This Michigan Great Lakes Road Trip Is Pure Summer
Magical Michigan Tour
It's not every day you discover something magnificent in your own backyard. Especially when that something is massive, pristine, and affordable. While it felt like everyone else was speeding down the traditional coastal interstates, I went in search of that backyard treasure: taking five days to drive 350 miles along northern Michigan's shores, tracing the fingertip arc of the famous mitten across to the reach of its Upper Peninsula. The open highways lead through rolling farmland and hardwood forests, and past lakes so vast they prove why they're called "inland seas." How had I waited so long to explore what must be the most overlooked shores in North America? The Great Lakes, our country's freshwater heart, are as infinite as they are gorgeous. It was time to play catch-up.
Stop 1: Lake Michigan/Leland
You think you know what to expect when you arrive in Leland, Michigan: an all-American small town with tidy streets, leafy trees, and summer cottages (as Michiganders call their summerhouses). But what you can't imagine until making the easy, 38-mile drive north from Traverse City is the simple but arresting beauty of those cottages, the tawny undulations of the surrounding sand dunes, and the bright green beach grasses reflecting light off the water—an aquamarine so clear it could have been piped in from the Bahamas. At the core of this surprisingly uncrowded little enclave is a collection of weathered, century-old fishing shanties, appropriately called Fishtown, where you can hire a boat and head out for the day or stick closer to shore and stroll the quaintly chic downtown. Leland has lured the same families to its shores for generations, but there are happy crowds, no tension—even in July. Stake out a patch of sand with your latest summer read, enjoy the gentle distraction of kids jumping over ankle-skimming waves, and watch the sun slowly drop behind the Manitou Islands, transforming the sky into Leland's famous sunset palette of orange, purple, and blue.
On the Leland River and just a block from downtown, the 116-year-old Riverside Inn's four cozy guest rooms are a flight of stairs from the best dining in town, where the chef does right by local purveyors, and the water view does right by us all. Rates start at $135; theriverside-inn.com.
At The Cove, right on the water in historic Fishtown, the feel is pure Great Lakes fishing cabin. Vintage boat decor lines the pine-paneled walls, while a broad deck grabs the summer sun and overlooks Leland's busy marina. A plate of fried fresh perch, a bowl of seafood chowder, and a signature Chubby Mary cocktail (served with a whole smoked chub poking out of the glass) are classics; thecoveleland.com.
Drive 15 minutes across the Leelanau Peninsula to Grand Traverse Bike Tours, and then pedal the Leelanau Trail through lakeside vineyards and boutique wineries; grandtraversebiketours.com. The best way to get out onto the water? Hop the Manitou Island Transit ferry for an excursion among these uninhabited isles; manitoutransit.com.
Detour Worth Taking
Head 20 miles south to take in the lake views and sky-high bluffs at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, where you can trek up wind-blown sand dunes and stroll 30 miles of beach.
Michigan native Jim Harrison checked into nearby Jolli-Lodge resort with his typewriter one winter and wrote his acclaimed novella Legends of the Fall.
Lake Michigan by the Numbers
925: Deepest point in Lake Michigan, in feet
4: States that border it (the only Great Lake completely in the United States)
14.5: Hours it takes to circumnavigate by car (without stopping)
Stop 2: Lake Huron/Mackinac Island
In the waters where two Great Lakes meet, Mackinac Island technically floats on Lake Huron, between Michigan's Upper and Lower peninsulas. A high-speed ferry may take you there, but know that once you set foot on the far dock, Mackinac's perennially summer pace feels almost defiantly stuck in time. The entire 8.2-mile-circumference island is car free (and has been since 1898); the only noise pollution is the clip-clop of horses' hooves. While Main Street is redolent with fudge shops and has a Disneyesque vibe, the rest of the island's 3.8 square miles is wonderfully wild. A staggering 82 percent is parkland, with 70 miles of trails underfoot and great flocks of Canada geese winging by overhead. For many, Mackinac Island is the embodiment of the American family vacation, and it's a nostalgic tonic to see all those families on the loose without cars.
The 1902 Hotel Iroquois sits smack on the Straits of Mackinac and has been run by the same family for 64 years. The hotel's airy rooms have brightly colored decor made even brighter by sparkling waterfront views. Nab one on the straits and drift off to sleep with Lake Huron lapping outside your window. Rates start at $245; iroquoishotel.com.
Ice House BBQ feels like a local secret, tucked up a steep lane on the former site of a historic building in which ice harvested off the Great Lakes was stored. Snag an umbrella-topped table on the back patio for a hearty lunch; theislandhouse.com/ice-house-bbq. For dinner, most families arrive at Woods Restaurant via horse-drawn carriage, but it's fun to ride bikes there. The interiors of the Tudor mansion are stunning, including crimson walls. The menu leans toward classics, including herb-crusted local whitefish and a crispy pork schnitzel; grandhotel.com/dining/woods.
Getting out on Lake Huron in kayaks or paddleboards to catch the sunrise might sound crazy, but Great Turtle Kayak Tours takes advantage of dawn's calm waters; mackinackayak.com. For a pure Mackinac thrill, take out a horse and buggy from Jack's Livery Stable and drive yourself; jacksliverystable.com. The most popular way to get around? Rent bikes from one of the many Main Street outfitters, and pedal the island's flat, paved perimeter.
Detour Worth Taking
En route to Mackinac, it's an easy detour to Walloon Lake, where the lovely Hotel Walloon opened in 2015 and where Ernest Hemingway spent almost every summer of his boyhood in a clapboard cottage still owned by his nephew, Ernie; hotelwalloon.com.
This July marks the 110th Chicago Yacht Club Race to Mackinac, the oldest freshwater distance sailing race in the world. Hundreds of sailboats have made the 333-mile run from Chicago to Mackinac almost every year since 1898.
Lake Huron by the Numbers
3,827: Miles of shoreline (the longest in The Great Lakes)
73: Highest surfact water temperature, in degrees Fahrenheit
35: Size of waves, in feet, during the Big Blow Storm of 1913
Stop 3: Lake Superior/Grand Marais
It's hard to believe Lake Superior is really just a lake. The greatest of the Greats, it contains 10 percent of the world's surface freshwater, and its volume is four of the lesser Great Lakes plus three more Lake Eries combined. Stand anywhere on its southern shore, which traces the northern edge of Michigan's Upper Peninsula, and even on the calmest summer day its power feels omnipresent. And that shoreline has plenty of up-close delights, as well: thousand-foot cliffs, miles of white-sand beach, vast hardwood forests, and small towns with quirky, nearly forgotten history. In the early 20th century, lumber tycoons, copper barons, and auto magnates fished the Great Lakes, building stately homes in places like Marquette, the Upper Peninsula's biggest city. Today, fewer than a million residents live within its basin, and in towns like Grand Marais there's a rugged authenticity made for adventurers and romantics. Summers are short, and the UP can get a preposterous amount of snow—as much as 300 inches a year—but full-timers wouldn't have it any other way. You merely need to climb the dunes and inhale that crisp, clean air, or look up at a nighttime sea of stars (or a shimmering curtain of aurora borealis) and you get it.
Jeannette Finke vacationed in Grand Marais when her kids were small and says she'd cry when it was time to go home. So when she had a chance in 2003 to buy Hilltop Cabins and become an innkeeper, that's exactly what she did. Her cozy cabins have pine paneling, kitchens, gas fireplaces, and Northwest Woods decor. (There are also simple motel rooms.) An additional delight: Finke's blackberry coffee cake or plum pudding daily in the breakfast room; hilltopcabinsmi.com.
Grand Marais is so small that pretty much everyone ends up at Lake Superior Brewing Co. at Dunes Saloon, a lively place with a wood-tiled ceiling, 1970s vibe, pizza, fresh-caught whitefish tacos, pitchers of craft beer, and timeless rock ballads on the jukebox; 906/494-2337. West Bay Diner is the place for a serious breakfast or slice of pie; 906/494-2607.
On a calm lake day or just before sunset, meet up at Northern Waters Adventures in Munising, where Carl Hansen has been leading guided kayak tours beside the sculpted cliffs of Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore for 26 years; northernwaters.com. On land in Pictured Rocks, the hike out to Au Sable Lighthouse is also stunning: an easy three-mile round-trip to the historic lighthouse and back on a forested trail just steps from the wave-swept beach.
Detour Worth Taking
Heading north from U.S. 2 to Grand Marais, you'll pass the remnants of Blaney Park, one of the nation's most prosperous summer resorts in the 1940s and '50s. Blaney Park Antiques, housed in one of the old buildings, makes a great stop; 906/283-1515.
Longfellow's poem "The Song of Hiawatha" (On the shores of Gitche Gumee / Of the shining Big-Sea-Water) was inspired by Lake Superior. Gordon Lightfoot's biggest hit, "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald," was, too.
Lake Superior by the Numbers
#1: Largest body of freshwater on Earth
100 million: Trout estimated to live in the lake
3 quadrillion: Volume, in gallons, of water