We recently headed up to the northern lower peninsula of Michigan to grab a few days of camping and hiking. Driving off Friday after work, we ended up, well after sundown, at the first spot Ari had researched: Indian Lake Campground.
A rustic national forest campground north of White Cloud, Michigan, it promised to be a serene spot beside a lake with only six sites. We figured a late October trip would mean seeing very few people crazy enough to join us so it would be extra peaceful there.
After more than two and a half hours on the road, it was great to see the campground approaching on our GPS. But that feeling didn’t last long once we realized the GPS tried to have us go onto a road that didn’t exist. After turning and forcing the GPS unit to reroute, we found ourselves on a seasonal road that ended abruptly with a Private Drive sign.
Back out to the main road, after a little debate about the different options we had, and we were headed to a second choice just a few miles away: Benton Lake Campground. Although it was a larger campground, we didn’t think too many people would be joining us with a weather forecast in the mid-40s during the day and the potential for rain off and on.
Unfortunately, as we turned in to enter the campground, we were greeted with a locked gate. A quick search on the website for the Huron-Manistee National Forest told us this campground shut down on Sept. 10. Ridiculous! Right as the fall leaves are hitting their peak color in the area, the U.S. Forest Service shuts down a nice campground on a lake. Where is the sense in that? (We did go back the next day to wander around in the daylight and confirmed that it has many great, paved spots that people could enjoy until at least mid-October.)
So, with the night ticking past us and our patience getting a little thinner, we decided to give one last shot at finding Indian Lake Campground, which we confirmed on the website is open year-round. Despite double-checking the directions, the road to this campground just did not seem to exist. But then Jessi noticed a road we hadn’t seen before, so we tried one last turn. Sure enough, a couple of hundred yards down the road was a sign that said Indian Lake Campground was ahead. This road, by the way, is not the road the Forest Service directions told us to take.
Finally! We were on our way down a seasonal road that we saw on the GPS ended at a lake — exactly where we expected to find the campground. Unfortunately, our adventure wasn’t quite over for the evening, as we arrived in a rather small parking area with a boat ramp but no apparent campsites. Flashlight in hand, Jessi went for a quick recon on foot to see if we were missing something that hadn’t appeared in our headlights yet. She found several empty campsites, but they were walk-in only since, as we discovered, Indian Lake is a tent-only campground with only walk-in sites. At this point, we made a joint decision that where we were now was good enough for the night. We leveled the van in a parking space right near the lake and settled in for the night. As cold rain started to fall, we were quite certain we would be the only ones finding their way to Indian Lake that night.
The next morning, with the temperature below 40 degrees and the rain starting and stopping, we decided to have a leisurely breakfast and enjoy the view of the lake, such as it was in the gray and cold. Jessi shot a quick video to show off what is probably a beautiful scene when the sun is shining.
We eventually decided to drive back up the seasonal road and make our way to another location for our second night.
Jessi knew of another campground at the Hungerford Recreation Area in a nearby area of the Manistee National Forest. Hungerford is a rustic campground with more than 30 spots; most of them are set up to handle horse trailers and RVs so that people can take advantage of the nearby horse-riding trails.
We spent much of the day on Sunday enjoying about seven and a half miles of the 10 miles of mountain biking/hiking trails in the area.
All-in-all, it was a good weekend getaway, with a few lessons learned:
1. The National Forest campground websites include information about RVs only if RV sites exist. If the information doesn’t mention RVs, then the campground is tenting only — but even then it can mean two different things. We found another tent-only campground in the area (Shelley Lake) that had drive-up sites, whereas there were only walk-in sites at Indian Lake.
2. Just because information about a campground is available on a website run by the government agency in charge of the campground doesn’t mean the directions to reach it are correct!
3. No matter how prepared you think you are , always consider another resource. We travel with a GPS unit by TomTom, Google Maps on our phones (with offline maps downloaded in case we lose our cellular signal), a Michigan atlas and a national forest map that helps us find campgrounds and where seasonal forest roads connect.
4. Patience is a virtue — and sometimes being willing to take one more drive around an area to see if you missed a turn can pay off. Also, no matter what, remember it’s not your travel partner that provided the wrong directions or removed a road where one used to be. So don’t let your frustration over being temporarily lost sour your experience or theirs.
5. Just because your original plans don’t work out doesn’t mean you won’t have a good time. We ended up enjoying a leisurely breakfast in a serene spot and still found a way to accomplish our hiking and camping goals for the weekend. In fact, having this story to tell made for a more exciting and fun trip overall!