Our First Trip With the Camper-Lake Leelanau, Michigan

Earlier this year in May, my dad had signed up to race in the Bayshore Marathon in Traverse City, Michigan over Memorial Day weekend. Wanting to support him and cheer him on, Dustin and I, along with my sister, Karly, and her husband, Karl, decided to make a long weekend out of it, since we already had some time off from work thanks to the holiday. Due to some health issues with my grandfather, my dad ended up making the tough decision to withdraw from his race at the last second to stay home and support my mom through the situation. We were assured that my grandfather was ok, so we all decided to go up north anyway and see what we could get into.

A couple of months prior, Dustin and I had purchased a travel trailer so that we could do some cheaper domestic traveling. We ended up getting a 23′ R Vision Trail Cruiser and this was our first official trip with the new camper.

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Our travel trailer

We loaded up our gear (albeit waaaay more than we actually needed), along with our two doggies, Bailey and Bella, and headed up north. My sister’s husband got called to do a last minute errand for work so Karly ended up making the trip with us and Karl met us up there after he was done working.

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On the way to Traverse City!

Our 3 1/2 hour trip ended up taking about 4 1/2-5 hours due to having to drive slower with the camper but it was a fun drive nonetheless. Bailey (our Jack Russell) gets really anxious on car rides so he enjoyed having Karly next to him to calm him down and keep him distracted until we arrived.

When we finally made it to our campground, we were pleasantly surprised! Booking a place online that you’ve never been is always kind of a toss up because all you have to go on are photos, and everyone always puts their best foot forward in trying to sell the place to you. Luckily, Lake Leelanau RV Park accurately depicted themselves in their online photos and we scored a fantastic campsite! We were only 2 or 3 sites off from the lake and had a gorgeous, expansive view!

As we checked in at the clubhouse, they told us they were having an ice cream social that evening for guests along with lots of activities for families to do on site, even a hayride for kids. There were pool tables, ping pong, etc. in the clubhouse along with a small general store and they also offered on site boat and jet ski rentals in addition to their beach and swimming area! Even the bathrooms were nice! They were individual bathrooms with showers, rather than dorm style, and were extremely clean and even had air conditioning! We were thoroughly happy with our choice of where to stay.

Karly helped us set up our campsite as we waited for her hubby to arrive. Once he got there, we all agreed that we needed to try and rent a boat at some point throughout the weekend! Karl and I are always hungry so as soon as he got there, we all hopped back in the cars and drove over to Leland for lunch. Dustin and I had been to Leland several times before this but Karly and Karl had never been and we wanted to show it to them, knowing they would fall in love with its charm just as we had.

Leland is a very tiny town known as Fish Town due to its fully functioning fishing industry. Craving some good seafood, we chose to eat there at The Cove for lunch. The Cove is situated directly on the harbor/dam and has fantastic views of the lake and the Manitou Islands from their patio out back and they have delicious clam chowder.

One thing everyone knows about my brother-in-law is that he loves his politics! During our meal, Karl’s eyes kept drifting to the table adjacent to us. Apparently, a guy who has a fairly famous podcast that Karl listens to was sitting at the table near us which made Karl a little star struck and he couldn’t stop staring at the table. We finally convinced him to go introduce himself and talk to the guy and afterwards, Karl was beaming and couldn’t stop talking about it. I couldn’t tell you the guy’s name because I pay exactly zero attention to politics but it was cute how it made Karl’s day!

After lunch, we walked around the cute little shops in Leland for a bit and stopped at Carlson’s Fishery to get some smoked salmon and whitefish dip. Stopping here is a must on a visit near Leland! They have incredible smoked fish!

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Fish Town! (photo credit to Karly McCullough)
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Leland, Michigan (Fish Town)

Afterwards, Dustin and I stopped at a little grocery store we remembered from a previous trip and stocked up on food and drinks for the campsite while Karl and Karly headed over to Sutton’s Bay to check into their AirBNB rental. None of us had ever used AirBNB but since it was a holiday weekend, Traverse City was almost completely booked up for hotels or if there was any vacancy, the prices were outrageous! Not wanting to risk the possible cold temperatures at this time of year in a tent campsite, Karly and Karl opted to try AirBNB, not really knowing what to expect.

After dropping off our groceries, Dustin and I also drove over to Sutton’s Bay to check out their place. We had a gorgeous drive around the bay on the way there. Eventually we came to the house where they were staying and it was beautiful! The house was brand new and very stylish inside. The thought of staying in the house of a perfect stranger while that person was there had always wigged me out a little but their host was lovely! She was very friendly and outgoing and hospitable. We got along great right from the moment we met because she was wearing the same exact shoes as me and her friend that she had over for dinner was named Becky also, so we had a few funny commonalities. She recommended a few places to try in Sutton’s Bay which is definitely a perk of staying with a local.

Rather than going out that night, we all opted to drive back to Dustin and I’s campsite for dinner and cook our meal over a campfire by the lake. On the way back, we saw one of the places that their host had recommended called Hop Lot. The restaurant was a super cozy, log cabin-looking building with a large outdoor area where they had many bonfire pits for guests to use. The whole outdoor patio area was lined with stacks of split wood for the fires and each group could sit around their own bonfire. It was such a unique and fun idea for a restaurant/brewery and there were lines of cars down the road so it was obviously a really popular place! The social part of me really wanted to go because it looked really fun but the logical part of me (aka my husband 🙂 Dustin) convinced me that we already had a free bonfire waiting for us at the campsite, so we headed back.

Our campfire ended up being just as fun. We cooked some hot dogs and s’mores over the fire, had some yummy spiked hot apple cider, and were able to hang out with the puppies at our very own little slice of heaven on the lake that night.

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The guys getting the bonfire started!

Our camp neighbors came over and introduced themselves and ended up enjoying the fire with us late into the night. So late, that we were asked to put out our fire and go to bed by the camp staff! 🙂 We weren’t being loud or anything but they had rules about having a fire after midnight that apparently we skimmed over. Oops!

The next morning, Karly and Karl came back and Dustin cooked everyone a very tasty breakfast of eggs, smoked sausage, and pancakes, camping style! Karly and Karl were only able to stay 1 night because Karl’s family from West Virginia was coming to visit so we wanted to make the most of their last day up north! We called the camp office to inquire about renting a pontoon boat for the day but sadly, they were all booked up! Knowing that was how we wanted to spend the day, we didn’t give up. We Googled every boat rental place in the area and finally found a place just off of Torch Lake that had boats available! I had always wanted to go out on Torch Lake because it is absolutely gorgeous with the most crystal clear turquoise water I’ve ever seen in the north! It was a little over an hour away but we decided to be spontaneous and booked a boat for the day.

It was a beautiful, hilly drive to Bellaire. We arrived at Dewitt Marine and when they showed us the boat we would be getting for the day, we almost didn’t believe them! It was huge and brand new! It looked as if they had just taken it out of the showroom for us!

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We stocked up on snacks and drinks at the Clam Shack, which is the marina’s party store, and then headed out on the Clam River towards Torch Lake. Torch Lake is part of a chain of lakes in this area called the Elk River Chain of Lakes Watershed. It was so neat to be able to drive from lake to lake to lake and Torch Lake was especially unique in that it had several lakeside restaurants that boats can pull up to. There was one restaurant in particular called Fabiano’s that even offered jet ski pizza delivery! How fun would that job be!!!

Torch Lake is also known for an area called “the Sandbar”. In the summer, boats anchor in this beautiful teal shallow water on the sandbar and it turns into one huge party. Being Memorial Day weekend when we visited, it was already pretty packed!

We drove on past though because we wanted to explore the chain of lakes! We drove from Torch Lake to Skegemog Lake to Elk Lake and then back again. On the map that we had, it looked as if we would be able to drive from Elk Lake through a channel into Lake Michigan but we were disappointed to reach a dead end at the far side of Elk Lake. We could still see Lake Michigan though so it was close enough to satisfy us! We got so lucky with the weather over our holiday weekend-it was beautiful, sunny, and warm. This time of year can be temperamental in northern Michigan but we were really blessed!

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The water in Torch Lake looked like we were somewhere in the Caribbean!

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After a full day on the water, and our hearts full from adventuring together, it was time for Karly and Karl to head home to meet up with Karl’s family who had driven all day to get from West Virginia to Michigan. Dustin and I headed back to the campsite and cooked up some dinner and spent some time with the puppies. After dinner, we had a relaxing night in and watched a movie in our camper. We were really roughing it, I know! 🙂

We woke up in the middle of the night to the sound of thunder. It stormed all through the night and into the next morning but it was nice listening to the rain on the roof as we slept. We were so happy that the storm had held off until then so that Karly and Karl were able to have such a nice time during their short stay.

When we woke up, we decided to drive into Traverse City and see if we could find something to do on a rainy day. We ended up driving out to Old Mission Point to see the lighthouse. The drive out there was gorgeous. The entire drive is alongside Grand Traverse Bay and goes past many beautiful wineries and estates.

It was still raining once we reached the lighthouse but we grabbed our umbrellas and decided to be adventurous and went hiking around the property that the lighthouse is on.

It only costs a small fee to go up in the lighthouse so we went up to the top. Dustin and I have seen a ton of lighthouses together so it was fun to add another to the list!

On our way back into Traverse City, Dustin got a call from his mom who had also been up north that weekend camping with her sister and brother-in-law in a different area than us. We made plans to meet up for lunch and chose the Red Mesa Grill as our meeting point. One of the things I really enjoy about traveling is the chance to experience new and different food options! The Red Mesa Grill has influences in its menu from Mexico, Central America, South America and the Caribbean and everything we had was out of this world delicious and full of flavor! I had the Jamaican Jerk Flautas and Jack Stuffed Shrimp and both were amazing! The restaurant was decorated really fun with paraphernalia from Brazilian carnival so it was just a really fun and lively atmosphere and an overall great experience!

After lunch we drove back to our campsite to check on the dogs. The weather cleared up mid day and the sun came back out so we sat outside and played some Uno at the campsite and enjoyed the beautiful afternoon. By evening, I was already restless (anyone who knows me knows I can’t sit still for too long) so we drove back over to Leland to get some ice cream and to watch the sunset over the Manitou Islands. We found an intriguing drive that we followed to a place called Whaleback Natural Area.

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Serendipity is defined as “a fortunate accident”, which is exactly what stumbling upon this place was! It was so serene and beautiful and overlooked Lake Michigan and the islands. We were the only ones there which made it even more romantic and special.

As the sun set, another lightning storm started to develop and it was really cool to watch it roll in from high above on the bluff!

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Sunset/lightning storm over the Manitou Islands

Once it got close enough though, we decided we had better get back to the campsite. Our dogs are not exactly fans of thunderstorms so we wanted to make sure we were there with them once the thunder started again.

Traverse City, Northern Michigan, and Lake Leelanau RV Park gifted us with a lot of fond memories of our first real camping trip with our travel trailer, family, and the puppies and it made us excited to use it more over the summer!

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