Travel

The Best Small Towns to Visit in Michigan This Fall

michigan
Northport's Grand Traverse Lighthouse | jscottsmith/Shutterstock
Northport's Grand Traverse Lighthouse | jscottsmith/Shutterstock

Michigan may be known for its incomparable summers, but we who have traveled the state in full know that autumn is where it’s at in almost all senses of the expression. Fewer mosquitoes, fewer people, cooler temps, sun-quenched days, fewer potential FOMO situations (there’s ALWAYS something going on in the summer), off-season prices, and oh, that minor detail about our splendid flora covering the state in picture-perfect shades of red, orange, and yellow as far as the eye can see. 

While Detroit has some ridiculously entertaining things happening this fall, you can’t beat heading out into the countryside and exploring the small towns that make up our massive state (seriously, it’s the biggest east of the Mississippi). Each one of these communities is welcoming and a perfect place to explore the best that fall in Michigan has to offer.

Atlanta, mIchigan
Atlanta, Michigan | Phil Lowe/Shutterstock

Atlanta

Why it’s so great: People go to Michigan’s Atlanta to get away from, well, people. Nestled between the Pigeon River, Atlanta and Glennie state forests, this is one of the best fall color destinations in the state, though the crowds are almost never there. Autumn is the best time to witness the state’s elk herd (the largest wild herd east of the Mississippi -- we’re really into that comparison) in rutting season, which means basically they’re looking to get it on and therefore are more out and about and noisy than normal. Hiking trails are plentiful and the isolation of the area makes it seem much farther than four hours north of a major urban area. 

Must-try food and drink: Fresh perch from Lake Huron at the aptly named Killion’s Elk Crossing Family Diner; a massive, fresh deli sandwich at Thunder Bay Deli, right on the river of the same name, minus the deli part.

Alden

Why it’s so great: Michigan has a lot of lakes, and they’re all beautiful, but few are quite as jaw-droppingly stunning as Torch Lake. Alden is one of the sparse settlements that line the 19-mile-long lake, whose turquoise colors have garnered it recognition around the world, and on whose shores you could purchase a modest home for a cool $1 million. The spring-fed, clear-as-glass lake reaches 285 feet at its maximum depth, and if you catch it on a warm fall day, it’s going to be warmer than you might have felt it all summer. Despite Torch Lake’s notoriety, Alden remains a small town with a lot of flavor, where lifelong residents fish the glacial lake before wandering into the local bar for some beers and Club Keno.

Must-try food and drink: Meat Lovers Special pie at the Blue Water Bistro & Pizzeria; ice cream at Higgins Store.

Dexter

Why it’s so great: Getting into the countryside doesn’t necessarily have to mean a four-hour trip from downstate. Just outside Ann Arbor sits this quiet little village, which feels light-years away from city life. Set out for a fall weekend kayak trip on the Huron River early in the day, and wind up here just in time for an après river cocktail and snack. We love that this little town feels like someplace way Up North, despite being close enough to metro Detroit to feel like you haven’t left the real world. 

Must-try food and drink: Fresh cider and donuts at Dexter Cider Mill, Michigan suds and snacks at The Beer Grotto

Northport, MI Harbor
Northport, Michigan harbor | Flickr/Jim Sorbie

Northport

Why it’s so great: With its sweeping sand dunes along Lake Michigan, thick birch forests that turn gold come late September, and rolling hills perfect for growing grapes, it’s hard to deny the charm of Michigan’s Leelanau Peninsula. Heading north of Traverse City on the iconic M-22, you’ll find the tiny town of Northport situated toward the very tip of the “Little Finger”; it’s full of quaint attractions like the Grand Traverse Lighthouse Museum, and the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Amy Alpaugh House. Swing by Leelanau Wine Cellars for a tasting of the region’s finest grapes, or for some cherry wine if you have a sweet tooth, then kick back on the often-empty and always-gorgeous beaches of Leelanau State Park. Pro tip: You’ll have them even more to yourself in the off season. 

Must-try food and drink: Cheesy (and somehow gluten-free!) breadsticks and homemade beer and cider at The Mitten Brewing Company; pork chops, burgers, and martinis on the deck at Fischer’s Happy Hour Tavern.

Calumet

Why it’s so great: The Keweenaw Peninsula juts out into Lake Superior and is one of the most remarkable natural retreats in the Upper Peninsula. The scenic majesty ratchets up as you approach Calumet, a small mining town about halfway through the peninsula; it’s a nice mix between the comforts of the city (there’s at least one café that’ll have almond milk for your fancy, city-slicker latte) and being reminded just how far you are from civilization (the starry nights are unbelievable). Meander through art galleries and take your pick of the numerous hiking opportunities that surround you in this forested refuge. The fall colors here peak a little earlier than in other places, so be sure to keep up to date

Must-try food and drink: Whitefish, ribs, and pasties at the Hut Inn; tasty artisanal beers and hefty, “Yooper” portions of meat and fish at the Michigan House Cafe & Brew Pub.

Mio

Why it’s so great: It’s right in the heart of Au Sable River country, an entire region of idyllic splendor for outdoorsmen and weekend warriors alike. Mio is a major launch or pick-up point for canoers, and kayakers on the wide and mighty river, so if you’re even the least bit interested in getting on the water, this is the place to do it. And if you go in the fall, you’re less likely to run into the inebriated “floatillas” of tubers common in the summer months and actually catch some fish. If, on the other hand, you’re in the market for handcrafted furniture or other goodies, the Amish population in the area has you covered. At just three hours north of Detroit, you’d have to actively come up with reasons not to make this a regular vacation spot all year long.

Must-try food and drink: Homemade breads, cheeses, butter, and cured meats at Amish Country Natural Products; the prime rib at the Paddle Inn (a local favorite).

Rochester

Why it’s so great: Football at Oakland University, walks in the park, cider mills -- Rochester seems to have written the book on autumnal, suburban quaintness. With the 4,400-acre Stony Creek Metropark just down the road, Rochester Municipal Park, and Bloomer Park, it’s a great spot to get out and enjoy the fall weather, change of colors, and get those last few rays of sun on your skin before the frozen season arrives. Not to mention a number of art galleries, breweries, and other things that people like to spend the weekend doing. While urban sprawl has turned this once farming community into a bustling suburban center just 30 minutes outside of Detroit, it still maintains a lot of its country charm. 

Must-try food and drink: Farm-fresh produce at Fogler’s Orchard and Farmer’s Market; a flight of hard cider at Fieldstone Hard Cider Co.

Lexington

Why it’s so great: Located on Michigan’s “sunrise side,” Lexington is a hop, skip, and a jump from metro Detroit, and yet it remains a remarkably tranquil getaway. Check out the Thumb’s various wineries, and pack a lunch to enjoy at the nearby state park. In Lexington, you’ll get a lake vacation at a fraction of the price you’d expect on Michigan’s west coast, and with far less attitude. Come here to enjoy the slow pace of life, which is even slower in the fall, along the cool, fresh waters of Lake Huron. 

Must-try food and drink: Giant breakfast omelets and down-home bacon at Bush’s Restaurant; try the bloody mary bar at The Windjammer and watch the freighters forge along the horizon.

Beaver Island Harbor
Beaver Island Harbor | Flickr/Mark

Beaver Island

Why it’s so great: You’re on an island in the middle of one of the largest bodies of freshwater on the planet; add to that the plethora of bars and restaurants to entertain you if nature is just, ya know, not loud enough for you. Top it off with glorious golden splendor of birch trees in the fall, and you’ve got a recipe for a memorable autumn getaway. Beaver Island is a quick plane trip or a smooth boat ride from Charlevoix, and has plenty of hotel and cabin options as the campgrounds close for the season; originally settled by Irish immigrants, the island has been dubbed “America’s Emerald Isle.” Fun fact: The island was once home to a “Mormon Kingdom,” the history of which you can read all about at the old Mormon Print Shop.

Must-try food and drink: Bison burger at the Shamrock Bar & Restaurant; one of the massive hot dogs (with all the fixin's) at Daddy Frank’s.

Caseville

Why it’s so great: Located on the tip of Michigan’s Thumb, Caseville has a beautiful beach where you can see the sunrise and the sunset over Lake Huron. While there’s always a party going on in Caseville in the summer, and the mood on the beach reflects that; fall sees the area take it back a notch, making it the perfect spot to unwind. If you’re up for stargazing or a hike along the dunes, Port Crescent State Park is a divine spot to soak in the natural world year-round with a fantastic dark sky preserve; or, if you’d rather keep moving, rent a kayak and explore the Pinnebog River or even out to Turnip Rock past nearby (and equally lovely) Port Austin. Just be mindful about taking your craft out should “the gales of November come early.” 

Must-try food and drink: Homemade cinnamon rolls at Walt’s Restaurant; cheeseburgers at Baywatch On The Beach Grill.

Twin Falls Bridge
Twin Falls Bridge, Iron Mountain, Michigan | Flickr/cmh2315fl

Iron Mountain

Why it’s so great: This little old mining town is one of the most remote areas of Michigan, nestled in the rolling hills and fire-colored, thick forests of the western Upper Peninsula. Possibly one of the biggest surprises to out-of-towners will be the (relative to population and proximity to Italy) plethora of authentic Italian food here; you can thank the folks who came here to work in the mines for that. Iron Mountain’s a perfect basecamp from which to explore the Western UP -- it’s a sportsman’s paradise up there in the fall months. Just beware; they’re Packers fans.

Must-try food and drink: Fresh pasta at Damian’s Pasta Works; pizza at Antonio’s; baked goods and cold cuts at Crispigna’s Italian Market.   

East Jordan

Why it’s so great: Sitting on the South Arm of massive and picturesque Lake Charlevoix, East Jordan is perfectly located to take advantage of the beauty of Michigan’s northwest Lower Peninsula. It’s a great place for a long bike ride, boating, mountain biking -- basically any outdoor activity that involves motion. Before the snow falls, you’ve got wide open access to trails and rivers, not that the snow should stop you. The warm-ish, low-humidity days in Northwestern Lower Michigan are perfect for wandering the countryside without breaking a sweat and the chilly nights beckon a bonfire and some local wine. You’re also well positioned to explore the entire northwest of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula from East Jordan, including knowing that you’ll be greeted by some great Michigan brews and some great eats when you finish your day, watching the sunset over Lake Charlevoix.

Must-try food and drink: Start your day with breakfast at the South Arm Cafe; end it with dinner and a view of the marina at The Strand at Sommerset Pointe.

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Megan Frye is a writer based in Mexico City, but she spent enough time living in Michigan to still has a soft spot for the mournful opening chords of “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” fried pickles, and a romp through an apple orchard on a warm October afternoon. Make her jealous about all the fun you’re having in Michigan this autumn via Twitter harassment: @fryechild.