Road Trip on the Michigan Coast

The flag of Michigan advises that ”if you seek a pleasant peninsula, look about you.” I visit Michigan nearly every year to visit relatives, but usually without much opportunity to have a look around this glacier-carved state between the Great Lakes. Recently, however, I had time to do just that (albeit with some covid-related limitations). After seeing family near Detroit, my parents and I headed north, toward the ”tip of the mitt” to see the coast of Lake Michigan.

Originally inhabited by various Native American tribes, Michigan was first colonized by the French starting in the seventeenth century. Both influences endure on the map. ”Michigan,” for example, comes from michigami, the Ojibwe word for ”large lake,” while ”Detroit” is French for ”strait” (détroit, as in ”day-twaa”). The town of Pontiac is named for a local Ottawa chief, while a French explorer named Cadillac gave his name to a different town! There are other European influences, too. Many places in the Upper Peninsula retain traces of Scandinavian and Finnish origin. Frankenmuth touts its German heritage and hosts a giant Christmas market. Meanwhile, the city of Holland in the southwest corner of the state is literally a transplanted slice of its Old-World namesake.

A stroll through downtown Holland takes you past a strip of shopfronts with Dutch names engraved in the stone facades reflecting a mix of nostalgic architectural styles. Among the specialty shops, I found one selling imported Dutch bulk candy, where I went crazy filling my bag when I discovered that the Dutch apparently love licorice just as much as the Swedes! Down by the banks of the Kalamazoo River, they’ve dug a network of canals to recreate the feel of the Netherlands. For authenticity, the island created by the canals bursts into multi-colored fields of tulips in the spring, when the town hosts its big heritage festival. And at the center of everything stands an actual Dutch windmill. After it was damaged in WWII, the city purchased it and carefully reconstructed and restored across the pond to serve as a physical tie to the old country for generations to come.

Leaving the cities behind and heading north, most of the state becomes rolling countryside, forests, and small lakes, an ideal social distancing destination, covid or otherwise. But the highlight of the road trip is taking in the 3,200-mile-long freshwater coastline. Bordering four of the five Great Lakes, Michigan has plenty of options. The lakes are really more like seas, with roaring surf and stretching well beyond the horizon.

A prominent feature of the Lake Michigan coast is its sand dunes, which appear at regular intervals from Chicago to the Straits of Mackinac. At Ludington State Park, we took an evening hike along the shore behind towering dunes leading out to Big Sable Point. The waves and wind keep the dunes in a constant state of change, but the grasses and marshlands help stabilize them and slow their shifting. The trek was worth the effort, as we were greeted with a sunset over Lake Michigan behind the Big Sable Point Lighthouse. Even on a pleasant day, the lake shows off its power with way the waves that lash up against the breakwaters, launching vertical like a Las Vegas fountain.

Further along, you reach the sprawling Sleeping Bear Dunes. Legend has it the dunes are the figure of a mother bear who fell asleep on the shore while mourning the loss of her two cubs who drowned while attempting to cross the ruthless lake. The cubs’ graves are marked by the Manitou islands visible on the horizon after a two-mile trek over the sands. The cubs in the legend no doubt have human counterparts – judging by the shripwreck maps, the Great Lakes can indeed be unforgiving to those who dare to set sail.

Not far from the dunes is Traverse City, the hub of northern Lower Michigan. Traverse City was founded in the mid-1800s at the base of Grand Traverse Bay as a port town to facilitate the transportation of the timber that drove the economy at the time. The settlers soon discovered, though, that despite bitter winters, the moderating effect of the lake protects many fruit plants from frost. In October, as cold air started to gather, the grapes were ripe on the vines, mostly destined for wine bottles that we sampled as we made our way through the ”pinkie fingernail” of Michigan.

Leelanau may not be a household name like Napa or Bordeaux, but this small peninsula and its neighbor the Old Mission Peninsula comprise the state’s most distinct wine region. This area prizes its location at the same latitude as some of Europe’s most renowned wine regions, and with up-and-coming ratings to rival California, their efforts in recent decades seem to be paying off. Despite the covid protocols and the brisk autumn air, the lake provided a wonderful backdrop for tasting some great wine. Along the roads between the vineyards, farmers sell fresh apples, blueberries, even handmade ice cream flavored with locally-grown lavender. Cherries are the biggest business, but out of season, they are available only in various processed forms (wine, salsa, chocolate-coated, et cetera). This self-proclaimed ”cherry capital” hosts an annual festival dedicated to the fruit – excuse enough to return in the summer!

Beyond Traverse City, the drive up toward the Mackinac Bridge consists of scenic byways like M-119. The narrow road leads along a bluff high above the lakeshore, passing through quaint small towns and offering picturesque lake views under a multi-colored canopy of fall foliage. We spent the night in scenic Petoskey, where only a handful of boats bobbed alone in the harbor waiting to be fetched out before the freeze. It was too late for swimming and too early for snow skiing, but a hike along the surging rapids of the Bear River provided yet another opportunity to admire the fall colors before winter set in.

  • Rainy Day in Saugatuck, Michigan, USA
  • The Village at Grand Traverse Commons, Traverse City, Michigan, USA
  • Fall Colors in Petoskey, Michigan, USA
  • Fall Foliage Along Bear River, Petoskey, Michigan, USA
  • USS Silversides Submarine, Muskegon, Michigan, USA

I’ll leave you with some Michigan-inspired music:
”I wanna live in a land of lakes
Where the great waves break
And the night runs right into the day”

– Lord Huron, ”I Will Be Back One Day


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