Lake Michigan Tour: Explore the Riviera of the Midwest

Once the province of Chippewa, Huron, and Ottawa Indians, the crystalline waters and densely wooded shores of Lake Michigan (Michigan is an Algonquian word meaning “great lake”) have served as a mecca for explorers, traders, and settlers.

Point Betsie Lighthouse
Point Betsie Lighthouse warns lake mariners clear of the coast.

Route Details

Length: About 320 miles plus side trips.

When to go: Popular year-round.

Not to be missed: The National Cherry Festival, Traverse City.

Nearby attractions: Colonial Michilimackinac, a reconstructed fur-trading village and exhibits, Mackinaw City. Mackinac Island, “the Bermuda of the North,” accessible by ferry from St. Ignace and Mackinaw City.

Further information: West Michigan Tourist Association, 950 28th St., Suite E-200, Grand Rapids, MI 49508; tel. 800-442-2084,

Once the province of Chippewa, Huron, and Ottawa Indians, the crystalline waters and densely wooded shores of Lake Michigan (Michigan is an Algonquian word meaning “great lake”) have served as a mecca for explorers, traders, and settlers. Today, however, this is a year-round haven for nature lovers, retirees, and visitors who come from all over to enjoy the only one of the Great Lakes that lies entirely within U.S. borders.

1. Ludington
Anchored on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan, the town of Ludington is just a four-hour ferry ride from Manitowoc, Wisconsin. As a result, this quaint fishing port is popular not only with local tourists but also with nearby Wisconsinites, who frequently drop in on their lakeside neighbors for visits. Here you’ll find a trim, neat harbor, open beaches, blue lake water, white sand dunes, and abundant green forest that encompasses the port. For a foreign note, a towering cross overlooks the harbor; it memorializes Pére Marquette, the French explorer and missionary who trekked through the area and is thought to have died nearby in 1675.

From Ludington, head north on Lakeshore Drive to Rte. 116 and follow it to Ludington State Park. Bookended by Lake Michigan and Hamlin Lake, this 5,300-acre park abounds with waterside campsites. Fishing, boating, and waterskiing can be enjoyed at both lakes, and canoeing is possible not far away on the Big Sable River.

Returning to Ludington, the drive takes Rte. 10/31 east, then continues north on Rte. 31 through a mix of farmland and forest. When you reach Forest Trail Road, follow signs to the Lake Michigan Recreation Area.

2. Lake Michigan Recreation Area
Swimming, picnicking, camping, and trails aplenty make this recreation area one of the most popular in the state. But if you’re seeking a little more peace and quiet, you won’t have to go very far. The adjacent 3,500-acre Nordhouse Dunes Wilderness — a glorious untouched mile of rolling sand dunes and interdunal wetlands — is an oasis of solitude. No motorized vehicles are permitted in this federally designated wilderness area, so the only noise you are likely to hear as you stroll along the beach are the sweet sounds of nature.

3. Manistee
Back on Rte. 31 the drive continues north through a glacier-sculpted landscape where tiny lakes are surrounded by forest. The region’s natural wonders are explained at the U.S. Forest Service ranger station just south of Manistee, an old lumber town named for the Chippewa spirit of the woods.

Like many busted boomtowns, Manistee has undergone a commercial renaissance in the age of tourism. Manistee’s prosperous past is still visible in the grand Victorian-era buildings that make up its downtown (the entire area is listed on the National Register of Historic Places). An 1883 commercial building houses historical exhibits, while several churches reflect the Irish, German, and Scandinavian heritage of the town’s early settlers. Just north of Manistee lies Orchard Beach State Park, which, from its perch atop a bluff overlooking Lake Michigan, offers splendid views. Several miles east of the park, switch over to Rte. 22 and follow it north as it hugs the shore. 4. Point Betsie Lighthouse
With uninterrupted views up and down the coast, the tiny community of Arcadia is every bit as bucolic as its ancient Greek counterpart. Savor this tranquil spot, then move on to the bustling town of Frankfort (which, incidentally, also has a historic marker in honor of Pére Marquette). Before curving around Crystal Lake, turn left onto Point Betsie Road and go to the Point Betsie Lighthouse — one of the oldest and most photogenic beacons on the Lower Peninsula. From here, the dunes, lakes, and rivers of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore dominate the coastline for the next 35 miles.

5. Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore

By the time you crest the 150-foot Dune Climb, you may be as exhausted as the legendary bear for whom this 71,000-acre preserve is named. The Chippewas tell the tale of a mother bear who swam across Lake Michigan with her two cubs to escape a Wisconsin forest fire, only to watch her weary youngsters drown before reaching shore. In pity, Manitou, the great spirit, turned the cubs into the Manitou Islands and the mother bear into Sleeping Bear Dunes.

In reality, however, this is not a place of sadness but one of great beauty. Six thousand acres of dunes tower high above the waters of Lake Michigan; inland lakes and streams teem with pike, trout, and bass; and forests echo with the trills of the wood thrush. Just beyond the visitor center in Empire, lookout points along the 7.4-mile Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive offer a preview of the park’s many treasures: Glen Lake (a sand-dammed inlet of Lake Michigan), the sandy slopes of Sleeping Bear Dunes, crescent-shaped Sleeping Bear Bay, and the misty Manitou Islands.
Called “perched dunes” because of their position atop high bluffs, the Sleeping Bear Dunes — some of which reach up to 480 feet in height — are among the tallest in the world. Along the four-mile looping Dunes Trail, look for the skeletal remains of so-called “ghost forests.” Once buried by shifting sands, these dead trees are now partially exposed and can be seen poking up from their sandy graves. Equally spooky are the tales of 50 shipwrecks in the dangerous Manitou Passage; they are vividly illustrated with exhibits at the maritime museum, located near the village of Glen Haven. Rest overnight at the Homestead in nearby Glen Arbor; it claims to have the best ski runs in the Midwest, though cross-country skiing enthusiasts can follow trails nearly anywhere.

6. Pyramid Point
Whether you rough it in the lakeshore’s D. H. Day Campground or lounge in comfort at the nearby lodge, head past the Glen Arbor sandbar to adjacent Pyramid Point. A three-mile trail there leads to a lookout point that offers what is perhaps the best view available of the Manitou Islands (reachable by ferry from nearby Leland).

7. Leland
In pretty Leland, a fishing port sandwiched between Lake Michigan and Lake Leelanau, is a perfect place to idle while waiting for the Manitou ferry or a fishing charter. Turn-of-the-century shanties have reemerged as Fishtown, a collection of charming quayside restaurants, galleries, and shops.

A visit to the nearby islands of North and South Manitou is a must for nature lovers. The North Manitou wilderness beckons backpackers and fishermen, while its smaller sibling, South Manitou, is celebrated for the Valley of the Giants — a 500-year-old white cedar forest where one of the trees is believed to be the largest of its kind in the world. Off South Manitou’s southern coast rests the wreckage of the Francisco Morazan.

Back on the mainland, orchards in this area overflow with fruit from summer through autumn, starting with cherries and berries in July and ending with apples and grapes in September.
8. Leelanau State Park
The little finger of Leelanau Peninsula crooks protectively around the mouth of Grand Traverse Bay as the highway ambles to Northport, a picturesque hamlet chock-full of boutiques, antique shops, restaurants, and bed-and-breakfast inns. With its abundant orchards, award-winning wineries, and fine swimming beaches, Leelanau lives up to its name, a Chippewa word meaning “land of delight.”

At Leelanau’s fingertip you’ll find the Grand Traverse Lighthouse, part of 1,300-acre Leelanau State Park. The historic beacon still guards rocky shoals once so intimidating to French fur trappers that they christened the bay Le Grand Traverse — “the big crossing.” Pine- and cedar-scented trails lead away from a tiny campground, down to deserted beaches at Cathead Bay and Christmas Cove.

9. Traverse City
A temperate climate such as one finds in Traverse City is just right for growing premium grapes. So it is small wonder that the area boasts fifteen wineries, all of them open for tours and tastings.

Nevertheless, it wasn’t grapes but cherries that put this former timber town on the map. Traverse City is the self-proclaimed Cherry Capital of the World, producing 100 million pounds per year (one-third of the world’s crop). The National Cherry Festival is held here in July, and February brings another annual event, a North American cross-country ski championship. Sixteen miles southwest of town, the Interlochen Center for the Arts offers year-round entertainment in the form of classical and popular music, art, and dance.

10. Old Mission Peninsula
A narrow spur bisecting Grand Traverse Bay, Old Mission Peninsula is as timeless as Traverse City is trendy. The 18-mile drive along Rte. 37 lazes northward via a high hogback, passing orchards that explode in a filigree of pink blossoms in May and, in autumn, past blazing hardwood thickets.

Though Old Mission Lighthouse is the focal point of the state park at the tip of the peninsula, only the campground and neighboring swimming beach are open to the public. Brush up on local history at a reconstructed 1839 Indian mission, then drive west across the peninsula and go south on Peninsula Drive to the hook of historic Bowers Harbor, which delights visitors with its restaurants, rumors of ghosts, and views of Power Island.

11. Charlevoix
Rte. 31 winds its way around the east bay toward the prosaically named town of Acme. There you can buy a slice of cherry pie or pluck a basketful of orchard-ripe fruit for a picnic at Elk Lake or Torch Lake. The beach at Fisherman’s Island State Park, several miles past Norwood, is a perfect place to view one of Lake Michigan’s sunsets.
Farther along, the drive reaches the resort town of Charlevoix, whose main street is flanked by two pretty shores — one is found on Lake Charlevoix and the other at nearby Lake Michigan. Charlevoix is the departure point for ferries to Beaver Island, some 32 miles offshore. Dubbed the Emerald Isle by homesick 19th-century Irish settlers, this charming island once sheltered a breakaway sect of Mormons who were driven from Illinois in 1847. Their leader, James Strang, reigned as “king” until he was brutally murdered in 1856. The island’s Mormon and Irish heritage survives in the old Mormon Print Shop and in the brogue of natives. 12. Petoskey
The road to Petoskey winds through a pastoral setting reminiscent of England’s lovely Lake District, which may be why Ernest Hemingway’s family chose “Windermere” (after the largest of those lakes) as the name for their summer cottage on nearby Walloon Lake. Still, the jewels of Petoskey are not lakes but stones — 350-million — year-old polished pebbles adorned with fossilized coral that the lake dredges up from its bottom every spring and which beachcombers quickly pocket. The stones are among the wares on sale in the Gaslight District, a local shopping mecca. But this historic community on Little Traverse Bay has its spiritual side as well. In summer a Methodist camp called Bay View sponsors concerts, lectures, and other activities.

13. Tunnel of Trees
Across tranquil Little Traverse Bay glitters the fashionable enclave of Harbor Springs, where Detroit’s well-to-do party-hop between mansion-size “cottages” and elegant yachts. But north of town, just off Rte. 119, it’s nature that puts on the show.

At Thorne Swift Nature Preserve — a 30-acre sanctuary of dunes, wetlands, and mixed forests located just off Lower Shore Drive — you may see some of the rarities found on the Lower Peninsula, including Lake Huron tansy, Pitcher’s thistle, showy lady’s slipper, wide-eyed saw-whet owls, and pileated woodpeckers.

From here the highway twists and turns for the next 14 miles through a landscape that provides stunning views of Lake Michigan. Occasional corridors of hardwoods and hemlocks give this stretch of the drive its name — the Tunnel of Trees. At the end of Rte. 119 sprawls Cross Village, an old Indian community settled by the Chippewa and Ottawa tribes. From Cross Village, head north along Sturgeon Bay to Lakeview Road, then east about five miles to Cecil Bay Road (Rte. 81). When the road ends at Cecil Bay, follow the signs west to Wilderness State Park.

14. Wilderness State Park
Although golf, hunting, bass fishing, hiking, picnicking, and water sports all have their place here, it’s wildlife that is the real star at this 8,200-acre preserve on the northwest tip of the Lower Peninsula. Rustic cabins provide temporary homes for naturalists hoping to spot seldom-seen birds and plants: rare orchids grace the park in spring; nesting piping plovers sequester among the dunes and marshes in summer; dabbling wood ducks, pintails, and other waterfowl glide through the wetlands; and craggy tree snags hide the young of great horned owls from predators while their parents seek prey.

Beyond Wilderness State Park, on the northeast horizon, looms a man-made wonder that magnificently complements those found in nature. Spanning the Straits of Mackinac — the place where Lake Michigan and Lake Huron meet — the Mackinac Bridge (one of the world’s longest suspension bridges) links Mackinaw City with Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. It’s a fitting place to end your drive to Michigan’s north.

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