Reconnecting With Nature in Port Crescent Park
This article is based on the author's experiences in Port Crescent Park. Everyone's experiences may differ based on company, season, expectations, etc.
We all need a getaway sometimes. It’s important for both physical and mental health to just take a break sometimes. And if it’s been a while since you’ve really appreciated Mother Nature, a nice camping trip can be a great way to recharge. I was definitely overdue for a vacation, and as luck would have it, my friend Katelyn was also looking for a getaway. Michigan offered a variety of beautiful places to camp, including lots of beachside state parks. Plus with friends who live in the area, it was a no-brainer for me and Katelyn to have our vacation in Michigan.
We had a long drive ahead of us and wanted to be sure we arrived in time to set up camp before it got too dark. So we loaded up the car around 5 in the morning, filled up on gas, grabbed ice and coffee, and were on the highway a little after 5:30. It was still dark out, the Sun hadn’t even started to peek its head out yet. It didn’t take us long to cross our first of 3 state borders, crossing into Illinois shortly after getting on the highway.
The Sun started to rise as we made the transition from the small Illinois towns that border St. Louis into the Illinois countryside. The sunrise over the open fields was vibrant and beautiful with a breathtaking mix of orange and pink. After about two hours on the highway, we made our second stop of the morning. We were both ready for some breakfast. With limited vegetarian options at the gas station, we both grabbed some cheesy potato bites, switched drivers, and got back on the road. Both of us unimpressed with the potato bites, we did not finish them and ended up grabbing some new breakfast about an hour later when we stopped to fill up on gas.
After a few hours driving through Illinois countryside and rural towns, we passed the outskirts of Chicago. Thankfully we kept far enough away from the city that we avoided city traffic. As we approached the border to Indiana, we passed a toll for the highway. Although we were expecting the toll, the signage leading up to it was very unclear. We ended up bypassing the toll in the “express lane” which meant we would need to go online to pay our toll to avoid a ticket. Based on how the road and tollbooth were set up, it looked like this was pretty intentional to encourage drivers to simply go online to pay afterwards rather than slow down traffic with everyone going through a tollbooth.
Not long after, we crossed our second state border into Indiana. We wouldn’t be here long though as we only had to cross a few miles in Indiana while transitioning from Illinois to Michigan. Indiana was largely uneventful, just a bit of traffic as we passed through, and we quickly reached our third and final state border and crossed into Michigan. Although we were now in-state of our destination, we were only about halfway there. We ran into some more traffic soon after entering Michigan, so we decided to pull off at the next opportunity we got and had lunch and again switched drivers.
The next stretch of the trip driving through Michigan was largely smooth sailing. We did start to notice the temperature growing slightly cooler as we got further North, and we could even see that some of the trees had started taking on their Fall colors here. This continued as we got closer to our destination, and we greatly appreciated the cooler temperature and beautiful scenery.
About an hour and a half outside of our destination, we passed through a quirky and cute town called Frankenmuth. The area was clearly designed to look like an old German town, and lots of shops, restaurants, and bars lined the main street. There were lots of people out and about enjoying the town, and we even saw some horse-drawn carriages riding through the streets. We made a mental note to come back and visit in the future when we had time to explore.
Past Frankenmuth we started to be routed through several back roads, many of them gravel. We eventually connected back up with a highway that took us the remaining distance to the park. The final stretch of road that took us to the park ran along Lake Huron. For a long while we could only glimpse peeks at the water between houses and trees, but a few miles outside the park we hit an open stretch with a clear view of the crystal-clear lake. We passed through some more lakeside neighborhoods before finally arriving at the Port Crescent State Park at around 7pm local time. We had planned for about 12 hours of travel, and jumped ahead an hour when we crossed into Michigan, so all together we ran only about a half hour later than anticipated.
Right at the entrance to the campground was the camp office. Being so late, the attendant was already out for the night. However, right next to the office was a phone that could be used to check-in. After checking in, we found our campsite and quickly got to work setting up our tents. We could see the Sun was already making its descent so we knew we were fighting daylight. Thankfully our tents were pretty simple to put together and we were set up before it really started to get dark. Unfortunately, with the office closed, we were not able to grab firewood for our first night.
By about 8pm it was already nearly pitch black. Between the trees and the lack of artificial light in the area, the dark was pretty all-encompassing. We sat around our campsite, enjoying the ability to stretch our legs after nearly 13 hours in the car. Despite both being pretty tired, we stayed up talking until around 10pm when we finally decided to crawl into bed. After several minutes of adjusting, I was able to get comfortable enough to fall asleep. But then, around 10:30, I heard the first howl.
The noise was clearly some distance off, but in the near silence of the park at this point, it rang through clear. Shortly after the first howl came another. It was hard to tell; was it the same animal? Was it a call and response? Silence. For about the next hour or so, no more howling. As I finally started to drift off, I heard it again. This time, I really listened, no longer caught so unaware. There was a certain pain to it, like a howl of distress. Was it injured? Separated from its pack? Was it the family dog, forgotten alone in the backyard, desperate for someone to let it back in on this chilly night?
I drifted in and out of sleep over the next few hours, awakening periodically to that familiar howling. Around 2:30 in the morning, I heard Katelyn unzipping her tent and then heard her whisper my name. She asked for the keys and I handed them over. I heard her shuffling things around in the car for a while before finally it fell quiet again. No more rustling in the car. No more howling. With the next two and a half hours of silence, I got a good stretch of sleep.
I first woke up just after 5 in the morning. As I took a few sips from my water bottle, I could hear a rooster somewhere in the not-too-far distance start to crow. It seemed strange, as it was still pitch-black outside, the Sun had not even started teasing us with light yet. Perhaps soon it would, though, and the rooster was giving us an early warning. I then drifted in and out of sleep until around 6:15, when I heard the rooster again. I needed to use the restroom and so I exited my tent and found that I still needed my flashlight to guide me, since even now the Sun still was not gracing us with an early showing.
After returning to my tent, I tried going back to sleep but couldn’t. I laid there for the next 30 minutes or so, enjoying the crisp and clear Fall air and listening to the birds and bugs slowly starting their songs. Around that time, I heard other campers starting to stir, and I came out of my tent to find that we were finally getting a few rays of sunlight peeking through the trees.
As I left my tent, Katelyn came out of the car where she had slept for the second half of the night. I asked if it was the howling from last night that drove her to sleep in the car, but it turns out it was a different noise that caused her to seek refuge. Admittedly, I am a pretty heavy snorer. Despite sleeping in separate tents, my monstrous snoring kept her up and she eventually moved to the car to finally get some sleep.
We had a quiet breakfast, making sandwiches and snacking on trail mix and protein bars. After finishing breakfast and enjoying some time lounging around camp, we decided to take a walk around the campground. We didn’t make it very far before we saw the sign for stairs to the beach and quickly changed course to go lakeside. We sat in the sand for at least an hour, watching the Sun continue to gradually rise in the sky and the water tickle the soft, sandy shore. We both admired how calm and quiet the beach was, as well as how beautiful the lake was, completely devoid of the salty, fishy smell you get from the ocean.
After enjoying the beach, we walked to the camp office. Upon check-in, we had discovered that we needed a state park passport to visit state parks here in Michigan. We had not seen that requirement while researching campgrounds and making reservations. We had been told that we could just visit the office in the morning to get the passport. It’s $11 per day, or $39 for the remainder of the year. As we would only be here for 3 nights, with no intention of returning this year, we went for the slightly cheaper option of paying per day. We also purchased some firewood while getting our passport and then headed back to camp.
Still feeling a bit weary from the long car ride the day before, we decided to have a relaxing day and stayed at the campsite. We spent the afternoon talking, reading, coloring, snacking, and just soaking up the beautiful scenery. We did eventually have to make a trek to the other end of the campgrounds to use the restrooms. The campground has two buildings both equipped with restrooms and showers. The bathrooms were very clean, but they do close off each building for a few hours each day to thoroughly clean, so we had to make a trip across the grounds while they cleaned the building near our campsite.
Early in the afternoon it had started to sprinkle so we set up the canopy we brought over the picnic table at our campsite. By the time we finished setting it up, the rain stopped, but at least now we had it up and ready. And by dinner, we were very glad for that, as it started to rain again, a bit heavier this time, but still not enough to ruin our relaxing day outside. Once it stopped again, we built a fire and were very excited to enjoy watching it glow as darkness started to creep in. The rain came back for just a few minutes to tease us as we started enjoying the fire, but it made another hasty exit and then left us alone for the remainder of the night.
Our fire finally died down around 10pm. We were both ready for sleep as the last few embers continued to glow, so we doused the last few bits of wood with water and watched for another several minutes just to be sure it was fully out. While I crawled into my tent, Katelyn decided to just go right for the car. This time there was no howling, and I managed to fall asleep quickly and slept through most of the night unbothered.
I woke up a little after 6. I could tell I wasn’t going to fall back asleep, so I got out of my tent and sat in my camping chair, watching the sunlight slowly start to creep up into the sky and through the trees. Once Katelyn woke up, we got changed and headed deeper into Port Austin to Annie B’s Café for breakfast. It was a small but locally well-known diner with incredible food. We were surprised by how many vegetarian options they had and it was all delicious. I especially loved the chipotle salsa that came with the California omelet.
After breakfast we walked next door to the Port Austin visitors’ center. We grabbed a couple local guidebooks and walked along the harbor down towards the beach. On the way we found an art installation that looked like a person made of thick wire. The piece was covered in hundreds of different locks, most bearing names and/or dates. It looked like most were commemorating couples and the date they met or got married, but a few signified other important events like the birth of a child. There were large, vibrantly colored wooden chairs on a hill overlooking the lake. We sat and took in the scenery while thumbing through the visitor guides. There were a lot of events happening throughout “The Thumb” of Michigan, but unfortunately our visit fell in-between any exciting local events.
After finishing with the guides, we headed back to camp to quickly change into lighter clothes for the rest of the day. The weather was delightfully temperate. Nights and early mornings were chilly but not uncomfortable. During the day, temperatures got warm without becoming unbearably hot. Once changed, we headed to Huron Nature Center which was less than 10 minutes from the campgrounds. The center itself was closed at the time we visited, but the trails were still open.
Near the trailhead there were several art exhibits. We took some time to look at them as well as the variety of educational installations before heading down one of the trails. Not looking for a long hike, we chose to walk around the accessible trail, which was a little more than a third of a mile long. The trail was paved and mostly flat, but there was one spot where the pavement was damaged, which could prove an impassable obstacle for visitors with certain mobility aids or limitations. The trail included plenty of placards to educate and assist in identifying local wildlife.
After finishing at the nature center, we headed to a local gas station to buy more water, ice, and firewood and then headed back to camp. We ate lunch and then relaxed around camp. Late afternoon we headed to the beach and spent time sitting in the sand and enjoying the waves. The water was too cold to swim in, but we walked barefoot in the shallows until we had our fill of sand. We headed back to camp and did the best we could to get the sand off.
After some more time relaxing at camp, we ate dinner and made a fire. While we enjoyed the fire, we watched as several new campers rolled in. We got a few new neighbors in nearby campsites but still didn’t feel overcrowded. That is, until we hit quiet hours and the campgrounds remained anything but quiet. Cars continued to roll into the park until around midnight, and there were campers setting up their campsite until about 2 in the morning, and many were not respectful of fellow campers and trying to keep quiet. One group even lost a dog because they were not keeping it properly leashed, and they wandered the dark campgrounds with bright flashlights calling for their dog and keeping other campers up well into the night.
After things finally quieted down, I was able to get a few hours of sleep before rising around 6 once again. After taking a few minutes to enjoy the early morning stillness coupled with the beginning of the birdsongs, I started gathering together what I could for packing up. I made sure to avoid doing anything too noisy as I did not want to disturb my camping partner or any nearby campsites. Katelyn woke up not too long after me and together we finished tearing down camp and starting to pack things away in the car.
Our biggest challenge when tearing down and packing up was collapsing the canopy frame. This was one thing we hadn’t practiced prior to the trip as we had seen my friend’s family put the canopy up and take it down so often, we assumed it would be a breeze. After a lot of struggling, we were finally able to get it collapsed down and packed away. Once everything was packed up, we took several minutes to very carefully survey our campsite and pick up every piece of trash we could locate. We had been diligent about ensuring we made no mess, or immediately cleaned up/picked up any mess we did create. Unfortunately, not all previous campers had been as thorough. After leaving our campsite better than we found it, we left the campgrounds behind.
We headed towards Dow Gardens in Midland. It was about an hour and a half drive from the campgrounds. We got to town and took an early lunch where we also used the opportunity to recharge our phones and our portable chargers. We spent some time people watching and enjoying the unique feeling of a town that felt so similar to many back home, but yet existed hundreds of miles outside our usual bubble.
After lunch, we entered Dow Gardens and spent several hours enjoying the beautiful flora found throughout the gardens. Visitors are encouraged to walk on the grass but not disturb the plants or other wildlife. There were also paved walkways all throughout the gardens, with periodic benches offering a place to get off your feet for a bit. Right inside the entrance we were met with beautiful natural artwork, flowers and other various natural materials gathered and arranged in colorful and stunning works. Continuing through the gardens, we got to spy the beautiful riverside home that once belonged to the Dow family the gardens were named after. We then continued to follow the path along the water, past some beautiful and large trees and into the rose garden.
While there were plenty of roses in the aptly name rose garden, they also had a wide variety of other colorful and beautiful plants. And the bright colors came from many sources, with some plants having bright yellow peppers that grew thick all over, some plants had stunning deep purple leaves, and of course many had brightly colored flowers. Past the rose garden was an elevated bridge that took us up and over the grounds and landed us near a small amphitheater of sorts, with stepped rows of rocks facing a makeshift natural stage with a few chairs and a table set up.
Just past the amphitheater was an education center. Outside the center were wooden boxes where they would place fruit picked fresh from the orchard and allow visitors to take for free. You could freely walk through the orchard and admire the various fruit trees, but they kept protective barriers around the trees and made it clear that they were only to be viewed, not touched or picked by guests. Rising above the orchard was a canopy walk that allowed you to climb about 3 stories into the sky and look out over the gardens, with plenty of great photo opportunities for those not too afraid of heights.
After the canopy walk, we passed by the children’s playground which looked straight out of a fairy tale. The playground was fantastical, with a miniature river carrying real water that flowed down to a little splash puddle, large tunnels for kids to run through, a giant bird’s nest for kids to climb into, and more. If only we’d had something like that when we were younger! Next to the playground was a café that gave us a chance to rest for a bit within the air conditioning before making the trek back to the entrance to the gardens. On our way out, we took a moment to look through the gift shop which had many of the keepsakes you would anticipate, as well as various natural salsas, jams, and candies, plus several books about plants and gardening.
After the Dow Gardens, Katelyn and I headed towards a nearby town to meet up with one of her friends. After some time hanging out together, I then spent the remainder of my time in Michigan with one of my friends who lives in the area. After a couple days apart, each of us visiting with our own friends, Katelyn and I made the trip home. Thankfully we started the return trip already about an hour closer to home than the campgrounds, and we gained an hour on the way home rather than losing one, so we got home with plenty of time to unpack and unwind in the evening.