We all have been there—poised with our camera, searching for that perfect shot.
You know the one: the photo you show all your friends and family as you share the story of where and how you took it—what you had to go through to get the shot, and how they can find a similar image on their camera screen. You tell them about catching the light, creating the composition, and finding the subject matter, all positioned just perfectly, as if you created it, or at least planned it that way (and let’s hope you did), and all making your picture pop off the screen or paper. This is the story of how Tyler Paydon, a photographer from Oswego, Illinois, worked with this travel blogger for Gazettour.com and outdoor enthusiast to find that perfect shot in scenic Western Michigan.
Hitting the Road
With my T@G trailer packed and ready, Tyler and I set out from our home in Northern Illinois to our neighboring state of Michigan. My T@G is a 2015 model with a twist: I converted it into a soft overland trailer within the first months I had it, to allow me more opportunity for exploration, and I have not yet found many obstacles that can stop me and my T@G from passing through. Tyler is a camper but was new to the week-long road trip that was in store for him. While my T@G provided my accommodations, Tyler would be doing the tent thing (and would soon be feeling jealous of my tiny trailer, I was sure!).
I designed a trip with short hops and single overnight stays. This would keep our travel times brief, providing us ample time for scouting for those perfect shots. The route I chose is known in the RV world as the Lake Michigan Circle Tour. It’s a well-marked route that mainly hugs the coasts of both Michigan and Wisconsin, winding its way around Lake Michigan. Our first stop after leaving the Chicago area was an event I was invited to along the shoreline in Holland, Michigan.
Paragliding and Dive Bar Dining in Holland
Scott Baxter and Steve Reed operate Illinois-based Midwest Parajet. They teach the growing sport of Powered Paragliding (PPG), in which you “run into the sky,” holding the controls of your wing above you with the throttle of the power pack secured on your back. Just like the teardrop camper, these machines were created from a desire to find new, innovative and economical way to do something people love.
Scott and Steve invited me to attend the 2018 Holland Beach Run Fly-In, a parasports event held in Holland, where Tyler and I watched the PPGs fly. Set against the backdrop of Lake Michigan, these graceful machines gave us plenty of opportunities to fill our lens with the beauty of flight. Flight of the PPG is limited by the winds and is mostly done at sunrise and sunset, which, for someone wanting to photograph them, provides just about the best light a photographer can ask for. And as you can see, we were not disappointed.
After watching the fly-in and shooting some fantastic pictures, we spent a relaxing night with friends, catching up over a delicious dinner and craft beer at the Itty Bitty Bar—a fitting end to a great day. This self-proclaimed “five-star dive bar” lacks that fine dining curb appeal, but don’t let that fool you. It features a menu packed with items not typically found in a bar, and the proof of the fine dining taste lies on your plate at this place. It should definitely be on your “places to try” list if you are ever in the area, along with the beautiful parks that are nestled right along the Lakeshore, which provide a wide variety of water sports to enjoy.
Exploring a Lakeside State Park and Historic Lighthouse
After some much-needed coffee, Tyler and I were off again the next morning. Our second day’s destination was just 92 miles to our north: Ludington State Park. This park features lush sandy dunes, and for adventurous types who love scenic walks, a visit to Big Sable Point Lighthouse.
Big Sable Point Lighthouse is situated just a four-mile roundtrip hike from the park’s main entrance, and is one of the tallest lighthouses in Michigan. Built in 1867, this 100-plus-foot towering beacon, which is listed in the National Register of Historic Places, still guides ships traveling along the Michigan coast today. The hike to Big Sable, along with a climb to the top of the lighthouse, will give you some spectacular views. Do not rule out exploring the dunes along the way to the lighthouse; they will provide you with some excellent photo subject matter as well. With a good eye, reflective ponds, dead tree sculptures, and dune plant life can all add up to some really memorable photos.
The state park is popular and can get crowded, but we found it to be very clean and quiet, with up-to-date bathhouses, and level and scenic campsites. It is also not uncommon to see clean-up crews continually plucking up trash and keeping the grounds well-groomed. Still excited and full of energy from our trek to the lighthouse, we ventured out to the park’s beach, which, depending on where you are camping, you can either walk or drive to. Now, technically the beach is closed at night (when we decided to visit) and access is not encouraged during off-hours, but we weren’t asked to leave, even as we passed a park ranger on the way onto the beach. The view here is worth the risk, in my opinion; we took some perfect night sky photos that caught cargo ships off in the distance.
Finding Spectacular Stones and Great Grub in Petoskey
Have you ever heard of a Petoskey Stone? Well, neither had I. But I was about to learn of them during our next stop of our Circle Tour! The Petoskey Stone is Michigan’s state stone, formed of coral that dates back 400 million years. They are hard to pick out from all the different stones found along the shore in this area, but not to the trained eye—and finding one is a treasured moment.
A stay at the Petoskey State Park, just 170 miles farther to the north, gives you an ample stretch of beach to comb, where you, too, can try your luck at finding this highly desired fossil. When dry, Petoskey Stones look just like smooth limestone rock; the magic happens when they get wet. That’s when the magnificent six-sided coral structures jump off the stone, and this ordinary rock turns into a work of nature’s art. Unfortunately, I did not find one myself on this trip, but a local gift shop provided one for my travel shelf at a reasonable price.
Petoskey State Park is also clean and can be crowded, but the good news is that the camping spots are separated nicely. Something to consider, when traveling here, is that sites can be quite unlevel, but with a quick jockey of position, my teardrop camper is positioned for a good night’s sleep. Our dining choice for the night was one and a half miles from the park entrance at the Petoskey Brewing Company. All I have to say about this spot is that I had one of the better burgers of the trip here. And the beer wasn’t bad either! Stop in and ask to see their Petoskey Stone—it is enormous, and the locals say it’s worth a fortune.
One of my favorite things to do on a camping trip is to look up at the night sky while sitting next to the fire. I love to watch the firelight dancing off the trees and satellites appearing as if to try to sneak past me. This photo was taken on the night we stayed in Petoskey. I can almost smell that campfire again.
Touring Must-See Mackinac Island
The vacation mainstay for northern Michigan is Mackinac Island, and although it is a tourist destination, it’s one worth visiting. The water ferry ride to the island from the Lower Peninsula in itself gives passengers some of the most spectacular views of the Mackinac Bridge (affectionately known as the Mighty Mac), the longest suspension bridge in the western hemisphere, which links the state’s Upper and Lower Peninsulas. You can also take a morning cruise, offered by some ferry companies, which explore the underside of the Mighty Mac before arriving at the island. Unfortunately, pictures cannot adequately capture this 26,300-foot-long structure’s magnificent beauty.
Once on the island, you will find a lot to do and see, from historical tours, to horse-drawn carriage rides through time, to browsing the gift shops and indulging in homemade fudge. Horse-drawn carriages are one of the few ways to explore this island other than walking and bicycling.
Cars and other motorized vehicles are not allowed, with airplanes—and during the winter, snowmobiles—being the only exceptions. You can rent a bike, or bring yo
ur own along with you, and venture out and cycle the whole island, including all 8.3 miles of Highway M-185, the only non-motorized highway in the nation, which circles the entire island, passing natural wonders like Arch Rock. As you can see, our walking tour of the island did provide us with some fantastic shots.
The bottom line is that even though it is a tourist destination, Mackinac Island just can’t be passed up. You can also trade a night’s stay in a campground for a stay in one of the posh hotels or resorts on the island.
Now let’s talk about the Mackinac Bridge: It is gorgeous by itself, but we found a spot to capture both it and nature together. Located on the Lower Peninsula, our vantage point proved to be a helpful location in getting a wall hanger. The rush of waves slowed by the cameras almost gives a ghostly look to this Great Lake as the sun sets, ending the day perfectly—well, not entirely.
As you might see by now, there was also a culinary theme to this trip, and Biére de Mac Brew kept this spirited idea going with burgers and beer: yes, my happy place. A newcomer to the area, Biére de Mac Brew offers a variety of excellent beers, served by one of the coolest beer tappers I have ever seen. The Ranville family and classically trained chef Edgar Jacobs offer diners here an experience that is not to be missed.
We spent the night in Wilderness State Park, a lovely campground. And like the state parks we visited previously, this one was clean and spacious. With the shore just steps away, it was easy to grab our chairs and relax as the gentle waves calmed our minds. This became our home during our time in the area.
Boating and Hiking along Lake Superior
Lake Superior, one of my favorite destinations, was next on our itinerary. Its purity and its history of dangerous passage make it uniquely beautiful. The largest of the Great Lakes, Lake Superior ranks as the third largest freshwater lake in the world—all good reasons for my affection. We visited Munising, Michigan, nestled on Superior’s shore, and the jumping-off point for Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore.
Pictured Rocks are sand and rock formations that stretch for 30 miles. Although you can reach portions of the park by walking, these beautiful formations are best seen by boat. There are several options to view these towering structures of nature: Of course, taking your own kayak is an easy way to get out on the water, but if you do not own one, there are many places to rent kayaks in the area. You can also take a tour on a larger cruise ship that takes you out to the cliffs, and then provides a kayak for you to paddle along the colorful stretches. Tyler and I opted for a two-hour boat tour that covered the whole 30-mile stretch without the use of a kayak. As an added bonus, on this tour, we were able to take some fantastic shots of the Grand Island East Channel Lighthouse. This 45-foot tall structure guided ships from 1868 to 1908, and it offers great opportunities for photos to show your friends.
Not having too many campgrounds to choose from in the Munising area, I settled on the Tourist Park Campground, a privately owned 127-site property situated on the shore of Lake Superior. The campground was centrally located, giving us access to town and one of the best waterfalls in Michigan. Wagner Falls, which stands at only 20 feet tall, is very picturesque and easily reachable by a short hike—and it’s worth the trip.
Rodeo-ing in Wisconsin
The last stop on our tour took us to Wisconsin, to an event that has been in existence for nearly 60 years: Manawa, Wisconsin, host to the Mid-Western Rodeo. The rodeo was, to my surprise, such an exciting event. Top pro rodeo performers from all over the United States attend this rodeo, providing great entertainment for the whole family. With this being my first rodeo, all I have to say is, Wow! It was hours of non-stop action, ending with the ever-exciting bull riding competition. If you have never been to a contest such as this, I suggest that you attend one.
Tyler and I saw a lot of great sights—and great photo ops—on our week on the road. Traveling from one destination to the next at what I thought was a brisk, but manageable, speed At the end of the trip, I asked Tyler, who had really never been on this type of road trip before, what he thought of the pace I kept, and he said he cannot wait to go on another one. Granted, this may not be everybody’s idea of a good vacation, but having a tiny trailer makes it so much easier. Set up and take down is a breeze. And having everything you need in one convenient—and very mobile—location keeps your travel efficient and your time on the road affordable. I love the trips I’ve taken in my teardrop, and I look forward to my next adventure in it.
Finally, I want to say thank you to Tyler. During our week together, he taught me so much about his craft of photography. At age 25, this young man’s passion and love for what he sees through the camera lens is contagious.
I hope I also taught him something about experiencing the world through travel, and I hope to travel with him again, perhaps as part of the Gazettour team. And if you’d like any additional details or the exact locations of these pictures, feel free to contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.