Say Yes! to Michigan! (and Wisconsin, and maybe a bit of Indiana too)
April 17, 2014 9:47 AM   Subscribe

What are the must see spots, best time of year, and best route on a road trip around Lake Michigan?

Despite living in the Chicagoland area most of our lives, my boyfriend and I haven't seen nearly enough of our neighbors to the North. We're starting to plan a roadtrip around Lake Michigan and trying to decide our route and where we should stop along the way. I've read through the green and seen some suggestions, but not quite for an entire tour of the lake.

When is the best time of year to go? We're thinking earlier spring/summer rather than August (hot) or September (so far away), but open to suggestions. We would like to avoid nasty bugs as much as possible, hot HOT weather, and huge crowds of families. We both work for ourselves so we're flexible with time, but will be renting a car for the trip.

What route should we take? For some reason I was assuming we'd head to Michigan first, and travel counter clockwise. Now that I think of it though, there's no reason for that decision. How many days would you allot for a decent, but not exhaustive tour? One week, two weeks?

Where should we stop and what are the best towns to sleep in? We are city people and tend to walk or bike everywhere day-to-day, so cute little towns are much more desirable than a highway Motel 6. Our interests are architecture, art, casual biking, beer, whiskey, music, boutique-type lodging, sailing, and kitsch (world's biggest ball of string attractions). We're not naturally outdoorsy-types, but a walk in the woods, easy hike, and pretty surroundings would be nice. For instance, if there is an adorable private cabin in the woods we could read books in for a few days next to a fire we'd happily add that to our itinerary.

Our "possibilities" list so far includes: Milwaukee Art Museum, House on the Rock (maybe - I've been already), New Glarus, Some sand dunes somewhere, Mackinac Island (he's always wanted to stay in that fancy old hotel), and camping somewhere. He has never camped, so I would like to borrow equipment form friends and stay in a tent one night. All of the camp grounds I've looked at seem huge and not very private. What site would you recommend for a newbie to get a feel for it? During my cursory look at camp sites and cabin rentals not much has seemed especially nice. My camping is limited to scouts and camping on big hikes (Nepal, Peru, etc.) with porters.

Our typical travel style would be to stay in a boutique hotel (say, a Kimpton, or a small modern place), get up in the morning and go to a nice cafe for coffee, walk around interesting neighborhoods most of the day, stop at a museum or maybe do some shopping or search out an unusual or unique store to visit. If we're tired we may find a nice lookout spot to read a book or sketch for an hour. Then we'd have a drink and find an inexpensive but tasty non-chain place to eat. Naturally, we tend to explore cities and understand that this isn't going to be the schedule around Lake Michigan and are hoping to broaden our horizons a bit. I'm used to roughing it traveling by packed buses in Central Asia, for example, whereas he loves places like Chateau Marmont. We're trying to compromise our travel styles but willing to splurge on something really special or unique.
posted by Bunglegirl to Travel & Transportation around Lake Charter Township, MI (31 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
If you celebrate Christmas, try to hit Frankenmuth, MI to visit the Christmas Store.
posted by royalsong at 9:53 AM on April 17, 2014

Saugatuck and Traverse City were my favorite places along Lake Michigan. If you go to TC, Torch Lake is lovely and not terribly crowded!
posted by anad487 at 9:54 AM on April 17, 2014

Best answer: Saugatuck/Douglas - nice little arts community not too far from Chicago in SW Michigan - lots of boutique restaurants, shopping, galleries.

Sleeping Bear Dunes - not to be missed. The whole Leelanau area in the NW lower peninsula is lovely. Charlevoix a little further north is also very pretty.
posted by leslies at 9:54 AM on April 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

A few years ago, I asked this question about the UP and you'll find answers to some of your questions there. Kitsch is a big industry in the UP. We especially enjoyed Lakenenland outdoor sculpture garden.
posted by DrGail at 9:56 AM on April 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

Was here to say Sleeping Bear Dunes. So I'm not alone with that...
posted by Namlit at 10:00 AM on April 17, 2014

Best answer: A good plan is to head up the Michigan coast, cross at Mackinac into the UP and head back south on the Wisconsin side. (You'll want two weeks for this.) Alternative would be to troll along the Michigan shoreline, say up to Traverse City area, then back down to catch the ferry at Ludington over to WI (a week to ten days would be nice), but Mackinac Island and the UP are pretty sweet.

August will be hot, but no hotter than Chicago. September will be nicer. Crowds will be down because the kids are in school, and in the more northern areas you may get the color change.

There will be mosquitoes. At night everywhere and daytime in the woodsy areas. Sorry. Bring bug spray.

Not a lot of boutique hotels. You'll either be staying at decent chain hotels (Hilton Garden Inn - ish) or at independents, often family run. Some are quite nice but the theme will be more woodsy lodge than modern.
posted by dzot at 10:11 AM on April 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

You might consider incorporating one of the Lake Michigan ferries in your trip, the S.S. Badger from Manitowoc, Wi to Luddington, Mi, or the Lake Express from Milwaukee, Wi to Muskegon, Mi. I've never taken them, but I've wanted to, and may someday.

Also, if you like trains, the National Railway Museum in Green Bay is a fun stop. Although its the "National" museum, its actually not all that big (The Illinois Railway Museum in Union is a lot bigger), but its nice, and they have at least one very nice indoor display building with a few historical trains.

And though I've only visited it from the outside (as it was closed the day we tried to go), the Cliffs Shaft Mine Museum in Ishpeming looked pretty cool. Even from the outside we could walk around some of the surface buildings (including the 1919 mine shaft headframe which I thought was spooooooky), and they had some mining equipment outside including a gigantic steam-shovel bucket. I can only imagine that the actual tour is even more interesting.
posted by Reverend John at 10:11 AM on April 17, 2014

Best answer: I have a lot of thoughts but not a lot of time right now. (I live in Milwaukee, for reference.) It's hard to say how much of a problem bugs are going to be this summer because of our extremely weird winter and our current drought. I think it will be better than normal. The other factor is lake breezes; the lakefront is generally better for bug-avoidance than inland.

I would absolutely avoid any holidays if you don't want families and crowds. Campgrounds on Memorial Day, July 4th weekend, Labor Day are absolutely out of the question.

I strongly suggest incorporating Door County into your trip somehow, because it exactly fits your vibe, but that depends on how much time you have - as far as I know, there's no way to get from Washington Island to the mainland (either MI or WI) except to hire a (non-ferry) boat. So you'd have to drive up and then down it. Which would be a great trip! Except it would add at least 2 or 3 days.

Off the top of my head, I suggest Kohler-Andrae state park for camping (near Sheboygan) or the American Club (slightly inland) for splurging. There are a lot of opportunities for splurging in Kohler.

I have more thoughts, but I have to go for now. Ping me if I forget to come back to this thread.
posted by desjardins at 10:38 AM on April 17, 2014

Best answer: We are city people and tend to walk or bike everywhere day-to-day, so cute little towns are much more desirable than a highway Motel 6.

In light of this factor, you might want to consider staying in both Traverse City, as suggested above, and South Haven on the Michigan side. They both have walkable downtown areas close to the water where you can eat, drink, and relax. In fact, Mackinac - TC - South Haven, with some stops in between for the dunes, etc., would be a very low pressure way to spend 3 nights and days.

Stop in Petoskey, south of the bridge, and pick up some Petoskey stones, which are unique in the world.

If you're fans of craft beer, consider swinging through Kalamazoo (not exactly on the way...) to visit the original Eccentric Cafe, home of Bell's.
posted by Joey Buttafoucault at 10:42 AM on April 17, 2014 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I've done this twice now (and also trips around each of the other Great Lakes at least once). The first time I did it in six days, which was nowhere near enough to even begin to do what I wanted to. The second time I took two weeks, which I think was about right. I did it once clockwise and once counterclockwise, and I don't think there's any strong reason to favor one over the other. Since you'll be starting and ending in Chicago, and nearby Milwaukee is the second-largest city on the lake, you could consider whether you wanted to start with Milwaukee or end there, and let that be the deciding factor.

I did both in late August/early September, in order to work in the Mackinac Bridge Walk, which I love, and have gone back to do in other years even when it wasn't part of an around-a-lake trip. Had good weather, not too hot, both times when I did it—remember, being near the lake has a moderating effect—although that can vary dramatically from year to year, of course.

I like to day hike when I can on my trips, and there are a lot of little-to-medium state parks on the lake with short, easy hikes, especially in Michigan. For the most part, the terrain around Lake Michigan is fairly gentle, so you shouldn't have too much difficulty. (Lakes Superior and Huron, in that order, have the most rugged terrain around the lakes.) So many good ones that it's hard to pick a favorite. And of course there's the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore and Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore (visit those, and you've visited half of all National Lakeshores in the US!)

Traverse City sounds like a town you'd like. Big enough to have some good restaurants and interesting shopping and a couple of microbreweries, small enough that it's easy to get out of into a more natural setting. If you like wine at all, there are several good wineries on the Leelanau and Old Mission peninsulas. (Leelanau being the peninsula northwest of Traverse City, and Old Mission being that tiny little sliver of land running north from Traverse City.) Wineries in other areas around Lake Michigan tend not to be as good, IMO.

Not a camper myself, so I can't help you much there, but if I were I imagine I might want to camp on Rock Island, out beyond the end of the Door Peninsula. (Drive to the end of the peninsula, take a ferry with your car to Washington Island, drive to the other end, and take another ferry, this time without your car, to Rock Island). I went to Rock Island just for a day trip, and hiked the perimeter of the island. Stayed in a nice enough but nondescript motel on Washington Island. Washington Island and Rock Island are far enough from any remotely large cities that you get good dark skies for stargazing—dark enough to see the Milky Way, at least.

Fayette Historic State Park in the UP has a partially-restored 19th century iron mining town, which I like.

On the stretch from Petoskey to Mackinaw City, US31 is the most direct route, but if you have time, take M-119, the "Tunnel of Trees," instead. Not much to do along that stretch, but the drive alone is worth it. And if it's around mealtime when you get to Cross Village at the north end of M-119, eat at the Legs Inn, a great Polish restaurant practically in the middle of nowhere.

Aside: Just how far were you planning to go from the lakeshore? The House on the Rock and New Glarus are pretty far; I'd save those for a separate trip, maybe a weekend trip to south central Wisconsin some other time. I stuck pretty close to the lakeshore when I did it, and found plenty to do.

ProTip: "Mackinac" and "Mackinaw" are both pronounced "mackinaw."
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 10:43 AM on April 17, 2014 [2 favorites]

Also came to say Sleeping Bear Dunes. One of my favorite places in Michigan.
posted by Lutoslawski at 10:47 AM on April 17, 2014

Sorry, but a vehement NO to Rock Island for a newbie camper. There are NO facilities, it's a shit-in-the-woods, carry-everything-on-your-person type of camping. However, Washington Island has at least one campground and a bunch of bed and breakfasts. It's also great for biking.

Okay, now I really have to go do something else.
posted by desjardins at 10:48 AM on April 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

The Kohler museum in Sheboygan WI. Get brats at the Charcoal Inn.

The Muskegon museum of art is a small gem.
posted by brujita at 11:07 AM on April 17, 2014

Best answer: Seconding brujita's recommendation that (if you're in the neighborhood) the Muskegon Museum of Art is worth a peek. If you're into John Steuart Curry you can check out Tornado Over Kansas, one of his most major works. It's a small museum and won't take long to visit; while you're in the neighborhood you should also (if you like architecture or old homes at all) visit the Hackley House a few blocks away (worth it just to look at the woodwork and sigh "they don't make 'em like that anymore..")

Don't stay in Muskegon, though, stay 15 miles south in Grand Haven, a very popular beach vacation town with a cute little downtown, nice public beaches, a couple of photogenic lighthouses, and a lovely walkable riverfront.

My recommended itinerary would be:
  • Depart Chicago.
  • Drive to Grand Haven, stay two to three nights. Spend plenty of time in Grand Haven, but you can side-trip easily to Muskegon (north) or Saugatuck (south).
  • Drive 31 north to the Traverse City or Petoskey area (you'll wind up skipping over Ludington, but you have to make choices somewhere) Stay another two days or so, checking out whichever appeal of Traverse City, Petoskey, Charlevoix, and Sleeping Bear Dunes.
  • Next stop, north to Mackinaw City, catch the ferry to Mackinac Island. Stay one to two nights, depending on budget.
  • There are some Michigan State Parks on the Upper Peninsula side of the lake that would be good targets for your camping requirement.
  • The Wisconsin side I don't know as well. Definitely visit Door County.
As far as timing goes -- if you're not traveling with kids I want to put in a plug for September, which is a lovely time of year along the Lake Michigan shore. In early to mid-September, the crowds have mostly died out (after kids have gone back to school.) You may get better rates; you'll certainly have less trouble making bookings for campgrounds and highly sought-after lodging.

But the part that maybe isn't as obvious is that the lake is a giant heat sink which has been warming up all summer long. At the beginning of September it's generally at its warmest and most inviting. Daytimes are warm and sunny but not usually oppressively hot and the nights are just a little bit cooler and great for sleeping. It's my favorite time of year along the lakeshore, no exaggeration.
posted by Nerd of the North at 11:32 AM on April 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

The stretch between Grand Haven and Saugatuck on the west coast of the state is really nice. I love lighthouses, and my favorite one is the Grand Haven lighthouse [link to Google Images search results] because it's a beautiful bright red and you can walk from land all the way out to the lighthouse. If you're in Grand Haven for breakfast, I highly recommend The Morning Star Cafe - they have GREAT breakfasts. But be prepared for a long wait (totally worth it!). You can kill some time in the bookstore next door while you're waiting.

Driving north from Grand Haven, between Manistee and Frankfort, you may want to get out at Inspiration Point near Arcadia and take a look at the beautiful view. But there are A LOT of stairs, so keep that in mind if anyone you're traveling with has physical difficulties. I don't think there is another way to get to the viewing platform other than walking up the stairs.

I think anytime after Memorial Day during the summer would be a fine time to visit Michigan. It's still pretty cold here right now, though.
posted by stampsgal at 1:33 PM on April 17, 2014

In Wisconsin, Kohler-Andrae State Park is beautiful, but often booked. Two Rivers State Forest camp ground is about 90 minutes north by car, very nice and not as crowded. It's full of dunes and pine forests.
Also for nerdy fun, The Great Lakes - An Environmental Atlas and Resource Book from the EPA. It's very cool to see the Niagara Escarpment all through the northern Great Lakes.
posted by readery at 1:38 PM on April 17, 2014

You should check out the Headlands International Dark Sky Park.

It's only a few minutes from Mackinaw City, and is a 24-hour park designated as a wonderful place to view the night sky without light pollution. The International Dark Sky Association doles out designations to qualifying parks and communities - I think there are only 16 parks in the entire world that have applied/qualified.
posted by lady3bird at 3:28 PM on April 17, 2014 [2 favorites]

As a totally random detour off of I-94 that I found quite by accident while driving in Michigan from Chicago, the Chocolate Garden in Coloma, MI is actually very pretty and only about five minutes off the freeway. If you'd like to get handmade chocolates out of a little white house next to a vineyard.
posted by vetala at 4:53 PM on April 17, 2014 [2 favorites]

Nthing the recommendations for spending a bit of time of Door County. I think it meets your ideas perfectly, though it can be a bit touristy. We went in late July last year and it was fairly decent (though weekends were far busier than the weekdays). As a plus, you can go cherry picking.

Mackinac Island is worth seeing for a day. It's definitely worth renting a bike and riding around there. I don't know that it's worth actually *staying* on the island as opposed to staying in Mackinaw City.

There is a signed circle tour of Lake Michigan (as well as the rest of the Great Lakes) that could be helpful to plan your trip.
posted by RyanAdams at 7:16 PM on April 17, 2014

I grew up in Traverse City. Every time I visit, the downtown is nicer. Sleeping Bear continues to be beautiful, and there are plenty of low-key hiking opportunities. Traverse is also extremely bike-friendly, and has like a dozen breweries as well as a couple distilleries. We went to the Grand Traverse Distillery and had an excellent discussion with the distiller himself and bought some tasty whiskey. They are opening a new tasting room downtown this summer.

On the North end of the lake, just outside of St. Ignace, is the Cut River Bridge which is totally worth stopping at to check out the view and go for a walk.
posted by rockindata at 7:31 PM on April 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

You definitely need to hit Pictured Rocks in the UP
posted by jpdoane at 9:18 PM on April 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

I see that Charlevoix, Traverse City, Petoskey, and the Sleeping Bear dunes have all been mentioned.

I am surprised that Holland, Michigan has not been mentioned.

You might want to try the twin "cities" of Whitehall and Montague (Visitors' Bureau). My family took our vacations there every year for Fourth of July weekend. While we camped, there are nice hotels there, like the Weathervane Inn, named after the nearby weathervane that is supposedly the largest functioning one in the world. I remember there being lots of little boutique shops and what not.
posted by dhens at 11:03 PM on April 17, 2014

Pictured Rocks is stunning. See also Devil's Lake in Wisconsin.

When you're in the UP, count how many times you hear "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald." And speaking of, check out the shipwreck museum at Whitefish Point, MI.
posted by professor plum with a rope at 2:47 AM on April 18, 2014

Yes, if you're going through Michigan you have to work in Sleeping Bear Dunes -- AND M-22. I am not making this up -- just a few weeks ago I saw a bald eagle on this route flying low and parallel to my car, it was amazing. You can start or finish that trip at the Ramsdell, have a nice cup of coffee downtown and walk along the river.

When you're close to Traverse City, do stop at the Music House, their organ is really pretty. And in Petoskey, though you can't tour it I don't think, take a look at the Ernest Hemmingway's family summer house. And if you want to get crazy with an homage tour, drive out to Brethren where James Earl Jones went to high school.

The stretch from Mansitee through St. Ignace is also dotted with casinos if you're into that -- it's like the Vegas strip only stretched over 300 miles through rural northern Michigan.

ALSO, bear in mind what "hot" means in Northern Michigan. I haven't been up here for a summer yet, but rumor has it that the lake never really warmed up last year (but it's relative, people still swim) and that there were only one or two days above 80. The lake keeps the immediate shoreline pretty cool, and considering the hellacious amount of snow this year no one is expecting it to get very hot since the lake was frozen and then absorbed all the snow. So really, any time when the weather would be consistently in the 70s and sunny is good, avoiding major holidays.

Once you're on the road and north of Grand Rapids (also a neat city, check out the Amway even if you don't stay because it's pretty) feel free to message me about local stuff! Yay Michigan!
posted by mibo at 4:20 AM on April 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks for all of the answers! We're planning to go on the circle tour in early October to see the leaves, to be a little cooler, and to avoid crowds. Now that we're actually planning logistics and places to stop we've run into a Wisconsin problem.

After leaving Mackinac Island we're not sure were to stop next. The next logical place to stop that we're interested in is Door County. The drive looks beautiful (we're thinking driving along 2 to 35 or 41 South) but it's a full day's drive. We're okay with that unless there's somewhere worthwhile to split the difference.

We thought about heading up to Pictured Rocks but it's quite a bit out of the way and don't see towns/a good route that makes it worth diverting so far from Lake Michigan. Is there one? Would you drive the route from Mackinac to Green Bay, stay in a cheap place overnight and then head up to Door County?
posted by Bunglegirl at 7:59 PM on August 17, 2014

Pictured Rocks is beautiful, and they're best seen from the water, so look into a boat tour. The boat tours generally operate out of Munising. Looking at Google Maps, you can basically turn right at Manistique and it's about an hour from there to Munising. (Haven't made that specific drive myself, as I've only done Pictured Rocks when I was specifically doing a Lake Superior circle tour, but it doesn't seem too bad.)

If you have the time to spare that wouldn't be a bad side trip, and I'd probably break it up either by just staying overnight in Munising, or going to Escanaba for the night. Nothing too special about Escanaba, it's just a large enough town to have lodging and be in the right place to break up that drive. There's the usual chains along the highway, but if you get off the highway there's a smallish business district with a few nice shops and restaurants.

But you're right that there's not a whole lot along that stretch of the Lake Michigan coast, so doing it in one day wouldn't be out of the question if you didn't have the time. A few lighthouses, if that's your thing (and if it is, I can give you more details), and I'll repeat my recommendation of Fayette Historic State Park along that stretch.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 4:10 AM on August 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

The weather in northern Wisconsin has been Really Weird this summer (like 38 degrees in August!) so who knows what October will bring. Just be prepared: for example, have blankets in the car.
posted by desjardins at 8:25 AM on August 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

(Although.. the 38 degrees was inland; it's usually more temperate on the lakeshore. But then again, who knows these days.)
posted by desjardins at 8:26 AM on August 18, 2014

Along those lines, if you do go up to Pictured Rocks, keep in mind that Lake Superior is even colder than Lake Michigan. One of the Pictured Rocks boat tours I took was a sunset cruise in August 2008, and I was glad to have a jacket with me even then.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 9:18 AM on August 18, 2014

Response by poster: An update for those researching in the future: Sleeping Bear Dunes was beautiful and uncrowded during the week in early October. We even went for a walk-in site that was really nice and still only a minute's walk from the bathrooms/car. We stopped in Grand Haven, Traverse City, Sleeping Bear Dunes, Mackinaw City, then drove all the way to Door County.

Colors this time of year were great, but it was rainy when we arrived in Mackinaw so we kept going instead of going to the island. It was a beautiful drive, especially the entire Tunnel of Trees (and offshoot roads), the UP, and parts of more rural Door County. We were surprised by how many amazing places were on the Michigan side and how few (that we saw) on the Wisconsin side. There are a ton of other places we could have stopped but had to leave those for next time. Thanks!
posted by Bunglegirl at 2:50 PM on October 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

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