RVing Around Lake Michigan on a Budget

Trading the sands of Morocco for the dunes of Michigan, the Salas family navigated a Covid-safe Circle Tour – hitting beaches in four states, cruising bikes on Mackinac Island, riding dune buggies and fighting pirates – for not much more than the cost of staying home!

By Liliia DeCos


What’s it like for a world traveler to swap Marrakech for the Midwest? We check in with ROAM contributor and prize-winning photographer, Alison Bowman-Salas of @findingsalas on her family’s 1,500-mile Lake Michigan Circle Tour.

The Salas performed the perfect pandemic pivot, aiming adventure domestically instead of overseas.  The last piece Alison wrote for ROAM was on their weeks exploring the sands of Morocco. This time? The dunes of Michigan!

The great news? Their summer 2020 road trip was Covid-safe AND incredibly inexpensive as well. Two weeks in a rented RV didn’t cost too much more than just being at home and that’s just part of the reason why we included the Salas journey on ROAM’s list of 21 Covid-safe Family Adventures for 2021.

Along the way, the family was wowed by all the incredible sights, including the Indiana Dunes National Park (Yes, that Indiana!) They cruised through four states, rode ferries to two islands, hit numerous state and national parks, rode dune buggies, rented bikes, fought pirates, and, of course, splashed in the only Great Lake to sit entirely inside the U.S.


ROAM: How long were you on the road?

Alison: About 2 weeks.  We clocked in at 1,500 miles and more than 10 stops. I think it’s 1,200 miles officially if you aren’t tempted by detours. But that’s half the fun of having an RV. 

ROAM: Was the RV rental expensive? How much did the whole trip cost?

Alison:  Our small 26′ RV was $120/day for the rental and insurance. This was the most expensive part by far. You can also rent much larger and nicer ones for $200/day and up. Your gas will also increase with these. We tried to find the smallest vehicle that could fit us, knowing that the RV life is best enjoyed outside. You can also make this budget line item far less by going tent camping, or with a small enough crew “van camping” and supplementing with campground facilities.

State campgrounds were generally $30-40/night. RV parks and private campgrounds were closer to $50/night. You get some more amenities with the latter (more social spaces, better bathrooms, sometimes water and dumping right at your site). But really, we didn’t mind the modest state campgrounds because our RV had everything we needed other than electrical hook-up.  We also spent a couple of nights “boondocking” too – which is camping in non-camping private spaces (e.g., sporting good stores, truck stops, Walmarts, federally managed forests) without the electrical hook-ups. Those spaces are free if you want to whittle down your budget a little.

On the entire trip, we spent just $200 in gas and $26 in tolls. It really does pay to rent the smallest vehicle you’ll be comfortable in. This also makes maneuvering so much easier. We could back into spaces, take it on a ferry. No trouble.

We spent $300 on groceries for two weeks and came back with lots of food. So in terms of our spending, this was really no different than what we would have spent living at home.

Because of the pandemic, we did not really eat out. We stopped for ice cream twice, picked up some bakery in Door County, and grabbed some slices of pizza to go when on Mackinac Island. Our eating out was under $50 in total.

Entertainment was very reasonable as well since many things were covered by state park passes. Indiana Dunes was $6/car, Michigan Parks pass is $34/year/car for over 100 parks, and Wisconsin Parks pass is $38/year/car to access 60 parks. Other things to note include ferries to Mackinac and Washington Island ($17-29 RT per person and $7.50/14 RT, respectively). We also sprung for two tours, Mac Woods dune rides and a pirate-themed cruise around the Straits of Mackinac. ($11-22 per person and $10-20 per person, respectively).

ROAM: Was traveling tough because of the pandemic?

Alison:  I think that depends on your outlook. We had several trips planned this spring and summer that were outright cancelled due to COVID-19 and being unable to fly. The RV trip is the one trip that survived, since we could still travel locally if we felt comfortable. So really it was the silver lining in our 2020 travels.

The RV allows you to be contained and self-sufficient in terms of eating, sleeping, and bathroom use, so we had low risk being away from home. Plus because you are the driver and on your own schedule, you can stop only where you feel comfortable. If we arrived at a place that looked too busy, we just looked for something else down the road. We set our expectations around this, and even with some adjustments, never felt disappointed by what we did on a given day.

I think though what struck me most was that few people seemed to be wearing masks or distancing, so we found it much easier to go to deserted places or popular places outside of peak hours.

ROAM: Now the hard part: What were your favorite stops? 

Alison: Oh this is the hard part! At bedtime each night, the kids were just beaming saying “This was the best night ever!”  – only to repeat it again each day. The list below contains our family’s top picks.

Best Stops on the Lake Michigan Circle Tour

Climbing & Riding on Silver Lake Dunes

We had so much fun running through the dunes at this Michigan state park. There are more than 2,000 acres of sand, divided into a pedestrian area, a private area where you can hire a dune buggy ride, and an ATV area if you’re up to driving through them yourself. We did the first two options and loved both, especially the dune buggy ride. It was like a natural roller coaster and almost an hour long. We highly recommend checking out Mac Woods.

And if you’re wondering where all this sand came from, the area was clear-cut in the late 1800s to rebuild Chicago after its big fire. The sand was underneath the forest, which kept the area stable. In spite of planting grass and trees in some areas, the dunes are in constant flux and have consumed more than 1/3 of Silver Lake. They’ve also consumed nearby homes over time. We saw just the garage remnants from a property adjacent to the dunes that recently went under as well.

More Playing in the Dunes

Indiana Dunes National Park (see photos atop this article) and Sleeping Bear Dunes (below) were also must-stop spots for views, sands, and swims.  


Riding Bikes on Mackinac Island

A Lake Michigan Circle Tour would not be complete without visiting one of her islands. We took the 20-minute @starlinemackinacislandferry over to Mackinac Island, which is completely car-free and filled with fudge shops in their place – 17 total shops in less than 4 square miles!


The island is mostly forested by Mackinac Island State Park, so we rented bikes from @mackinaccycle (right next to the ferry line, super easy) and rode around the island — with many stops to eat fudge of course. The bike rental even had bike trailers so getting Seneca and all our fudge and salt water taffy impulse purchases around was no problem. 😉

Star Line Ferry also has a pirate themed cruise around the island and under the big bridge, which we could not miss. It’s about 90 minutes long, half of which the pirate crew spent engaged in a massive sword fight with all the kids on board. Not joking on this and it was probably the best day of the kids’ life. 

Swimming on School House Beach, Washington Island 

Sitting at the tip of Wisconsin’s “thumb,” Washington Island is home to a beach filled with smooth limestone rocks instead of sand. There are only a few others like it worldwide (only England, the Philippines, and New Zealand, I think…)


It is also the home of the striking Stavkirke church, based on drawings of one built in Norway in 1150 AD. It is accessible by a “prayer path” though the woods and looks so striking nestled among the trees.

The use of wood rather than stone allows much artistic and cultural expression. The church is modeled after a Viking ship and complete with masts (stavs) and dragon heads on the gabled roofs. It’s also another homage to the Scandinavian heritage proudly on display in Door County, Wisconsin.

Europe-ing in Holland, Michigan

The little town of Holland has a Dutch village replica and acres of gardens which are filled with millions of tulips come spring. It also has the only authentic, working Dutch windmill in the US. It’s over 250 years old and was shipped here in pieces. And it only cost us $5 for the whole day, not including all the chocolate and stroopwafels we bought. And masks are required making it pandemic-friendly.

Sunsets Over the Lake

Sunsets on the Michigan state-side of the lake are phenomenal. With over 300-miles worth of west-facing coastline, every night is a pinkish showstopper.




Liliia DeCos  – September 202o

ROAM Executive Editor

Originally from Ukraine and now based in Spain, Liliia has traveled literally across the world with her husband Jose and their two young daughters. Follow their intrepid walkabouts at bring_baby_abroad and see Liliia’s amazing photos on Instagram at bring_baby_abroad or on ROAM where she won Best Family Photo of 2019

© ROAM Family Travel 2021 – All rights reserved


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