16 Must-Hit Stops for a Michigan Road Trip

From the lakes to the breweries to the trails.

PHOTO COURTESY PURE MICHIGAN

Few states boast the combo of accessible, vast wilderness and modern cities that Michigan does. The Great Lakes State, as Michiganders lovingly call it, is best explored from its seemingly endless shores: 3,288 miles worth of winding roads overlooking these world wonders of the glacial age. Whether you take this ultimate Michigan road trip by bike, car, (or even boat), you will surely be welcomed by humble, big-hearted people delighted to show you the best of our state along the way. We simply ask that you tip your waitstaff, wear a mask, and for gahdssake’s, don’t litter.

Warren Dunes State Park
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Starting in lower southwest Michigan, just 20 minutes north of the Indiana border and following Lake Michigan, you’ll start to witness the majesty of this amazing state. One of its greatest claims to fame is beer. Yep. Michigan has awesome beer. We’re snobby (but not like California snobby) about it. Get your first sudsy fix at Greenbush Brewing, grab a snack and maybe a growler to go (locals love the Party Wolf IPA) and head over to Warren Dunes, a 1,952-acre park with 260-foot sand dunes, for a dip in Lake Michigan and a stunning view of the setting sun.

Bell's Brewery
Photo courtesy of Bell’s Brewery

Heading to the north and inland, Kalamazoo is not to be missed. It’s a fun, medium-sized city filled with great food and entertainment options, thanks in large part to Western Michigan University’s presence. A visit to Kalamazoo wouldn’t be complete without a stop at Bell’s Brewery, one of Michigan’s oldest, and home to delicious snacks and live music. It’s worth the detour.

Holland State Park
Photo Courtesy Pure Michigan

From Kalamazoo, work your way up to Holland and its stunning lakefront Holland State Park, which while not exactly remote, allows you to stock up on your people fix before heading further north. Plus, “Big Red,” AKA the iconic red lighthouse on the sandy lakefront beach here, is the perfect backdrop for a pic.

Grand River Walkway
Photo Courtesy Pure Michigan

Turn inland slightly to Grand Rapids, a town that is adored for its dining and beer culture as well as its laid-back pace, yet with all the amenities of a big city. Drop a kayak in the Grand River, which is especially pretty at night with the city lights glimmering over the water. 

Silver Lake State Park
Photo Courtesy Pure Michigan

On your way to Ludington, along the lake, don’t miss the chance to stop at one of Michigan’s most beloved “get wild” destinations: Silver Lake State Park’s sand dunes. With more than 3,000 acres along more than 4 miles of lakefront, this is where folks bring their big trucks and do big truck things. So, if you're into that, go for it. If you’re not, this spot is still remarkable.

Crystal River
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Crystal River

Glen Arbor

It’s hard to say if the coasts get more beautiful as you go further north, or if the lakes just become more of a part of you. Either way, as you meander up toward the Leelanau Peninsula, you’ll pass a number of rivers. A favorite is Crystal River, an absolutely divine stretch of — as the name suggests — diamond-bright waters shimmying their way from Big Glen Lake into Lake Michigan. Experience the river the best way possible, by being in it or on it. Crystal River Outfitters offers 2-3 hour kayak trips, which are stunning during any season. (Yes, winter kayaking. It’s a thing here.)

Fishtown
PHOTO COURTESY PURE MICHIGAN

Fishtown

Leland

Traveling northward, you’ll come upon Leland, a charming and quaint fishing town where you can see the Manitou Islands (and even ferry over for the day or to camp in the wilderness) from the centuries-old buildings that house shops and restaurants, known as Fishtown. Grab a burger at the Bluebird Restaurant & Tavern, a favorite locals’ haunt with great beers and fresh-caught fish and chips.

The Village at Grand Traverse Commons
Photo by Warren LeMay/Flickr

Cruise the beautiful Leelanau Peninsula all the way north to hike at Leelanau State Park and down to Traverse City, one of Northern Michigan’s more “bustling” towns. There are great eats and entertainment in TC, not to mention it’s one of the most beautiful waterfront towns in the US. If you’re up for it, enjoy the fact that Grand Traverse Bay is warmer than Lake Michigan and take a dip. Shopping at the Village at Grand Traverse Commons is a unique experience, with its labyrinth of hallways that make up what was formerly a mental institution. Local Michigan products and also places to snack and grab a beverage throughout the Commons make it a fun way to spend a few hours or the whole day.

Wilderness State Park
Photo courtesy of Michigan Parks & Recreation Department

Heading up the winding coast toward Wilderness State Park, you’ll pass through some of Michigan’s most beautiful scenery. Lakes, trees, more lakes, more trees, rivers. Before heading off-grid into the park, get some classic Polish cuisine at Legs Inn in Cross Village. There are cabins along the lake right there to rent for the night if you need a place to rest. Wilderness State Park itself is known for its 26 miles of shoreline, dunes, and wetlands, with accessible hiking trails and some that are more rustic. Camping here is a delight and the stars are so bright that they even built a dark sky park here called Headlands, which boasts incredible night skygazing due to the limited light pollution in the area.

Tahquamenon Falls State Park
PHOTO COURTESY PURE MICHIGAN

The vacant and forest-lined roads of the Upper Peninsula call you up toward Tahquamenon Falls, with a 50-foot drop and up to 50,000 gallons per second of cedar-tinted water pouring over the 200-foot wide falls. Tahquamenon stems from an Ojibwe word, the first peoples of this region, meaning “dark berry” — perhaps in honor of the wild berries that grow abundantly around here in the summertime.

Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore
PHOTO COURTESY PURE MICHIGAN

From the majestic falls, head to Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore for hiking or swimming at Miner’s Beach. Here you’ll meet Lake Superior, the greatest of the Great Lakes. Along the vibrantly colored sandstone cliffs, you can rent a kayak or take a glass-bottom boat tour that even crosses over shipwrecks, of which there are many remnants in the lakes. Before heading out, return to civilization in Marquette, arguably the UP’s hot spot, and grab a cup of coffee at Dead River Coffee Roasters downtown on the marina. Marquette is a delight to walk around, taking in what is at once a vibrant and tranquil town. Grab a bite to eat at the historic Vierling Restaurant & Marquette Harbor Brewery and enjoy the fresh breezes off Lake Superior.

Quincy Mine
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Quincy Mine

Copper Harbor

If you’re seeking a peninsula within a peninsula, Keweenaw must be one of the most stunning on Earth. Jutting into the frigid waters of Lake Superior, this is the former home of copper mines that brought more people to northern Michigan at one point than the gold rush did to California. All that hustle is gone now, and places like Quincy Mine remain as historical markers in an otherwise mostly vacant territory. Once you’ve taken in the sites there, stop at Offshore Fish & Chips for fresh Lake Superior whitefish before making your way to the tip of the peninsula, home of beautiful Copper Harbor. There you can take a walk at Hunter’s Point, admiring the agate-lined shore of the great lake and watch the sunset from the top of Brockway Mountain Drive.

Lake of the Clouds
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Lake of the Clouds

Ontonagon County

Make your way to the increasingly hilly region of the western UP, home to Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park. Here, you’ll find everything from moose, bear, and great hiking to stunning hidden rivers and lakes, a ski run, and even a music festival. At the park, make sure you visit Lake of the Clouds, described in 1850 by scientist J.W. Foster as such: “A remarkable gorge lies ... about two miles south of Lake Superior, and in that distance the ground rises about 1,000 feet. Suddenly the traveler finds himself on the brink of a precipice 500 feet deep, at the base of which lies a small lake, so sheltered and hemmed in by the surrounding mountains that the winds barely ruffle its surface.” It looks just as heavenly as it sounds, promise.

Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary
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Alpena is one of northern Michigan’s biggest towns, on the sunrise side of the state. But what’s beneath the surface is what’s truly remarkable about this town. Here, you’ll find Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary, the resting place of more than 100 shipwrecks on Lake Huron. You can take a glass-bottom boat tour or rent a paddle board and glide over the smooth waters where the ruins lie. Brave souls even snorkel and scuba dive here, truly giving a new dimension to Great Lakes travel.

Port Crescent State Park
PHOTO COURTESY PURE MICHIGAN

Whether you’re into angling or paddling, make sure to grab some fresh-made food and cold-brewed coffee at Sunrise Kava Café in downtown Oscoda as you make your way south toward what residents of Michigan (aka, The Mitten) affectionately refer to as “The Thumb.” Here, you can enjoy calm waters at Port Crescent State Park, a great spot for swimming, hiking, bird-watching, and stargazing at the Port Crescent Dark Sky Preserve. In Port Austin, you’ll find great kayaking on the big lake. Try going with Port Austin Kayak for the trip to Turnip Rock, too.

Detroit Institute of Arts
Photo courtesy of DIA

Now you’re close to metro Detroit, the home of most of Michigan’s population and also tremendous cultural offerings and things to do. From the vast collection of modern, traditional, and anthropological works at the Detroit Institute of Arts; to the vividly colorful street art and relatively new biking, blading, walking, etc., area of the Dequindre Cut; to the shops and farmers market at Eastern Market; downtown Detroit has no shortage of entertainment. For food, try local favorite Foran’s Grand Trunk Pub. It’s just down the street from beautiful Hart Plaza, which overlooks Windsor, Ontario’s remarkable waterfront, where people of all walks of life enjoy the flow of the Detroit River.

Megan Frye is a writer from Michigan. Wherever she may roam, the Great Lakes State will always be home.