But today I want to introduce you to a smaller, but no less visit-worthy part of Michigan: the Leelanau Peninsula.
Located just to the northwest of Traverse City, the Leelanau Peninsula is the “little finger” in the mitten that is the state of Michigan. It's not a particularly large place, only extending about 30 miles into Lake Michigan, but it sure packs a punch in terms of all the cool things you can see and do there.
I spent a day exploring this little slice of the Midwest last year during my fall road trip around Michigan with my husband Elliot. We found the peninsula to be the perfect place to spend a day while in the Traverse City region, and so I decided I would share all the cool things we found there with you!
Since this peninsula is fairly small, you can easily tick off all the highlights in just one well-planned day.
A quick historical note
The Leelanau Peninsula was “discovered” by white settlers in the mid-1800s, but of course we all know the land was inhabited by indigenous peoples long before that. The Anishinaabeg peoples inhabited this region of northern Michigan, and saw in it the same things the pioneers did: natural resources and good fishing grounds.
The peninsula is still home to the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians; the Grand Traverse Reservation is located near the town of Peshawbestown.
It's always good to know a bit about whose ancestral land you're on while exploring a new place. To learn more about this area's indigenous history, you can visit the Eyaawing Museum and Cultural Center near Peshawbestown. The band also hosts the Peshawbestown Pow Wow (their name, not mine) each August.
The best things to do on the Leelanau Peninsula
If you're just glancing at a map of the Leelanau Peninsula and thinking that it doesn't really look big enough to dedicate a whole day to… well, think again! There's so much to do here, from climbing sand dunes to visiting lighthouses to going wine tasting at some of the best wineries in Michigan.
Here are my top picks of things to do on the Leelanau Peninsula:
1. Visit Sleeping Bear dunes
Located at the far southwest end of the peninsula, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is an absolute must-visit. This National Park Service-managed area is incredible, and will make you feel like you're somewhere that's definitely not Michigan.
Sitting right on the shore of Lake Michigan, this lakeshore comprises a couple driving/hiking routes, beautiful viewpoints out over the lake, and of course some sand dunes.
The top things to do at Sleeping Bear include driving the short Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive and stopping at all the viewpoints, and climbing a dune or two at the Dune Climb area.
There are also a few longer hiking trails, as well as the Sleeping Bear Point Coast Guard Station Maritime Museum and Glen Haven Village, the latter of which is a preserved historical village with educational programs.
There is an entry fee into Sleeping Bear Dunes, which is currently $25 per car. But if you have a National Parks Pass, entry is free (well, included in your annual pass).
2. Follow the wine trail
Did you know that Michigan is an emerging wine-producing area? Well, it is, and the Leelanau Peninsula is one of five American Viticultural Areas (AVA) in Michigan.
The Leelanau Peninsula sits on the 45th parallel, which is the same parallel that runs through famous wine regions like the Rhone Valley and Bordeaux in France. Michigan is known for colder winters than its European counterparts, but the proximity of Lake Michigan helps temper the cold snaps and makes for an excellent spot to grow cool-climate grapes.
This wine region is known especially for its whites (especially Rieslings), but you'll also find sparkling wine, ice wine, and all sorts of other interesting things.
The Leelanau Peninsula Wine Trail comprises 25 different wineries divided up into three “loops.” You could easily spend several days traversing this wine trail and still not visit every single tasting room or vineyard!
Elliot and I stopped at a handful of Leelanau wineries during our road trip, and I'm convinced you really can't go wrong!
A few that are most-recommended include:
- Blustone Vineyards (Northern Peninsula Loop) – With a contemporary tasting room set up on a hill, this winery offers some of the best views out over vineyards and orchards.
- Leelanau Wine Cellars (Northern Peninsula Loop) – With a tasting room right on the water, this winery is especially known for the spiced wines (called “Witches Brew”) that they make during the fall and serve up hot!
- 45 North Vineyard & Winery (Northern Peninsula Loop) – Set right on that 45th parallel, this winery makes both red and white wines, along with several fruit wines and dessert wines.
- Mawby (Grand Traverse Bay Loop) – If it's sparkling wines you love, then you can't go wrong at Mawby. They stopped producing still wines 20+ years ago and now focus exclusively on bubbly.
- Black Star Farms (Grand Traverse Bay Loop) – This 160-acre winery estate has multiple tastings rooms, a cafe, a lovely terrace, and more on site. Along with wines, Black Star also has a distillery and makes some unique fruit brandies.
And if you want to visit multiple wineries in one day but don't want to have to limit your wine consumption? There's this winery tour run by Magic Shuttle Bus that will drive you around to some of the more popular wineries on the peninsula! (Book a Leelanau winery tour here.)
3. Visit Grand Traverse Lighthouse
With all the talk of sand dunes and endless vineyards, it might sound like there can't possibly be any room left on the Leelanau Peninsula for a state park – but you'd be wrong!
At the very northern tip of the peninsula sits Leelanau State Park, a 1500-acre park that is home to the Grand Traverse Lighthouse Museum and 8.5 miles of hiking/skiing trails.
The Grand Traverse Lighthouse alone is worth making the short drive out to this park. The current lighthouse dates back to 1858, making it one of the oldest historic lighthouses on the Great Lakes. Today, visitors can tour the restored keepers dwelling and climb the tower for great views.
(Note: The state park does require an entrance fee – currently $11 for a day pass for our-of-state visitors – and the lighthouse tour is an additional $8.)
4. Explore small towns
No part of the Leelanau Peninsula feels crowded or built-up; it's filled with quaint small towns, several of which are definitely worth a brief stop to explore.
Some of my small-town picks here include:
- Glen Arbor – With lake views and a smattering of local restaurants, Glen Arbor makes a good stop after visiting the nearby Sleeping Bear Dunes. The must-do here is to go shopping at Cherry Republic, which sells all things cherry-related.
- Leland – Probably the most popular small-town stop on the Leelanau Peninsula, Leland is known for Fishtown, a collection of preserved fishing shanties and smokehouses that gives people a glimpse into the area's maritime past. From here you can also hire fishing charters, or take a ferry over to North or South Manitou Island.
- Northport – This small village is at the center of Leelanau County's cherry industry.
5. Enjoy fresh cherries
Nearby Traverse City is officially known as the “Cherry Capital of the World” and hosts a famous cherry festival every year in July. But the Leelanau Peninsula is home to a lot of the region's cherry orchards.
In the spring, you're likely to see lots and lots of cherry blossoms in this part of Michigan (one site I read said there are over 1 million cherry trees in Leelanau County!). And in the summer when the cherries are ripe, you can even pick your own straight off the tree at Hallstedt Homestead Cherries in Northport.
Throughout the rest of the year, you can still keep an eye out for local cherry products – there are a lot!
6. Shop at all the farm stands
With orchards and vineyards galore, you can probably infer that the Leelanau Peninsula is a good place for growing things.
One of the things I love about this part of Michigan is the large number of roadside farm stands that you can find stocked with local produce (and sometimes even baked goods) throughout a good portion of the year.
Whether it's cherry juice, fresh berries or apples, or pumpkins in the fall, you're likely to find it all along the side of the road here. Most of these farm stands operate on the honor system, so be sure to have some cash handy.
7. Refuel at Hop Lot
I'm not even a beer drinker, but I have to call out Hop Lot Brewing Co. & Beer Garden in Suttons Bay. Instead of the traditional brewery space that looks more like a bar, Hop Lot built a family-friendly beer garden in the woods with fire pits and picnic tables.
Elliot and I stopped here in the fall, on the day when they were putting up personal igloos for the fall/winter season. We shared some quick bites (they have things like tacos and nachos and sandwiches on their menu), and tried some of their craft brews (a cider for me, and a seasonal beer for Elliot).
As someone who grew up playing in the woods and having summertime bonfires, this place really struck a nostalgic chord with me, and I really loved it.
One day on the Leelanau Peninsula
If you only have one day to dedicate to exploring the Leelanau Peninsula, here's how I would plan it:
- Morning: Explore the Sleeping Bear Dunes; in just 2 hours you can do the scenic drive, climb a dune, and maybe even take a short hike.
- Mid-morning: Stop in Glen Arbor to shop at Cherry Republic.
- Late morning/lunch: Stop in Leland to explore Fishtown, and grab lunch here (The Cove is very popular).
- Early afternoon: Stop in for a wine tasting at either Blustone Vineyards or 45 North Vineyard & Winery.
- Mid-afternoon: Drive up to Leelanau State Park to visit the Grand Traverse Lighthouse. Look out for farm stands to stop at along the way, especially around Northport.
- Late afternoon: Consider a stop at another winery – maybe at Leelanau Wine Cellars or Mawby.
- Evening: Head to the Hop Lot in Suttons Bay for some shareable bites, beers, and a very cool atmosphere.
If you have more time…
While the Leelanau Peninsula is a great destination, you aren't likely to be only spending one day in the area.
I'd highly recommend dedicating some time to the Old Mission Peninsula, too, which is a smaller peninsula right next to the Leelanau Peninsula. The Old Mission Peninsula also has wineries (Chateau Chantal is my favorite in terms of great views), cherry orchards, farm stands, and even an old historic lighthouse.
(There's this winery tour you can book on the Old Mission Peninsula, too!)
And of course you should also spend some time exploring Traverse City, which is a fun city with some great food, beer, and lake views to enjoy.
Is the Leelanau Peninsula a place you think you'd like to spend some time?