Michigan State Parks: Fort Wilkins

Army barracks with an artillery cannon in the foreground
Main parade grounds of Fort Wilkins Historic State Park

Fort Wilkins Historic State Park sits at the very tippy-top of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula in Copper Harbor. It lies on the far eastern edge of the Keweenaw Peninsula between Lake Superior and Lake Fanny Hooe. While it became a state park in 1923, Fort Wilkins Historic State Park goes back to the mid 1800s and offers a glimpse at what life was like for a soldier stationed in Michigan’s harsh Upper Peninsula.

Fort Wilkins Army Outpost

Miners flocked to the area in the 1830s and early 1840s seeking to get rich after copper was discovered in the Keweenaw Peninsula.

The origins of Fort Wilkins Historic State Park began in 1844 when the army constructed the outpost due to a perceived threat of hostilities between the Native Americans in the region and the influx of miners. The threat never materialized and by 1846 the soldiers were eventually sent to the Mexican War, leaving one sole sergeant as caretaker. For a short period the fort was leased to a private citizen in hopes of building a health resort.

Fort Wilkins was briefly recommissioned from 1867-1870 to house soldiers after the Civil War and amidst concern about the Irish-Americans attacking Canada in the Fenian Raids. (History is slightly fuzzy on all these last accounts).

During the copper rush, a lighthouse was constructed to guide the ships bringing in supplies and hauling out copper. The Copper Harbor Lighthouse was rebuilt in 1866 and still stands today although it is no longer in use.

A Lighthouse
Copper Harbor Lighthouse – not accessible by land.

Exploring Fort Wilkins

Fort Wilkins Historic State Park tells the story of life as a soldier in the northern frontier. The fort originally had 27 structures. Those included a guardhouse, powder magazine, seven officer’s quarters, two barracks, four quarters for married enlisted men, two mess halls, hospital, storehouse, sutler’s store, quartermaster’s store, bakery, blacksmith’s shop, carpenter’s shop, icehouse, stables, and a slaughterhouse.

Today, there are 19 buildings, 12 of which are original. The state has done a tremendous job of preserving and reconstructing the buildings based on archeological excavations. The buildings house exhibits explaining daily life at the Fort and include numerous artifacts including medical equipment, weapons, clothing, army gear and more.

A very small fort cemetery is located on the property, along with two mining shafts.

Plan to spend a minimum of 2 hours exploring the buildings and grounds at Fort Wilkins. A park store with souvenirs and ice cream is located near the park entrance. There also are picnic tables, grills and a playscape next to the parking lot.

The Michigan History Center oversees the historical side of the state park. Details on hours and amenities can be found on their website.

Camping at Fort Wilkins State Park

While you could visit Fort Wilkins as a day trip, we suggest grabbing one of the 160 campsites or two mini cabins at the state park campground. Then you can take your time at the Fort, as well as explore the rest of the Copper Harbor area.

There are two different campground loops available, with a variety of site styles. The East Campground is wide open and grassy, with very few trees, sites packed in close together and sharing of electric poles. This is a good campground for groups wanting to camp together. It is located directly next to the main park entrance and day-use area.

View of a lake surrounded by trees at Fort Wilkins State Park
View of Lake Fanny Hooe from the West Campground

The West Campground has both gravel and paved sites, but each site is well delineated with trees between each offering lots of privacy. A handful of the sites in the West Campground have views of Lake Fanny Hooe (but are not directly on the lake). Recently, nine sites were upgraded to pull-throughs with 50-amp service.

The West Campground is located a half-mile down the road from the main entrance, but there is a foot/bike path that leads to the back entrance of the fort. The dump station also is located at the West Campground.

If you are in need, laundry facilities are available at the campground.

Copper Country Activities

Whether you are staying at Fort Wilkins State Park or making it a day trip, don’t miss out on the other attractions in the area. This includes the Eagle Harbor Lighthouse, a number of wildlife sanctuaries, and the famous and extremely scenic Brockway Mountain Drive. I highly suggest doing the latter in September/October in full peak color season.  

Panoramic view of colorful trees and a lake
View of Copper Harbor from the top of Brockway Mountain

We have plenty more adventures to come, so subscribe to this blog and our YouTube channel. We have a video about Fort Wilkins State Park here. You can follow us on Instagram, our Facebook page, and Twitter. Plus, you can see each of the parks we visited on this interactive Google Map. You also can keep track of our activities on social media with the hashtags #hikecampgo and #mistateparks100.

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