Must-Sees in Michigan for Family Fun
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Say hello to the 26th state! Michigan has numerous imaginative museums and historic sites that celebrate its industrial heartland heritage, particularly the state’s role in the development and production of the automobile. Beyond cars and the Motor City, however, is a rich legacy of maritime trade because of a central location on the Great Lakes.
The state is a “two-parter,” with a mitten-shaped larger Lower Peninsula and the more remote but scenic Upper Peninsula. Wondering where to take the kids for fun and learning in Michigan? Here's a guide to the state's best spots.
- Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village – Located in Dearborn (about eight miles west of Detroit) is Henry Ford’s tribute to both the automobile and the American spirit of invention. The Henry Ford Museum houses a wide array of the earliest motorized carriages including the iconic Model T; kids can see what came before that DVD player in the minivan. Greenfield Village is a living history town and a collection of historic buildings and artifacts like Thomas Edison’s laboratory facilities and the Wright Brothers bicycle shop.
- Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore – The huge rolling piles of sand look like something out of Namibia, but instead they’re on the shores of Lake Michigan, waiting for visitors to make a leg-burning climb to the top. There are also restored late 1800s farms, lighthouses and the historic Glen Haven waterfront shops.
- Ann Arbor Street Art Fair – Held every July on the University of Michigan campus, this is one of the largest US outdoor art fairs, featuring more than 1000 artists plus a Kid’s Art Fair where students K-12 can exhibit and sell their work.
- The Soo Locks – Sault Ste. Marie is the oldest city in Michigan and home to one of the most important maritime trade transit points in the world, the “Soo Locks” that move tons of shipping between Lake Superior and the rest of the Lakes. Ask at the Locks Visitor Center about boat tours.
- Mackinac Island – more than carriage rides and fudge, the island’s Mackinac State Historic Parks is a cluster of living history museums and natural beauty. Sites include Colonial Michilimackinac (a 1770s village complete with fur traders, British redcoats and their families), beavers and nature walks in Historic Mill Creek Discovery Park and the restored Historic Downtown. There are also two walk-through butterfly conservatories on the island: Wings of Mackinac and the Butterfly House/Insect World.
- The Detroit Institute of the Arts – The most awe-inspiring exhibit here is Mexican artist Diego Rivera's massive four-wall fresco portraying his impression of American industry in the 1930s. Beyond that are 60,000 other artworks and family-friendly Sunday events with drop-in workshops, storytellers and music.
- National Superconducting Cyclotron Laboratory – On the campus of Michigan State, this lab hosts school-age kids to demonstrate how scientists study radioactivity, superconductivity and atom-smashing with two super-conducting cyclotrons. Researchers also show how nuclear science contributes to medical advances.
- Great Lakes Maritime Heritage Center – Headquarters for the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary, this NOAA/State of Michigan site helps preserve the casualties of our Great Lakes seafaring heritage: over 200 shipwrecks in Thunder Bay. Visitors tour an archeological conservation lab, see video feeds from explorations and can take snorkel or kayak tours of the shallower wrecks.
- Celebrate cherries – The western side of the Michigan Lower Peninsula harvests about 250 million pounds of cherries each year, so they celebrate with the National Cherry Festival every July in Traverse City. You can also tour cherry orchards on Leelanau Peninsula or find unique cherry products at Michigan’s American Spoon Foods or Cherry Republic.
- Cranbrook Educational Community – Multiple facilities are located at this National Historic Landmark center for education, science and the arts. There are family-friendly events, hands-on activities, an outdoor science garden, a bat conservatory and a planetarium at the Institute of Science – “Michigan’s Museum of Natural History.” Cutting-edge contemporary art is featured at the Cranbrook Art Museum, and the campus includes extensive gardens and significant architecture by Eliel Saarinen (Eero's father.)
- Rouge Ford plant tours – See modern automotive technology in the state where it all started. This tour affiliated with the Henry Ford Museum includes an auto assembly plant virtual reality experience, a catwalk observation and a walk on the assembly plant floor to see actual Ford F-150s in production. To ensure seeing the plant in action, avoid weekends, holidays and the first two weeks in July.
- Grand Rapids Highlights – Kids can marvel at the migratory salmon and steelheads as they swim upstream using the Fish Ladder next to the Sixth Street dam, near downtown. The Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park has a children’s garden, a 30+ acre outdoor Sculpture Park, a Michigan Farm Garden, a tropical conservatory under glass (with a temporary butterfly release in March and April) and outdoor concerts in summer. The Grand Rapids Children’s Museum encourages exploration, and the Gerald R. Ford Library and Museum gives a high-level view of the Presidency and key events in the 1970s.
- Isle Royale National Park – The park’s remote Upper Peninsula location is part of the appeal of this designated International Biosphere Reserve. A rugged island in Lake Superior, it is accessible only by boat or seaplane. Those who explore its trails, forests and coastline will find abundant wildlife including moose and wolf. There are guided Park Ranger and boat tours for visitors.
- Motown Historical Museum – Right here in Motor City (Detroit) is a museum dedicated to the groundbreaking musical artists of the Motown Record Corporation; names like Stevie Wonder, the Temptations, Diana Ross and the Supremes, Marvin Gaye and the Jackson 5. Founder Berry Gordy envisioned a “hit factory” just like the Lincoln-Mercury assembly line where he worked, and his dream is a linchpin of Detroit and Michigan’s legacy.
- Wills of Iron (and Copper) – The Upper Peninsula was central to the US mining industry, and several museums document that history. The Michigan Iron Industry Museum in Negaunee has numerous exhibits, an audiovisual program and outdoor interpretive paths. Follow the designated Scenic Byway Copper Country Trail to the Keweenaw National Historical Park, a group of sites tied to copper mining (the Quincy Mine Hoist Association Tours include the massive Nordberg Steam Hoist, the world’s largest, which can lift 10 tons of ore at 34.6 mph.)
- Michigan Week in May – Since 1954, local communities all over the state have joined together to celebrate Michigan’s “Great Lakes, Great Traditions” with commemorative festivities. Michigan Notable Books authors tour the state, there is a youth photography contest and 25 ways for families to get involved.
- Grand Traverse Lighthouse – Located within the Leelanau State Park, this is one of the oldest lighthouses in the state. It guides shipping through the northern entrance to the Manitou Passage and features volunteer lighthouse keepers who stay for a week or two and greet visitors. Many other lighthouses in the state are accessible to visitors: here is a list.
- Detroit Historical Museum – this is a series of sites in and around Detroit, including Fort Wayne and the Tuskegee Airmen Museum, the main museum in downtown Detroit (tracing the city’s automotive history and featuring a restored 1840s city streetscape) and the Dossin Great Lakes Museum in Belle Isle, with a Great Lakes freighter pilot house.
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