May 01, 2014

Been to a Michigan state park lately? After a long absence, last year my family and I began visiting a few of Michigan’s 102 state park and recreation areas. Surprised with how attractive and well run they are, we plan to use the system more than ever this summer on our way to discovering more outdoor adventures.

The state park system, which began 95 years ago, may well be the crown jewel in Michigan’s extensive system of public lands, which boasts more acreage than any other state east of the Mississippi River. Adequately staffed and efficiently operated, the parks we visited were clean and well-organized and offered many diverse opportunities for outdoor recreation. Whether you enjoy hiking or horseback riding, nature photography or fishing, the state parks are a key gateway to outdoor fun.

No wonder they host 22 million visitors each year. My first family and I were frequent visitors in the 1970s. Now that my wife and I are raising young adopted kids, we’re back to camping. Starting with tents and sleeping pads, we invested in a pop-up trailer and, less than a year ago, in a modern travel trailer. Although we also journey to other states, there is no place like home, especially when considering the recent investments Michigan has made to its extensive state park offerings.

What has changed in 40 years? A great deal; first, however, a word about other public lands managed from Lansing.

The author’s kids caught these bluegills at a state park near home.

Some state game areas and state forests which I also frequent (especially during hunting seasons) have suffered neglect in recent years because of budget cuts and lack of manpower. There is no one to remove trash, for example, from public lands that some people insist is their personal landfill. Management of wildlife habitat is woefully inadequate. The timber on many properties is too mature and needs selective thinning or outright leveling. Nuisance plants like glossy buckthorn, garlic mustard, spotted knapweed, purple loosestrife and phragmites have established strongholds in some prime wildlife habitat and beg for removal. Every year it seems yet another state forest campground closes because no one is available to keep them up.

Such unprecedented neglect has intensified, or so it seems to me, during the Great Recession that began in late 2007 and does not appear to be over yet. Call it foresight, or simply luck, but a strategic plan adopted in 2006 for the state park system’s long-term sustainability is paying enormous dividends. The dual focus on providing outstanding customer service while becoming completely self-sufficient (free from state budget appropriations) is proving to be a model for other DNR departments to follow.

Most state parks have volunteer campground hosts, in addition to government employees who do everything from registering campers to raking campsites and picking up litter. Funding comes from two sources: the $11 Recreation Passport sticker available from the Secretary of State when you renew your vehicle’s license plate each year and affordable user fees for campers. These range from as low as $10 for an overnight in a rustic campground to $33 for campsites with full hookups. Other categories are semi-modern for $16-18 (30 amp electrical and/or modern toilet/shower facilities or 50 amp electrical with no modern amenities), modern for $16-27, and premium modern for $28-29 (some with RV pull-throughs).

Campgrounds with full hookups include Hartwick Pines, Holland-Beach, Wm. C. Sterling and South Higgins Lake. Equestrian campgrounds with hitching posts, hand pumps and vault toilets cost $17 and are found at these downstate recreational areas: Brighton, Ionia, Waterloo, Ortonville and Highland. To learn more, go to and click on State Parks.

The extensive system encompasses urban, rural and wilderness settings, including properties with more than 140 miles of Great Lakes shoreline. The newest addition is Belle Isle, which dates from the 1880s. Born in Detroit, I first came to Belle Isle on family picnics when Truman was president and plan to take my kids there this summer. We also want to camp at Wilderness State Park and check out the ghost town at Fayette State Park in the Upper Peninsula. And, of course, Mackinac Island.

Last fall the DNR revamped its online reservation system, which now allows broad search capability. Included are photos of actual campsites and the ability to make site-specific reservations. Expect to pay reservation fees to the outside vendor that manages the system, which we used extensively last summer and found helpful, even when we had to cancel or change our plans. You can test drive the new system at

What hasn’t changed in 40 years? In a word, “people.” Perhaps it’s the shared experience or maybe the relative closeness of your new neighbors in the site next to yours, but campers have always been a friendly bunch. Forget to pack a hammer? Need an extra hand to move the picnic table? Ask your neighbor, who may become your new fishing buddy. In many ways campgrounds are the last small towns in America.

We began our state park camping adventures over Mother’s Day weekend and finally put the trailer into winter storage in late October. Holland State Park was a family favorite, but we also enjoyed Cheboygan and Tahquamenon Falls state parks. Closer to home, we were frequent visitors at Sleepy Hollow State Park and the Ionia Recreation Area. Fun activities included fishing, hiking, wildlife viewing and swimming. The kids also enjoyed craft activities organized by volunteer campground hosts and nature lessons taught by park rangers and other volunteers.

Most state parks feature playgrounds and supply stores for essentials like firewood and ice. At some you can rent boats, kayaks or canoes and even personal flotation devices (pfds). The more modern properties have sanitary flush-and-fill stations. For the most part, park roads are paved and campsites are spacious enough to prevent the feeling of overcrowding even when full. Gone are the cheap fire rings of yesterday; in their place are twin 30-inch-high corrugated steel rings filled with cement. Safe and practical, they are also theft-proof.

Park personnel are well trained and focused on customer service. To a person, we found them to be friendly, knowledgeable and helpful. For example, realizing I had left the life preservers at home, I attempted to rent some so that my wife and I could take the kids fishing in our boat. The young lady running the office that day loaned me the pfds without charge, after taking my cellphone number for insurance.

This kind of can-do attitude may be one reason the Michigan State Park system won a Gold Medal Award in 2011 from the National Recreation & Park Association. Clearly, our state parks have found a way to do more with less. Memo to the U.S. Postal Service:

Are you listening?