Free Family-Friendly Winter Activities in the Mitten State

By Bernadette Manaay

The winter months in Michigan can be brutally cold, and sometimes budget can be a major hindrance to travel. But don’t let that stop your family from making memories and experiencing something new. There are so many fun activities where you can bring your entire family for free—just bundle up, fill your car’s tank with gas, and go! From snow tubing in Boyne Highlands to an outdoor dinosaur hunt at the Cranbrook Institute of Science Museum, these activities won’t cost you a penny for the experience but will reward your family with priceless memories. 

Snow Tubing in Boyne Highlands (Harbor Springs, MI)

Did you know Boyne Highlands offers free rental of snow tubes during the winter season? Whenever we visit the area, we stop by the snow sports rental office at our favorite snow tubing spot. Behind it is a huge hill sloping down to a massive space used for tubing and sledding during winter. Most years, we get the chance to enjoy this spot all to ourselves—and all for free! This place has been our family’s favorite destination in any season, but especially during winter. They also have popular activities to purchase tickets for, including snowboarding, skiing, horseback riding, zip lines, and many more. Though there are other free, remarkable sledding destinations in Michigan, this is always our favorite, and the drive is worth it!

A camper van by a mountain with a woman outside

Discovering World-Class Art Installations (Grand Rapids, MI)

If your family loves being outdoors and enjoys beautiful, interactive art, driving to downtown Grand Rapids won’t disappoint. This destination is free for visitors to enjoy annually and offers many unique experiences for people of all ages. We spent five hours playing in and exploring over 30 different well-crafted art installations. In the evening, we got to appreciate the beautiful and colorful lights around as well. Below-freezing temperatures didn’t bother my little ones as they engaged in these world-class art displays strategically placed so people could take a short drive around downtown or enjoy a fun hike.

A few of our favorites were the colorful Massimals, the interactive Crank Zappa Jellyfish made of recycled plastic materials, the immersive Submergence walk-through light and musical installation, the gigantic Bunnies of Intrude, and the towering, musical Trumpet of Flowers. Finally, our ultimate favorite was the incredible Light Maze, where my kids spent the longest time playing hide-and-seek in this one-of-a-kind maze.

A camper van by a mountain with a woman outside

Visiting Wawatam Lighthouse (St. Ignace, MI)

Does your family plan a bucket list of activities every year? One on our list is to visit a lighthouse we’ve never been to before. The Great Lakes surround Michigan, so you’ll find amazing and historical lighthouses that are mostly free to visit. There is something magical about seeing lighthouses during fall and winter when they are not so busy.

One of the most memorable trips was visiting the 52-foot tall Wawatam Lighthouse at Chief Wawatam Park in St. Ignace with my mom. We strolled the long boardwalk leading to the gorgeous white and red lighthouse, and even during the winter season,the Wawatam Lighthouse is lit to guide snowmobiles when the lake is frozen. A wonderful hidden gem for families to explore.

Exploring Local Winter Festivals (Rochester Hills and Frankenmuth, MI)

Who doesn’t love a local winter festival? We enjoyed our first experience at the Snowglow Winter Festival in Rochester Hills with safari-themed ice sculptures. Another favorite was Zehnder’s Snowfest in Frankenmuth, where we witnessed the larger-than-life snow sculpting and ice carving displays. Free shuttle service is provided so that visitors can experience all of their festivities, including a petting zoo, pony rides, arts and crafts, and inflatables. Your family will encounter photo opportunities as you view the intricate sculptures and ice carvings made by talented local artists. There’s nothing like trying something new with the family—and it’s a bonus when it doesn’t cost us an arm and a leg. 

Family in front of house

Outdoor Dinosaur Hunt at the Cranbrook Institute of Science Museum (Bloomfield Hills, MI)

Though most museums will require you to pay for a day pass or membership option to visit, some offer free general admission to their avid and new visitors. One of our favorites, the Cranbrook Institute of Science Museum, offers free admission every first Friday of the month and on some special occasions. There are permanent and changing indoor, interactive exhibits to explore and learn from. But the fun doesn’t end when you exit its four walls. Just outside the building are dinosaurs waiting for your littles to find. The dinosaur hunt is a unique outdoor activity that your family will enjoy without spending anything on the experience. You’ll be surprised by how much imagination and pretend-play you can unveil as you hike around the area to find these Stegosauruses and Triceratops with your children.

Woman in back of van drinking coffee

The budget can get tight when planning a trip with little ones, but we still try to explore hidden gems, experience new things, and do a favorite winter activity or two. And we are always on the lookout for new and exciting destinations in our beautiful Mitten State. We can’t wait for our next family adventure!