9 Great Road Trips

Sure, gas is hovering around $3 a gallon. But hey, it’s summer, this is the Motor City and driving is a tradition. Time to take a road trip. Hop in the car and just go. Beat it out of town on the interstates — you have only a weekend — but eventually switch to the red or gray roads on your official MDOT map or, better yet, roads not even on there


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Road Trip
Taking the backroads in a ’64 Chrysler Imperial on Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive in Empire, Mich.
Photograph by Brian Confer

1. Leelanau Escape_549 miles

To experience what National Geographic magazine once called “Michigan’s most scenic drive,” get yourself first to Frankfort (I-75 north to US-10 to M-115), where you’ll find a magical ride on M-22. For 85 miles it rolls along Lake Michigan to Northport and then south along Grand Traverse Bay to Traverse City, revealing quaint towns, lighthouses and unforgettable beaches. This is not a trip to rush through in a day.

Pause first six miles north of Frankfort at the 150-year-old POINT BETSIE LIGHTHOUSE, possibly the most photographed of Michigan’s 116 lighthouses, and then CHIMNEY CORNERS RESORT (231-352-7522; chimneycornersresort.com). The woodsy resort overlooks a beautiful beach on Crystal Lake and includes rooms, cottages with fireplaces and a rustic dining hall. (On Thursday and Friday, the restaurant is open to the public, so nonguests can savor the finest beef Wellington in Northern Michigan.) M-22 then enters SLEEPING BEAR DUNES National Lakeshore, home to the state’s most beautiful beach. Spend a day stretched out in the sun or rent an inner tube from RIVERSIDE CANOE TRIPS (231-325-5622; canoemichigan.com) for a leisurely float from M-22 to the Great Lake.

In Glen Arbor, there’s CHERRY REPUBLIC (800-206-6949; cherryrepublic.com), the world’s largest cherry retailer. Its cafe dishes up 12 varieties of cherry ice cream, cherry lemonade and cherry burgers. In Leland, stroll through FISHTOWN, a historic district of weather-beaten “shacks” on the water. Once ice and smoke houses for commercial fisherman, they’re now shops stocked with everything from art to smoked whitefish. To get whitefish served five ways, dine at THE COVE RESTAURANT (231-256-9834) at a table overlooking the docks. Eventually, M-22 arrives in the hamlet of Northport, where it swings south for Sutton’s Bay (more shopping, more restaurants) and finally Traverse City. Along the way it passes BLACK STAR FARMS (231-271-4970; blackstarfarms.com), a vineyard where you can sample award-winning wine or even spend the night before returning home. Sleeping Bear Dunes Visitors Bureau (888-334-8499; sleepingbeardunes.com) or Leelanau Chamber of Commerce (800-980-9895; leelanauchamber.com).

2. Heart of Michigan_360 miles

Get up early and take I-96 to Lansing, and then head north on US-127. If you need to fuel up on doughnuts, make a pit stop just past St. Johns at UNCLE JOHN’S CIDER MILL (989-224-3686; ujcidermill.com), which doubles as a bustling farmers market and gift shop. But the real journey begins when you reach Mount Pleasant and go west on M-20.

The 44-mile drive to Big Rapids is a dizzying delight as you begin in the country and end up in the woods, all while perusing antiques and dining on the edge of a lake. To find your first stop off M-20, take Costabella Road five miles south to Blanchard, a picturesque mill town settled in the 1860s that’s now home to a bevy of antique and gift shops. The largest is LOAFERS GLORY (989-561-2020), a former three-story hardware store built in 1885 that’s now crammed with everything from quilts and rocking horses to dried flowers and jars of raspberry-crunch mustard. Back on M-20, as you close in on Big Rapids, the scenery fades from red barns to snug little cabins and an idyllic lunch spot appears.

On Blue Lake is NORTHERN SHORES RESTAURANT (231-972-3165), a classic log lodge serving fine walleye and fried perch. Ask for a table on the porch overlooking the lake. Once you reach Big Rapids, head south on US-131 and instead of shooting home on I-96, cut across the state on M-57. Stop in Chesaning, where lumber-baron mansions have been converted into gift shops, restaurants and inns. Two standouts: CHESANING HERITAGE HOUSE RESTAURANT (989-845-7700) and the STONE HOUSE BED & BREAKFAST (877-845-4440; stonehousebnb.com). Pick up I-75 just east of town. Greater Big Rapids Visitors Bureau (888-229-4386; www.bigrapids.org), Mount Pleasant Area Visitors Bureau (800-772-2022; mountpleasantwow.com) and the Chesaning Chamber of Commerce (989-845-3055; chesaningchamber.org).

3. Rolling on the Lake_381 miles

There’s plenty to do along Lake Michigan, and BLUE STAR MEMORIAL HIGHWAY (I-94 west to I-196 north to exit 7) provides a dandy sampling of everything. Pulling you away from the boring interstate, it leads you along the Gold Coast of Michigan, past beaches, museums, fruit stands, antique shops and roadside restaurants.

The first memorable stop is the MICHIGAN MARITIME MUSEUM (269-637-8078; michiganmaritimemuseum.org) in South Haven. Dedicated to Great Lakes shipping, it’s surrounded by a collection of historical vessels, including a fully equipped commercial fish tug that visitors can climb aboard for a view of life as a fisherman. For a fine wine list and some of the best Italian cuisine on the Gold Coast, there’s TELLO’S TRATTORIA (269-639-9898), so cozy and intimate that every table has its own dimmer switch.

It’s a 17-mile drive from South Haven to Saugatuck, and along the way you can detour to DUTCH FARM MARKET (269-637-8334), a rambling red barn packed with produce, fruit, homemade jams and preserves as well as baked goods. Be a kid again; indulge in a caramel apple and a horse-drawn wagon ride through the farm.   

The center of Michigan’s coastal culture are the twin towns of Saugatuck and Douglas, which between them boast 34 outdoor sculptures and almost as many fine-art galleries. To find them all, pick up an Art ’Round Town Walking Tour Map from the visitors center. Or you can skip the culture for some goofy fun with HARBOR DUCK ADVENTURES (269-857-3825; harborduck.com). The company uses open amphibious vehicles from World War II to give a wild tour of both towns, including a crossing of the Kalamazoo River. South Haven Visitor Bureau (800-764-2836; southhaven.org) or the Saugatuck/Douglas Visitors Bureau (269-857-1701; saugatuck.com).

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