Michigan State Parks Centennial: Waterloo State Recreation Area

Waterloo State Recreation Area is so large that it’s hard to fully describe; it’s a park you must visit and see for yourself.

The largest state park in the Lower Peninsula, Waterloo State Recreation Area checks in at more than 20,000 acres. It spans two counties, includes 11 lakes, is well-known for its trail system, has multiple camping options, hosts a large discovery center, and is a prime location for swimming, fishing, hunting, wildlife viewing and much much more!

The history behind the state park involves a series of misfortunes and sad history. As with most of Michigan, the land was originally Native American territory. When the tribes were forced out, the white settlers moved in and tried their hand at farming. Unfortunately, the land was not suitable for crops and ultimately the already failing farms were done in by the Great Depression. The federal government bought out the farms, the CCC came in for redevelopment, and eventually, the land was turned over to become a state park.

Today, it’s an outdoor-lover’s paradise, with so much to enjoy. Keep reading for a brief look at all the opportunities you will find.

Trails

Do you want to run, hike, bike, snowshoe, cross-country ski, or ride your horse? All of those options are available at Waterloo, with 50-plus miles of trails crisscrossing through the park.

Here’s a run-down of the options (click links to view maps):

The DTE Energy Foundation Trail is a “cutting-edge, sustainable trail open to mountain bikers, trail runners, hikers, and cross-country skiers.” A fourth loop recently opened, providing plenty of options for distance and difficulty. To keep the trail in pristine condition and prevent erosion, it closes periodically after wet weather. Conditions are updated daily on the trail Facebook page. There are two parking areas, and on busy weekends they will fill up fast. Also, be sure to watch the signs that tell you which direction to ride, as it alternates days.

Camping

Waterloo Recreation Area includes multiple camping options:

  • 2 modern campgrounds (Sugarloaf Lake and Portage Lake)
  • 2 rustic campgrounds (Equestrian, Green Lake)
  • 1 group camping area
  • 4 rustic cabins
  • 1 camper cabin
  • 1 yurt
  • Backcountry camping for thru-hikers

We stayed in the Sugarloaf Campground. It has a boat launch, small swimming beach, and a small playground. It is mostly a flat, open, grassy campground with about 160 sites. A few sites have 50 amp and a handful are paved for accessibility. Most sites are quite large, although a few along the woods are much smaller and quite unlevel. We reserved one of these (Site 70) and ended up putting our Roadtrek sideways to be more level, but also to avoid the big tree, firepit, and picnic table occupying most of the site.

By the time we were done maneuvering and set up, I felt we were right on top of our neighbors. But that ended up being just fine because, in the end, they offered to let us hang out by their fire, we discovered we had a lot in common, and we left as new friends!

Sunday morning we hung out with the campground host to have coffee and donuts and meet other campers. Campground hosts have usually been camping in the parks for many years and are a wealth of information. Many hosts offer games and activities for the kids on different days of the week. Make sure you stop and say hi to yours and check out the calendar of events.

Portage Lake Campground has fewer campsites but has more activities and a larger beach and swimming area. It has a concession store, 18-hole disc golf course, and a modern playground. The north loop here is open year-round with electricity, but no open restrooms.

Discovery Center

The Gerald E. Eddy Discovery Center is a must-stop for kids and adults. While the kids learn by playing in the children’s area (including a display of mastodon fossils), the adults can learn about the area’s geology and history via interpretive displays. Everyone will enjoy the live animal room, including turtles, lampreys, snakes, or whatever happens to be on exhibit. Outside the center are rock displays showcasing the geological diversity in the area.

Final thoughts

Waterloo State Recreation Area is so huge it will take more than one trip to see and experience it all. That’s why it’s the perfect four-season park. Come in the winter to snowshoe or cross-country ski and enjoy the peacefulness of a fresh snowfall. Stop in the spring to watch the flowers bloom and the baby animals appear. Camp in the summer and bike or walk the trails. And visit in the fall for the colors and bird migrations.

 A lot of driving is required between the various segments of the park and it may take some time to reach your destination. I also recommend looking at and printing the park map before you arrive so you’ll know which entrance you need because GPS might not take you to the right end of the park. We did not do this and it took a few wrong turns before we found our way to the campground.

As always, don’t forget your binoculars and a camera. Come for the day or stay a week. Enjoy the beauty of the park and leave us a note about your favorite part.


We have plenty more adventures to come, so subscribe to this blog and our YouTube channel. (We have a video about Waterloo 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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