5 Perfect Fall Road Trips in Michigan
Redefine the colors of fall along Michigan's scenic byways with golden sand, red lighthouses and pure-blue water and feel the tinge of anticipation for what's around the next bend.
Upper Peninsula Drama: 75 Miles
The rugged beauty of the Upper Peninsula doesn't announce itself subtly. It comes with daunting rocky cliffs that wall the legendary waters of Lake Superior. It speaks with massive ancient forests and a hard land of iron ore and copper. And this 75-mile tour of it starts in Marquette, the UP's largest city. Although Marquette offers amenities like fine dining and coffee shops, the landscape dominates with the town's steep streets and nearby Sugarloaf Mountain. A 30-minute trek to the summit opens onto a view of Lake Superior and the inland sprawl of trees.
Lake Superior at Presque Isle Park, Marquette; photo by Aaron Peterson
County Road 550 carves northwest along the shore to the town of Big Bay, which marks the loop's halfway point. Visit the 1911 Thunder Bay Inn, restored as an escape by Henry Ford in the 1940s and one site in the 1959 film Anatomy of a Murder, based on a local case. Stretch your legs at the picturesque Big Bay Point Lighthouse Bed and Breakfast overlooking Superior or plan ahead for an overnight in the 1896 lighthouse. County Road 510 winds back to Marquette through the dense woods of the Huron Mountains. If there's time for one more stop, Thomas Rock is a must. It's a 20-minute round-trip walk on a winding gravel trail leading to an overlook encompassing the Keweenaw Peninsula.
Munising to Grand Marais
The 60 miles between these cities take in Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. County-58 leads to overlooks atop sandstone cliffs along Lake Superior. Stop for a short hike to Miners Castle outside Munising or a longer (but flat) trek to the Au Sable Lighthouse on Superior's Shipwreck Coast, named for its 100-plus wrecks.
Tahquamenon Scenic Byway
The Tahquamenon Logging Museum sets the woodsy tone of this 63-mile arc of M-123, starting in Newberry. Tahquamenon Falls State Park, at the halfway point, brings drama with the roar of its copper-color falls. Taste local whitefish at Tahquamenon Falls Brewery and Pub before heading to the Lower Falls.
Southwest Michigan's Fall Flavors: 45 Miles
The essence of autumn, distilled to its purest moment, might be this: standing amid the Crane family's 100 acres of sweet-scented fruit trees with roots back to 1916. Colorful leaves sift to the ground. Some fruit still hangs, shimmering ruby and gold. Hills drift to the horizon, making it seem as if there are no bounds to Michigan's lush fruit belt.
The orchards and vineyards of the state's southwest corner draw visitors year-round, but fall brings the experience to fruition. Capture the core taste of it on a broad 45-mile loop from Fennville, around Lake Allegan and back.
At Crane's Pie Pantry Restaurant and Winery and U-Pick farm, a 150-year-old barn houses a restaurant. Visitors wander the grounds painted in fall colors by the trees or sample small-batch wine. Nearby, Fenn Valley Vineyards serves premium wines and leads in-depth tours that include the vineyards to see how the grapes grow.
In downtown Fennville, more flavors come into play at the rustic eatery Salt of the Earth, starring vegetables, meats, berries and fruits from the local landscape.
Less than 5 miles away, Virtue Farm crafts Virtue Cider from Michigan apples, bringing the flavor tour full circle.
Sampling at Virtue Cider; photo by John Noltner
Dinner and a show are even better when your seat is on the beach. Next to Kollen Park, Boatwerks Waterfront's patio makes for an ideal spot to kick off the evening. From here, it's a 15-minute drive past Lake Macatawa to Holland State Park. The park beach provides prime viewing of the Big Red Lighthouse and sailboats tacking onto Lake Michigan.
Holland's Big Red lighthouse; photo by Johnny Quirin
Red Arrow Highway
Prepare to pause often along this 29-mile stretch of two-lane road between New Buffalo and St. Joseph/Benton Harbor. After a few miles of spying Lake Michigan from your window, give into temptation and go barefoot on the 3-mile sandy shore of Warren Dunes State Park. Irresistible roadside flea markets, antiques shops and art galleries line the route.
M-22 Peninsula Views: 116 Miles
Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore; photo by Mike Norton
Autumn sweeps through the Traverse City region with grand strokes. Color saturates the peninsula forests. The award-winning vineyards bring fruit-forward wines to tables and rust foliage to the landscape. Dunes glisten against blue-water backdrops. Restaurants plate local harvests and whitefish from the nearby waters.
The 116-mile scenic byway, M-22, threads it all together, arcing through the thick forests of the Leelanau Peninsula and down the western shore dotted with small towns, beaches and restaurants serving farm-to-table flavors.
The Leelanau Peninsula drive leads through stop-worthy Suttons Bay and Northport and into the state park. Grand Traverse Lighthouse commands the peninsula tip. An afternoon tower climb surrounds you in a timeless flow of Lake Michigan, bays and islands.
Leelanau Peninisula vineyards; photo by Tony Demin
In Leland, sample a local wine with a pan-seared whitefish dinner at the Riverside Inn or stroll historical Fishtown. The shanties house shops like Sporck Tileart and the Dam Candy Store. Perhaps the hazy presence of the Manitou islands rises offshore as you follow the coast to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. Clamber the massive dunes for a toes-in-the-sand payoff and spectacular Lake Michigan views.
From Empire, cut back to Traverse on M-72 or continue through villages like Frankfort and Arcadia, with galleries, shops, restaurants and sunset beaches. Like the other points along the way, each serves its own flavor worth savoring.
Tunnel of Trees
Few places drape the land with fall color as deeply as the aptly named Tunnel of Trees, a 27-mile route from Harbor Springs to Cross Village. M-119 meanders as if through a park. Foliage stars, but sidenotes emerge: a meal at Legs Inn (a stone-clad architectural gem) or a sunset stroll on the soft sand of Sturgeon Bay in Wilderness State Park.
Grayling, Houghton Lake and Torch Lake
Enjoy the 100-mile drive or get active: This scenic trio lures with lakes, streams and woods. At Grayling, hike Hartwick Pines State Park or golf at bucket-list Forest Dunes Golf Club. Head southwest to Houghton Lake for ORV and hiking trails. Take M-66 to Torch Lake; the state's longest inland lake boasts Caribbean-turquoise water.
Central Michigan: 80 Miles
Michigan State University in East Lansing; photo by Bob Stefko
Every 15 minutes, the 49 bells of the carillon tower sing out in rich, clear tones. The 1928 Beaumont Tower-a tribute to the nation's first building dedicated to teaching agriculture-sits at the heart of the historical section of the Michigan State campus in East Lansing. The Broad Art Museum draws attention with its angled facade and contemporary collections. The don't-miss Dairy Store has been making its ice cream since the 1950s as part of the university's research missions.
Just like these campus attractions, heritage and connecting to it underlay much of this 80-mile journey on M-52 through the state's center.
In Owosso, the railroad past comes to life at the Steam Railroading Institute. Massive steam engines, including the 16-foot-tall and 101-foot-long Pere Marquette 1225, rumble and hiss on seasonal excursions.
History takes a quieter tack farther north in Midland. Explore the 110-acre Dow Gardens, founded in 1899 as a creative outlet by the founder of Dow Chemical. Walk along the creek and relax by the reflecting pool amid pines, hemlocks and spruce. Downtown, the popular Pere Marquette Rail Trail bridges the intersection of the Chippewa and Tittabawassee rivers for a view of parkland and a timeless flow.
Quiet country roads thread among 50-some kettle lakes in the Irish Hills region of southeast Michigan. Follow US-12, once a five-day stagecoach trip between Chicago and Detroit, to original stops like the Walker Tavern Historic Site. Nearby, the Michigan International Speedway draws thousands of fans to NASCAR and ARCA races on the 2-mile track.
Huron River Drive
Riverside strolls, disc golf, canoeing and fishing-it's all within minutes of metro Detroit and Ann Arbor/Ypsilanti. Seven Metroparks string a 60-mile stretch of Huron River Drive, from Hudson Mills Metropark north of Dexter to Lake Erie Metropark south of Detroit.
Along the Au Sable River: 22 Miles
Dramatic drops at Foote Pond Overlook, above the Au Sable; photo by Brian Confer
The Au Sable River drifts like a slow-moving sheet of glass, mirroring the copper and red foliage of the Huron National Forest. A canoe carves a silent ripple. A fly-fisherman casts an easy loopy arc.
Au Sable Road, a National Scenic Byway, dives deep into tranquility as it hugs a section of the river west from where it enters Lake Huron in Oscoda.
The Lumberman's Monument introduces the river's heritage with a 14-foot-tall statue and hands-on lumberjack experiences (step out onto a wanigan-a floating mess hall). Trailheads, such as the Highbanks River, open to miles of hiking and mountain bike loops.
The byway ends, fittingly, at the Westgate Scenic Overlook, with a peaceful panorama of the Au Sable.
Gaylord to Indian River
Woods and waters mark this 30-mile route. Fairways cut into the forest at Treetops Resort in Gaylord. Ten minutes up Old 27N, the Sturgeon River becomes your lodestone. The clear, fast waters make for excellent rafting and kayaking; Big Bear Adventures outfits paddlers in Indian River.
US-23 The Sunrise Coast, like sunrises, inspires possibilities. The US-23 Heritage Route weaves along 200 miles of shoreline. Along the way, discover maritime history and shipwrecks; small towns rich with hiking trails; sugar-sand beaches; and art, wine and birding trails.
Read about more great places to visit on the Pure Michigan blog at michigan.org/blog