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Michigan National Forests 2023 Utimate Travel Guide

Waterfall in Michigan national forest
AuTrain Falls in Hiawatha National Forest


If you’re looking for a great place to relax and take in the natural beauty of Michigan, look no further than one of the national forests in Michigan.

With almost 20 million acres of forest in Michigan, you won’t have to look too far.

In addition to serving as wildlife refuges for Michigan’s flora and fauna, you’ll find endless opportunities for wildlife viewing, camping and outdoors recreation in Michigan’s national forests.

You’ll also find national scenic byways, which make perfect road trips when you just want to get out and see some nature up close.

I‘ve put together a guide to Michigan’s national forests, including Michigans; rich lumbering history, forest recreation and some of the best things to see and so when you explore these amazing Michigan treasures.

Please note: Recreation passports and permits may be required for some activities including use of forest campgrounds. Requirements vary, so please check with the park system for detailed information. Recreation maps can be found here, too.

pretty lake - Michigan National Forests

Explore Michigan National Forests

Cresting the hills along Michigan’s northbound highways, travelers are greeted by picturesque views marked by endless trees in every direction.

They cover the land from the road to the horizon like a great big green ocean of leaves, except of course in fall, when the colors change, treating the eyes to a feast of vivid reds, oranges, and yellows.

Michigan’s expansive national forests are a treat in all seasons.

Michigan’s Lumber Industry: History of Lumbering in Michigan

With around half of the state covered in them, forests are a massive part of Michigan’s identity and are as ecologically vital as the Great Lakes which surround them. Despite this integral role they play, the forests of Michigan have a complicated history that long outlasts Michigan’s statehood.

After admittance to the union in 1837, Michigan and its relationship between its forests and its people would be forever changed.

As new residents moved into the state, the desire to conquer the land and harvest its natural resources became paramount, with lumber at the top of the list of priorities.

The abundance of northern white pines clustered in tight forests beside large streams guaranteed an efficient and highly profitable logging industry, prompting many to settle in the forests north of the Saginaw Valley, founding many of the Michigan cities we know and love up north.

By 1869, Michigan had become the nation’s leading lumber provider with the industry reaching a fever pitch in 1890.

Around this time, Michigan was producing and processing billions of feet of lumber. Timber sales skyrocketed, surpassing the next three highest lumber producing states combined.

While this intense industry boom generated wealth and opportunities for the state and its residents, it came with dire consequences. By 1910, much of Michigan’s enchanting old-growth forests had been decimated, leaving much of the lower peninsula looking more like a wasteland than the woods.

ottawa national forest in michigan

Saving Michigan’s Forests

In the wake of Michigan’s deforestation, the question of how to restore and maintain new woodlands for the state became more important than ever.

The American Forestry Association endorsed a legislative proposal for forest management, but their efforts didn’t work, leaving Michigan without government help to restore the forests. A few years later, in 1908, President Theodore Roosevelt took the first step towards reforestation in Michigan by establishing forest reserves in the state.

By the following year, the National Forest Service dedicated two areas to national forests in Michigan; one would be Marquette National Forest and the other would be Michigan National Forest.

Over time, as reforestation and conservation efforts boomed, Michigan’s national forests evolved with changing names and locations.

Huron National Forest was the first new addition in 1928, followed by both the Hiawatha National Forest and Ottawa National Forest in 1931. Manistee National Forest was the last addition in 1938, which later merged with the Huron National Forest to create one protected federal forestland for the whole lower peninsula in 1945: the Huron Manistee National Forest.

michigan summer- best thinsg to do in summer in michigan

Reforesting Michigan

Once the land was procured, the act of reforesting these vast swaths of public land littered with the stumps of old trees proved to be another great challenge, but President Franklin D. Roosevelt had a plan.

During the Great Depression, FDR focused resources on fighting the depression through programs and reforms that he called the New Deal. One of these programs was the Civilian Conservation Corps, or the CCC.

The Emergency Conservation Act of 1933 allowed the CCC to recruit young men from urban areas to participate in conservation work in forests, parks, and fields throughout the United States, including in Michigan, generating both new jobs and new forests.

Despite being the nation’s number one lumber producer from 1860-1910, more trees were planted in Michigan than any other state from 1933 to 1942, thanks to the efforts of the CCC. Nearly 485 million trees were planted during this time, with many taking root in Michigan’s National Forests.

Ausable river- michigan national forests

The Purpose of the National Forests

Preserving forests isn’t solely an aesthetic choice, even if the forested areas around Michigan are some of the most beautiful areas of the state. The National Forests have several useful and important purposes, ranging from environmental protection, monetary gain, and leisure and more.

Michigan Timber Production

The timber industry is still alive and well in Michigan, but perhaps not like you’d expect. Today, much of the land is used to plant saplings and conduct research about tree growth and forest planning.

Thanks to Forest Service Nurseries, 97 million seedlings are provided to Michigan National Forests each year. Should a tree be cut down for lumber, the process is much more highly regulated and balanced.

Michigan Wildlife Preservation

When the trees were removed, the ecological damage in the regions of mass-deforestation were apparent.

The animals that rely on the trees for cover fled and the fish in the streams were no longer shaded or fed by the leaves.

Since the revitalization of the forests, native pure Michigan wildlife has space to thrive, which leads to increased populations. This provides good ethical hunting and fishing opportunities as well, allowing for stable balance between the trees, the animals, and the humans.

Watershed Protection

While they might seem unrelated, the relationship between trees and waterways is a delicate and crucial one. The leaf litter and twigs left behind on the grounds of forests allow rainwater to seep slowly into the ground, preventing runoff.

The tree cover itself keeps the water from pooling too quickly, preventing floods that wash away good topsoil that’s hard to recover. The trees of our forests play a key role in the balance of the water cycle in our Great Lakes Watershed.

Outdoor Recreation in Michigan National Forests

Outdoorsy Michiganders know how much fun a day spent in the woods can be.

Hiking trails lead through the woods and even perhaps to a beautiful waterfall tucked away deep in the forest, spend an afternoon with a picnic under the shade, or spend the day hunting or fishing for sport or maybe even dinner. No matter what gets out outside, Michigan’s National Forests provide a refuge for the mind, body, and soul.

huron national forest
Huron National Forest

The National Forests of Michigan

Huron National Forest

Starting on the western shore of Lake Huron near Thunder Bay and stretching around 50 miles towards the center of the northern lower peninsula, the Huron National Forest provides plenty of space for public recreation.

The AuSable River, which runs from Grayling to Oscoda, provides many recreation opportunities for outdoor adventure from kayaking and canoeing to fishing, camping and hiking along the many trails.

The scenic river is home to many dams and pods, some with swimming beaches for splashing along the shore.

You’ll even find small sand dunes along the north shore of the river in some spots. The 22-mile National Scenic River Road Byway follows the river with multiple spots for scenic overlooks that are simply breathtaking, especially in the fall.

In recent years the dedicated recreation space has grown larger and more developed, creating even more fulfilling recreational opportunities for outdoor adventures.

With dense tree cover, the Au Sable River, and a remote location, it’s no wonder hunting and fishing are among the most popular activities in the Huron National Forest. Hikers can trek one end of the Shore-to-Shore Trail, a scenic trail that connects Oscoda on Lake Huron to Empire on Lake Michigan, with a north and south spur that extend outward towards Cheboygan and Cadillac respectively.

Must-Visit Landmark: Lumberman’s Monument

huron manistee national forest

Manistee National Forest

The Manistee National Forest was merged with the Huron National Forest in 1945, but still stands as a unique destination. The massive reforestation efforts from the CCC means this new-growth forest developed in neat rows that stretch as far as the eye can see, making for some uncanny photographs.

Thanks to the lake-effect snow from Lake Michigan, northwest Michigan is a highly popular destination for snow sports.

The Manistee National Forest provides plenty of opportunities for winter fun, including Caberfae Peaks in the northern neck of the forest. During the warmer months, visitors often enjoy hunting, fishing, and camping along the area’s many inland lakes.

Nordhouse Dunes, north of Ludington along the shore of Lake Michigan, is home to dunes almost 150-feet high.

The scenic Manistee River, which runs through the forest, is a popular northern Michigan fishing center, and you’ll find stunning trails for hiking here, too. Take a horseback ride along one of the three horse trails in the forest.

If you are a Michigan birder, keep your eyes out for the Kirtland’s Warbler, an endangered species who calls this area home.

Must-Visit Landmark: Tunnel of Trees on Caberfae Highway

hiawatha national forest in michigan
Hiawatha National Forest

Hiawatha National Forest

The Hiawatha National Forest consists of two different areas of the Upper Peninsula, both of which stretch from Lake Superior to Lake Michigan.

One covers the area from St. Ignace to Whitefish Bay, the other from the Bays de Noc to Munising. Much of Hiawatha National Forest has been preserved in its natural condition, meaning an escape to Hiawatha National Forest feels like an escape to a land unseen and untouched by humanity.

The cool climate and central location brings visitors from southern Michigan, as well as visitors from neighboring states, like Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Illinois, too.

They come for hiking, camping, skiing and crosscountry skiing, fishing, and more, all the while being treated with spectacular views of Michigan’s natural wonders, including famous destinations like Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. Plus, with one area of the forest neighboring Marquette, and the other being near iconic Tahquamenon Falls, there’s plenty to explore both in the woods, in town, and beyond.

Must-Visit Landmark: Kitch-iti-kipi

ottawa national forest in michigan
Ottawa National Forest

Ottawa National Forests

Tucked all the way up in Michigan’s northwest corner of the Upper Peninsula, the Ottawa National Forest is perhaps the most remote of all the National Forest locations in the state.

Because of its remote location, logging had not completely decimated the land, leaving much to preserve in its natural state.

Still, efforts to plant more trees and grow the forested lands are ongoing. Here, natural beauty can be found around every corner from streams, waterfalls, lakes, and mountains.

Visitors love that the Ottawa National Forest provides an escape into virgin wilderness in one of the most remote places in the state.

Michigan's Western Upper Peninsula Guide

Ottawa Forest Wildlife

Hunting for the state game-mammal, the white-tailed deer, is highly popular here and the abundance of waterfowl brings many bird-hunters as well. Fishing is also a favorite activity, since the lakes house muskie, walleye, pike, and more, whereas the rivers and streams are perfect for different kinds of trout.

Hikers love to trek among the untouched landscape here. Many will even expand their trips to include Isle Royale National Park, one of the most remote destinations for exploring virgin wilderness.

Must-Visit Landmark: Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park

How Many National Forests are there in Michgan?

There are three national forests in Michigan: the Ottawa National Forest, the Hiawatha National Forest and the Huron Manistee National Forest.

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ultimate guide to the pictured rocks

About the Author-

Bella DiMascio is a Content Editor for mymichiganbeach.com. She grew up in the Detroit suburb of Westland and later attended Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo. She majored in Communication Studies and minored in English: Writing. Creative writing has been a hobby and interest of Bella’s since she was in elementary school. She is thrilled to be using her talents to highlight the Great Lakes State. Outside of writing, Bella enjoys getting outside with her two Australian Shepherds, playing video games, and binging shows on Netflix.