Traverse Bay Driving Tour | Midwest Living

Traverse Bay Driving Tour


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Traverse Bay Territory Treasures

When the lumber boom ended in the late 1800s, vacationers began flocking to the Lake Michigan shore around Grand Traverse and Little Traverse bays. Some visitors first glimpsed this paradise as they arrived aboard the same trains and Great Lakes ships that hauled logs south to rebuild Chicago after the Great Fire of 1871.

The region's landscape looks much as it did when the first backroads cut across the dense timber. Farms dot the hills, and mountainous sand dunes rise along the Lake Michigan shore.

Residents whose families have lived here for generations call this "the land of little bays." At its heart, Grand Traverse Bay enfolds one hilly peninsula and laps at the shore of another. Farther northeast, Little Traverse Bay opens into Lake Michigan and forms the region's northern boundary.

On this 210-mile tour, you travel byways that often skirt the shore. Nostalgic villages such as Leland and Harbor Springs welcome visitors with shops selling antiques, crafts and local wines.

Modern resorts thrive next door to old-time cottage colonies along clear, cobalt-blue inland lakes. Golfers head to challenging courses in woodland settings, often with views of glistening lakes. The two largest towns, Traverse City and Petoskey, teem with trendy shops, and established restaurants for fine dining with Lake Michigan views.

Despite the crowds of vacationers who visit each year, you still can find solitude. Stroll deserted stretches of beach to Great Lakes lighthouses. Shed your shoes on the sugar-fine sand and wade into the massive lake, which defines this region. Like the wooded scenery along the shore, the lake's beauty remains as pristine as ever.

Traverse City

Sheltered at the foot of Grand Traverse Bay, this resort community reigns as the region’s unofficial capital. Bayside residents and visitors gather on beaches just a short walk from downtown. Gazing out past the sailboat masts, you can see the waters shifting colors like a chameleon warming itself in the sun.

The Victorian-era buildings along Front Street downtown accommodate restaurants and many of the community's 100 specialty shops. Vacationers leisurely sip espresso at the sidewalk cafes, or root beer and microbrews at the new Mackinac Brewing Company.

Refurbished Victorian mansions that lumber barons built a century ago line up along Sixth Street. Turn-of-the-century atmosphere surrounds you at the venerable red brick Park Place Hotel, which rises above downtown. A few miles east along US-31, shoreside lodgings that range from small motels to luxurious condominiums ring the bay as far as you can see.

On the west side of Traverse City, the tall ship Manitou makes excursions that transport passengers back into the magical days when tall ships ruled the waves.

Drive 22 miles west on State-72.

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore

The tiny town of Empire serves as the gateway to this 70,000-acre preserve, where glaciers, wind and water carved awe-inspiring dunes along Lake Michigan's shore. Chippewa legends tell of a bear and her two cubs that escaped a forest fire by swimming across Lake Michigan. Only the mother reached the shore and, as a towering dune on the Leelanau Peninsula, she watches for her cubs forever.

According to the story, where the cubs drowned, the Great Spirit Manitou created two islands. Known as North and South Manitou, they're part of the national lakeshore.

Maps and information you can pick up at the visitors center just east of town direct you along the preserve's 15 hiking trails. If you'd rather view the sights from your car, head north of town 2 miles on State-22 and 2 miles north on State-109 to the nearly 8-mile-long Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive. A dozen pull-off points provide views of the lake and dunes.

Continue north on State-109 for 4 miles, then a half-mile north on State-209.

Glen Haven

Virtually a ghost town, Glen Haven's Sleeping Bear Point Maritime Museum recalls this community's days as an im-portant Coast Guard station. In the summer, tour a restored boathouse and barracks. Volunteers give demonstrations of old-time lake rescues.

Return to State-109 and drive 2 miles east to the town of Glen Arbor. Just west of town, The Homestead, a classy condominium resort along Lake Michigan, features luxurious lodgings, golf, tennis and a fine beach. Drive 16 miles north on State-22 up the Leelanau Peninsula. Beginning in early May, cherries ripen ruby red across this finger of land that forms the western shore of Grand Traverse Bay.


Weathered gray shanties line the Carp River, as it flows into Lake Michigan in Leland's historic "Fishtown." Now restored, the eight old buildings are gift, ice cream and cheese shops, plus the generations-old Carlson Fisheries, where you can buy the fresh catch of the day or smoked fish (try the whitefish sausage). Take a passenger ferry for a day trip to South Manitou Island. Along Main Street, visitors browse newer boutiques--a stone's throw from the lakefront.

Drive north 11 miles on State-22.


Nautical history lives on in this bayside town, the Leelanau Peninsula's northernmost community. Many of the 1860s-era buildings contain art galleries, as well as clothing and antiques shops. Ten miles north of town along State-201, you can tour the Grand Traverse Lighthouse (late June through Labor Day). The white brick structure dates to pre-Civil War days.

Drive 11 miles south from Northport on State-22 along the eastern tip of the Leelanau Peninsula.

Suttons Bay

Red antique telephone booth decorate the main street, where specialty shops and art galleries mix easily with longtime businesses such as Bahle's department store. The same family has owned and operated Bahle's for more than 120 years.

Go south 19 miles on State-22 back into Traverse City and 2 miles east on State-72/US-31. Head north on State-37.

Old Mission Peninsula

This 18-mile-long sliver of land divides Grand Traverse Bay into east and west "arms." Peninsula Drive hugs the shoreline past grand houses.

Old Mission Lighthouse stands at the spit's northernmost point. Constructed in 1870, it's now a private home. The adjacent park and grounds make up Old Mission Lighthouse State Park, a good spot to swim, hike and picnic.

The lighthouse straddles the 45th parallel, which also slices across France's Bordeaux region. Here, as in that region of Europe, the climate is perfect for growing wine grapes. Two wineries, Chateau Grand Traverse and Chateau Chantal (also a bed and breakfast), open their doors daily for tours.

Return to US-31 and go 8 miles east.


Restaurants and resorts line up along the bay. It's hard to tell where Traverse City ends and Acme begins. But this township claims the area's biggest vacation haven: The Grand Traverse Resort, with a gleaming, 17-story glass tower. Top golfers head for the resort's championship courses. Jack Nicklaus, golf's "Golden Bear," designed the course, appropriately named The Bear. Guests also can swim, play tennis and browse a gallery of shops and restaurants.

At Amon Orchards north of town along US-31, you can watch workers harvest cherries, or pick your own.

Drive north 26 miles on US-31 to the community of Eastport. At this point, you can continue 17 miles north on US-31 to Charlevoix. If you prefer, head 14 miles southeast on State-88 to the tiny town of Bellaire. You can spend the night at the elegant Grand Victorian Bed and Breakfast or Shanty Creek resort, a 54-hole golfing paradise. The next day, backtrack to US-31 and continue heading north.


Every May, citizens of Charlevoix plant 50,000 petunias along the streets of this relaxed shore community. You can follow the blossoms right up to the drawbridge that spans the channel connecting Lake Michigan with Lake Charlevoix, which stretches long and lean between the wooded hills southeast of town.

A resort community since 1879, Charlevoix draws visitors to its shops and galleries, many featuring the works of artists who’ve made their homes here. Ernest Hemingway summered at nearby Walloon Lake. He included descriptions of the area as settings in some of his novels.

Go 16 miles northeast on US-31.


Sailboats bob on the blue waters of Little Traverse Bay in this shady resort community, long known as a shoppers haven. More than 80 boutiques, specialty stores and galleries fill the Gaslight retail area, which encompasses six square blocks.

Stafford's Perry Hotel surveys the downtown, as it has since 1899. Guests sip lemonade on the yellow brick inn's new terrace overlooking the lakefront.

At the Little Traverse Historic Museum in the refurbished 1892 train depot, you can view Indian artwork, plus exhibits about Hemingway and Civil War historian and author Bruce Catton, who was a Michigan native.


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