by Molly Grossman
Discover the Best Michigan River Camping Sites
River camping is a fun and exciting way to experience the many beautiful bodies of water Michigan offers.
There’s something so enticing about packing up, situating yourself in a canoe or kayak, and floating down the river to experience Michigan’s natural beauties. Whether you enjoy fishing, rowing, or just want to take on a challenge, river camping is sure to provide something for you to enjoy.
There are so many rivers to choose from in Michigan, and it may be overwhelming to narrow down which ones you want to visit on your trip.
Read on 10 top sppts for river camping in Michigan!
This list compiles 10 of our favorite spots you should consider on your next river camping trip, with suggested boat launching coordinates to accompany the descriptions.
Michigan River Camping: What You Need to Know
As always, it’s important to know your skill level when going on any sort of camping trip. River camping can be especially difficult for first timers.
No matter how much preparation you do, something is bound to go wrong. Adverse weather conditions, unexpected difficulty with navigating the waters, and maximizing the use of what little gear you can bring with are just a few of the problems you may face.
How do you combat these difficulties? First of all, make sure there is someone with river camping experience going with you on the trip. Whether they simply help push your canoe out of the boat dock or help you avoid fallen trees and other obstacles, you’ll be thankful for their company.
Boondocking or Dispersed Camping Along Michigan Rivers
With river camping comes boondocking.
Otherwise known as dispersed camping, it’s the act of camping on public land not marked as a campsite.
Research the area you’ll be floating down and know it. Figure out how long it will take you to complete your trip, where you’ll want to pull off to set up camp, and what locations your route will start and end at. This is another instance where your experienced companion will come in handy, especially if they’ve rowed down the same river before.
Second, don’t bring anything with extraordinary value on this trip. River camping is a great opportunity to put the phone down for a weekend. After all, you wouldn’t want it to fall in the river. Tipping your boat is almost inevitable, so make sure to store your gear in dry bags (or heavy duty garbage bags) and leave anything you don’t want to get damaged at home or in the car.
What’s most important is to have fun and embrace the uncertainty and spontaneity which comes with river camping. Any hiccups or missteps along the way are sure to be surpassed by the fun and exciting memories you are bound to make.
RIVER CAMPING IN THE UPPER PENINSULA
Two Hearted River
Boat Launch 1: 46.699273, -85.420650, near Two Hearted River State Forest Campground
Boat Launch 2: 46.607, -85.60157, near High Bridge State Forest Campground
Starting with one of the more advanced rivers you can traverse, the Two Hearted River is located in the eastern UP. Draining into Lake Superior, Two Hearted’s main river is created by its south and west branches.
The north branch leads downstream into the main river while the east branch goes upstream.
A river full of rapids, muddy banks, and undoubtedly plenty of log jams, Two Hearted is not for the faint of heart. There may be moments along your journey where you find it easier to pull your boat out of the water and walk along the shore to get past an obstacle.
However, if you are interested in fly fishing for brown trout while you explore the river that inspired a short story by Ernest Hemmingway, then consider taking on this river’s challenge for yourself.
Boat Launch 1: 46.70042, -89.15903, off U.S. Route 45 in Military Hills Roadside Park
Boat Launch 2: 46.72059, -89.20668, off Victoria Dam Road in Ontonagon, MI
This is an ideal spot for experiencing pure Michigan nature at its best.
The Ontonagon travels through untouched land and is home to a variety of flora, fauna, and creatures of many species. It’s best to start your adventure early in the morning if you want to catch some of this live nature in action, so consider camping out the night before.
Be aware of waterfalls you’ll run into while on your trip. Because of the high animal population in this area, you’ll also want to be sure to set up camp properly and make sure you respect the critters who live where you’re visiting. Otherwise, with a steady flowing stream and the occasional class I or II rapids, this is a worthwhile spot to investigate for your next river camping adventure.
Boat Launch 1: 46.92955, -88.55328, off Myllyla Road, into the Otter River leading into Sturgeon
Boat Launch 2: 46.70994, -88.68348, on Fishing Site Road
Boat Launch 3: 46.77812, -88.61812, off M-38 in Baraga Township
With 27 miles of floatable river, the Sturgeon is generally not recommended for canoeing.
Large rocks lying about the river and heavy streams make it dangerous for such a large vessel to traverse.
Fortunately, the Sturgeon River Campground provides direct access to the river, and operates on a first-come-first-served basis. No motorized vehicles are permitted in the wilderness’s boundaries. In addition to the river, the campsite also hosts day hiking and fishing arrangements readily available.
When determining how you want to float down the river, research how low the water’s flow is and what weather hazards may make your trip potentially dangerous. Difficulty level for the river ranges from beginner to expert, so be aware of where you’ll be dropping in at and if it suits your skills.
RIVER CAMPING IN NORTHERN MICHIGAN
Boat Launch: 46.0597, -84.65747, off M-134 by North Pine River Road
Several of the best places to river camp along up north are found in the Huron-Manistee National Forests. Pine River is most well-known for its small craft boating and its many trout fishing opportunities. Please take note of the river’s restrictions on watercraft use, as some areas of the river require a permit to visit.
Boondocking campsites are hard to come by on this river, so consider staying at a designated campground. The Pine River Campground located in the Huron National Forest is a popular spot, with camp fees starting at $10/night.
Boat Launch: Plate River Point Water Access -see MAP
If you want to visit a river while you camp rather than camp along a river, then taking a trip to the Platte River may just be what you’re looking for. Surrounded by wetlands and emptying into the Great Leaks, the Platte River can be accessed within Michigan’s Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.
While the upper Platte is fast and exciting, the lower is more popular with canoers and is easy to navigate.
Platte River Campground within Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is open year-round and accommodates several types of camping styles. Fees range from $26-$50/night, depending on what kind of campsite you choose to stay at. While staying at this site, be sure to visit one of the many hiking paths connecting to it.
Au Sable River
Find a list of boat launches here
Another river to visit in Huron-Manistee is the AuSable River in Oscoda. Along the 55 miles making up the scenic Au Sable River are 102 single-family primitive campsites.
What is unique about these along-the-shore sites in comparison to others on this list is how you must make a reservation. This increases your chances in finding a place to stay and gives you more peace of mind while planning your itinerary for the trip.
There is a one time $10 reservation fee to book a site to stay at. After, it is $10/night to stay at a campsite. Reservations are made via Recreation.gov, with the river’s open season being from April 15th-November 30th. Camping permits are required from May 15th-September 10th.
Rainbow Bend Access Site – see Map
It would be a crime to talk so much about Huron-Manistee without the Manistee River. A designated National Recreation River, it is filled to the brim with boat access points and campgrounds. The Manistee is another good option for those who do not want to boondock while also providing undesignated sites to set up your camp.
People are mainly attracted to this site during the fall, when shades of red, orange, and yellow fill the treetops and a cool breeze fills the air. During the summer months, anglers are attracted to the influx of walleye and pike fish who fill the river’s waters.
Whether you want to spend your trip floating to the rhythm of the river’s ripples or spend a day of recreation paddling along its turns and obstacles, be sure to bring a pair of binoculars to truly appreciate the river’s sights.
RIVER CAMPING IN SOUTHERN MICHIGAN
Find a list of boat launches here
Yet another river ideal for the beginner or someone wanting to go on a less backcountry intensive trip. The Huron River Water Trail provides 104 miles of inland paddling surrounded by nature. Flat waters and rapids alike can be found along this path, making different parts suitable for different types of adventures you may want to embark on.
Four campgrounds currently sit along the Huron River Trail, all of which are only accessible from the river. What’s nice about these campsites is their access to toilets and the necessity to reserve your spot.
Again, being able to reserve a spot while river camping allows you to put a little bit more control into your hands while planning. To make a reservation and pay your fee, call 734-697-9181.
RIVER CAMPING IN WEST MICHIGAN
Paw Paw River
Boat Launch: 42.11767672114517, -86.46817814605704, off Whitwam Dr.
Alternative to the suggested coordinates, you can start your float down the Paw Paw through one of two other bodies of water: Briggs Pond or Maple Lake. Wildlife is abundant across this stream, such as snakes and blue herons. With water so clear you can see the lake’s bottom, this river is an outdoor lover’s dream come true.
The river is currently undergoing pathway maintenance. As of May 2023, it has been completed from Maple Lake Dam to 40th Street. Be cautious of fallen trees and other obstacles you may come across along your path.
Find a map of boat launches here
Though the waters are generally considered to be faster on this river, the Muskegon River is considered to be friendly for waders of all experience levels. With various pull-in and pull-out points, it’s ideal for an easy-going, relaxing trip.
Muskegon River Campground, located in Grant, MI, provides easy access to the river as well as campsites with water and electricity available. Recently opened in 2022, these public grounds provide one thing every person seeks every once in a while: peace and quiet. Camping rates are $30/night with a two-night minimum requirement.
More Things to Do in Northern Michigan
- 8 BEST Places to Camp When Visiting Sleeping Bear Dunes (Map)
- Best Camping in Oscoda MI (Tent Camping, RV Parks)
- Explore Headlands International Dark Sky Park Michigan
- Discover Beaver Island Michigan: America’s Emerald Isle
- 30 Best Nature Preserves in Michigan: Reconnect with the Wild
About the Author-
Molly Grossman is a content writer and researcher with an interest in arts and nature. She is currently attending university, where she’s studying English with a minor in business. Working part-time backstage at a local performing arts center as a show supervisor, she fills her free time with hiking at local parks and reading. Though not a Michigan native, Molly adores the state’s natural wonders and indulges in its backpacking opportunities.