Lake Michigan Tour
Along the Shore of the Great Lake
|Mileage||456 miles (735 km)|
|DurationThe duration is an estimate of a one-way drive and does not include any stops or side-trips.||8 hours, 48 minutes|
|SeasonsThe seasons listed are the best seasons for this scenic drive. If Winter is not mentioned, the road may be closed during the winter.||All Seasons|
|Roadways||Michigan Highways 109, 119, 22, and 89, US Highways 10, 12, and 31, and Red Arrow Highway|
|Forest PassesSome of the adventures on this scenic drive require an admission fee that these passes cover. Please read the drive description for more information.||America the Beautiful Annual National Parks Pass|
|ServicesThe cities or towns listed have either Food or Services such as gas, hotels, pharmacies, etc.||Lakeside, MI▼, New Buffalo, MI▼, Sawyer, MI▼, Stevensville, MI▼, Holland, MI▼, Fruitport, MI▼, Ludington, MI▼, Frankfort, MI▼, more...Maple City, MI▼, Cedar, MI▼, Williamsburg, MI▼, Rapid City, MI▼, Charlevoix, MI▼, Harbor Springs, MI▼, Alanson, MI▼, Indian River, MI▼, Mackinaw City, MI▼, Mackinac Island, MI▼, and St Ignace, MI▼|
3.1 average from 85 votes
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Natural areas along this route require an entrance fee used to protect and maintain our most scenic treasures. Save time by purchasing your forest passes before you go.
This drive travels along the shore of Lake Michigan, from New Buffalo to Mackinaw City, Michigan. Depending where you’re coming from, this drive is close to Chicago, Wisconsin, Indiana, and Quebec, Canada. Sections of this drive can make a great day trip or cruise the entire route for a multi-day adventure.
This extraordinary drive is jam-packed with things to do and see. Experience hundreds of miles of shore and beaches, a unique dune system, lighthouses, a plethora of state parks, delightful coastal towns, museums, wineries and farm-to-table bounty, and many opportunities to get your fitness on and then kick back with some good old rest and relaxation.
We describe the drive beginning in New Buffalo. Stop at the Harbor Country Chamber of Commerce (I1) for regional information. Enjoy white sandy beaches, specialty shops and galleries before heading out. Every Saturday and Sunday from mid-May to mid-October, visit Skip’s Farmers Market, the perfect place to stock up on picnic goodies. New Buffalo Light (A1) is the first of many lighthouses that dot the route.
Head out from New Buffalo, near the Indiana border on US-12. In the town of Sawyer, visit Warren Dunes State Park (H1). With 3 miles of shoreline, relax on the beach with a picnic, then work it off by climbing the dunes which were shaped by glaciers, and rise 260-feet. Stunning views await, on a clear day you may even see the Chicago skyline. Seven miles of trails circumnavigate the park, or participate in guided nature hikes and programs. Make it an overnight with camping or rent a modern mini cabin. This park can be busy in summer and is open in winter for snow boarding and cross-country skiing. All Michigan state parks charge an entrance fee for motorized vehicles. If you will be visiting multiple parks, consider a Recreation Passport.
In Bridgeman, Weko Beach Park (H2) offers swimming, dunes, picnic areas, and restaurant as well as tent and RV camping and cabin rentals.
Grand Mere State Park (H3) features solitude, likely due to the half mile hike on a path and then climb over a dune to the beach. For those who like a quieter, more primitive beach experience, this is a superb option.
In St Joseph, Silver Beach County Park (H6) is a top pick for families, featuring a life-guarded swimming area, fishing, playground, volleyball courts, concessions and barrier-free walkway. Walk out on the pier for expansive views, stellar sunset watching and to take close up photos of the St. Joseph North Pier Lighthouse. The walkable downtown features lodging, restaurants and shops of all sorts. Here you can also charter a fishing excursion or book a wine tour. Connecting many of the parks and beaches is the John and Dede Howard Family Recreational Trail (H5). Just under 2 miles long, the paved trail is perfect for biking, walking and jogging. In nearby Benton Harbor, swim, launch a kayak or canoe, or just soak in the views at Rocky Gap Park.
The Michigan Maritime Museum (M1) is comprised of five separate buildings that explore the maritime heritage of the Great Lakes and U.S. Coast Guard in Michigan. See a collection wooden rescue craft, visit the South Haven Lightkeeper’s House, board the Evelyn S., a historic fishing tug, examine the Padnos Boat Shed and much more. There is an entrance fee and extra charge to sail aboard the Friends Good Will or cruise up Black River on the Lindy Lou.
In Holland, the Saugatuck Dunes State Park (H9) is a lovely day-use park with coastal dunes over 200 feet high. Hike the dune trails, observe wildlife or just relax on the sand. This park is a gem, less crowded due to the short hike from the parking lot to get to the dunes. It’s not that difficult, but perhaps best not with a heavy cooler in tow.
Don’t miss strolling through the town of Holland, a quaint Dutch village complete with windmill and tulip festival, Dutch shops, bakeries, and farmers market.
Holland State Park (H10) is another beautiful spot featuring views of Big Red — officially known as the Holland Harbor Light (A2). You cannot enter the lighthouse, but you can walk the grounds for fabulous photo opportunities. The Mount Pisgah dune can be explored via a boardwalk system in place to reduce erosion and protect the delicate plant life. Landings provide overlooks to views of Lake Macatawa and well-needed rest stops for the 239 stairs that climb to the top of the dune. Enjoy forest trails, swimming on both Lake Michigan and Lake Macatawa and camping.
Along with the excellent year-round recreation opportunities, Muskegon State Park (H11) features a Winter Sports Complex and 850’ luge track.
Silver Lake State Park (H13) is unique due to the 450-acre parcel designated for off-road vehicles from April — October. This full service park is almost 3,000 acres offering hiking, fishing, boat launch, beach and camping. Great views await from the top of the 107’ Little Sable Point Lighthouse built in 1874.
In Ludington, you can take the S.S. Badger Car Ferry (A4) across Lake Michigan to Manitowoc, Wisconsin. The 60-mile cruise takes 4 hours and does not run in winter. Check the website for schedule and pricing.
You’ll see Ludington North Breakwater Light (A3) standing tall in Stearns Park (H15). Built in 1924, the 57-foot square pyramidal lighthouse is one of the most popular in Michigan. There is a small fee to enter the lighthouse. Along with beautiful beach, enjoy volleyball, playground, picnic area with grills, a skate plaza, shuffleboard and an accessible walkway. Add in free parking and you can see why this is a popular destination.
In nearby Scottville, Riverside Park (H14) lies along on the Pere Marquette River, designated a National Wild and Scenic River and a draw for anglers, kayaking and canoeing. The park features 52 full service sites for tent and trailer camping, and a swimming pool.
The Big Sable Point Lighthouse (A5) is one of the tallest lighthouses in Michigan and can be seen at Ludington State Park (H16). The lighthouse is open for tours from May to October where a mere 130 step climb to the top delivers sensational views. A small fee serves to preserve the lighthouse and includes visiting the original Keeper’s Quarters. This popular park is chock full of amenities. Hike and bike over 18 miles of trails which explore a wide range of topography, enjoy camping and educational programs, or cruise the marked Hamlin Lake Canoe Pathway. Hamlin Lake is popular for tubing and fishing for tiger muskie, pike, perch, and walleye (boat and equipment rentals are on site). Open year-round, in winter participate in guided snowshoe walks, cross-country skiing and ice fishing. Bird watchers will delight that the park is home to the endangered Piping Plover. Please keep a respectful distance.
Consider a detour to the Huron-Manistee National Forests (H26). The two forests comprise almost a million acres for hiking, boating, ORV riding, and camping, as well as a myriad of winter activities. The Loda Lake National Wildflower Sanctuary features a self-guided trail exploring wild columbine, pitcher plant, and more, a draw for butterflies and birds. The Pere Marquette River runs through here perfect for swimming and waterside picnics, boating, and fly fishing for steelhead, trout and salmon. Walk part of the longest hiking trail in the US. The North Country Trail was created in 1980 and travels 4,600 miles through 7 states from New York to North Dakota. One thousand miles pass through Michigan. There is a day use fee or use your America the Beautiful Pass.
The town of Manistee is known as the “Victorian Port City” for its architecture. The 1.5-mile Riverwalk travels along the Manistee River. Access points to and from downtown make it easy to walk and then head back to visit art galleries, wineries and restaurants. Every Saturday from May to Octobers meet local farmers, sample fresh produce and peruse crafts at the Farmers Market.
From Manistee continue on M-22 north, one of the most scenic stretches along this route. In Arcadia, take the road up to the Arcadia Overlook (V1). Wooden stairs lead 80-feet (120 steps) to a popular overlook with breathtaking views of Lake Michigan, dunes and the North Pier Lighthouse. There are picnic tables as well, so bring a snack and enjoy the view.
Consider a detour on Dry Hill Trail Road to learn more about dunes at C.S. Mott Nature Preserve (A6). Fifteen miles of trails explore dunes, wildflowers, forest and views of Lake Michigan. The diverse ecosystem is a vital habitat for birds making this a popular birdwatching area.
The Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore lies ahead. Stop at the Philip A. Hart Visitor Center (I2) in Empire to get oriented and examine exhibits.
Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore (W1) features miles of sandy beach and towering dunes that rise 450 feet. The challenge of climbing them is exhilarating (and exhausting), so have water and snacks on hand. Activities are just about limitless. There are 100 miles of hiking and biking trails and many are open for skiing and snowshoeing in winter. Expansive beaches offer great swimming, boating, tubing and fishing, both on Lake Michigan and on 21 inland lakes which offer calmer and warmer waters. You’ll find equipment rentals available on-site. Take part in the year-round ranger led adventures and make it an overnight with a variety of camping options. Don’t miss the 7.4 mile Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive which passes park highlights including the Pierce Stocking Covered Bridge built in the 1960’s. Also visit the Sleeping Bear Point Maritime Museum, a Coast Guard Life-Saving Service Station. During summer at 3:00 pm, there is a rescue drill re-enactment. At nearby Glen Haven Historic Village explore the General Store, Cannery Boathouse, and Blacksmith Shop. The park is extremely popular, so if you plan on staying in the area during peak summer season, advance reservations for camping or hotels is recommended.
Gazing out into Lake Michigan, you will see two islands, South Manitou and North Manitou — part of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. They are accessible via the Manitou Island Transit (A8), which offers ferry service from May to October to both islands from the harbor at Leland (advance reservations recommended). The 16-mile trips take about 1.5 hours each way and is a great way to get a different perspective of Lake Michigan. On South Manitou Island, climb the lighthouse for a glimpse into the past and majestic peaceful views, hike the dunes and bluffs, explore old growth forest with giant white cedar known as the Valley of the Giants, and fields punctuated with dazzling wildflowers. Scuba divers will love the shipwreck diving at the Manitou Passage Underwater Preserve. There are 11 sites and many dive charter operators in the surrounding towns. 15,000 acres of wilderness await on North Manitou Island. Solitude reigns as there are no motorized vehicles and no services at all — pristine nature at its best. To visit requires an overnight stay back-country camping for the very prepared. There is an entrance fee which covers all areas of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, or use your America the Beautiful Pass.
In Leland, stroll through Fishtown (A7), a colorful collection of fishing shanties, smoke houses and docks. Fishtown is one of the only working commercial fishing villages still operating in the state of Michigan. The Fishtown Preservation Society is working to save this historic site. In town, discover unique irresistible shops, galleries, restaurants and picture perfect views.
As you continue north on M-22 you enter Leelanau County. This tip of the peninsula culminates with Leelanau State Park and Grand Traverse Lighthouse (H18). Enjoy hiking trails, dunes, pristine waters and rustic camping.
Meandering through the peninsula is the Leelanau Wine Trail. Three scenic loops allow the chance to sample 25 wineries in this unique micro climate. Indulge in fine and casual dining, specialty stores, while enjoying majestic views along the way. There are organized bus, limo and even bike and boat tours that allow you to indulge safely. Stop at the Leelanau Peninsula Vintners Association (A9) in Suttons Bay for more info and to stroll through the charming town. Or bike the Leelanau Trail of TART Trail System (Traverse Area Recreation Trail) to Traverse City.
Learn more about the cultural history of the Leelanau Peninsula at the Leelanau Historical Museum (M2). Examine black ash baskets and quill work from Leelanau’s Odawa and other Anishnabek artists. Exhibits tell the story of the farming, fishing and logging history.
Traverse City is known for its cherry trees and in mid-May the wonderful scent of blossoms fills the air. The beginning of July is host to the 8-day National Cherry Festival where you can taste all things cherry, see an air show, parade, and enjoy the usual array of festival attractions. Traverse City is a top coastal destination for food and golf, and is bustling with cultural attractions, a vibrant nightlife, and more. The historic Grand Traverse Commons is built around an old State Hospital and features restored buildings converted into quaint retail shops. On the campus of Northwestern Michigan College, the Dennos Museum Center (M3) houses one of the world’s largest collections of work by Inuit Artists of the Canadian Arctic, as well as displaying regular rotating exhibits. Close to downtown is Traverse City State Park (H20) where you can wiggle your toes on sugar-sand beaches, fish and boat, hike and enjoy tent, RV camping and cottage rentals. Or hang out at other beaches, such as Bryant Park Beach or Clinch Park (H19). Discover Traverse City via another stretch of the TART Trail.
From Traverse City, continue on US-31north. The resort community of Petoskey is another gem. A perfect blend of natural beauty and charming town with historic architecture. Spend an exhilarating afternoon rafting, then dine and watch the sunset on Little Traverse Bay. At Petoskey State Park (H21), search for Petoskey Stones which are actually a coral fossils. Enjoy a wide range of activities and camping.
Though it’s not officially part of the Lake Michigan Circle Tour Route, we highly recommend this detour from Harbor Springs to Cross Village on M-119. Known as Tunnel of Trees Scenic Heritage Route, this magical stretch of road winds through dense forest on both sides with peek-a-boo openings to lake views and features two hairpin turns. In fall, the trees are ablaze with colors. This peaceful drive is particularly loved by motorcyclists and bicyclists. Please drive carefully as the road is narrower than a standard two-lane highway and doesn’t have divider lines or shoulder.
In Cross Springs, Wilderness State Park (H22) sits along Sturgeon Bay offering 26 miles of shoreline, hiking and camping and bunkhouses and cabins rentals. Many easy to moderate trails explore diverse terrain including forested dunes and wetlands.
From Cross Village take W Levering Rd to US-31 to Mackinaw City where our drive officially ends. If you didn’t take M-119, simply continue on US-31north to Mackinaw City.
In Mackinaw City, visit Mackinac Island. No cars are permitted on this this quiet oasis with access by ferry from Mackinaw City or St Ignace. In Mackinac Island State Park (H24) enjoy hiking and biking in boreal forest and exploring limestone bluffs, coastline and the unique formation Arch Rock. The park is free to enter.
Experience history at Mackinac State Historic Parks (H25), a combination of living history museums and parks located both in Mackinaw City and on Mackinac Island. On the island, visit Fort Mackinac to explore the oldest building in Michigan, and 13 other sites. Learn about the War of 1812, see how soldiers and their families lived, and more. The Mackinac Art Museum features hand-beaded Native American garments, 17th and 18th-century maps of the Great Lakes, and pieces from the Island’s Victorian era to current local artists. The hands on art studio is fun for kids of all ages. In Mackinaw City, visit the Historic Mill Creek Discovery Park, to observe a water-powered sawmill, learn about the logging history through exhibits and try the thrilling zip line. At Colonial Michilimackinac learn about life in the 1700’s from cannon and musket firings to hearth cooking and crafts demonstrations. Observe ongoing archaeology excavations. The Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse built in 1889, features restored quarters, exhibits, and knowledgeable docents. Take the tour and then picnic overlooking the Mackinac Bridge. This grouping of attractions all have entrance fees
Mackinaw City is home to one of only 6 dark sky parks in the United States. Headlands International Dark Sky Park (H23) is a magical place. Observe exceptionally starry skies and hopefully catch a glimpse of the nocturnal animals that call this park home. Take part in the extensive array of fascinating night programs that are offered free.
Then head across the Mackinac Bridge to St. Ignace and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Wisconsin, or cross the border to Ontario, Canada.