Take an Autumn Drive to Michigan

Take in autumn beauty at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in Michigan. Our writer tells you how to plan the perfect trip.

DISCLAIMER: The information in this article was fact checked and accurate at press time, but 417 Magazine cannot guarantee its accuracy indefinitely.

Photo by Ashleigh Roberds

Every time we road trip from 417-land to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, we marvel that we're in Michigan and not some tropical sandy mountain by the sea. That feeling especially hits at the breathtaking Lake Michigan Overlook, aka stop No. 9 of the twelve Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive stops. 

From here, steep dunes plunge impossibly far below into glass green and cobalt blue waters. Oddly angled landscapes are beautiful in their barrenness. And the view of Lake Michigan’s endless horizon? Incredible! It’s no wonder the park was voted “Most Beautiful Place in America” by Good Morning America viewers in 2011.

Early last fall, half a dozen Ozarkers were introduced to that view when a destination wedding brought us to the Leelanau Peninsula. 

With its gorgeous landscapes and a wealth of things to do, the region—about three hours north of Grand Rapids—was already a road-trip favorite. So it took about three seconds after learning about the wedding to decide we’d expand our trip.

Trails along Empire Bluff is just one of many places to take in the views of Lake Michigan and the never-ending horizon.


Why We Love It

We discovered the Leelanau Peninsula and Traverse City area more than a decade ago on a family vacation with our now-grown sons. 

The dune park and Traverse City are about 40 minutes apart. In between and all around, the region boasts wineries and breweries, bike and hiking trails, various beaches, dozens of inland lakes and rivers, quaint boutiques and galleries, local eateries, and lots and lots of cherry orchards (expect cherry everything!). You’ll also find world-class golf courses, casinos and water or winter sports.

Autumn is an excellent time to visit. Fall weather is lovely—still warm enough throughout the day with cool evenings and perhaps an occasional shower. Or plan now to visit next spring or summer. Other than wedding clothes, for our early fall trip we packed shorts and long pants, T-shirts and jackets to enjoy casual winery tours and outdoor hiking and biking.

For a beautiful lake-view drive, start at Empire and head around the peninsula to Traverse City along M-22. The Pure Michigan Byway was voted America's Favorite Scenic Autumn Drive in 2015 by USA Today and 10Best readers. 

“Autumn is an excellent time to visit. Fall weather is lovely—still warm enough throughout the day with cool evenings.”

We’ve rented a variety of places to stay in the area, from a lake-view Traverse City hotel to B&Bs, small rustic resorts and home rentals on the shores of nearby inland lakes. For this trip,we booked a beach-side condo at the Homestead Resort, a complex convenient to Sleeping Bear Dunes and Glen Arbor, our favorite small town. 


Hello, Sleeping Bear!

Upon arrival, we stopped at the Philip Hart Visitor Center in Empire, headquarters for Sleeping Bear Dunes. Here you’ll find maps and information about the park, area trails and things to do. Explore dune history—it was formed by glaciers!—and its ecosystem. You can also pay the entrance fee for national park access.

After lunch at Joe’s Friendly Tavern in Empire, we strolled the village’s gorgeous beach and hiked the 1.5-mile Empire Bluff Trail. It climbs through beech-maple forest to a wonderful “hello” view of Sleeping Bear Dunes and Glen Lake.

By late afternoon we were strolling the Sleeping Bear Bay beach in front of our condo, ending the day at (where else!) our favorite Lake Michigan Overlook. It was our first year to catch the sunset from here—absolutely stunning.

This scenic drive is a must-see, so later in the week when friends arrived, we returned to explore its twelve numbered stops. Some point out examples of dune ecology. Others are scenic (a covered bridge, gorgeous overlooks). A loop trail is accessible at stop No. 4. Stop No. 10 offers a view of the landscape that once resembled a sleeping bear, inspiring the park's name. 


Traverse City and Old Mission Peninsula

Day two dawned drizzly, but no deterrent for touring Traverse City and area wineries. You could easily spend more than a day in Traverse, as we have in previous years. There’s a casino, art galleries, tons of local restaurants and breweries, paved walking/biking trails, beaches, a river walk and historic areas. We’ve watched fireworks from the pier and shopped in the Village at Grand Traverse Commons, a castle-like structure that once housed a mental asylum. 

We started this day with an incredible breakfast at the Omelette Shoppe & Bakery downtown. Over breakfast we plotted our tour of wineries, based heavily on recommendations by a Michigan-raised fellow Ozarker. 

Michigan is teeming with vineyards, like this Chateau Chantal winery with stellar outdoor seating views, due to the state’s ideal climate for growing grapes.

We already knew to budget for Michigan wine: a favorite souvenir. Located around the 45th Parallel, the area boasts an “ideal climate” (I’ve read) for growing wine grapes, as apparent by all the vineyards. Leelanau Peninsula and the Grand Traverse area have so many, it’s best to tour them in sections. Brochure in hand we did just that, heading for Old Mission Peninsula, a long finger of land that divides Grand Traverse Bay. (Most fall wine tours continue through the end of October.) In addition to wineries, it’s home to breweries, homes and rentals, the quaint Old Mission General Store and one of my favorite stops, the Mission Point Lighthouse and Park. Don’t miss getting your picture by the 45th Parallel sign! 

Our good day was topped with dinner at Sledder’s Family Tavern (named “Michigan’s oldest restaurant”) and a backseat full of wine. 


Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail

The sun returned day three and after a short beach stroll we headed to Glen Arbor for an early lunch at Boone Docks Spirits and Edibles, followed by a long bike ride along the Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail. Currently stretching about 22 miles, the mostly asphalt trail connects Empire, Glen Arbor, Port Oneida and beyond. It’s a great way to access many park attractions along the way. (Pro tip: Another popular bike trail runs 17 miles from Suttons Bay to Traverse City.)

We rented bikes from The Cyclery in Glen Arbor. The trail is gorgeous, snaking through forests and dunes, sometimes along M-22, the scenic peninsula highway. It runs by the popular Dune Climb, a 110-foot-tall sand dune that attracts both kids and adults. We’d never climbed it before. This time I took the challenge. My reward? A great view of Glen Lake and a sense of accomplishment. 

Two miles beyond the Dune Climb we came to Glen Haven Historic Village and beach. A steamboat stop from 1865 to 1931, the restored village today includes an old general store, blacksmith shop and the Cannery Boat Museum. Old pilings that once supported Glen Haven’s dock are still visible in the bay. Beachcombers walk this beautiful beach collecting pretty rocks. The ultimate prize? Finding a Petoskey fossil stone.

Cycling back to Glen Arbor we walked around shops and eateries including Cherry Republic, a cozy wooded complex that features all things cherry. The wine tastings are free and the country store sells things like cherry barbecue sauce, chocolate-covered cherries, cherry jam, and my particular Michigan craving: hot cherry salsa. 

Dinner that night was at Arts Tavern, a retro-popular burger and beer joint that’s been around since 1934. Take cash if you go; they don’t accept credit cards. 

Cherry Republic is a favorite eatery in Glen Arbor. The homey shop offers cherry flavored everything, including barbecue sauce, jam, candies and even hot cherry salsa.

My favorite area hike takes you to Pyramid Point, an overlook similar to the park’s scenic drive—only better because you work for it. Providing a great view also of the Manitou Islands (which you can visit), this is my favorite place to photograph. We hiked it twice: once by ourselves and the next day with friends who had arrived for the wedding. Take a lunch and plan to stay a while. You won’t want to leave the top-of-the-world view. 

After our hike, we drove north on M-22, stopping at a beautiful secluded beach on Good Harbor Bay. (Twelve miles north of Glen Arbor on M-22, turn west on Good Harbor Trail Road, also called CR 651).

Check a map to find wineries, shopping areas, beaches, trails and more off little side roads along the way. Leland is another destination town on M-22, known for Fishtown, a designated historic site near the water. Fishtown is the revitalized wharf where old fishing shanties have been turned into little boutiques and eateries. Pick up a sandwich or cheese curds at the Village Cheese Shanty, a sweet treat at the Dam Candy Store or a gift in a shanty boutique. 

We spent a morning here with Springfield friends, meeting later for a meal at The Bluebird Restaurant & Tavern. Alas our vacation was nearly over. But it ended on the most beautiful note possible: the marriage of two people surrounded by family and friends. 

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