Travel to Michigan's museums, beach towns, parks — virtually

Greg Tasker
Special to The Detroit News

Traverse City — I haven’t left home today but I’ve been all over Michigan.

 I dropped in on Frankfort, one of my favorite Lake Michigan beach towns. The expansive beach is just a block from the shopping district, where it’s hard to pass up a pint at the Storm Cloud Brewing Co. Almost everything was closed, of course, and I spotted only a few people walking along Main Street and many empty parking spaces.

The Detroit River beckoned, and while I had hoped to catch a freighter passing Belle Isle, all I glimpsed were swooping seagulls along the shoreline.

By the morning’s end, I was wandering through the intriguing exhibits at the Michigan History Museum in downtown Lansing. Surprisingly, I have never been to this museum but the virtual tour piqued my interest. I hope to visit soon.

The Detroit Zoo offers virtual tours of animals.

 It turns out you can travel virtually almost anywhere in Michigan. As the state nearly stands still because of the coronavirus pandemic, would-be travelers can jump on the internet and visit vacation spots and museums. You can also take virtual tours of art exhibits, watch live streams of animals at the Detroit Zoo, and even catch a film.

“This is not a time to travel. It’s literally a time to stay home,” says Dave Lorenz, vice president Travel Michigan, part of the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, which has been compiling a list of virtual travel options on its website. “We don’t want people to go out right now but we do want them to dream. This will all be over soon and now is the time to plan. More importantly, we’re helping provide content that is educational, entertaining and inspiring. If there’s ever a time we needed hope, it’s now.”

Pure Michigan

The Automotive Hall of Fame at The Henry Ford in Dearborn.

Though Michigan remains in shutdown, Pure Michigan has live webcams of iconic destinations like Mackinac Island and Frankenmuth on its website, You can check out Mackinac Island without the crowds or drop by cities like Grand Rapids, Holland and Charlevoix, to name a few. The state’s travel site links to a host of other virtual tours in towns, parks and other destinations on both peninsulas.

Ford Piquette Avenue Plant

Through the click of a mouse, you can take a 3D virtual tour of the historic plant in Detroit, the birthplace of the Model T. The three-story brick building, which Ford built in 1904, is modeled after New England textile mills.

Ann Arbor Film Festival

 Movie theaters may be dark, but you can screen selections from the annual Ann Arbor Film Festival, which bills itself as the oldest avant-garde and experimental film festival in North America. The six-day festival, which kicked off Tuesday, is typically held at the Michigan Theater and other venues around town.

The Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation

The Dearborn institution boasts a vast collection of American artifacts and a significant amount is available for online viewing. Iconic artifacts available in the digital collection include the bus where Rose Parks protested segregation laws, the first car built by Henry Ford and the chair President Abraham Lincoln was sitting in when he was assassinated. Search and you’ll find photos, pertinent details about the artifact and its history, and its location in the museum, if it’s on exhibit.

Nicholas Chang, 11, of Windsor, Ontario, Canada, poses looking through an astronaut cutout at the Michigan Science Center in April 2019.

 “We’re adding objects daily,” said Matthew Majeski, chief marketing and digital officer at The Henry Ford. “We’ve had a great response so far. We’ve packaged and presented the collection as a resource. We’re trying to provide a really positive and resilient tone -- about American resilience, creativity, about living through dark times and forging new paths.”

In addition, The Henry Ford’s website includes its Innovate classroom curriculum and resources, now free to download to parents, and episodes of its Emmy award-winning TV series, “Innovation Nation.”

“Whether you’re a parent struggling with three kids around or someone who is sick of reading the news and wants to be distracted and entertained, we have plenty of inspiring content,” Majeski said.

Michigan History Museum

You can take a virtual tour of the exhibits at the Michigan History Museum in downtown Lansing. The five-floor museum explores the state’s colorful past, from the time of Native Americans to European settlement, industrial development and beyond. Also check out the online collection at Michiganology, which includes the Archives of Michigan and access to more than 3 million state and local government records and private manuscripts, maps and photographs.

Michigan Science Center

The Detroit museum’s virtual tours are suitable for kids of all ages. Kids can explore the exhibits in the Health and Wellness Gallery to learn about the human body, the Lunar Dining and Space Gallery to learn about space travel and check out the Chrysler Science Stage. The website also includes episodes of ECHO Live! The program focuses on large-scale science demonstrations.

Dossin Great Lakes Museum

Part of the Detroit Historical Society’s museums, the Dossin Great Lakes Museum on Belle Isle brings online guests changing views of the Detroit River with its “Detroit RiverCam.” The live webcam captures passing lake and ocean freighters, motor and sailboats and other maritime activity.

Cranbrook Art Museum

The Bloomfield Hills museum offers 3D virtual tours of four exhibits, including “Ruth Adler Schnee: Modern Designs for Living” and “In the Vanguard: Haystack Mountain School of Crafts, 1950-1969.” The videos are accompanied with links to details about the exhibit and the artists.

Detroit Zoo

The zoo’s website includes livestreams of animals, educational videos and more. Click live webcams to watch penguins, otters, gray wolves, snow monkeys and peregrine falcons, who are nesting on the zoo’s iconic water tower. The zoo also has been posting informational videos about its animals, dubbed Virtual Vitamin Z, on YouTube. They include videos about the red pandas in the Holtzman Wildlife Foundation Red Panda Forest.

Menominee Range Historical Museums

The Menominee Range Historical Museums encompass three museums, located in the far-flung western part of the Upper Peninsula. Each museum offers a virtual tour. The Menominee Range Museum has more than 100 exhibits depicting local and Native American history. The World War II Glider and Military Museum boasts one of only seven fully restored CG-4A gliders in the world. The Cornish Pumping Engine and Mining Museum showcases the largest steam-driven pumping engine built in the United States.

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore 

Longing for Up North? The park's website allows visitors to take a virtual tour by scrolling through a photo gallery. Highlights include photos of the Platte River, Esch Road Beach, Dune Climb, Lake Michigan Overlook, and the Manitou Islands. They'll make you long for summer. The photos align with a map to help your locate each site in the park.