Michigan DNR Rustic Cabins: An alternative to cold weather camping

Rustic cabins at various state parks can be a great way to enjoy the great outdoors during the cold weather months without the expense of winter gear, or the challenge of staying warm in camp when daylight ends at 5:00 p.m. and temperatures plummet. While I do winter camp on occasion, I love staying in the state park’s rustic cabins. Michigan’s state parks have a variety of lodging options, from modern mini-cabins that sleep four, to New Deal era log cabins and bunkhouses built by the young men of the Civilian Conservation Corps, and even yurts in some locations!  Here’s what I’ve learned from my visits:

If the cabin has propane heat, you’ll probably be nice and toasty. If the cabin has a wood stove, the heat tends to vary based on how close your bunk is to the wood stove, and how often in the night you’re willing to get up and put wood on the fire. I set a timer for every hour or so to feed the fire so that it doesn’t go out.  There have been times when I was happy to sleep in only my sleeping bag liner, and other times that I wished I brought a 20-degree bag instead of my summer 55-degree bag.  Bringing a sheet and a few layers to use throughout the night provides some flexibility.

While the park provides wood for the stove, there is usually no kindling, so plan ahead by bringing a fire starter or two and/or a hatchet to split the wood into smaller slivers. I also love bringing my pocket bellows for helping to start a new log in the stove, as some of the wood stoves are pretty long and narrow, and it can be tricky to fan the flames by blowing on them without help! (My pocket bellows, which I purchased on Amazon for $12, is a favorite piece of gear!)

Also, well-insulated slippers are a plus! Most cabins have concrete floors that never really get warm. 

Hiking trailhead near the bunkhouses at Wilderness State Park.

Plan for utter darkness if the cabin does not have electricity. Headlamps are great, but you may also want a lantern or flashlight for playing cards around the table, or to hang above your bunk. Most cabins have a hook in the ceiling to hang a light source from.

Cabins with power are great for potlucks. If you can park nearby, bringing a crock pot of soup, sloppy joes, or other after-hike treats will make you many friends! However, there is not running water for clean up, so plan ahead by either bringing extra water, disposable dishes, or even a box or tote that you can take dirty dishes home in to wash. Water pumps in the campgrounds are winterized, so you will need to plan to bring your own water. Milk jugs or other large containers can come in handy for this purpose.

If you make a reservation, the park staff will sometimes contact you within a day or two of your arrival date with instructions how to get in (usually a code, or picking up a key). If you don’t hear from them, be sure to get in touch. Hours are limited during the off season and you may not be able to just stop by park headquarters at your convenience to get what you need for entry, although some parks do have an automatic phone check-in–it really varies from place to place. Automatic check in usually requires the confirmation number on your email confirmation–be sure you have a screenshot since you might not have service to access your email upon arrival. Since you definitely don’t want to find yourself locked out on a cold night, figure this out beforehand. Also, be sure to ask about how far you’ll have to walk in. Some cabins are plowed right up to the front door, but not all of them, and that will impact how you pack and move your gear in–sled, backpack, Rubbermaid tote, etc. 

Ludington Mini-Cabin Interior: two single mattresses up, one single and one double down. This is standard mini-cabin set-up.

The cabins have bunk beds, which not everyone likes climbing up into. You may want to think about whether or not to fill a cabin to capacity, or only use the lower bunks. Some cabins are better than others about safety rails on the top bunks, and ladders to get up there. The photos of the cabin on the reservations web page will help you get a sense of whether or not you’re comfortable with the setup. The Riverside Cabin in Fort Custer is one of my favorites, but the middle top bunk has no rails, and is open on both sides (no hugging a wall to stay safe!), and with the concrete floor below, it looks like an accident waiting to happen to me!  

Many cabins have “double” beds on the lower bunks, and they count that into the total of how many people the cabin sleeps. For some reason, it seems like almost no one I know has a significant other who shares hiking as a hobby, and if you’re planning a group trip, the attendees may not necessarily want to share one of these double beds. You are generally allowed to have as many people in the cabin as the cabin supposedly sleeps, so if you don’t use the upper bunks, or only sleep one person in the “doubles,” you could put mats or cots on the floor. Some parks allow you to tent or hammock outside the cabin, as long as you don’t exceed the cabin limit, but check, because it varies by park. 

Mice can be an issue. Practice your PCT hang from the rafters, or otherwise plan accordingly to keep the critters from gnawing into your food bag.

Privies/outhouses sometimes have toilet paper and hand sanitizer, and sometimes they don’t. Plan ahead.

Not all state park or recreation area rustic cabins are open in the winter months and spring opening varies by location.

In the last few years, I’ve stayed in:

Wilderness State Park Bunkhouse (there are three identical bunkhouses, both of which sleep 24.) I can’t quite imagine 24 people in either of these buildings, but for 10-15, they’re awesome! A log cabin with a big stone chimney, it definitely has a rustic feel, and makes for a great base camp for winter hiking. If you’re there in the winter, dress warmly–it’s a big space for one fireplace to heat. There is a table and a few folding chairs, but it’s a good idea to bring your own camp chair, and a portable table or two if you have them. You can drive right up to the entrance. A lot of people move in via laundry basket, Rubbermaid tote, etc.

Cap’s Cabin in Wilderness State Park, near Mackinaw City.

Wilderness State Park Cap’s Cabin (sleeps 6) is a short walk from Lake Michigan with views of the bridge. It’s a classic log cabin, and one of my favorites. In the winter the driveway isn’t always plowed, so this might have to be a pulk-pulling or backpacking destination.

Fort Custer Recreation Area Riverside Cabin, which sleeps 6. Right along the Kalamazoo River with a beautiful big yard where you could sit and enjoy the view, and propane heat to keep things nice and warm, this cabin was one of my favorites. The middle row of bunks don’t have a wall for the top bunk to butt up to, which would have made me a little leary of sleeping up there. The horse trails are generally not in use during the winter, and have nice views of the river.You can drive up to the entrance. The remains of buildings from when this was a training and POW camp are interesting, too. An NCT road-crossing with some parking is just outside of the recreation area entrance.

Muskegon State Park Mini Cabin, which sleeps 4. With power, a fridge, microwave, and a table and stools that looked like they were from IKEA, rather than a CCC camp from the 1930’s, this cabin seemed more like “glamping”! A propane heater keeps this tiny space very toasty. From the top bunk, I could see stars at night through the sky light! The beach hiking, trails through the dunes, and proximity to the Winter Sports Park, which has a luge run, ice skating rink and track, and lots of trails for snowshoeing, hiking, and cross-country skiing all made for a really active and fun stay. The mini-cabins seem pretty standard from park to park–the one in Ludington was identical in layout and amenities.

Southfork Cabin at Waterloo Recreation Area

Waterloo Recreation Area Southfork Cabin, which sleeps 8. This is a no frills cabin near the horse barn. It’s a bit of a walk, up and down a pretty good sized hill, from the parking area. A backpack would probably be the best way to move into this cabin. While I liked the cabin’s traditional feel from the outside, it looks a lot like a trailer inside. Most of the trails nearby this cabin are for equestrian use, and are not well marked. But, there are lots of great trails in the Recreation Area, so if you don’t mind driving to a trailhead a few miles away, it might be nice for early fall and late spring. And, there are other rustic cabin options in the recreation area to choose from.

Watching the winter moon rise while sitting around the fire ring, before heading in to make hot chocolate and get a warm night’s sleep.

Yankee Springs has a variety of cabins; we stayed at the Crane cabin last Easter weekend, and discovered it was one of the few cabins that actually slept as many people as it advertised. It also had power. We had a potluck dinner and breakfast, and explored a lot of Yankee Springs’ beautiful trails. These cabins allow you to drive right up, too.

Click here for a complete listing of all of the overnight lodgings available in Michigan state parks.

Published by lovesmichiganoutdoors

Hiking, backpacking, kayaking, stand-up-paddle boarding, sailing... exploring Michigan is my passion!

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