The final leg of our summer road trip took us through both the upper and lower peninsulas of Michigan. We’ve previously traveled to Detroit, Grand Rapids and the southwestern shore, but this was our most extensive visit to the Great Lakes State. Here’s the breakdown on what we saw, and why you should visit beautiful Michigan, in order of appearance from north to south.
After reentering the United States at Sault Ste. Marie, our first stop was Tahquamenon Falls State Park. This is where the Tahquamenon River plunges over two sets of waterfalls, the upper is a 200ft wide, 48ft high single drop, while the lower set is a collection of five smaller cascades. We headed to the larger upper falls, which is the third most voluminous waterfall in the eastern U.S. during the spring runoff (after Niagara and Cohoes Falls.) A short trail leads from the parking area to the river, with two sets of stairs leading guests down to dramatic viewpoints, one right at the brink and one a little farther downstream. Tannins leached from cedar forests stain the water brown, giving it a unique appearance. Conveniently, Tahquamenon Falls Brewery & Pub is located on the premises, so the park stop doubled as our lunch stop. When dining in the Upper Peninsula, don’t forget to have the local specialty, Pasty.
Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore:
Continuing the thread of gorgeous Lake Superior shorelines is the 42-mile stretch known as Pictured Rocks. Sandstone cliffs up to 200 feet tall tower over the lake. Minerals embedded in the porous stone create colorful streaks where groundwater leaches from the cliff face. Iron stains red and orange, copper creates green and blue, manganese oozes black and lime turns white. We began our visit at the park’s eastern edge near Grand Marais, viewing the lake and Au Sable Lighthouse from the Log Slide Overlook. We then drove the full length of the park through thick forests to the town of Munising, headquarters of the park and departure point for cruises. A cruise is the best way to truly capture the views of the namesake cliffs, but there are also hiking, camping and boating opportunities in the park. We chose the 3-hour Sunset Cruise with Pictured Rocks Cruises, departing the Munising dock at 7:00 pm. The trip was wonderful, but one thing to keep in mind is that Munising does not have many options for late evening dining, so plan to eat ahead of time or order a giant pizza from Main Street Pizza afterwards like we did. Our lodging was at the Terrace Motel, which had friendly service, a lounge in which to eat the aforementioned pizza and one of the best bedspreads of all time (see at left).
We usually allow ourselves one tourist trap per trip, and this fit the bill. Interestingly, the historic island in Lake Huron was designated the second National Park after Yellowstone, but in 1895 it was decommissioned and returned to the control of Michigan, which now operates part of the island as a state park. Each day, thousands of tourists pile into ferry boats that shuttle them to the village on the island’s southern shore. Upon disembarking, they’re immediately herded onto a Main Street lined with restaurants, ice cream & fudge parlors, cheap t-shirt stores and bike rental shops. Crowds of people mill around the sidewalks while bikes and horse drawn carriages clog the street. The whole island is car-free, which is its most unique quality. We found a good lunch at Millie’s on Main and then rented bikes to escape the circus. An 8-mile loop trail circumnavigates the island and allows somewhat of an escape from the chaos. We also rode our bikes to Fort Holmes (on the island’s highest point) and Arch Rock before eating some ice cream and ferrying back to the mainland. There are some lovely views, but it wasn’t enough to move Mackinac Island out of our tourist trap column. After leaving the dock at St. Ignace, we continued south by car to the lower peninsula by crossing the spectacular 5-mile long Mackinac Bridge, an attraction in its own right if you’re into nerdy things like that (we are).
Wilderness State Park:
Now that we camp (see Isle Royale) we’ve opened up a whole new set of overnight opportunities. The northern tip of Michigan’s lower peninsula is full of hotels, inns and B&Bs, but with them all charging peak-season rates, and knowing we’d have our tent in the trunk, we expanded the search to include campgrounds. We found exactly what we were looking for at Wilderness State Park, just 11 miles from Mackinaw City. Their newly created “tent-only rustic campground” contains 10 sites along the Lake Michigan shore that can be reserved for only $20 per night. To be honest, being located right next to the park road and the full hookup RV sites full of families made it less rustic than we were expecting. Each of the 10 sites has a parking space so you can drive right up, but they are pretty well separated by trees, so it’s possible to pretend you’re actually in the wilderness. There is an outhouse and running water in the area, which further eases the experience. Two general stores nearby meant food options were much more luxurious than our dehydrated meals at Isle Royale. We built a raging campfire and dined on cheddar brats, green beans and beer while lounging in our camping chairs. Wilderness State Park is also adjacent to Headlands International Dark Sky Park, which allowed us to watch the Milky Way glow into view after a stunning sunset.
We spent two nights in northern Michigan’s largest town. Traverse City‘s well-known food and beverage scene is what initially attracted us and we took full advantage. With so much of this trip taking place in low population areas, having multiple gourmet options was a welcome turn of events. We tasted our way across town with stops at North Peak Brewing, Filling Station Microbrewery and Traverse City Whiskey Company. The cocktail bar scene is happening too, with Low Bar and The Parlor being our favorites. There’s more to do that boozing here, with beaches for lounging and shops for browsing. On the dining side, we indulged in dinners at Bistro Foufou and Trattoria Stella, both being excellent choices. Traverse City officially erased any fitness gains we achieved during the active portions of the trip. Oh well.
Old Mission Peninsula Wine Country:
This skinny 18-mile strip of land poking into Grand Traverse Bay provides an ideal microclimate for growing wine grapes. Ten wineries line the central road providing the perfect opportunity for a wine crawl. We started the day at the peninsula’s northern tip by visiting the Mission Point Lighthouse, then made our way south via three wineries. We kicked things off at Two Lads, where we loved both the wine and the super modern tasting room overlooking the bay. This proved to be our favorite of the bunch, and the helpful server helped us decide where to drink next. Our other two wine stops were the charming Bowers Harbor and the massive Chateau Chantal. For lunch, Bad Dog Deli offers delicious homemade sandwiches. The laid back vibe and quality wines made for a perfect “Pure Michigan” kind of day.
Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore:
Just a half hour from Traverse City lies what has been called the most beautiful place in the country. Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore protects 35 miles of eastern Lake Michigan shore plus North and South Manitou islands. A lighthouse, life saving stations, farmsteads and coastal villages are also within the Lakeshore, providing a good balance of natural and cultural amenities. Sand hills towering up to 450 feet above the lake line the shore, giving views far out over the blue and green water. The Dune Climb is a popular activity that we did not partake in because of the 90 degree weather during our visit. The Sleeping Bear Point Coast Guard Station contains an informative maritime museum of the Great Lakes shipping industry and shipwrecks in the region. Stop for lunch at the famous Art’s Tavern in the Village of Glen Arbor.
Northern Michigan is full of charming small towns frequented by summer guests. Some of the more popular ones can feel a bit too touristy and artificial (see Mackinac Island), but Ludington is a town that successfully blends it’s visitor friendliness with the feel of a real working place. Highlights for us included coffee at Redolencia, mac and cheese dinner at Barley & Rye, and a live rockabilly band at The Mitten Bar (which was called one of the best beer bars in the country by Food & Wine.) Summer’s Inn was one of our favorite hotel stays of the whole year, with its wine tastings, backyard garden, guest library and wonderful breakfast. If crossing Lake Michigan by ferry sounds interesting, Ludington is also the eastern port of the SS Badger, with twice daily service to Manitowoc, Wisconsin during the summer season.
We never pass up a good brewery or distillery on our route, so when we discovered that Journeyman was just off I-94 in Three Oaks, Michigan, our lunch break planned itself. The new restaurant, Staymaker, is in part of the same former corset factory (stays, get it?) as the distillery. It offers cocktails made with Journeyman products and a full menu of lunch and dinner options. We each selected a Detroit-style pizza and a cocktail to toast to our last meal on the road. In less than two hours, we’d be back home in Chicago after nearly three weeks and over 2,400 miles on the road.
Previously: Isle Royale National Park
Previously: Apostle Islands, Voyageurs and Grand Portage
View the whole gallery of images from our trip here.