Is there anything more bucket-list-worthy or iconic than a road trip to see brilliant fall colors?
Fall color road trips are always popular – and for good reason! But while most people assume you have to head to New England to truly enjoy the autumn season in all its glory, I'm here to tell you that the Midwest also does fall really well.
Last fall, my husband Elliot and I decided we wanted to plan a fall road trip, but didn't really want to drive all the way to Vermont or New Hampshire. So we looked a little closer to home, and settled on our neighbor to the north: the great Mitten State of Michigan!
I'm going to share a little secret here with you all: northern Michigan is an INCREDIBLE destination for fall colors. But it's also a bit of a secret; while Michiganders know how awesome their state is in the autumn, it's not nearly as crowded as all the popular places further east.
Elliot and I decided to plan a fall road trip to northern Michigan, and were not at all disappointed.
And now I'm going to share our full Michigan itinerary with you, in case you want to plan to exact same trip!
When to go to northern Michigan in the fall
I know, I can hear you squinting your eyes at this heading and saying, “Amanda, you said this was a fall road trip; you go in the fall, duh!”
And you would be mostly correct. But *when* you go in the fall is really important.
If you go too early in the season, you'll be met with green trees that won't look much different than they do in the summer. And if you go too late in the season, you'll miss all the brilliant yellows and oranges and might be met with just a lot of brown.
Pinpointing exact dates to recommend is tricky, though, because Michigan is a big state and borders multiple Great Lakes, where more temperate weather influences fall color. Fall in Michigan isn't uniform; leaves start changing at different times depending on where in the state you are.
When I was planning our trip, I used fall color reports from past years, as well as current long-term weather forecasts to come to the conclusion that we should plan our trip in early October.
In the Upper Peninsula of Michigan (which is further north than some parts of Canada!), some spots will be hitting peak color at the end of September or early October, while spots along the lake shores change later. The further south you go, the later the color change hits.
We ended up traveling from October 8-18. We missed peak color up on the Upper Peninsula, but caught just-before-peak color in the Traverse City area.
On this itinerary, it will be almost impossible to hit peak color everywhere – but it's also worth noting that just-before-peak and immediately past-peak color is still gorgeous, as you'll see in my photos!
Two sites I found useful in predicting color were Fun in the UP for the Upper Peninsula (they have detailed fall color reports from years past), and the Fall Foliage Prediction Map from SmokyMountains.com. (Though of course take the latter with a grain of salt; things don't immediately turn brown on the date the map predicts!).
10-day Michigan fall road trip itinerary
This fall road trip itinerary slants heavily towards things you can do outdoors – which makes sense since seeing fall colors is probably your goal.
The great news is that looking at pretty trees doesn't cost a whole lot! So while there ARE some splurges here (*coughMackinacIslandcough*), you'll find that this can be a pretty cost-effective road trip.
Highlights of this Michigan itinerary include:
- Stepping back in time on Mackinac Island
- Taking a cruise at Pictured Rocks on the Upper Peninsula
- Upper Peninsula parks like Tahquamenon Falls State Park, Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park, and Palms Book State Park (for Kitch-iti-kipi)
- Exploring the Keweenaw Peninsula
- Traverse City area (including the Old Mission Peninsula)
- Leelanau Peninsula (and Sleeping Bear Dunes)
- An optional stop in Ludington
Total mileage: The total driving distance for this trip can range from 1600-1800 total miles, starting and ending in Detroit.
Feel free to steal this itinerary to use on your own fall color road trip in Michigan.
Start in Detroit
I have our road trip starting in Detroit, because it's the easiest large city in Michigan for most people to get to. It's true that you *can* technically fly into some smaller regional airports further north, but Detroit is simply the easiest jumping-off point, especially if you need to rent a car. (Search for rental car options here.)
Elliot and I only live 3 hours from Detroit, so we just drove all the way from home!
I'm not going to cover things to do in Detroit in this post, since I want to focus just on the fall road trip here. But if you've never been to Detroit before, then I'd recommend tacking on 2-3 additional days at the start or end of your trip to explore this city, too! You can use my 3-days in Detroit itinerary to help you plan.
Day 1: To Mackinac Island
On Day 1 of your actual road trip, it's time to head north!
Michigan is a bigger state than you might realize (the 11th-largest state in the US, in fact), so don't be surprised by some of the driving times you'll see in this itinerary. I've done my best to spread out the longer days, and make all the stops extra worth it.
Today, your final destination will be the incredible Mackinac Island, which lies just a few miles off the coast in Lake Huron. But it will take a few hours to get there from Detroit, so I recommend getting an early start so you can make a stop or two.
One popular stop is in Frankenmuth, which is not far off I-75, and only an hour and a half from Detroit. The town is known for its German roots and Bavarian-style architecture, along with being home to Bronner's CHRISTmas Wonderland, a massive year-round Christmas store.
It's quite a touristy place, but you might still want to stop in to shop, and maybe grab a mid-morning snack. There are several German restaurants in town.
Next, make a stop in Mackinaw City, another 2 hours and 45 minutes up the highway. This kitschy tourist town is filled with souvenir shops and restaurants, but is also home to Fort Michilimackinac and the Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse, along with great views out towards the “Mighty Mac” Mackinac Bridge.
We grabbed a late lunch at Scalawags Whitefish & Chips here, and roamed around some of the shops. A lot of things may already be closed for the season if you go in October (I was devastated that The Wacky Taxidermy and Miniatures Museum wasn't open), but it's still a cute area to wander around.
Then, it's time to head for the ferry over to Mackinac Island!
(And yes, the mainland town is spelled MackiNAW, while the island is spelled MackiNAC, but they are both pronounced the same way as “MACK-ih-nawh.”)
Mackinac Island has been a popular vacation spot since the 1870s, and is most famous for its ban of cars and use of horse-drawn carriages in their place. The island sits in Lake Huron, and is reached by a short ferry ride.
You can catch a ferry using one of two ferry companies: either Shepler's or Star Line can get you there in less than 20 minutes for about $30-$35 round-trip. Both ferry companies offer service from both Mackinaw City and St. Ignace, on the other side of the Mackinac Bridge.
Pro tip: We ended up booking Shepler's from St. Ignace, which has cheaper overnight parking right at the dock. I'll also note that, in our experience, the boats going to/from St. Ignace were MUCH less crowded than the boats going to/from Mackinaw City.
Ferries travel between the mainland and Mackinac Island at least once per hour in the fall. You can buy tickets online in advance that are good for any sailing on the day you choose. I would recommend catching a mid-afternoon ferry after lunch so you have some time on the island this evening.
Once you get to Mackinac Island, you can either catch a horse-drawn taxi or walk to your hotel (most of them are within a short walk of the ferry docks). If it's too early to check in, you can leave your luggage with the front desk and come back later to check in.
This afternoon, you might want to visit The Grand Hotel if you're not already staying there. It's one of the oldest hotels on the island, and is famous for its historic decor, massive porch, and beautiful grounds.
If you're not staying at The Grand, you can pay $10 to visit all the public spaces. Grab a rocking chair on the porch and enjoy a drink overlooking the gardens and the Straits of Mackinac.
This evening, go for a stroll through the downtown area of Mackinac Island. Grab drinks at the Pink Pony, shop for some fudge, and get dinner at one of the many local restaurants in town (Elliot and I tried Horn's Gaslight Bar & Restaurant and Mary's Bistro Draught House and liked them both.)
Total driving time: 4.5 hours
Sample costs today: Crossing the Mackinac Bridge – $4; Ferry tickets – $34 per person; Entrance to The Grand – $10 per adult
Where to stay on Mackinac Island: The Grand is the most famous hotel on Mackinac Island – but it's also the most expensive. Other options include the Hotel Iroquois (top-rated hotel on the island), the Island House Hotel (where Elliot and I stayed), the Cottage Inn (a B&B option), and the Mission Point Resort (a slightly more budget-friendly option).
Day 2: Mackinac Island
Today you can devote an entire day to exploring Mackinac Island. For an island that covers less than 4 square miles, there sure is a lot to do here!
Start your day with coffee and baked goods from Lucky Bean Coffee House, a locally-owned shop with the nicest staff.
If taking a carriage tour of the island is on your bucket list (it is, after all, the most popular thing to do on Mackinac Island), then I would start your morning with that.
Public carriage tours cannot be pre-booked, so you'll want to get to the Mackinac Island Carriage Tours stand when they open at 9:30 a.m. to get a ticket. Carriage tours last about 1 hour and 45 minutes.
Afterwards, you can visit The Grand if you didn't make it there yesterday, or you can head to Fort Mackinac to learn more about the island's history (and also take in some incredible views!). The fort was built in 1780 during the American Revolution, and was used as a military fort until after the Civil War.
If you have extra time, I'd also recommend a visit to Biddle House, a historic house museum that tells the story of the local Anishnaabek people on Mackinac Island. (Your admission ticket to Fort Mackinac will also get you into Biddle House.)
This afternoon, I recommend renting bikes and riding the 8-mile “highway” around the whole island. The bike path is paved and flat, and is a really nice ride. In October, you're bound to see some nice fall colors, too.
Pro tip: Bikes are a popular way to get around on Mackinac Island, but renting them can be pretty pricey (most are rented by the hour). I therefore don't recommend renting them until you're ready to use them!
This evening, enjoy a leisurely dinner and maybe a walk along the boardwalk past the ferry docks if the weather is nice.
Total driving time: None!
Sample costs today: Carriage tour – $39 per person; Fort Mackinac – $15.50 for adults (this ticket is also good for Biddle House); bike rental – $10-$12 per hour
Where to stay on Mackinac Island: Again, options I'd recommend include The Grand, the Hotel Iroquois, the Island House Hotel (where Elliot and I stayed), the Cottage Inn, and the Mission Point Resort.
Day 3: To the Upper Peninsula
Today you'll be heading further north, so be prepared to start seeing more fall colors!
Catch a morning ferry back to the mainland from Mackinac Island, and reclaim your car. There's a lot you can potentially do today, so I recommend getting an early start if you can!
Your first stop is a must-visit, and is just an hour and a half away from the ferry dock in St. Ignace. It's called Tahquamenon Falls State Park, and it's home to the most famous waterfall on Michigan's Upper Peninsula.
There are technically two waterfalls on the Tahquamenon River in this state park, but it's the large Upper Falls that most people come to see (so put Upper Falls into your Google Maps!).
It's a quick walk from the parking lot to the falls, which you can see best from a couple different viewing platforms. Just note that getting to said viewing platforms does require you to walk down (and then back up) 90+ steps each time.
When we visited this park, the fall colors in this part of the UP were technically listed as “past peak” (we were there on October 11) – but as you can see from my photos, it was still really beautiful!
You'll want to allow about an hour to visit Upper Falls. Before you leave, you can grab an early lunch at Tahquamenon Falls Brewery & Pub, which is located right next to the parking lot.
After the falls, another optional stop to make today is at Whitefish Point, a quick 35-minute drive to the north.
Whitefish Point sits on Lake Superior's “Shipwreck Coast,” so nicknamed thanks to the 200+ shipwrecks lying in the nearby waters. The most famous of these is the Edmund Fitzgerald, a freighter that tragically sank during a storm in 1975, taking her entire crew down with her.
You can learn about the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald and other shipwrecks at the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum. Included in museum admission is a tour of the restored 1861 Lightkeeper’s Quarters at the Whitefish Point Light Station.
After visiting the museum, you can head to your final destination of the day: the town of Munising.
Munising sits on the shore of Lake Surperior and is a fantastic base for exploring Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, which you'll do tomorrow! It takes about 2 hours to drive to Munising from Whitefish Point.
Total driving time: 4 hours if you add the side trip to Whitefish Point
Sample costs today: Tahquamenon Falls State Park – $11 for an out-of-state day pass; Shipwreck Museum – $15 per adult
Pro tip: Count up how many Michigan state parks you plan to visit on your trip; since every state park has a $11 entry fee, you might save money by buying an annual pass for $39.
Where to stay in Munising: Munising is a small town, and there aren't many hotels to choose from. The Roam Inn is the top-rated hotel in the area, followed by the Holiday Inn Express Munising. These hotels can fill up quickly during the summer and fall seasons, though. Elliot and I ended up staying in a rental instead; this apartment is very conveniently located.
Day 4: Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore
If you're staying in the downtown area of Munising, you'll be spoiled for choice when it comes to local spots to grab breakfast. Elliot and I got coffee from Gallery Coffee Company, and breakfast sandwiches from Falling Rock Cafe & Bookstore.
And then you can spend your day exploring Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore!
Pictured Rocks is most well-known for its 15 miles of sandstone cliffs towering over Lake Superior. But it's also filled with waterfalls and more than 100 miles of nice hiking trails, all of which are stunning in the fall.
If you want to get in a longer hike, the most popular one in the park is the hike to Chapel Rock, which is at least 6.2 miles roundtrip.
But if you want to squeeze in more sightseeing, you can do what Elliot and I did and hike a handful of shorter trails instead. The weather wasn't the greatest on the day we decided to hike, so this ended up working out better!
Our morning looked like this:
- Stop at Miners Castle Overlook (a half mile of walking if you visit all the viewpoints)
- Hike the Miners Falls Trail (an easy 1.2 miles roundtrip, with a nice waterfall at the end)
- Walk to Munising Falls (a quarter mile on a paved trail)
- Stop at Sand Point Beach
You can learn about more hiking options at Pictured Rocks here.
If you're going to hike to Chapel Rock, you'll probably want to pack a lunch to take with you. Otherwise, you can head back into Munising for lunch.
I recommend grabbing a pasty (pronounced pass-tee), which is a traditional hand pie found all over the Upper Peninsula. A couple places in town make these; we got some from Miners Pasty Kitchen.
This afternoon, I recommend seeing the Pictured Rocks from a whole different vantage point: from a boat cruise!
During the summer months, you can take kayak tours along the cliffs at Pictured Rocks. But kayak tours usually end for the season around Labor Day in early September. In October, your option to see the cliffs from the water is on a sightseeing cruise with Pictured Rocks Cruises.
These cruises run through mid-October (in 2023, they are running through October 22), and are highly, highly recommended. This cruise was one of the highlights of the UP for me!
Pro tip: You definitely should pre-book your cruise, as they do often sell out. We had to book ours more than a week in advance!
There are Classic and Spray Falls cruises to choose from (along with sunset options for both types). The Spray Falls cruise follows the same exact path as the Classic cruise, but goes a little further along the coast to see a waterfall. If you can't get onto a Spray Falls cruise, you're really only missing that one waterfall.
Note that the weather in October can be fairly hit or miss, and these cruises CAN be canceled because of high winds/swell. If the weather on your planned cruise day is looking bad, you could try to reschedule it for the evening of Day 3 instead.
And definitely plan for the cruise to be cold! Even if the air temperature isn't that bad, it gets windy once the boat starts moving!
Another pro tip: I specifically recommended this cruise in the afternoon because if the sun is shining you get the best light in the afternoon. In the morning, the sun shines from behind the cliffs instead of onto them, making photography tricky! Also, the best views on the boat are on the right side of the upper deck of the tour boat.
The cruises last up to 2.5 hours, so afterwards you'll probably want to grab dinner and call it a night. There are several local restaurants in Munising to choose from, including two breweries.
Total driving time: 30 minutes-2 hours, depending on how much you drive in the park.
Sample costs today: Pictured Rocks Cruise – $44 or $52 per adult
Day 5: Lake of the Clouds
While you certainly could spend another day exploring the Pictured Rocks, it's time to move on if you want to chase more fall colors around the Upper Peninsula.
Grab something you can eat on-the-go today for lunch (maybe another pasty?), as there aren't any food services where you're headed!
Your main point of interest today is 3 hours away at the far western end of the Upper Peninsula. It's Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park (AKA “the Porkies”), which is the largest state park in Michigan.
Filled with hiking trails and old-growth forest, this is a super popular place to visit for fall colors. BUT, chances are if you've caught Tahquamenon Falls or Pictured Rocks at or near peak color, then you'll probably be hitting the Porkies past-peak due to their location. Don't let this deter you, though; it's still beautiful!
You can stop in to the Porcupine Mountains Visitor Center to learn about the history of the area, and take in incredible views at Lake of the Clouds.
There's also a lot of great hiking here, including the Porcupine Mts-Escarpment Trail (which takes you to Lake of the Clouds), and the east and west river trails (which lead to some waterfalls). Learn more about hiking options here. If you get an early start, you'll have several hours for hiking/exploring this park.
After you get your fill of The Porkies, it's time to retrace your steps a bit and make for the city of Houghton, which will be your base for the next two nights. Houghton is in the heart of “Copper Country,” at the base of the Keweenaw Peninsula.
If you still have some time before it gets dark, consider taking a short detour to drive the “Covered Road,” which is a section of backroad (labeled on Google Maps as S-63) leading toward the town of Redridge.
This road is stunning in the fall, with the trees forming a yellow tunnel over some sections. Even past-peak, this was well worth detouring for.
Total driving time: 4.5 hours
Sample costs today: Entry to the Porkies – $11 for out-of-state cars
Where to stay in Houghton: Houghton is an historic town also home to Michigan Technological University. Here, my pick is The Vault Hotel, which is a beautiful boutique hotel located in a former bank. Touches from the former bank have been left behind, but the rooms and spaces are updated and modern. (Read reviews on TripAdvisor | Book a room here) If you're on more of a budget, the Country Inn & Suites is highly rated.
Day 6: Keweenaw Peninsula
The Keweenaw Peninsula today is mostly a tourist destination. But not so long ago, its chief export was copper. In fact, people have been mining and using copper in this part of North America for roughly 7,000 years!
Start off your day by getting to know more about the area's copper mining past. Scattered across the Keweenaw Peninsula are 21 different heritage sites connected to the area's copper history and legacy, together making up the Keweenaw National Historical Park.
You can get an overview of the history at the Calumet Visitor Center, and visit former copper mining operations at places like Quincy Mine, Adventure Mining Company, or the Delaware Copper Mine.
I wouldn't recommend that you spend your whole day underground, though; there are far too many incredible fall colors to see!
On your way out into the peninsula, make time for a quick waterfall detour to Hungarian Falls near Torch Lake. The waterfall is found on Dover Creek, and is a bit of a hidden gem on the peninsula; when we visited, we only saw two other people on the trail!
Pro tip: If you search for Hungarian Falls on Google Maps, it's plotted correctly. You'll need to park in a pull off along Golf Course Road, and hike into the forest a bit (there is a trail). Once you hit the trail next to the river, turn right and find your way to the upper falls, which is definitely the most impressive part.
From Hungarian Falls, make your way out to Copper Harbor on the far tip of the Keweenaw Peninsula. No matter which route you take, it's going to be a beautiful drive.
Once out on the peninsula, the one drive you MUST take is the Brockway Mountain Drive, which connects Copper Harbor to Eagle Harbor. Be sure to stop at the Brockway Mountain Lookout, too. You'll probably find that the fall colors are more vibrant here later in the season, thanks to the proximity to the lake.
Some places you might want to stop for food out at this end of the peninsula include Jamsen's Fish Market & Bakery in Copper Harbor and The Jampot between Eagle Harbor and Eagle River. The latter is a shop that sells jams and baked goods made by monks!
There are lots of other scenic spots to stop on the Keweenaw Peninsula, too, including the Copper Harbor Lighthouse, Mary Macdonald Preserve at Horseshoe Harbor, Eagle Harbor Lighthouse, George Hite Dunes and Marshes Preserve, and Lac La Belle, just to name a few.
Elliot and I visited the Keweenaw Peninsula in some pretty bad weather (rain! wind! sleet!), so we didn't get to visit all of the spots we wanted to. It was still a beautiful place to drive, though!
Pro tip: Pack for any kind of weather! The weather in the UP can be temperamental in the fall, and it's not unheard of to see snow up here in October! Warm layers and a waterproof jacket are a must.
Total driving time: 2-3 hours (everything on the Keweenaw Peninsula is pretty close; it takes roughly an hour to drive from one end to the other)
Sample costs for today: Quincy Mine full tour – $35 for adults
Day 7: Kitch-iti-kipi
Today is going to be a slightly longer driving day, but it will be worth it to have more time to explore on Day 8. Plus, we'll of course break the drive up with one more incredible Upper Peninsula stop!
The main attraction on your drive back across the UP today is Kitch-iti-kipi, a natural spring near the town of Manistique.
It's not just any old spring though – Kitch-iti-kipi is the largest freshwater spring in Michigan. Its name basically means “big cold spring” in the Ojibwe language (various Anishinaabe peoples lived here long before white folks “discovered” it), and it is indeed pretty big: the spring is 200 feet across and 40 feet deep, and gushes roughly 10,000 gallons of fresh water every minute.
Kitch-iti-kipi has been a tourist attraction on Michigan's Upper Peninsula since at least the 1890s, when the first iteration of a wooden raft to take curious visitors across the spring came into operation. Today you can still take a slow raft ride across the spring to get a glimpse into its clear blue depths.
The spring is located in Palms Book State Park right next to Indian Lake, which is another spot to look for nice fall colors.
The drive from Houghton to Kitch-iti-Kipi is a little over 3 hours, so after visiting the spring you'll likely want to grab some lunch. I'd recommend stopping in nearby Manistique – which also happens to be the home of Paul Bunyan! (There's a very large Paul Bunyan statue on W Lakeshore Drive, should you want to stop for a photo.)
From Manistique, it's another 1.5 hours along the Lake Michigan side of the Upper Peninsula to get back to the mainland. There are some nice viewpoints to stop at along this route with views out over the lake and the Mackinac Bridge.
Mackinaw City will be your overnight destination tonight. If you didn't have time to explore on your way north, you can do that this afternoon/evening. Definitely make a stop at the Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse for one last view of the Mackinac Bridge.
Total driving time: 5 hours
Sample costs today: Kitch-iti-kipi park entrance – $11
Where to stay in Mackinaw City: There are a LOT of motels and budget hotels in Mackinaw City (it's a popular option for people who don't want to stay overnight on Mackinac Island), but the top-rated spot is the Clearwater Lakeshore Motel. This lakefront motel has rooms with balconies, along with its own sand beach with fire pits that they light in the evenings.
Day 8: To Traverse City
The distance on a map between Mackinaw City and Traverse City isn't that far – but there are a lot of fun places you can stop today.
After breakfast and maybe one last round of fudge shopping in Mackinaw City, start off your driving day with a drive along one of the most famous fall color routes in Michigan: the Tunnel of Trees.
The Tunnel of Trees is a 28-mile section of the M-119 between the towns of Cross Village and Harbor Springs. The narrow road follows the Lake Michigan shoreline, and is lined by trees that grow so close that they appear to form natural tunnels over the road in some places.
This is a drive you'll want to savor, so be sure to take your time.
A popular halfway stop is at the Good Hart General Store, and the town of Harbor Springs at the end of the drive is super cute and worth a stop, too, perhaps for a mid-morning snack or early lunch depending on when you got started this morning.
From Harbor Springs, it's just a short drive to the city of Petoskey, where you might want to stop to look for famous “Petoskey stones” along the beach. Petoskey stones are actually bits of fossilized coral, and they are abundant along this part of Lake Michigan's shore.
Good places to look for Petoskey stones include the beaches at Petoskey State Park, Magnus City Park Beach, and Bayfront Park. (And yes, you can take small stones home from here.)
A little further along Little Traverse Bay is the city of Charlevoix, another lakefront town that makes for an interesting stop if you want to stretch your legs or grab a bite to eat.
The top thing to do in Charlevoix is to hunt for the city's famous “Mushroom Houses.” There are 24 of these unique thatched homes, which look like something straight out of a fairytale. They were all built between 1919 and the 1970s by a self-taught architect/builder named Earl Young.
The Mushroom Houses are all private homes, though, so you'll have to admire them from a respectful distance. Here's a map of where to find them all.
From Charlevoix, it's only another hour to Traverse City, where you'll be staying for the next couple of nights.
Once you're in Traverse City, there are no shortage of options for dinner. The city has a TON of breweries and brew pubs (The Filling Station Microbrewery, located in an old train depot, is a favorite), plenty of places for pizza, burgers, and BBQ, and even a food truck park (The Little Fleet).
Total driving time: 3 hours
Sample costs for today: None, really, unless you do some shopping or visit a state park
Where to stay in Traverse City: Within Traverse City itself, there are quite a few chains hotels available (with the Cambria Hotel being the highest-rated). A little ways outside of the city, the Cherry Tree Inn and Suites is popular. There are also some nice rentals in the Traverse City area, including this historic condo, and this cottage near an inland lake (Elliot and I have stayed here!).
Day 9: Traverse City and Old Mission Peninsula
Today is your opportunity to explore Traverse City and the area around it, which is one of my favorite parts of Michigan!
Start in Traverse City itself, where you can go for a stroll downtown, admire the lakefront from one of several city beaches, and maybe shop at the Village at Traverse Commons, which is a rehabbed former mental asylum (we did a historical walking tour here and it was fascinating!).
This afternoon, head north to the Old Mission Peninsula, which should be awash in fall colors and road-side farm stands selling pumpkins and apples this time of year.
Drive out to the Mission Point Lighthouse at the end of the peninsula (it only takes about half an hour to get there), stopping at any farm stands that catch your eye along the way.
The Traverse City area is well-known for its cherries, but it's also one of Michigan's largest wine-producing areas. The nearby Leelanau Peninsula may be more famous for its wineries, but there are nearly a dozen on the Old Mission Peninsula, too!
Old Mission wineries worth visiting include Brys Estate, Mari Vineyards, and Chateau Chantal. They all offer tastings and have beautiful grounds.
And if you're more of a beer person? Then you might want to make plans to have dinner at the Jolly Pumpkin Restaurant & Brewery tonight, where craft beers are the star of the show.
Total driving time: 1.5 hours, with lots of stops
Sample costs for today: Wine flight tastings – $10-$15 per person
Where to stay in Traverse City: Refer to my suggestions from Day 8, or you can search for more Traverse City hotels here.
Day 10: Sleeping Bear dunes and the Leelanau Peninsula
Start out your morning with a short drive out to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. This National Park Service-managed area is incredible, and will make you feel like you're somewhere that's definitely not Michigan.
Once you're here, drive the short Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive for fall colors and amazing lake views, and try a dune or two at the Dune Climb area. You don't need to spend hours at this park, which makes it a good morning activity.
RELATED: Conquering the Sleeping Bear Dunes
Once you've had your fill of sand (and probably spent some time trying to dump it out of your shoes), you can start heading north. Stop off in Glen Arbor at Cherry Republic to pick up some local cherry products, and continue on up into the Leelanau Peninsula.
The Leelanau Peninsula is most well-known for its wineries, but there are a couple other stops worth making, too.
The town of Leland, for example, is super cute and has a historic center called Fishtown that's a popular spot to visit. This would be a good place to stop for lunch, and The Cove is the most-recommended restaurant in the area.
After lunch, it's time to continue on around the Leelanau Peninsula, making stops at any wineries that catch your fancy. I recommend doing some homework before you go, however, as there are more than two dozen wineries to choose from!
Some wineries Elliot and I stopped at and would recommend include Blustone Vineyards (the views from their tasting room in the fall are phenomenal) and Leelanau Wine Cellars (they make popular spiced wines for fall called “Witches Brew,” which they serve hot!).
Other popular spots are 45 North Vineyard & Winery and French Valley Vineyard. Learn about the full Leelanau Peninsula Wine Trail here.
You may also want to drive all the way to the northern tip of the peninsula, where you can visit the historic Grand Traverse Lighthouse. This is located within Leelanau State Park, though, meaning a visit will come with a park entry fee.
We did end up visiting the state park, but agreed that we probably didn't really need to after having visited the Mission Point Lighthouse already.
Once you've had your fill of wineries and lake views, I recommend stopping at the Hop Lot Brewing Co. for pre-dinner drinks and snacks.
This brewery in the woods has a year-round outdoor beer garden with string lights, fire pits, and a really cool vibe. In 2020, they also introduced private igloos that you can rent to stay a bit cozier (pre-booking required). In the fall, this place was amazing.
If you have room left after a day of indulgence, head back into Traverse City for one last dinner up north.
Total driving time: 3 hours total
Sample costs for today: Sleeping Bear Dunes entry – $25 per car (or included if you have a National Parks Pass); wine tastings – $10-$15; Grand Traverse Lighthouse admission – $8 (on top of state park entry)
Day 11: Back to Detroit
Today it's time to head back south to Detroit where you began. Or, if you're not in a rush, there are several different routes you can take back to Detroit to squeeze in a few last stops:
- You could drive partway down the Lake Michigan coast to visit places like Ludington (see ideas for additional day below), Grand Haven and Holland. (6 hours)
- You could cut across the center of the state and make a stop halfway at the Ziibiwing Center of Anishinabe Culture and Lifeways in Mount Pleasant to learn more about Michigan's Indigenous history. (4.5 hours)
- Or you could take the fastest route back down I-75. (4 hours)
Whichever route you choose, I hope it will wrap up an excellent fall road trip in Michigan!
If you have more time: Ludington
If you're planning a 2-week road trip and have already spent some time in Detroit, there are definitely more stops you can make in central or southern Michigan for an extra night or two.
For those looking for more fall foliage combined with Great Lakes views, I would recommend stopping for at least a night or two in Ludington. This small town is roughly 2 hours from Traverse City, and sits right on Lake Michigan – meaning peak fall color season is a little later in October here.
There's plenty of things to do in Ludington, including enjoying sunsets at the large, sandy beach at Stearns Park; shopping and dining downtown; visiting museums like the Port of Ludington Maritime Museum; and hiking at nearby Ludington State Park (where the iconic Big Sable Point Lighthouse is stunning any time of year).
For leaf-peeping purposes, Ludington has four suggested fall color driving routes that include lake views, forests, u-pick farms, and more. Being surrounded by parks (and Manistee National Forest), Ludington has some excellent fall colors to enjoy.
Total driving time: 2.5 hours
Sample costs for today: Ludington State Park entry – $11
And from Ludington, it's just under 4 hours back to Detroit where you started.
And there you have it! Everything you need to know (and then some) to plan your own extremely memorable fall road trip in Michigan.
Who would like to take a fall road trip like this in the future? Did you know Michigan had such amazing fall colors?
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Amanda Williams is the award-winning blogger behind A Dangerous Business Travel Blog. She has traveled to more than 60 countries on 6 continents from her home base in Ohio, specializing in experiential and thoughtful travel through the US, Europe, and rest of the world. Amanda only shares tips based on her personal experiences and places she's actually traveled!