to see the highlights of the park. You could spend a second day if you really want to do more hiking on the dunes, explore the nearby islands or spend time on the beach.

The sand dunes on the shores of Lake Michigan at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.
Looking south from Sleeping Bear Dune.

While in the area, you should also visit Traverse City, less than an hour east of Sleeping Bear Dunes NL. We spent one day walking through downtown and visiting just a couple of the many breweries, wineries and distilleries in the area. Traverse City really is a great town and well worth a visit!

Read our full guide to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore and Traverse City.

St. Ignace, MI – 3 nights

While not a part of the National Park Service, no trip to Michigan would be complete without a visit to Mackinac Island. This tiny car-free island is a haven for those wanting to get away and relax. Without cars, there are plenty of hiking trails and a relaxed pace of life. 

Interestingly, Mackinac Island was actually the second National Park, established by Congress in 1875. Ultimately, the land was given to the state with the agreement that it would remain public land and, indeed, the vast majority of the island is a state park. 

Shops and restaurants line Main Street on Mackinac Island
Main Street on Mackinac Island. Since cars are banned on the island, most folks get around on a bicycle.

In nearby St. Ignace, where we camped, you’ll find the Father Marquette National Memorial. This affiliated NPS will only take you a couple of minutes to view, but if you’re in the area, you might as well stop.

The campground at Straits State Park provided adequate accommodations for us, even if we didn’t have water or sewer hookups. 

Read more about a day trip to Mackinac Island.

Munising, MI – 3 nights

Continuing through the upper peninsula of Michigan, your next stop is Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. While there are some great viewpoints and hiking trails here, the best way to truly see the namesake “pictured rocks” is from the water. If you don’t have your own boat, hop on a Pictured Rock Scenic Cruise and enjoy the voyage.

The namesake pictured rocks of Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore
Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore

The sunset cruise is our recommendation, as that is when you’ll get the best light. Just be sure to arrive early so you can get a seat along the railing with unobstructed views. 

We camped at the relatively new Pictured Rocks RV Park, which was fabulous. The large sites and clean bathroom more than made up for the lack of trees or other amenities. 

Check out our guide to visiting Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore.

Keweenaw Peninsula, MI – 2 nights

From Munising, continue west to the Keweenaw Peninsula, where you’ll find the Keweenaw National Historical Park and two of three access points for Isle Royale National Park. 

Sunset on Lake Superior
Sunset at Sunset Bay RV Park.

We camped at Sunset Bay Campground near Allouez. The campground was ok, especially considering the lack of options in the area. If I had it to do over, I’d probably stay somewhere else, though. The layout just wasn’t great and the mosquitoes were the worst I’ve ever experienced but I’ll admit, the sunsets were spectacular, though. That did make up for some of the other conditions.

The Keweenaw NHP preserves the history of copper mining on the peninsula and consists of 21 partner sites. We visited the Quincy Mine and the Central Mine.

Quincy Mine No. 2 Shaft Rock House
Quincy Mine No. 2 Shaft Rock House

You can catch the ferry to Isle Royale in Houghton (near the southern end of the peninsula) or at Copper Harbor (at the northern tip of the peninsula). If you’re planning on staying at the lodge, taking the ferry from Copper Harbor is your best option. If you’re looking to take a kayak or canoe with you (or just want a nice ship), then Houghton would be a good option. Just be aware that the ferry from Houghton takes about 7 hours for the journey. 

If you just want to do a day trip to Isle Royale, then take the ferry from Grand Portage, MN (see below).

Isle Royale National Park – 1 night

Isle Royale National Park is the least visited “National Park” in the lower 48 states. It’s also the most revisited, per capita and for good reason. I am fairly certain I said, “Yep, we need to come back for a longer stay” before we even got off the ferry. Seriously, the natural beauty and solitude you find here are almost unparalleled. 

The rugged coast of Isle Royale National Park.
The rugged coast of Isle Royale National Park.

If you’re looking to do some backpacking, this is the place. For those a little less adventurous, the lodge is comfortable, if not glamorous. There are a few day hikes that you can easily do with just a one night stay. For those with more time, you could explore for days.

It’s gorgeous and it’s quiet. And there’s moose, which you are likely to see. There are also wolves, which you are not likely to see. 

Moose near Rock Harbor Lodge at Isle Royale National Park.
Moose near Rock Harbor Lodge at Isle Royale National Park.

Seriously, I am really looking forward to coming back and backpacking for a few days to enjoy more of this island park and its serenity.

Yes, they have overnight parking for cars and RVs right at the ferry!

Read more about Isle Royale National Park and the Keweenaw Peninsula.

Copper Harbor, MI – 1 night

Following a long ferry ride back to the mainland, we were exhausted. Initially, we thought we’d take advantage of the late sunset and drive a couple of hours and, Once we arrived, we started searching for a campground in Cooper Harbor.

Our campsite at the Lake Fanny Hooe Resort and Campground. Note the connections!
Our campsite at the Lake Fanny Hooe Resort and Campground.

Thankfully, we were able to snag a site at the Lake Fanny Hooe Campground, which was a huge blessing! The campground was great and would make a good base for a couple of days of relaxation before and/or after a trip to Isle Royale. 

Drummond, WI – 3 nights

Our next stop was Drummond, WI for Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. I’ll admit, Drummond is not really the ideal place to stay as it is about an hour away from Apostle Islands. Unfortunately, I forgot we’d be there over July 4 weekend and waited too late to make reservations. Drummond Lake Campground was the closest place I could find that I could actually make a reservation.

Sea stacks in the Apostle Islands.
Apostle Islands has a few sea stacks of its own.

While the drive was a bit long, the campground was fantastic and I highly recommend it if you’re ok with the drive. 

Apostle Islands NL is made up of 21 islands and one small stretch on the mainland. Basically, if you really want to see the highlights of the park, you’ll need to get out on the water. We chose to do the Grand Tour, which takes you past most of the bigger island and to Devil’s Island, one of the most scenic spots in the park. 

If we ever visit again, I’d love to explore some of the islands more or perhaps even do a kayak tour.

Read more about visiting Apostle Island National Lakeshore.

Grand Portage, MN – 2 nights

Heading to Minnesota, our next stop was Grand Portage National Monument, in the far north of the state, just a few miles from the Canada border. The park tells the story of the natives and the French fur traders heading west and it was here that they had to portage their goods 8 miles to the next waterway. 

The park offers a couple of hikes and a recreated trading post.

Overlooking the Great Hall and kitchen at Grand Portage National Monument.
Great Hall and kitchen at Grand Portage National Monument.

For those doing a day trip to Isle Royale NP, this is where you’ll want to catch the ferry. Be forewarned, there is little to nothing here, including cell service. Be sure to obtain all necessary gear well before arriving in Grand Portage.

Read more about visiting Grand Portage National Monument

Other Parks in the Great Lakes Region

Our original Great Lakes national parks itinerary had us continuing on to Voyageurs National Park before turning south to head back home. Unfortunately, as we prepared to leave Grand Portage, we realized that somewhere along the way we obtained some fairly significant damage to the camper. Grudgingly, we had to abort the rest of our plans and head straight to a repair shop in Duluth.

Our campsite at West Branch State Park near Ravenna.
Our campsite at West Branch State Park near Ravenna.

As expected, the damage was not minor and not something that could be fixed easily or quickly and, thankfully, we were able to get a temporary fix so that we could make it home. From Duluth, we spent 3 days driving home without any sightseeing along the way. We did, at least, get to enjoy a fabulous dinner at freight house in Paducah, KY to celebrate our 9th anniversary.

Our plan was to spend 5 nights at Voyageurs Sunrise Resort, which would give us 4 days to explore the park. Then, we’d head to Town & Country Campground near Minneapolis. From Minneapolis, we planned to visit the Mississippi National River & Recreation Area and the St. Croix National Scenic River. 

We haven’t yet figured out when we’ll actually make it to these parks, but we know we will one day!

Final Thoughts on our Great Lakes National Parks Itinerary

We’ve considered a visit to the Great Lakes region for many years and I’d like to say that we’re sorry we waited so long, but the truth is that we’ve loved all of the other places we visited as well. That said, there is something special about the Great Lakes and it is a region that everyone should explore!

This Great Lakes national parks itinerary worked well for us; in fact, there is very little that I would change if doing it again. While there were a few parks that were underwhelming (Keweenaw NHP and River Raisin NBP), the others more than made up for it. 

Grant and Bonnie hiking on Isle Royale National Park.
Trail Selfie on Isle Royale National Park

Isle Royale NP is more than worth all of the time, effort and money that it takes just to get there. Sleeping Bear Dunes NL provides a scenic getaway on Lake Michigan. Perry’s Victory and International Peace Memorial is a unique historic site nestled on one of the most unique islands in the area.

Whether you are a national parks geek like us or are just looking to explore the region, this road trip itinerary to all the Great Lakes national parks is a great way to spend six weeks.

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2 comments

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Diane July 11, 2020 - 5:07 pm

Great article. I live in Traverse City, and I just need to say, spend more than one day at the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore! Explore the trails and relax on the beaches! Sail down a warm shallow river in a Kayak or in an inner tube. Although if you do only stay a day, it’ll be less crowded!

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Grant
Grant July 12, 2020 - 4:33 pm

Thanks, Diane! We completely agree. We wish we had planned more time for the area.

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