Kids love islands. Is it the miles of sand just waiting for them to construct intricate tunnels in while the water laps at their feet? Or maybe it's the waves, with their constant tug and pull, that just beg kids to run in and out. Perhaps it's the chance to warm up, inside and out, so they can remember the feel of sunshine once winter comes again. Or maybe, just maybe, having a chance to play on an island taps into their inner explorer – letting them feel like they've discovered their own little paradise.
Whatever the reason, you don't have to get on an airplane to find a place for your family's island retreat. Instead, fill up the gas tank, have your crew pack their bags and take a drive to Michigan's shorelines, which include a smattering of islands not far from the mainland that extend into the northwestern tip of Ohio.
That's right: It's time to go island hopping in the Midwest!
Day Trip Islands
Pack a picnic and plan on taking a hike at these Michigan islands that are perfect for a daylong adventure.
The 982-acre Belle Isle is the country's largest city-owned island park. You can walk, bike or drive your way from one side to the other. On the west end of the island, take a look at the impressive Scott Memorial Fountain, the 85-foot Carillon Tower and the Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory, open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday. It's free!
The conservatory has an array of flower gardens and a koi fishpond. Perhaps the island's most family-friendly spots are Kids' Row (just north of the conservatory) and the beach. At Kids' Row, you'll find a variety of play structures, places to climb, animal sculptures and a giant slide ($1 for the slide). The beach has lifeguards available noon to 8 p.m. on the half-mile of sandy beach. For $3, your kids can take turns on the beach slide – all day long!
Feel like you're walking back in time on Windmill Island – which happens to have a 249-year-old working windmill. While there's no beach on this small island, your kids won't miss it with plenty of other unique attractions. Start with the 125-foot windmill that towers over 36 acres of immaculately kept gardens, canals and paths. Then, let your kids take a spin on the antique carousel, where they can take their pick of hand-carved and painted animals to ride.
Stop in to the Posthouse museum to see a replica of a 14th-century inn. And during the summer months, at 11 a.m. and 1 and 2 p.m., there are old-time traditional Dutch dance performances. Admission to Windmill Island is $7.50 for adults, $4.50 for children ages 5-15 and free for ages 4 and under. The park is open 9:30 a.m.-6 p.m. (ticket booth closes at 5 p.m.).
Not far from downtown Traverse City, Power Island is a local favorite that many tourists miss. The reason? You can't drive or walk to the island – the only way to get there is by boat or kayak. There are a handful of boat shops in Traverse City that rent out kayaks, and some will drop them for you at Bowers Harbor (a public launch site northeast of the island, two miles from its shores).
While many families spend their time on Power Island's beaches and picnic areas, you might want to bring your hiking shoes: There are well-maintained trails throughout. Campsites are not available on Power Island, but two-acre Bassett Island – which, during low water, is connected to Power by a gravel causeway – has four rustic campsites managed by the Grand Traverse County parks department.
Your kids might have heard of Old West ghost towns, but what about exploring a ghost island? South Manitou was once a bustling island full of farmers and villagers. Today, remnants of those busy times remain for your family to discover. You can walk up the 100-foot South Manitou Island Lighthouse, which was in use from 1871 to 1958 (have your camera ready – the view is gorgeous). Make sure to look along the shoreline for shipwrecks, one of which juts up from the water. You can meander through the trails on the island by foot – or sign up for one of the auto tours (1 1/2 hours, $10 for adults, $7 for kids).
The Manitou Island ferry leaves from Leland every morning during summertime at 10 a.m. (check-in 9:15 a.m.) and arrives at the island at 11:30 a.m.; it departs at 4 p.m. Ferry tickets are $35 for adults and $20 for kids. You'll want to pack a lunch, since there are no eateries on the island, but many places in Leland offer boxed to-go lunches.
Note: There are some campsites available on South Manitou Island, but for a more rustic camp experience see North Manitou Island in next section.
The real draw of these series of 36 wooded islands on Lake Huron is water recreation. You won't find any ferry service; instead, you'll need to rent a kayak or canoe or bring your own to paddle through the bays and channels here. The islands have colorful names like Alligator, Bear, Birch, Boot, Echo, Lone Susan and others.
Plan on starting your trip in the city of Hessel or Cedarville. If your boating skills are a little rusty, you might want to sign up for a guided tour from Woods & Water Ecotours out of Hessel; they have a variety of packages available, including some for beginners and even sunset and moonlight excursions. There is lodging available in town, as well as private homes available to rent on the various islands.
For kids who love to camp and relish the idea of feeling like they're the only people for miles around, here you go! Keep in mind: These islands are for serious campers and are probably best for children ages 8 and older. Make sure to visit the websites for complete fee and use information.
As the largest island in Lake Superior, Isle Royale offers unspoiled, rugged wilderness just waiting to be explored. To get to the island, there are four ferry services available – and a seaplane.
You might want to make your reservation, however, aboard the largest piece of moving equipment owned and operated by the National Park Service: the Ranger III. This ferry offers educational programs, lounges and a grill to keep passengers occupied during their five-hour trip to the island from their home base at Houghton. Call the number below to make your reservation; tickets are $60 for adults, $20 for children ages 7-11 and free for ages 6 and under. (Parking is free at the ferry terminal and the ferry can also transport, for an additional fee, boats and kayaks.)
While there are 36 campsites available on Isle Royale, another option is a stay at the Rock Harbor Lodge (866-644-2003).
North Manitou Island is the more rustic, wild cousin of South Manitou. You'll need to take the ferry or a private boat to make it out to this island that is a haven for backpackers and campers. The nearly eight-mile-long island has 20 miles of shoreline and several overgrown trails. Once a farming community, there are several structures on the island, which visitors are warned not to enter – since they're mostly in disrepair.
You'll need to plan ahead to camp here by getting a reservation and paying for the site ahead of time (most people stay for a few days). The ferry departs at 10 a.m. (check-in 9:15 a.m.) from the mainland at Leland and arrives at the island at 11 a.m. Ferries return daily, weather permitting, at 11 a.m. for pickup. Parking is $2 per day at the ferry transit center.
'All Inclusive' Islands
For the complete island experience of beaches, hotels, restaurants and shopping – along with events for visitors – try these popular Midwest vacation spots.
If you haven't yet spent a weekend – or week – on Mackinac, it's time! Most Michiganders probably picture the historic Grand Hotel when they think of Mackinac, but many other hotels and resorts dot this island playground. To get here, you'll need to leave your car behind and ferry to the auto-free hotspot.
Once you've arrived, enjoy golfing, horseback riding, kayaking, carriage rides, fishing, kite flying, hiking, historic parks and much more. The most popular way to get around is via rented bike. For a memorable day, bike the island's eight-mile perimeter loop, stopping along the way at places that interest your kids.
As the largest American island on Lake Erie, Kelleys Island boasts a 600-acre Ohio State Park and 17 miles of coastline. You can walk, drive or bike your way through the island – or rent a golf cart. Along with sandy beaches for a day in the sun, plan on spending time exploring some of the island's other one-of-a-kind wonders: The island has petrogylphs at Inscription Rock that date back at least 400 years – and Glacial Grooves where, long ago, glaciers left their mark on the land.
There are two ferries that go from the mainland to Kelleys Island several times a day: Jet Express (800-245-1JET) from Sandusky (one-way is $14.99 for adults, $4.50 kids ages 6-12 and free for ages 5 and under) and Kelleys Island Ferry (419-798-9763), which takes off from Marblehead (one-way is $9.50 for adults, $6 kids ages 5-11 and free for 4 and under; ferry your car, too, for $15).