Michigan State Parks Centennial: Ionia Recreation Area

We visited Ionia State Recreation Area on the official Michigan State Parks Centennial celebration weekend (May 11-12). We were really hoping to see lots of people out and about for the centennial weekend, but, unfortunately, the weather was once again not cooperating. Cloudy skies and highs in the 50s meant only a handful of visitors were at the park. To see what I mean, check out the video we shot during our visit.

Located halfway between Grand Rapids and Lansing, the Ionia State Recreation Area has a lot to offer for both day-use and overnight visitors. The 4,500 acres offers a variety of activities include hiking, boating, fishing, camping, disc golf, equestrian trails, biking trails, picnic areas, and a beach.

Lake, trails, and state park camping

lake and trees at Ionia State Recreation AreaSessions Lake, located in the middle of the park, is a no-wake lake. It’s perfect for kayaking, fishing, and swimming. The day we visited there were probably close to a dozen folks out on the lake despite the chilly weather. It was nice to see. The lake also is home to swans and other waterfowl, so be on the lookout.

We explored the 3.5-mile hiking trail that surrounds the lake and goes through a mix of open field, marsh and forest areas. This is probably one of my favorite state park trails because it was so peaceful. (That’s partially because we had it practically to ourselves that day.) It offered a nice mix of terrain, elevation, scenery and diverse habitats. It was quite muddy in some sections due to the recent rain, but that afforded us some cute waterfalls and streams to cross. The trilliums were blooming in full force and the frogs were croaking away.

a trillium flower in bloom

If you’re into mountain biking, a separate 9-mile trail system runs along the park’s northern boundary near the Grand River.

Ionia State Recreation Area is well-known for its equestrian campground and 15 miles of horse trails that meander through the entire park. The equestrian campground has 49 rustic sites, which is fairly large to accommodate groups. A few of the sites include not only hitching posts, but also small corrals. Unlike other rustic equestrian campgrounds around the state that anyone can camp at, this one specifically is for horse-camping only.

The reason for that is about 100 yards away is a modern campground for everyone else. The campground has the feel of what you might picture as the quintessential state park camping experience. While the 100 sites are modern, many are on the smaller side but are surrounded by enough vegetation to give a bit of privacy between sites and give a woodsy feeling.

State park activities

Interspersed throughout the park is the disc golf course. It does share some paths with the hiking trails, but don’t worry, unless a shot is very erratic, you shouldn’t worry about getting hit.

beach at Ionia State Recreation AreaThe main day-use area includes a nice sandy beach, along with a playground, picnic tables, grills, and a bathhouse. If you want to hang out at the park, but aren’t into the beach scene, a second day-use space is available in a more wooded, secluded area across the lake. Two vault toilets, a hand pump, picnic tables, and grills are available for use.

Three of the outermost areas of the park are for field dog trials. You do need a special permit to hold an event in these areas, and you can find out more about this activity on the DNR’s website.

A teeny bit of history

On the very northern edge of the park, almost obscured by the weeds, is a small piece of history — Sessions School House. Built in 1847, it is the oldest cobblestone schoolhouse in Michigan still standing. Now, it’s all boarded up and not in use, but the fact that it’s still there is a miracle, considering all the other old gorgeous buildings that once surrounded it have all been torn down. How do we know this? A historical board has been erected in their place.

Impressions of Ionia State Recreation Area

Ionia State Recreation Area should be on everyone’s list. It’s a great park, with lots of variety, and it’s super convenient to access for residents in Central or West Michigan. So, check it out and tell us what you think.


We have plenty more adventures to come, so subscribe to this blog and our YouTube channel. (We have a video about Ionia State Recreation Area here.) You can follow us on Instagram, our Facebook page, and Twitter. Plus, you can see our progress as we visit each park 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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