The Ultimate Fall Road Trip on Michigan's M-22
On Michigan’s epic M-22 highway, fall color doesn’t stop at the tree line. You can find it in a vineyard’s fruit, the lake’s sparkle or even below a river’s surface.
North of Empire, Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive forms a majestic, 7.4-mile loop between Little Glen Lake and Lake Michigan. Drivers and cyclists follow the M-22 spur through a covered bridge and beech and maple forests to sprawling lake overlooks, all within Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. One by one, two by two, hikers climb through dappled shade and emerge onto a narrow path etched into the side of Empire Bluff, hundreds of feet above Lake Michigan. To the left and right are the high ramparts of Sleeping Bear Dunes, the distant wedge that is South Manitou Island and unbelievably blue water. Amid the brightness and color: cries of gulls, songs by noonday crickets, wind tousling the grass, the deep murmur of the lake pounding below.
The coastal road that leads to Empire Bluff lies out of sight, just beyond the dunes. M-22 meanders from Manistee to Traverse City in the northwest corner of Michigan's Lower Peninsula, encompassing the Leelanau Peninsula and its vineyards, orchards and resort towns. At 116 miles long, M-22 is a mere wisp of a highway. But it represents much more than space between destinations. The route evokes a vaunted lifestyle where farm stands spill over with cherries and apricots, and half the vehicles in summer carry bikes, paddleboards or kayaks. "It's not just a road," says Traverse City kiteboarder Matt Myers. "It's a way of life."
Matt and his brother, Keegan, discovered the true reach of the highway's mystique in 2004, after they made some road-sign tees for surfing and kiteboarding friends. When the brothers wore the shirts on the cover of a local magazine, they were inundated with unsolicited orders. So they printed more, using the profits to pay down student loans. The requests kept snowballing. Today, their Traverse City store, M22, is a seven-figure business selling clothing, coffee mugs, car decals and even bottles of wine branded with the highway logo. They've exported goods to customers around the world. And, perhaps testament to Matt and Keegan's marketing, so many M-22 signs have been stolen from the road (more than 90 in the last three years), the state highway department had to modify their design. Replacement signs now simply read 22.
Whatever signs you follow around the ring finger of Michigan's Mitten, an M-22 road trip marries stunning countryside and memorable flavors. The lake creates a temperate microclimate that sustains one of the country's most productive fruit-growing regions-and makes this the best possible place to forget a packed lunch. In fall, hardwoods blaze against a backdrop of cobalt water. And beneath the surface, a migrating rainbow of pinks, greens and silvers greets those who venture out by canoe or kayak. Schools of Pacific salmon, up to 30 pounds each, travel inland from Lake Michigan through the Platte River. Their journey-and yours-makes for a glorious ritual of fall.
Manistee to Frankfort
Follow the light to start your trek. The North Pierhead Lighthouse has guided vessels to harbor in Manistee since 1927. M-22 begins north of town, following the Lake Michigan shore to Arcadia, then the bustling resort community of Frankfort near Crystal Lake. Stroll the waterfront, do a little shopping or sample Belgian-style ales at Stormcloud Brewing. Lodging includes the historic Hotel Frankfort or a luxurious, secluded yurt outside of town. Five miles north of downtown, locals claim Point Betsie is home to Michigan's most photographed lighthouse.
Frankfort to Glen Arbor
M-22 passes through Empire before reaching Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, home to some of the area's most famous attractions. For a paddle down the calm Platte River, try Riverside Canoe Trips. If you prefer splendid views from above, hit the Empire Bluff Trail (1.5 miles round-trip). The artsy village of Empire marks the center of the local hop-growing industry. Come the first Saturday in October for the Empire Hops and Harvest Festival. Continuing north, a must-see detour onto M-109 leads to the 7.4-mile Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive, accessing some of the most popular trailheads and dunes. Continue to Glen Arbor for shopping, dining and lodging on the north edge of Sleeping Bear. You'll find an official M22 store and the Cherry Republic headquarters, a fabled "nation" (actually a store) for everything cherry. The Homestead resort offers a cozy beachfront stay.
Glen Arbor to Traverse City
On the Leelanau Peninsula, M-22 squeezes onto a narrow isthmus between Lake Michigan and Lake Leelanau, landing in the resort community of Leland. In the historic Fishtown district, buy smoked fish at Carlson's market or grab a sandwich at the Village Cheese Shanty. M-22 keeps winding up the spike of the peninsula through quaint Northport, then veers back south to Suttons Bay, the most vibrant town on the Leelanau's east side. Check out sportswear and accessories in a time-warp atmosphere at Bahle's and enjoy the Hop Lot Brewing beer garden. Suttons Bay Ciders has a hilltop tasting room with spectacular views. For a splurge and pampered stay, book a room at the Inn at Black Star Farms just south of town.
Back at the peninsula's base, the highway arrives in the relative metropolis of Traverse City (a destination in its own right and well worth adding a day or two to your trip). Before you arrive downtown, stop and toast the end of the route at the waterfront Apache Trout Grill.
By late summer, apples and grapes ripen, and hops are harvested through mid-September. But even if you miss peak season, local fruit liberally fills glasses year-round. The Leelanau Peninsula Wine Trail is a staple, with 29 stops. Travelers' choices along M-22 have now expanded to include craft beer at Hop Lot or cider at Tandem Ciders. "All of us-winemakers, cider-makers and brewers-have learned from each other," says Chris Guest, a local winemaker and consultant for spots like Suttons Bay Ciders.
Native Americans were the first to make Leland's Fishtown a fishing port. It's now home to weather-beaten docks, shanties and Great Lakes lore. Offbeat shops and galleries such as Diversions Leland and Tug Stuff operate alongside an active fishery. For six generations, members of the Carlson family have motored commercial fishing tugs onto Lake Michigan in search of whitefish and lake trout. Smoked fish at their namesake Carlson's Market is legendary on the docks.
The placid waters of the Platte River mirror the fiery leaves and tempt paddlers. Book a rental through Riverside Canoe Trips to join the salmon running upstream.