Haunted Happenings and Fall Fests: Michigan State Parks, Sites and Harbors are Home to Fall Family Fun

Pumpkin carving is among the activities on tap at state park fall festivals.

September 29, 2011

This fall, Michigan state parks, palisades and harbors will be haunted hot spots, filled with mythical 18th century creatures, spooky hayrides, autumn fests and howling (and talking) coyotes. All around the state, these events and festivals beckon visitors with eerie calls and tasty treats, signaling the start of fall and a fun-filled extension of the family camping season and the Department of Natural Resources has issued an open invitation for visitors of all ages! Here are just a few examples of what's happening around the state:

Oct. 8, Mackinaw City

A ghost makes an appearance at Fort Fright

Long after the boaters have packed up and left Straits State Harbor in Mackinaw County, the cool October nights thicken the air into a heavy fog that rises off the waters of Lake Huron, creating a ghostly ambiance. It may sound scary, but it's not enough to keep hundreds of children away from the frightful fun at Straits State Harbor's annual Haunted Harbor, 3 to 6 p.m., at the marina (409 S. Huron Ave., Mackinaw City).

In 2010, more than 300 costumed children were brave enough to enter the harbor headquarters that was elaborately transformed into a haunted house for the day, complete with fog machine. The event, geared for youngsters, includes tractor-pulled hayrides, crafts and games such as beanbag toss and pumpkin bowling.

After spending the summer focused on harbor visitors and guests, harbor employees Paul and Betsy Allers enjoy the chance to dress in costume and entertain children. "We feel that Straits State Harbor is a vital part of Mackinaw City, and this is one of the ways we like to give back to the community," Betsy Allers said.

Instead of cash, guests are invited to donate nonperishable food items and canned goods that will be shared with local food pantries. For details, call the harbor at 231-436-5326.

Oct. 7-8, Mackinaw City

Skeletons in uniform guard the gates at Mackinaw City's Fort Fright.

Looking for more spooktacular family fun after the Haunted Harbor? Then make your way just a couple of miles down the shoreline to Mackinac State Historic Parks' Fort Fright at Colonial Michilimackinac, a family-friendly event where creatures from 18th-century French Canadian folklore are brought to life, randomly roaming the wooden palisade.

The annual event combines eerie tales with a fascinating historical element. Though the event is intended for families of all ages, some activities, such as the Haunted Rowhouse, offer more fright.

"The event is not just held to scare you," said Katie Cederholm, Mackinac State Historic Parks' curator of education. "There's a real background to the event, which stems from a rich traditional of oral history."

In addition to the storytelling, the ambiance of the historic fort, shadows cast by campfires and candle-lit lanterns, brings a whole new perspective to the 1770s way of life. Werewolves, lutins and other creepy creatures, in addition to the brisk fall breeze coming off Lake Michigan, provide a chilling atmosphere, but hot, mulled cider, fresh baked pumpkin bread and other treats are sure to take away the chill, Cederholm said.

Admission to Fort Fright is $18 family, $6 adult, $3 children and free for children 4 and younger and Mackinac Associates members at the Friend Level or above. The gates open at 6:30 p.m. with last admission at 8:30 p.m. For more information, call 231-436-4100.

Oct. 15, Bay City

Even knowing that it's just a re-creation based on 1770s folklore, the howl of a werewolf is frightening enough. Anyone who's heard the mournful bay of a coyote or an owl's screeching hoot has likely experienced that same spine-tingling chill. During the 18th Mother Nature's Halloween Trail, sponsored by Friends of the Bay City Recreation Area, visitors can learn more about Mother Nature's scariest creatures, why men fear them, and how they got their rough reputations.

Youngsters are encouraged to wear costumes to fall festivals, like this one at Sterling State Park.

The free, educational walks, geared toward children 12 years of age and younger, leave approximately every five minutes from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. from the Bay City Recreation Area's Visitors Center. The guided strolls wind along a candle-lit pumpkin trail through the woods where walkers will meet up with 26 of nature's most misunderstood wetland creatures, including coyotes, bobcats, spiders, bats, the elusive Massasauga rattlesnake, skunks and vultures. These "bad boys" of nature, portrayed by costumed actors from nearby St. Charles and Hemlock high schools, appear along the tree-lined trail to offer a short explanation of why they are so feared and how each animal actually plays a beneficial role in the environment.

Children are encouraged to dress in Halloween costumes. Volunteers along the path's roughly hour-long trek will assist children in making crafts, while refreshments and treat bags wait at the campfire at trail's end. For more information, call 989-667-0707. A Recreation Passport is required for vehicle entry into all state parks and recreation areas.


Autumn's clear days, crisp air and brilliant colors are magnets for campers who long for an excuse not to winterize the camper or pack away the tent just yet. With more than 80 harvest and Halloween festivals taking place at state parks throughout Michigan this September and October, the DNR offers plenty of reasons to postpone the season's end.

"These festivals include all kinds of activities, like pumpkin carving, pumpkin-eating contests, costume contests, monster mash dances, family talent shows and so much more," said Maia Stephens, recreation programmer with the DNR's Parks and Recreation Division.

Campers get into the fall festivities at Sterling State Park.

Stephens said it was campers themselves who helped start the tradition of fall harvest and Halloween festivals some 20 years ago, as a last hurrah to a fun-filled camping season. Over the years, many state parks and recreation areas (such as Brighton Recreation Area in Livingston County) have seen campsite reservations during the harvest weekends completely booked. Such high interest resulted in Brighton's extending its harvest festival to a three-weekend span.

For a list of all "harvests and haunts" scheduled for fun and fright this season, visit www.michigan.gov/stateparks.

The DNR reminds all visitors that a Recreation Passport is needed for vehicle entry into all state parks and recreation areas. Learn more at www.michigan.gov/recreationpassport .