Way Up North Fun with Kids

Heading north in the summer, for me, has typically meant a stop in Traverse City or Glen Arbor. But what if I told you there was even more North to explore?

For a long time, I had the misguided thought that there just wasn’t much in Petoskey or Charlevoix for families – that these were just places we drove through on our way to Mackinac Island. Maybe that was the case 20 years ago, but, wow, have times changed.

If you like Traverse City and the general “up north” vibe, then read on. We scoped out summer fun in Charlevoix, Petoskey, Boyne City, Harbor Springs, and Walloon Lake with kids and there is a lot to do.

Here’s a glimpse at the route we took…

Our trip was a ton of fun. So many beaches and little towns to discover, each with a charm of its own. I’ll give you a run-down of what to expect when visiting each of these towns with kids. If you have anything to add, please let me know in the comments.

Charlevoix with Kids

Where to start! Picture perfect is a good place, I guess.

Charlevoix is a little Lake Michigan harbor town with a channel to Lake Charlevoix. The main road through town – US 31 – has a drawbridge that periodically raises to let big boats in and out. Downtown is cute and busy.

Walk the channel down to the lighthouse and Lake Michigan beach for a great playground or eat ice cream and hang out at the harborside park on Lake Charlevoix.

If you or your kids like fairy houses, the Hobbit, or whimsy, you’ll want to check out the Earl Young Mushroom Houses. We followed the self-guided tour on this map.

Young started building nature-inspired homes in the area in 1919 and continued for 50 years, constructing 26 structures. It really is cool to “hunt” for his mushroom houses.

Don’t forget to look for Stafford’s Weathervane Restaurant and Weathervane Terrace Inn & Suites on Pine River Lane, and the Lodge hotel on Michigan Avenue – they’re also his creations.

charlevoix mushroom house

An unexpected stop on our tour downtown: the Charlevoix Public Library. Not only does this old renovated school have a remarkable children’s section, but the outdoor music garden is a delight.

Just outside of Charlevoix is what I’d call the Meijer Gardens of the northCastle Farms Beautiful gardens in a historic castle are fun to discover. The gigantic outdoor model train setup is probably the highlight for most kids.

If you’re on the prowl for Petoskey Stones, Fisherman’s Island State Park is a good bet. Just south of Downtown Charlevoix and perched on Lake Michigan, this rustic state park is not as well known as some of the others.

fisherman's state park charlevoix (1)

We didn’t have time to ride on the 23-mile long Little Traverse Wheelway (Charlevoix to Petoskey to Harbor Springs) but it’s on our list for next time.

Ironton Ferry

Lake Charlevoix is long – and it has a south arm that makes driving its south shore even longer. It’s definitely quicker to drive the north shore. But if you’re not in a hurry, take the south shore route and go through the tiny town of Ironton. That’s where you’ll find the $3 open-top Ironton Ferry.

The line gets long during high-time, but there is a restaurant at the dock if you need to get out. Riding across made everyone in our car smile.

Petoskey – Things to Do with Kids

Petoskey is bigger than Charlevoix. Downtown Petoskey is super cute with lots of great shopping and park space. The JC Penney downtown gives off retro-cool vibes. Yummy restaurants.

downtown petoskey

We stopped into Tap 30 Pourhouse for lunch. Would recommend.

Bayfront Park, just steps away from downtown, has a great waterside playground, shaded seating, lawn space, and a marina to explore.

Probably one of the most surprising things about downtown Petoskey is the natural rec area running through it. Bear River Valley Recreation Area is a gem. With a whitewater river course (bring your kayak) and hiking trails flanking each bank, your family will love exploring this natural wonder.

We wish we would have been in Petoskey on a weekday – then we would have been able to take the free tour of  Kilwins Chocolate Kitchen! Hopefully, you’ll plan your trip better than we did.

Other things in Petoskey we wanted to do but didn’t have time for:

Boyne City for Families

If you’re not looking for it, you’d never find Boyne City. And that’s probably how the people there want to keep it. But now I know, and I just have to tell you about it.

Located west of US-131, Boyne City is on the east end of Lake Charlevoix. It’s home to Young State Park (where we camped – get the Oak Campground if you can) and is an up-and-coming resort town.

Their Farmer’s Market on Saturday mornings is a winner.

Downtown is cute – complete with a Kilwin’s and trendy restaurants with outdoor seating.

We had some of the best fun taking the canopy tour at Wildwood Rush. You need to be at least 70 pounds to go on the tour, so we had to leave our youngest behind with grandma. The rest of us spent 2 hours climbing, zipping, and swaying through the forest.

Our kids – ages 11 and 13 – thought this was the highlight of our whole trip. I don’t like heights and had to psych myself up a few times but even I will admit it was a pretty cool adventure.

If you’re still feeling adventurous, visit the Avalanche Preserve – just outside of town – and climb the 462 steps to the top for awesome views.

We also hit up the Boyne City School Forest Trail for some mountain biking. This is the PERFECT place for kids to bike. I think of it as the Luton Park of the north. Fun ride!

Lavender Hill Farm was our most lovely stop in Boyne City. They have lavender ice cream, soap, soda – in addition to the most gorgeous working farm. Be sure to check out the labyrinth if you go.

Harbor Springs with Kids

Harbor Springs is across Little Grand Traverse Bay from Petoskey and looks like a town out of a picture book. It’s small and is crowded in the summer, but somehow that just adds to its charm. They have a nice beach, downtown, and residential area to explore.

Harbor Springs is the start of the famous M-119 Tunnel of Trees. The narrow drive is especially beautiful in the fall. We took this route to Pond Hill Farm, a beautiful working farm.

They have a cafe, hiking trails, a playground, animals and other activities. We went to use the squash rocket and explore their playground.

Walloon Lake

If you thought Boyne City and Harbor Springs were small, wait until you visit Walloon Lake. This lakeside town is tiny. But what it does have, it does well. There’s a small ice cream shop, a park, town beach, and store/restaurant/marina/dockside bar.

Barrel Back restaurant is right on the lake and has loads of ambiance.

Heading North with the Kids

There’s no way we covered all that there is to do in the area – we were only visiting for five days. I’d love to hear more must-do-while-you’re here suggestions… please drop them in the comments.

And remember, if you are going north, things are spaced out and there are quite a few tourists during the summer. Drives between one destination and another may take longer than anticipated. Get reservations where you can. Stores are pretty well equipped in the bigger towns.

Have fun!

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