We are fast coming up on my favorite time of year. That time of year here in Michigan when the air cools, the nights slowly become darker and crisp and the sweaters and hoodies come out in force. The leaves begin their yearly change from green into the fiery displays of red, orange and yellow that we are lucky enough to have and we get that smell that only happens this time of year in the Midwest. Fall brings a lot of things for a lot of people for different reasons here in this state and all around the great lakes. Football season is here, the kids gear up for Halloween, hunters flock to the woods for our annual deer hunting season AND the fall travelers begin their treks from one end of the state to the other to bask in all its wonderment and beauty.
I am not much of a summer guy, never really have been since I despise sweating and sweating is a reminder of being a little plump in the middle. For me, the fall and winter put me in a better mood which is the polar opposite of some people. I feel alive and full of energy and it’s when I do my best writing. It’s part of the reason I start writing my books in the fall. Two weeks ago a tree, a sugar maple I believe, started turning colors outside of my apartment building; bright red ones in fact. When I first saw it I smiled. The first night it hit the 50’s I smiled a little more. Fall, though, brings out the best for two types of travelers the ones who fancy the outdoors and walks into the woods and those who just enjoy a day away or even a few to get in as much of the fall foliage as possible while driving in the car.
There are few places that compare to Michigan in the fall when it comes to scenic fall road trips and spending time in the outdoors. I’ve been all over this state so here are a few of my favorite Michigan road trips during the fall. This is part one of two part post so check back next week for part two.
The Northeastern UP (Upper Peninsula)
Whitefish Point to Au Train (AKA The Shipwreck tour.)
For this post, I start the road trip at Whitefish Point. However, if you are coming from well below the bridge, or even Mackinaw it is a long drive just getting to this point. So spend a night in Mackinaw or St. Ignace and rest up so you are fresh. For me, this road trip really starts at a small roadside park on M123 which sits on the south end of Whitefish Bay and at the mouth of the Tahquamenon River then heads north. Anyone who has been up this way knows exactly where I am talking about. For me, this place feels like this is where my road journey really begins even more than crossing the bridge. This is one of the most amazing drives there is in the state of Michigan and very overlooked by those who don’t often venture north of the bridge (why you would do that I don’t know). It is a little intense, though. With slight variations and a little daring both driving and walking, you can see several waterfalls, the amazing northern Michigan woods in their fall glory, the freakishly clear Lake Superior (on a calm day), the iconic pictured rocks national lakeshore, the Ship Wreck museum at Whitefish Point, the breathtaking Tahquamenon falls along with some really great little northern Michigan towns like Paradise. Here in Michigan, we like picking up stones on the beach and looking for agates when we go that far north and Whitefish point is a prime place for quiet beach wandering rock searching.
If you are feeling adventurous you can take a left on county road 407 when you are coming from Tahquamenon Falls. 407 turns into 58 which you can take all the way north until you hit Muskellunge Lake on the edge of Lake Superior. If you follow 58 around you will come to Grand Marais which is one of the best little towns in all of Michigan. Here you can see another set of sand dunes most people in the lower peninsula don’t even know exist. From here you can take 77 down until you hit Seney on 28 and then take a right and keep going into Munising where there is an awesome abundance of things to do. In Au’ Train, there an amazing beach on the shores of Lake Superior and I highly suggest hitting this up at night for some epic stargazing. It’s worth it even if it is pitch black.
Even staying on the “main roads” this can be a very daunting and long drive. Its miles and miles of wonderful, beautiful and natural nothing; 126 miles one way to be exact. I remember on a trip up a few years ago I literally drove for almost an hour and saw only one other car. During the fall the woods are bright and amazing and even the familiar looks new and different. Be careful trouncing through the woods up here since you may run into a bear, moose, occasional wolf or deer hunters. I love this drive just because of how massive and amazing it is and all the different things you will see. It’s an incredibly secluded area and perfect for getting away from the bigger cities. This is not a day drive, though; at least for me. I mean you could if you never get out of the car for 2 ½ hours but to really enjoy it I would suggest staying a night in either Paradise (south of Whitefish Point), Grand Marais or Munising but make sure you call ahead…deer hunters and other fall lovers fill up rooms fast this time of year. In Munising, I highly suggest staying at Sunset on the Bay Motel. To my knowledge, this is the only hotel in Munising area which sits directly on the water. The views are amazing the rooms are quaint and clean. I have stayed here 3 times and love it. There are several waterfalls nearby and one within walking distance and its minutes away from Pictured Rocks.
Also, the best time to hit this drive is right about the peak of fall foliage in northern Michigan which can vary by year. For practical purposes and to catch the best colors I would say do this drive in late September to mid-October. If you go after that, yes it’s still amazing but you will miss most of the fall colors.
Food & Drinks to try – Fudge (an epic amount), and pasties. Pasties are meat and vegetable filled pies and were basically invented in the UP by miners and their wives. They are wonderful and amazing! There also is some fabulous homemade beef jerky up this way if that is your thing. Check out Pictured Rocks Brewing Company. Here is another great list of breweries in the UP
The M22 tour – AKA The Winery Tour
This is perhaps the most famous of all the road tours in Michigan all year around. During the fall though it’s even better. Traditionally I typically started this tour in Traverse City but the last few years I’ve been starting it in Interlochen, MI and it encompasses what most refer to as the “pinkie” of the state. On this tour you will experience some of the most beautiful sights, smells and sounds the lower peninsula has to offer. In the fall you will experience everything from the bright rolling hills of the Leelanau Peninsula, the majestic Sleepy Bear Dunes national park, small towns like Suttons Bay, Empire, and the quaint Glen Arbor home to the Cherry Republic. Along the way, you will find treasures like Frankfurt and the Grand Traverse Lighthouse and the majestic Grand Traverse Bay which looks amazing while framed by fall color change around it. For the sake of this color tour I personally don’t consider Traverse City as a stop in the tour due to how time-consuming the town is and how much is already involved (Its part of the next one don’t worry).
If you start in Interlochen and take 31 west, you glide through town like Beulah on the SE edge of Crystal Lake (another amazing site in the sun) and Benzonia which is surrounded by rolling hills with great spots for scenic views and pictures. From Benzonia, you will hang a right on 115 (Frankfurt Highway) which will take you to Frankfurt which sits on the shores of Lake Michigan. From Frankfurt, you take M22 which skirts the coast of Lake Michigan all the way north while passing through Glen Arbor and the fishing village of Leland to the tip of the Leelanau Peninsula. From there you will stay on M22 South while passing through the cute artsy town of Northport and Suttons Bay while you follow the coast of Grand Traverse Bay which will be on the left. You pass through Traverse City and connect with M37 and then meet up with 31 West which will take you back to Interlochen.
A shorter version of this will take you from Interlochen north to Traverse City via M31 and M37. From Traverse City, you take a quick hop up M22 and turn left on M72 (E Traverse highway) and take that west all the way to Empire. From there the color tour is basically the same as above unless you feel like being adventurous and take some side roads. This short version will have you skipping places like Frankfurt and Benzonia and remove a few hours. It will also put you smack dap into the middle of one of the best areas for wineries in the state AND the country. Our wines are legit!
Yes, the longer tour can be done in a day but leaves you little time for stopping for great lengths of time especially if you plan on shopping, dune climbing along the way or checking out one of the many wineries, art galleries and cute shops which dot the area. If you have little kids who require stops, it’s even harder. So, for the longer tour, I’d suggest splitting it up into two days if possible. The shorter one can easily be done in a day even with stopping for food, shopping and picture taking. The worst thing you can do on this amazing fall adventure is rush it because you will end up wishing you could stop at things you see along the way especially with towns like Glen Arbor, Leland, and Northport. By the way, the M22 tour was recently rated as the best fall color tour in the United States by a USA Today readers poll. The best time for this tour is more or less anytime in October with mid-October being the best. With gas prices hovering right around $2.00 a gallon this a great time to jump in the car head north for the day, two or even three.
Food & Drinks to try – the Cherry Republic in Glen Arbor. I prefer this location over the others. Again, pasties (Pas-tee) are available are also available in this area. Check out Leelanau Coffee Roasters in Glen Arbor. If you happen to check out 9 Bean Rows Cafe in Suttons Bay let me know what you think. This is in the same old firehouse which previously housed O’Keefes Firehouse Pub which I loved for many reasons and was my place to stop in town and I am sad that it is gone.