Petoskey, in northwest Michigan, has year round charms. From beaches on Lake Michigan’s Little Traverse Bay to small mountains, the Petoskey area offers a wealth of outdoor activities. Best of all, there are plenty of free things to do in Petoskey, Michigan.
Taking a midwest road trip? Small town Petoskey, about four hours northwest of Detroit and three hours from Grand Rapids, is a year round, family friendly getaway destination. It is the home of the Michigan state rock, the Petoskey Stone and was Ernest Hemingway’s vacation spot. Read on to discover all the the free things to do in Petoskey, Michigan, the Great Lakes, and surrounding Emmet County.
1. Dark Sky Stars
Emmet County is home to Headlands International Dark Sky Park, a park open 24/7/365. Come at night to see the star show. If you are lucky, you might even see the Northern Lights (March and September are the best times for this). If you come during the day, walk the 1 mile Dark Sky Discovery Trail to learn about the planets, Pluto, the Moon and the Sun. There is no overnight camping, but you can bring blankets and sleeping bags to lay down at night and see the dark sky.
TravelingMom Tip: It is usually 10 degrees colder here since Headlands is on Lake Michigan. Dress accordingly.
2. Rock Stars
The Petoskey stone, part fossil and part rock, is only found in Michigan. The polished state stones are made into jewelry and sold locally, but you can also go to Petoskey State Park and look for a free one.
3. Writing Star
Ernest Hemingway spent every summer of his childhood in Northern Michigan. He would take the train to Petoskey. You can see the beautiful restored Pere Marquette train depot, which now houses the Little Traverse History Museum. [Note: the museum charges admission.] You can also visit The Horton Bay General Store in Boyne City, on the National Register of Historic Places. Visit Petoskey has more information on Hemingway’s connection to Northern Michigan and historic markers in downtown Petoskey tell the story of the site’s relationship to Ernest Hemingway.
Read More: Check out the Best Family Resorts in Michigan
4. Movie Stars
In summer, you can watch movies for free on Fridays in a city park. The Movie In The Park At Dark event in downtown Petoskey starts at 9pm since it stays light later in Northern Michigan.
5. Academic Stars
North Central Michigan College has a free sculpture garden in the middle of campus. Harris Gardens has 26 outdoor sculptures, along with beautiful landscaping, picnic areas and benches.
6. Old Time Trolley
A free downtown trolley runs June to August. It takes you from downtown to the Village at Bay Harbor and Petoskey State Park. Note: The trolley did not run in 2021 due to Covid-19, but is expected to run in 2022.
7. Walk the Gaslight District
The Gaslight Shopping District, on the Little Traverse Bay of Lake Michigan, has over 170 independent boutiques and restaurants. Be sure to go after dark to see the gaslights illuminating the sidewalks.
8. Kilwins Chocolate Kitchen
This regional chain originated in Petoskey and you can see the hand-crafted chocolate treats being made at the open kitchen. A self guided tour details the method behind all the Kilwins confections. If you aren’t a chocolate or fudge fan, Kilwins also makes ice cream.
9. Art Gallery
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10. See Bay View Summer Community Year Round
Walk around Bay View, part of the city of Petoskey, listed on the National Register of Historic Places. This community began in 1875 as a summer camp for the Methodist Episcopal Church and its cottages are only allowed to be occupied in summer. It is a lively area in warmer months. But it is great for a winter walk through snow, seeing the Victorian cottages and historic Post Office.
Download the walking tour or take a wildlife walk through the Bay View Woods trails.
11. River Time: Bear River Valley Recreation Area
The Bear River Valley Recreation Area has year round outdoor fun. There are trails for walking, biking and birding. In winter, you can cross-country ski or snowshoe. There is even kayaking in a brief area of whitewater.
12. Little Traverse Wheelway
The 26 mile Little Traverse Wheelway connects Little Traverse Bay from Charlevoix to Harbor Springs. The Petoskey portion, from Bayfront Park to Petoskey State Park, follows an 1880s wheelway that prohibited riding horses or horse-drawn carriages. Now you can walk or bike the paved trail through parks and beaches.
13. Back to Nature at Avalanche Mountain Preserve
The wooded Avalanche Mountain Preserve, a few miles from downtown Petoskey, has hiking trails and biking trails. If you are’t much of a hiker, climb the 462 steps to the top of Avalanche. A viewing platform offers great views of Boyne City and Lake Charlevoix.
14. Tour the Mushroom Houses
In nearby Charlevoix, take a walking tour of Michigan builder Earl Young’s mushroom houses. There are 30 mushroom houses, built from 1918 to 1951
Winter Fun: Cold Weather Free Things to Do in Petoskey
15. Skating on Thick Ice
Ice skate for free at the Harbor Springs Sk8 Park, with free ice skate rentals as well. There is also a warming hut. The outdoor rink is open weather dependent.
16. Sledding and Skating and Skiing
Avalanche Mountain Preserve has a giant sledding hill. There is also free ice skating with free skate rentals. A warming hut is open 4 p.m.to 9 p.m. Monday – Thursday; 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Bring your own cross country skis to access the free groomed trails.
17. New Year’s Eve
Petoskey throws a free New Year’s Eve party in a heated tent outside Crooked Tree Arts Center. Everything is free, from pizza to hot cocoa and s’mores, to live music, crafts and other entertainment. The party is from 6 – 8 p.m. every December 31st.
18. Winter Weekend
Downtown Petoskey sparkles in winter. In February, see over 30 ice sculptures around town. The distilleries and restaurants have outdoor fire pits and igloos to keep you warm. The next Winter Weekend is February 11 – 14, 2022.