Michigan is one of the best states for camping on the east coast of the United States. With over 3,000 miles of shoreline, 11,000 lakes, and home to 4 of the 5 Great Lakes, it is no wonder Michigan is called the Great Lake State. With such an abundance of natural landscapes, there is no shortage of camping opportunities for you to truly enjoy nature.
Most campgrounds are developed and thus would require you to book ahead and pay a fee. But what if you are on a budget, or want more flexibility?
Dispersed camping is your answer.
On this page, we will share with you where to find some of the best free campsite sites in Michigan.
Read More : Guide to Dispersed Camping
Where to camp for free in Michigan?
- Upper Peninsula. The upper peninsula is much quieter with lesser major roads. The camping is mainly concentrated in the Hiawatha National Forest (east side) and Ottawa National Forest (west side). Besides the national forest, there are 5 state parks in all corners of the Upper Peninsula, starting from Copper Harbor in the north to Tahquamenon Falls in the east, Straits in the southeast, the Porcupine Mountains in the west, and JW Wells near the Wisconsin border.
- Lower Peninsula, which is also known as Lower Michigan is less elevated and surrounded by Lake Michigan to the west and Lake Huron to the west. Most of the camping can be found in the Huron-Manistee National Forests.
Hiawatha National Forest, Upper Peninsula
The Hiawatha National Forest is located in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and features spectacular shorelines both in the north and south. It sits at the intersection between 3 of the 5 great lakes; Lake Huron, Lake Michigan, and Lake Superior. This 894,836 acres national is divided into the East Zone, which is slightly smaller at 44% of the total forest area, and the West Zone.
The East Zone stretches from the small town of St. Ignace which has a population of only 2,452., to the northern town of Sault Ste. Marie at the Canadian border. In the East Zone, you can camp for free in the Sault Sainte Marie Ranger District (upper half of east side) and St. Ignace Ranger District (lower half of east side). The campsites are available all year long and are generally quiet.
Driving further into the Upper Peninsula will bring you to the West Zone. You can disperse camp in the Munising Ranger District (upper half of west side) and Rapid River/ Manistique Ranger District (upper half of west side). The latter is generally more popular among campers as there are more camp selections at the Indian River Canoe Trail and Pine Marten Run Trail. If you are looking for developed campgrounds, there are at least 20 to choose from such as Camp 7 Lake Campground, Colwell Lake Campground, and Little Bay De Noc Campground.
Ottawa National Forest, Upper Peninsula
Located in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, near the Wisconsin border, the Ottawa National Forest covers 993,010 acres of public land. This area is well-known for its high rainfalls in the summer and heavy snowfalls in the winter. Some parts of the forest receive as much as 200″ of snow annually making it a popular destination for winter sports.
You can disperse camp at any of the 5 ranger districts. The more popular ones are the Bergland, Kenton, and Watersmeet Ranger District. The maximum stay limit here is 16 days and if you want to continue camping, you will need to move to another area at least 5 miles away.
If you are camping here in the summer, the soil is likely wet on most days, and make sure you use the right stakes to pitch your tent.
Huron-Manistee National Forests, Lower Peninsula
The Huron-Manistee National Forest (established in 1945) is actually a combination of the Huron (established in 1909) and Manistee National Forest (established in 1938).
The area is made up of 978,906 acres of public lands, and 5,786 acres of wetlands. There are more than a thousand lakes; big and small in this area and the endless miles of rivers. Many campers like this location for watersports such as canoeing, kayak, and fishing.
Disperse camping is allowed here as long as you adhere to the guidelines. Keep in mind that you can’t camp within 200′ of any water body, developed campgrounds or trails, 400′ from Lake Michigan shoreline. So, pick your campsite carefully.
There is also a maximum stay limit of 16 days (14 days for national forests in other states). You will have to move out together with all your camping gear after that period.
There is no shortage of campgrounds here, but not all are free. Popular dispersed campsites include Buttercup Campground, Cathedral Pines Campground, Meadow Springs Campground, Condon Lakes West, and Bowman Lake Campground.
Things to know about dispersed camping in Michigan
- No fees and permits are required for camping in national forests. Make sure to check the United States Forest Service website to ensure the campsite is not closed before leaving home.
- No amenities at primitive sites. Bring everything you need, including drinking water.
- Pack all your trash out. There are no waste disposal facilities.
- No RV hookups for electricity, sewage, or water at all campgrounds (both developed or primitive).
- Maximum 16 days stay. You will need to move out of the area (5 miles) if to continue camping.
Amanda Williams is a writer, plant-nerd, and outdoor enthusiast. She has traveled extensively, around the U.S., throughout Asia, Europe, and Latin America. Everywhere she treks, she takes time to enjoy the outdoors. John Muir is her hero. She aspires to inspire people to live better as he did.