As the Pure Michigan radio ads remind us on a regular basis, Northern Michigan is home to miles and miles of pristine coastline, clear turquoise waters, beautiful forests, tall sand dunes, craft beer, wineries and quaint boutiques and main streets. Tim Allen is definitely not lying to us in those ads – Michigan has many beautiful areas and great vacation destinations.
My family regularly vacationed on the Leelanau Peninsula as well as in Southwest Michigan when I was a kid, and I still have fond memories of those trips. So when my friend Jesse told me he was coming for a visit over the Fourth of July weekend, my husband, Bob, Jesse and I decided to go to Northern Michigan, camping along the way. Northern Michigan was still as beautiful as I remembered it.
Day 1 – Thursday – South Bend to Traverse City
Jesse arrived in South Bend on a Thursday afternoon and we left for our trip to Northern Michigan around 4:30 p.m. We knew it would be a long drive at night to Traverse City, but we wanted to wake up on Friday with a whole day ahead of us to explore and drive even further north. We took the fastest route through central Michigan to Traverse City – up 196 and 131, about a four hour drive (see map below).
The route takes you through Grand Rapids, which, lucky for us, has been voted best craft beer city in the U.S. multiple times. We stopped at Founder’s Brewery, which was just a quick detour off the highway. We each sampled a bit of beer and enjoyed one of their ginormous sandwiches, which were delicious. It was a great way to break up the drive as well as a chance to experience a new brewery and restaurant.
After dinner, we continued our drive to Traverse City State Park, where we camped that evening. The State Park is located just across the street from the east arm of Grand Traverse Bay and within a couple miles of downtown. We set up camp, went to sleep and survived a torrential rain storm.
Note: Northern Michigan is a popular summer vacation destination and campgrounds fill up very early. We booked our sites more than two months in advance for the holiday weekend, and many campgrounds were already booked solid. Book early, especially if you’re interested in staying in the more popular campgrounds.
Day 2 – Traverse City to Wilderness State Park (near Mackinaw City)
We woke up early on Friday morning, took down our tents, and drove a couple of miles west to downtown Traverse City for breakfast. We went to Towne Plaza, a really great breakfast place. The Fried Chicken Benedict and regular Benedict were awesome (the fontina cream sauce in place of béchamel was so good). The fruit plate with a thick slice of banana bread was also delicious.
After breakfast we walked around downtown, stopping at a few boutiques and the Grand Traverse Distillery to try cherry whisky. We also grabbed a coffee at the Brew Coffehouse and Cafe, which was the most hipster coffee shop I’ve ever seen (ex. nitro iced coffee), but the coffee was really good. It looked like it would also be a good place to grab a sandwich.
After caffeinating ourselves, we hopped in the car and drove up the Old Mission Peninsula, which is situated in the middle of Grand Traverse Bay. The peninsula offers many beautiful views of the bay. I would recommending taking the residential roads along the water on the east side of the peninsula for views of the bay on the way north, and the main road (37) down the center for views of cherry farms and vineyards when you come back south. At the very tip, you can stop at the Old Mission Lighthouse for some great photos. For a few dollars, you can also climb to the top of the tower.
On our way south on 37, we stopped at the winery and hotel Chateau Chantal, which was a very pleasant surprise. It’s located at a high point in the middle of the peninsula, so you have incredible views of both arms of Grand Traverse Bay from the tasting room. We grabbed a flight of all of their cherry wines and took them to the outdoor patio to enjoy the stunning views of the vineyards and bay. The wines were all very good, but the hard cider was definitely the highlight for us. We ended up buying a bottle to enjoy by the campfire later that night. This was one of the most beautiful and enjoyable stops of the weekend and shouldn’t be missed.
After we departed the peninsula, we began our two hour drive north to Wilderness State Park, driving through Charlevoix and Petosky, both cute towns. Wilderness State Park is located at the northern tip of the mitten, about 20 minutes west of Mackinaw City, which is the closest town. It was a beautiful place to camp and we were lucky to get one of the new rustic campsites due to a cancellation, which offered more privacy. Although the main campground is located on the beach, it was very crowded.
Just down the road, you can watch the sunset and see a magnificent view of the stars at the Headlands International Dark Sky Park, one of the world’s few official dark sky parks. As you probably guessed, there are no lights, and you do have to walk about a mile on a paved road in the woods to the beach, but the trek is worth it for the views. Be sure to bring a flashlight, blankets (it gets chilly) and closed-toed shoes. The stars are so bright you can actually see pretty well after dark, but there were a few iffy spots on our walk back. We made the mistake of arriving really early – around 8:30 p.m. because we wanted to see the sunset. However, the good views of the stars didn’t occur until around midnight due to the light on the horizon, so it was a long wait. Most people arrived around 11 p.m.
We also had a wonderful view of the stars back at the campground. By the time we crawled into our tents, every inch of the sky was filled with stars and we had a clear view of the Milky Way and several planets. It was stunning. Jesse commented that it was the most stars he’s ever seen.
Day 3 – Wilderness State Park to Mackinac Island and Charlevoix
We woke up around 6 am on Saturday morning to try to beat the crowds to Mackinac Island. Mackinac is only accessible by ferry from Mackinaw City in the Lower Peninsula or St. Ignace in the Upper Peninsula. Cars are prohibited on Mackinac Island, so people get around by walking, biking, or riding in a horse-drawn carriage. We opted to take our bikes with us in order to see as much of the island as we could.
We took the 8:30 a.m. Shepler’s Ferry from Mackinaw City to Mackinac Island. Tickets for the ferry were $24 per person if purchased online in advance, plus an additional $10 per bike. It’s only about a 20 minute boat trip with great views of the Mackinac Bridge, one of the longest suspension bridges in the world. You feel like you’ve stepped back in time 100 years when you reach the island. When we disembarked the boat, the first thing I noticed was the architecture. The buildings in the downtown date from the 1800s and there’s a fort that the British built during the Revolutionary War. I learned that Mackinac Island was actually deemed the second National Park in America after Yellowstone; however it was changed to the first Michigan State Park in the late 1800s after the fort was decommissioned.
We started the morning by taking a self-guided bike tour of Mackinac Island’s major attractions, including the Grand Hotel (it’s worth the $10 to get in just to see the old furnishings), Fort Holmes, Fort Mackinac, exteriors of historic homes, the old cemeteries and Arch Rock, which took about two hours at a very leisurely pace with stops. A good portion of the ride is uphill. We then enjoyed a lunch of white fish and pasties at Millie’s on Main. The food was good.
After lunch, we took the eight-mile bike ride around the island, which was absolutely beautiful. The downside is it was treacherous due to the insane number of tourists on the trail who couldn’t bike in a straight line. After about four miles, the crowds luckily died down. We stopped to enjoy the stunningly beautiful clear turquoise waters, build a cairn (rock tower), and enjoy the views. With many stops to enjoy the views and riding at a very leisurely pace, the trip also took about two hours.
When we arrived back in town, our final goal was to try fudge and eat Mackinac Island fudge ice cream. This goal was easily accomplished with the many fudge shops in town. We sampled fudge at five shops and bought ice cream at one of the oldest fudge shops, Ryba’s.
We departed Mackinac Island in the late afternoon and drove two hours south along the coast to our next camping destination – Fisherman’s Island State Park in Charlevoix. We stopped in Petosky to each eat a pasty at That Pasty Place for dinner. Pasties are puff pastries filled with ground meat and vegetables and are popular in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Personally, I find pasties rather bland, but I felt obligated to eat one since I was in Michigan.
Fisherman’s Island had big semi-private campsites in the woods. The beach was about a mile down the road. We spent the evening laying on the beach enjoying the sun.
Day 4 – Charlevoix to Manistee, MI
Our fourth day consisted of a lot of driving. We had hoped to stay in Leelanau State Park on our fourth night; however, it was booked solid. So we opted to stay at Orchard Beach State Park, which was further south.
I really wanted to see the Leelanau Peninsula, since I hadn’t been there since I was a kid. We woke up early and started our drive from Charlevoix, back through Traverse City, to the Leelanau Peninsula. We first stopped at the Leelanau Cheese Company near Sutton’s Bay, famous for its Swiss Raclette cheese. It was delicious. We then stopped at Black Star Farm, a horse farm, hotel and winery, which was beautiful. I highly recommend sampling the wines. We bought a bottle of the Arcturus Riesling.
Our next stop was perhaps my favorite of the day, Tandem Cider. Tandem Cider is a beautiful cidery located in an old barn surrounding by wild flowers in the middle of an orchard. The location was super picturesque and it was fun to sample a variety of different types of ciders made with different apples.
Next, we stopped at Leelanau State Park to see the lighthouse, and then continued down the peninsula to Leland, a small town famous for Fish town, several fisherman’s huts converted to boutiques. We had lunch on the river at The Cove – the Parmesan Garlic White Fish was awesome and so were the Fried White Fish and Fried Lake Perch.
After leaving Leland, we took a quick stop at the original Cherry Republic in Glen Arbor, which specializes in all things cherry and we took home a bottle of their cherry salsa. Next, we stopped at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore and took the seven-mile scenic Pierce Stocking Drive to see the giant sand dunes. There are many lookout points throughout the scenic drive, including a lookout perched 450 feet above the lake on top of the tallest dune, which is just a short walk from one of the parking lots.
Orchard Beach State Park was about an hour and fifteen minutes south of Sleeping Bear Dunes in Manistee. It’s a crowded campground with little privacy, but it offers many amenities, such as great bathroom facilities and beach access. You can also watch beautiful sunsets from the lake lookout in the campground (see cover photo for an example).
Day 5 – Manistee, MI to South Bend
We woke up on Monday to start our final 3.5 hour drive back to South Bend. After having breakfast at the campsite, we packed up our gear and headed south. We took a quick stop in Holland, MI, to sample a flight of beer at New Holland Brewery. I really like New Holland’s Beer, but I’m not a huge fan of their food, so we opted to drive further south to Saugatuck for lunch, where we at at Phil’s Bar and Grille. Phil’s is famous for their Broasted Chicken, but I usually opt for their Portabello Mushroom Sandwich with watercress pesto, sweet and sour onions, goat cheese, avocado and spinach. I also love the Tenderloin Salad, with goat cheese and jalepeno vinaigrette.
Saugatuck is one of my favorite beach towns in Michigan. I love walking around the downtown and visiting the shops, taking the chain ferry across to climb the dune, and heading to the beach. Plus, it’s only an hour and twenty minutes from South Bend so it’s an easy place to go for a day trip.
Our whirlwind tour of Northern Michigan was a success. If you’d like to cut down on the amount of driving, you could also spend a few days just in Traverse City, Mackinac Island, the Leelanau Peninsula or around Wilderness State Park – there’s plenty to do.