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DNR State Forest Campgrounds Offer Rustic, Secluded Camping

Anglers can fish right from shore at the lower state forest campground at Black Lake.

July 21, 2011

These days, a lot of people associate the word "campground" with a place that includes electrical hook-ups and running water - maybe even a bathhouse with showers. And while those sorts of amenities are available at many campgrounds, including those at Michigan's state parks, the Department of Natural Resources maintains a system of campgrounds that provides none of the above.

What you do get is a level, shady patch of ground in a secluded setting where you can pitch a tent or park a recreational vehicle. You get a fire ring and picnic table. Water comes from a pump. And when you need the rest room, you'll find a vault toilet.

If that sort of experience is all you need - or is, indeed, what you seek - then look no further than Michigan's state forest campgrounds, operated by the DNR's Forest Management Division.

Liberally sprinkled around the northern two-thirds of Michigan - where the state forests are located - state forest campgrounds offer rustic camping as well as easy access to nearby recreational opportunities such as hunting, fishing and hiking.

Michigan's state forest campgrounds date to the 1920s, when state wildfire officials thought it might be safer if there was less dispersed camping, explained Jim Radabaugh of the DNR's Forest Management Division. The program - which was supported by the state's General Fund, but is now funded by camping fees -- was popular with campers and eventually expanded to today's 133 campgrounds

State forest campgrounds were much in the news this year as a stressed Forest Management Division budget pushed the DNR to propose an unpopular solution: closure of a few less popular campgrounds in order to concentrate on maintaining the remaining facilities.

Thanks to comments from concerned users and some outside-of-the-box thinking, the DNR has been able to resolve this year's operational crisis, at least temporarily. One facility, Lime Island, was transferred to the Parks and Recreation Division, where it became Michigan's 99th addition to the state park system and has been renamed Lime Island State Recreation Area. Clinton Township in Oscoda County has accepted the DNR's offer of a lease to manage McCollum Lake State Forest Campground. And the Parks and Recreation Division will also conduct a pilot project with the Forest Management Division to co-manage the Munuscong River State Forest Campground in Chippewa County. State forest campgrounds, such as Black Lake, offer quiet getaways in a rustic setting.

The state forest campgrounds will remain open, at least for this year, as DNR officials continue to work with local units of government to identify alternative management methods for additional campgrounds.

There's no doubt that the success of the new Recreation Passport, which replaces the traditional window sticker and allows access to all state parks and recreation areas, has boosted the Parks and Recreation Division's ability to take on additional management responsibilities.

So what can you expect at a state forest campground? Perhaps a look at one will give you an idea.

Black Lake State Forest Campground, near the Tip of the Mitt in Cheboygan County on Black Lake, offers a rustic camping opportunity with access to a wide range of recreational opportunities. Not only is it located on one of Michigan's largest inland lakes, it is adjacent to Black Mountain Pathway, a more than 30-mile-long trail that is open to hikers, bikers, equestrians and all-terrain vehicle riders. Two different campgrounds - one on the lake, one on the bluff -- offer secluded campsites in a mixed pine/deciduous forest that rarely fill up, except during periods of peak demand.

Black Lake State Forest Campground is located in an area of abundant wildlife, from waterfowl to elk, ground squirrels to mink. There's a small sand beach and a boat launch to provide access to the lake, which is noted for its smallmouth bass, pike and walleye fishing. (It's also home to the state's last remaining lake sturgeon spear fishery, but you are a hearty soul if you plan to camp out during the February spearing season!) Campers pitch horseshoes at the lower campground at Black Lake State Forest Campgrounds.

But Black Lake is hardly the only fishing opportunity for campers. The Black River, which flows into the lake, offers some of the best brook trout fishing in Michigan further upstream and some fine walleye fishing downstream before it meets up with the Cheboygan River. It's just a short jaunt from Burt and Mullet lakes, which offer additional, outstanding fishing opportunities for bass, walleye, perch and more.

Black Lake has 50 of its 52 campsites open at any time. The lower campground, right next to the lakeshore, boasts 17 sites. The 35 sites on the bluff are referred to as the upper campground.

"We have two sites closed at all times for rehabilitation," explained Martin Osantowski, a forest fire officer out of the Onaway Field Office. "When we finish with those two, we re-open them and close two others."

Most years, the on-lake campsites are full during much of the summer. "The last two years that hasn't been so," Osantowski said. "I can't give you any specific reasons for that other than the economy.

"The lower campground is not open to off-road vehicle use; you can have them on the trailer but you may not unload them or ride them within the area. The upper campground is an ORV area is adjacent to the ORV trail and campers can access via the campground road."

The lower campground closes in October. The upper campground is open year-round - if you can get in there in the winter and you're tough enough to handle it!

For more information about this campground and others visit the DNR website at

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