American Road Trips
The western edge of Michigan is a summer vacation destination offering often-uncrowded beaches, lovely small towns and some of Michigan's most beautiful scenery. This four-day driving trip includes some highlights in the area, starting from New Buffalo, Michigan, which is only about an hour's drive from Chicago (stop at one of the country's newest national parks on the way, Indiana Dunes) and a little over two hours from Fort Wayne, Indiana. Once you set off, your busiest driving day will be day two, with about 3.5 leisurely hours on the road. End up in Mackinaw City, where you can add to your adventure with a trip to Mackinac Island, where no cars are allowed; leave yours in Mackinaw City and catch a quick ferry.
Day 1: New Buffalo to Saugatuck (90 miles)
Near the border with Indiana, New Buffalo is the gateway to Lake Michigan's “Harbor Country,” a series of beach towns strung together by the Red Arrow Highway and a popular cottage retreat for Chicagoans. Their tastes in food have followed, making the area a great stop for ice cream (Oink's Dutch Treat in New Buffalo), hamburgers (Redamak's, also in New Buffalo, April-October.) and beer (Greenbush Brewing Co. in nearby Sawyer, 10 miles north).
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In Sawyer, climb the 260-foot sand dunes at Warren Dunes State Park and run back down them to the beach. If that's too busy, head north 10 miles to Grand Mere State Park, with undulating trails through the dune system as well as access to a mile-long beach.
Continue along the Red Arrow to the Blue Star Highway or hop on Interstate 96 roughly 35 miles to South Haven, home of DeGrandchamp Farms, famous for its u-pick blueberry fields in July and August and a good place to get a sense of the fruit-growing bounty of southwest Michigan.
Twenty miles on, sophisticated Saugatuck and its neighbor Douglas comprise Michigan's “Art Coast,” filled with galleries (don't miss local Impressionist James Brandess’ studio and gallery in Saugatuck). For a picnic dinner of charcuterie and local cheese, drive 9 miles southeast to Virtue Cider, which produces cider on a working farm in Fennville.
Where to stay: For a worthy splurge, overnight at charming Wickwood Inn for pedestrian access to downtown Saugatuck and farm-to-table breakfasts (currently under renovation, the inn reopens in May). Rooms range from about $300 to more than $400 per night, depending on the size. If that’s a bit rich, check out Airbnb or other short-term rental sites, though try to book early (summer is a busy time in these parts). There are also some chain hotels in the area.
Day 2: Saugatuck to Glen Arbor (185 miles)
Take a sunrise hike through the dunes at Saugatuck from Mount Baldhead Park to Oval Beach before hitting the highway (196 to 131) for Holland, 12 miles north. The Dutch-settled town has a popular tulip festival (in May) and a working windmill in Windmill Island Gardens (you can buy the flour it grinds in the gift shop), as well as an 1870-vintage lighthouse known as Big Red at Holland State Park. Pick up picnic fare at DeBoer's Bakery, including Dutch brown bread and double-fried chicken sandwiches.
Take it about 20 miles north to the beach at Grand Haven or the town's 2.5-mile harborside boardwalk, where you can snap photos of its 1839-vintage lighthouse (this is also a great place to rent a bike from Sun Sports Rentals and cycle some of the 20-mile paved Lakeshore Trail that connects Holland and Grand Haven).
Fifteen miles north in Muskegon, drive by the Victorian-era Hackley and Hume historic houses to get a look at the wealth generated a century ago by lumber barons (May-October). Nearby, stroll the Monet Garden, a mini replica of painter Claude Monet's famous garden in Giverny, France, and restock your picnic cooler at the Cheese Lady downtown. Let the guides of Mac Wood's Dune Rides take the wheel over the 2,000-acre dunes of Silver Lake State Park in a 40-minute tour exploring the dune habitat and delivering open-air thrills (May-October).
Just north of Manistee, take Motorway 22 to stick to the lake route to catch a picture-perfect sunset as you pull into Glen Arbor for fried smelt and local Vernors sodas at 1934-landmark Art's Tavern.
Where to stay: The Omni Homestead offers a full complement of resort amenities — pool, spa, golf course — as well as a mile of Lake Michigan shore. Rooms start at about $250 a night and up.
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Day 3: Glen Arbor to Petoskey (130 miles)
Backtrack six miles to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, where the sand dunes rise up to 400 feet above Lake Michigan along 65 miles of shore, for a sunrise dune climb before the sands warm to blistering. The Dune Climb is hearty fun (do try rolling down), but if you're looking for a workout, take the 3.5-mile round-trip Dunes Trail to Lake Michigan.
Reward yourself with all things cherry — this is Michigan's cherry-growing region — from cherry chicken salad to cherry ice cream at the Cherry Public House in Glen Arbor. Continue north on M-22 to explore the Leelanau Peninsula — the divergent pinkie of the mitten that is the shape of Michigan's Lower Peninsula — where cherry orchards mingle with newer vineyards. In Suttons Bay, pick up a bottle of Riesling or Cabernet Franc at Black Star Farms and a wedge of raclette at Leelanau Cheese.
Sixteen miles south, Traverse City is the metropolis of the north, popular for its brewing, arts and outdoor pursuits at the base of Grand Traverse Bay. Indulge your architectural interests by walking among the elegant Victorian homes of the Central Neighborhood and within the sprawling period asylum, now converted into the mixed-use and shop-filled Grand Traverse Commons. The 67-mile drive along U.S. 31 to Petoskey threads the narrows between Lake Michigan and sparkling inland lakes.
Where to stay: One of the original Great Lakes resorts, the 1899-vintage Stafford's Perry Hotel anchors Petoskey's historic Gaslight District, filled with shops and restaurants, including City Park Grill, hangout of a young Ernest Hemingway. Guest rooms start at about $199 a night.
Day 4: Petoskey to Mackinaw City (70 miles)
Spend a meditative hour searching for Petoskey stones — the unique fossilized state stone — at the downtown break wall on Little Traverse Bay. As you leave Petoskey, you'll drive through a distinctly Victorian cottage settlement known as Bay View, founded in 1875 as a seasonal Methodist community devoted to recreation, education and the arts. Soak in the history on a walk; the community publishes a self-guided walking tour brochure.
Ten miles and Little Traverse Bay separates Petoskey and Harbor Springs, a New England-style resort town filled with shops (take back local preserves from American Spoon). Harbor Springs is the gateway to Motorway 119, a beloved 20-mile lake-skirting road known as the Tunnel of Trees. It delivers you to tiny Cross Village, home of the iconic Legs Inn, a rustic fieldstone lodge filled with driftwood sculptures (June-October). Dine in the lakeview garden on Great Lakes whitefish and Polish classics such as pierogi and kielbasa. Digest over the 30-minute trip north to Wilderness State Park, occupying a windswept peninsula tapering off into Lake Michigan and a great spot to beachcomb.
End your trip at the Straits of Mackinac, about 10 miles east, where lakes Huron and Michigan meet at Mackinaw City, jumping off point for offshore Mackinac Island, where you can't take the car because motor vehicles are forbidden.
Where to stay: Enjoy the beach at Lake Huron in front of the Hamilton Inn Select Beachfront, where double rooms run from about $80 to $300 a night.
Elaine Glusac, a Chicago-based journalist, writes the Frugal Traveler column for The New York Times.
Editor's note: This article was originally published on August 3, 2020. It's been updated to reflect new information.