Traverse City Road Trip Guide
A Traverse City road trip around the lower peninsula of Michigan embodies everything a road tripper could want—there are curvy roads that induce a desire to see around the next bend; Roadside farm stands spilling over with fresh produce; Cobalt blue water set against a backdrop of hardwood trees set ablaze by the changing season—to dramatic Photoshopped-looking sunsets.
I spent four days road tripping around the lower peninsula of Michigan, the following guide will help you get the most out of a Traverse City road trip.
TRAVERSE CITY ROAD TRIP VEHICLE: Mazda 6 Signature
DURATION: 4 Days
Traverse City Road Trip Day One – Leelanau Peninsula
Drive north along scenic highway 22 down the coast of the Leelanau peninsula. The coastal road is stunning and there are plenty of places to pull over and take in the views. Some of the pullouts even have picnic tables. Depending on the time of day, you can certainly rearrange the order of suggestions below that best suits your schedule.
Tandem Ciders – If you like hard cider, this is the place to go. Apples come in all different types and flavors, and Tandem Ciders, has done an excellent job of capturing the splendor and diversity of the apples in their ciders. With creative and reflective apple cider names, such as Crabster, Green Man and Smackintosh, Tandem Ciders is making it HARD to resist this refreshing beverage.
Grand Traverse Lighthouse – This is the end of the road as they say, but so worth getting out and having a look around. The lighthouse is set within the Leelanau State Park where you’ll find a number of trails, both through the woods, and along the shore. Climb to the top of the lighthouse tower for a spectacular view of Lake Michigan, Cathead Bay and Grand Traverse Bay.
Suttons Bay – On your way back to Traverse City, be sure to stop by Sutton’s Bay. This is a fantastic place to grab a bite to eat, or do a little shopping. There are hiking trails nearby at Bahle Park, and the TART trail (Traverse Area Recreation & Transport) is right on the edge of town, where you can bike, hike or go for a run. You’ll also notice this area is surrounded by rolling vineyards which is in the heart of Michigan wine country. One of the best ways to see Suttons Bay is on bike. The folks at Grand Traverse Bike Tours can show you around, or, you can rent a bike from them and explore on your own like I did.
DISTANCE: 80 miles round trip.
TIME: 2 hours of driving; 4-5 hours for experiences. 6-7 hours total.
See lodging and restaurant recommendations below.
Traverse City Road Trip Day Two – Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore
Driving due west of Traverse City is a place you’ll want to spend a good chunk of your day, the Sleeping Bear Dunes and Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive. On your way to Sleeping Bear, you may want to stop by one of the self-serve (honor system) fruit & produce stands to pick up a few snacks for the day.
Pierce Stocking – This is a one incredible scenic drive! The 7.4-mile drive loops through a Beech and Maple forest with sand dunes and stunning lake views. There are many pullouts and overlooks of Sleeping Bear Dunes and Lake Michigan, so while the drive is just over seven miles, it will take you a while depending on how enamored you are. You may want to take a dune hike along the Cottonwood Trail, or stop for a picnic at one of the many spots along the drive. You may even want to drive the loop twice, like I did.
Glen Haven – This is a small village about five miles north of Sleeping Bear Dunes. Established in the mid 1860s, Glen Haven was a fueling stop for steamships that were servicing the burgeoning fruit industry. Today, most of the old buildings have been restored and put to new use. For example, the blacksmith shop is an interpretive center, the general store is a park concession, and the former cannery is now a museum. In addition to stepping back to yesteryear, there are walking/biking trails and beach access.
Pyramid Point – This is about a half-mile hike (1 mile round trip) to a panoramic view of Lake Michigan. It’s one of the best views of the waters of the Manitou Passage and the Manitou Islands, which lie five miles offshore. For a longer hike with some extended uphill heart-pumpers, turn east from the dune overlook for a winding walk through some meadows and hardwood forests.
Jacob’s Farm – On your way back to Traverse City you may want to stop by Jacob’s Farm. Depending on the time of year, they offer different activities—from a massive corn maze, to you-pick fruit. They also have fresh apple cider and a farmers market on-site.
DISTANCE: 67 miles round trip.
TIME: 1.5 hours of distance driving; 4-5 hours for scenic driving and experiences. 5.5-6.5 hours total.
Traverse City Road Trip Day Three – Old Mission Peninsula
Jutting out right in the middle of the Grand Traverse Bay is the Old Mission Peninsula. This nineteen mile long, three-mile wide peninsula divides Grand Traverse Bay into east and west bays. The Peninsula offers scenic countryside views and beautiful nature walks with a slew of orchards, vineyards and roadside produce stands. There are numerous public parks with hiking trails through nature-enriched woods, to fresh water shorelines, and local roads providing scenic views.
Mission Point Lighthouse – Drive along M-37 to the very end of the peninsula and you’ll find a lighthouse that dates back to 1870. There are trails to explore around the property with beach access. You can also go inside and make your way to the top of the lighthouse to check out the views. They also have an interesting program where you can be a lighthouse keeper for a week, which I think would be a lot of fun.
Old Mission General Store – This is like stepping back in time, when penny candy was actually a penny. A milk shake was just $.10 cents, and for 70 years, the price of a Coca Cola was just a nickel and came in that iconic glass bottle. This old General Store has been in the same family for 9 generations and dates back to the mid-1800s. While the prices are set a market rates, you can still get a fresh slice of pie or a Coke out of a classic machine. No doubt you will be enticed to take some photos, but be warned, ask permission first as the owner is quite protective of his piece of Americana.
Chateau Chantal – Even if you just stop by the overlook at this winery and Inn, it’s worth it. The views of the Grand Traverse Bay are fantastic, so too is the winery. Time permitting; stop by for a cellar tour, tasting, or dinner and wine pairing.
Mission Table – From Chateau Chantal you can drive down the western side of Old Mission Peninsula and stop by the Mission Table. This wonderful venue is located right along the coastal road and is a cluster of venues. The Mission Table itself is a bit of a formal farm-to-fork dining experience, whereas the Jolly Pumpkin is casual pub-style dining. They also have an on-site brewery and spirit-making facility, along with a tasting room and event center. The food is fantastic and the large grounds with lake views match the gastro experience.
DISTANCE: 42 miles round trip.
TIME: 1.25 hours of distance driving; 3-4 hours for scenic driving and experiences. 4-5 hours total.
Traverse City Road Trip Day Four – Explore downtown
Traverse City has a slew of things to do right in the center of town. For the following suggestions, you may want to ditch the car and rent a bike, or just walk.
The Village at Grand Traverse Commons – This is a fascinating place that was once an asylum, but has been under going a massive restoration process over the past couple of decades. Opened in the 1880s, this health facility closed about 100 years later and the compound lay in ruin for many years until a redevelopment effort got underway in 2000. While not yet completed, the Grand Traverse Commons is a place for living, working and playing right in the heart of town.
One of the best ways to learn about this restorative project is by taking a historic tour. On the tour you’ll see some of the buildings that are still slated for restoration, while also going down into the bowels of the compound within a labyrinth of mysterious tunnels. Many of these well-built buildings now breathe new life, such as the old laundry facility, which is now a boutique winery and a coffee shop. And, the old firehouse next door, is now one of many restaurants on site.
Beer Tour – Downtown Traverse City has a wonderful collection of micro breweries. Here are a few I tried and can recommend:
- Right Brain Brewery – As the name implies, these folks are making some very creative concoctions.
- 7 Monks – These guys are very passionate about beer and have carved out a niche for featuring limited run, or hard-to-find beer. 60-70% of their beers are local or from within the state of Michigan.
- Workshop Brewing – This is a really casual place for beer purists to hang out in the heart of the warehouse district. They will not enthuse you with newfangled brews, but rather they choose to honor the more traditional craft of beer making.
- Filling Station – Located in the historic railroad district, within an old train depot, this is a place you can enjoy small batch ales on the rails.
While I did not participate, I did run across a couple brewery tour operators, such as Kayak, Bike & Brew, which would be a fun way to be active, while also trying a number of different types of beers.
Cherry Republic – The lower peninsula of Michigan, including Traverse City, is well know for being the capital of the world for cherry production. At Cherry Republic, they embrace this heritage by offering cherry-lovers hundreds of products infused with the tart little red fruit. The storefront in downtown Traverse City is fantastic and absolutely worth a stop. They have many products available to try-before-you-buy. From salsa, cookies, sauces, jams, wine to chocolate covered cherries and beyond.
TRAVERSE CITY LODGING
When you visit Traverse City, you’ll find an array of different types of lodging, from luxurious resorts, familiar hotels and boutique inns and bed & breakfasts. Here is where I stayed and would recommend:
Grand Traverse Resort – Perched upon a hill just outside of town, this resort has it all! From great accommodations (many with views), wonderful amenities such as golf, indoor tennis, workout facility, pool, spa, shopping and restaurants, with some stellar fine-dining and views from the 16th floor.
Cambria Suites – This is a familiar name with many who travel. The rooms are quite spacious and wonderfully appointed. The staff is very friendly and helpful, including following up via text message to make sure your stay is going okay. The lounge and restaurant are also quite good. The location is closer to downtown Traverse City and they have a free shuttle that will take you there so you don’t have to drive and park.
Inns & B&B’s – While I did not stay at an Inn or bed and breakfast, I did run across a couple that looked really nice. Chateau Chantal and Old Mission Inn. I am sure there are many others in the area, but these are two that I actually remembered as I stopped by both to check them out.
TRAVERSE CITY RESTAURANT RECOMMENDATIONS
Aerie – If you enjoy bold, exciting flavors from locally grown providers, paired perfectly with accompanied ingredients, you’ll love Aerie. The dishes boast an international flair, while each course can be paired with local or regional wine with the help of an on-site sommelier. Located on the 16th floor of the Grand Traverse Resort, this is one stellar restaurant for fine dining. And, the views aren’t too bad either!
7 Monks – This is sort of an upscale pub in its atmosphere and the quality of food. I had an outstanding meal that consisted of Fried Brussels Sprouts with applewood bacon and balsamic drizzle. I also had a side of sweet potato fries. I have no idea what they did to them, but they were some of the best I’ve ever had. For my entrée I had the blackened Ahi tacos with cucumber and carrot slaw with a sweet chili aioli. I washed this down with a Blackrocks Coconut Brown Ale.
Jolly Pumpkin – Similar to 7 Monks, this too is an upscale pub, but they also have a brewery on-site. Fantastic comfort food from soups, salads, pizza to pasta and much more. They are located within the Mission Table compound, which is a more upscale restaurant adjacent to the Jolly Pumpkin.
Filling Station – I mentioned this place under the beer establishments. If you want to go somewhere really casual with some tasty flatbread pizza or a salad paired with some great beer, this is the place to do it. The Filling Station is located near the shores of Boardman Lake, so after your meal be sure to take a walk and check out the views.
If you’ve ever been on a Traverse City road trip before, please leave a comment below and share some of your favorite sights or places. Click here if you’d like to see more photos from Traverse City.