Going camping on a budget can be a difficult process for many outdoor enthusiasts, especially if there are unavoidable costs like gas, food, and, of course, camping fees. However, if you find yourself in Michigan, you can easily strike off unnecessary lodge fees by going dispersed camping and adopting a fun nomadic lifestyle.
Are you planning to go camping in Michigan? Let us point you to the best dispersed camping spots in Michigan.
All You Need To Know About Michigan
Fondly called sobriquets such as Great Lake State, The Mitten State, and Water Winter Wonderland, Michigan is a state located in the Great Lakes region of the upper Midwestern United States. It is the only state in the United States of America to be split into two large land segments.
Although it spans a total area of about 97,000 square miles, Michigan is only the 22nd largest state in the United State. This is because the state only measures approximately 56,539 square miles in land area. This makes sense, especially since the state has 40,175 square miles area of water, making it the second-ranked state with the most water by area in the country.
Regardless, Michigan is one of the most beautiful states in the country, coming on top of the list of any camper’s dream. It is also uniquely known for various reasons, one of them being the only state that touches four of the five Great Lakes.
Coming in behind Alaska, Michigan is home to the second-longest coastline. It also houses the longest freshwater coastline of any U.S. state.
However, gorgeous shorelines are not the only thing Michigan has to offer.
There are many things Michigan is known for and fishing activities thanks to its extensive shoreline, blooming agricultural economy, and its automobile history is not all the state has to offer. One of the many reasons Michigan remains popular, especially among outdoor enthusiasts, is its abundance of landforms, natural resources, wildlife, and adventure.
Michigan boasts of lots of natural attractions that are a beacon to tourists within and outside the states. From the Great Lakes bay to National Parks and Wildlife areas, Michigan is home to many interesting places for campers to explore. This explains why, according to the Michigan Department of Transportation, millions of people visit Michigan annually in search of fun outdoor experiences. If the many different types of tourists that visit the Great Lake State, campers and overlanders make up a large percentage.
Michigan’s terrains feature mildly rolling low hills and swamps in the east, occasional flat topography, and rugged high hills. This not only makes it a great camping location but also a perfect part of overland routes and trails in the Midwest. From mountains to hills, valleys, plains, and coastlines, Michigan has it all. However, the best part remains that many of these landforms are situated in publicly owned lands that are open to adventurous campers who seek the wilder side of the state.
Michigan has a system of publicly owned lands that are secured for wildlife habitat, wildlife watching and hunting. In fact, the Department of Natural Resources in Michigan records an approximate state-wide ownership of 4.6 million acres of public land that offer ample opportunities for numerous outdoor activities. Although public land measures just about 10 percent of the total land area in the state, these lands offer lots of potential, including a large number of places to enjoy and free areas to pitch one’s tent child enjoying an intimate experience in nature.
While Michigan might not be a camper’s immediate choice when it comes to dispersed camping, particularly because the state is a lot smaller than places like Utah, Oregon, and California. However, the state offers a surprising number of areas where campers can enjoy free dispersed camping during their expedition.
The Best Dispersed Camping Spots In Michigan
While Michigan might be welcoming to dispersed campers, it is essential that campers do not simply turn on their ignition and lay their tent in any park in the stare. Just as much as it is essential to learn the rules of dispersed camping in Michigan, if is important to become familiar with areas where dispersed camping is legal and allowed in the state.
Basically, dispersed camping in Michigan is permitted on public land that the United States Forest Service manages. Unless stated otherwise, dispersed camping is legal in these public areas, as long as campers make the proper inquiries from Ranger District Offices or by consulting Forest Service road maps.
Other than the United States Forest Service lands, there are numerous State Forests that permit legal dispersed camping. These areas are a blessing to campers, especially because Michigan is one of the Midwest’s best camping destinations.
Consisting of almost one million acres of land, Ottawa National Forest is located in Michigan’s Western Upper Peninsula. It crosses most of Gogebic and Ontonagon counties, and other counties including Iron, Houghton, Baraga, and Marquette counties. Ottawa National Forest and it's resources is managed by the United States Forest Service.
Ottawa National Forest spreads from the south shore of Lake Superior to the Wisconsin border. Former home to clans of the Ojibwa people, this National Forest is rich in exotic flora, interesting wildlife, and lots of interesting recreational activities.
The Ottawa National Forest is made up of three designated U.S. wilderness areas which are McCormick Wilderness and the Sturgeon River Gorge Wilderness near Kenton, Michigan, and the Sylvania Wilderness near Watersmeet. The forest is open year-round and offers extensive areas for activities such as swimming, camping, hiking, and OHV riding. The views are spectacular and breathtaking with rolling hills, lakes, rivers, waterfalls, and trees, all which seem to be unique with every change in weather.
However, other than interesting places to explore, Ottawa National Forest also offers remote areas for campers exploring the forest to set up their tent. These dispersed campsites are often isolated and sprinkled all over the forest, offering accommodation to campers regardless of the area in the forest they find themselves.
Although some of the dispersed campsites in Ottawa National Forest have minor amenities like campfire rings and pit latrines, some are completely nomadic and will require campers to make the most of the little resources available.
While dispersed camping in Ottawa National Forest is legal, campers have to abide by several regulations. Some of these are:
- Adopting the Leave No Trace principles
- Not spending more than 16 days in one location
- Moving to a site at least 5 miles away
2. Hiawatha National Forest
Whether you are overlanding with family or enjoying a camping trip alone, Hiawatha National Forest has some of the best dispersed camping spots you will enjoy in Michigan.
Hiawatha National Forest is located in Michigan's scenic Upper Peninsula. It measures approximately 895,000 acres and is also managed by the United States Forest Service.
Hiawatha National Forest is divided into two subunits, which are Eastside and Westside. Both sides sprawl across several parts of the Chippewa, Mackinac, Delta, Alger, Schoolcraft, and Marquette counties, the first two counties lying in the East Unit.
The topography in Hiawatha National Forest is a wild collage of sandy areas, forest, and intimidating rocky paths. More interestingly, the National Forest is home to several wildlife species, including coyotes, bobcats, lynxes, minx, and even wild turkeys.
Hiawatha National Forest is perfect for several fun activities such as scenic viewing, hiking, and camping. It is also one of the best places to enjoy legal dispersed camping in Michigan.
When it comes to dispersed camping in Hiawatha National Forest, there is a wide variety of dispersed campground options to choose from. This includes Minerva Lake Dispersed Campsite, Ewing Point Dispersed Campsite, Ironjaw Lake Dispersed Campsites, and many more.
Although camping is marked dispersed campsites in Hiawatha National Forest is legal, there are regulations campers need to follow. These regulations are similar to those in Ottawa National Forest and include:
- A stay limit of 16 days after which campers are required to move
- Not restricting any access road
- Following the Leave No Trace Principles
- Not camping within fifty (50) feet of a body of water
3. Huron-Manistee National Forest
The Huron-Manistee National Forest is not one but two National Forests. These forests are the Huron National Forest and the Manistee National Forest that were combined as one in 1945 due to administration purposes.
The Huron-Manistee National Forest measures about 978,906 acres of public lands, including 5,786 acres of wetlands. It lies between the shores of Lake Michigan and Lake Huron, and extends across the northern lower peninsula of Michigan.
This National Forest offers year-round leisure opportunities, including motorized activities and unmotorized ones such as camping and hiking. With the diverse flora and fauna in the area and interesting topography, it is almost impossible to run out of things to do in Huron-Manistee National Forest.
Tourists can also enjoy the dispersed campsites in the area. Although these sites are mostly nomadic, they offer an enjoyable outdoor experience with nature.
To go dispersed camping at Huron-Manistee National Forest:
- You do not need a permit
- Camping is allowed everywhere unless there are “no camping” markers
- Prepare to go boondocking as there are no water, sewage or electric amenities.
4. Au Sable State Forest
Au Sable State Forest is located in the north-central Lower Peninsula of Michigan. It is a State Forest operated and managed by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.
Au Sable State Forest was created as a result of the lumbering boom in Michigan that occurred in the late 19th century. The area was consumed by forest fires that drastically led to a decrease in its economic value. As a result, the lands were either sold to subsistence farmers or returned to the state in lieu of unpaid property taxes.
Now, Au Sable State Forest is a prosperous area used for wildlife game management, especially to protect endangered species. The area also has two essential landmarks that attract tourists.
Au Sable State Forest is one of the best locations for motorized and unmotorized activities in Michigan. It is also a great place to engage in primitive camping adventures.
Dispersed camping spots in Au Sable State Forest are spread across the area. Although the primitive camping areas in this State Forest require payment (unlike many other dispersed camping spots on this list), Au Sable State Forest primitive camping spots are great places to enjoy the nomadic way of life.
5. Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore
If you crave an area with scenic and colorful views, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore is the area for you. Nestled along the south shore of Lake Superior in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore offers jaw-dropping views ranging from rocky formations to the crystal waters of the lake.
A hidden gem, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore is surprisingly not as popular as other natural attractions in Michigan. However, if you find yourself here, you will never want to leave.
There are lots of interesting things to do at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, including hiking the many trails, enjoying the gorgeous sunsets, exploring the beach, going kayaking, and, of course, going dispersed camping.
There are many backcountry campsites in the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. Although visiting the area requires a permit, and a diverse selection of these sites need to be booked, the dispersed campsites undoubtedly offer one of the best experiences in Michigan. In Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, you can enjoy nature, dispersed camping, and everything in-between.
6. Green Road Dispersed Camping
Although it is located in Manistee National Forest, Green Road deserves a shoutout on its own. Totally free and extremely beautiful, Green Road Dispersed Camping is any camper’s dream.
Snug in a beautiful evergreen forest, Green Road has more than 15 dispersed camping spots that accommodate tents and vehicles alike. These sites cost nothing, have no amenities, but offer an unforgettable camping experience.
Enjoying The Michigan Dispersed Camping Experience
Being adequately prepared is the only way to enjoy dispersed camping in Michigan. One of the best ways to do this is to research the best dispersed camping spots in the state and prepare ahead.
From Ottawa National Forest to Green Road, Michigan has some of the best camping pots you can find in the US. However, before setting out, it is essential to know the rules of the area and prepare for the nomadic lifestyle these places offer.
For more interesting yet free dispersed camping options, check out our list of best free dispersed camping spots in Oregon.