Ultimate Michigan Travel Guide: Find Museums, Beaches, Outdoor Festivals and More
Twenty-six reasons a Columbus resident should vacation in the state up north (even if you’re an Ohio State diehard)
Want to know a secret? We really like Michigan. Want to know another secret? You probably do, too. Or at least you should. Despite all the venom that flows toward the team in maize and blue, Michigan has long been prime vacationland for Columbus residents. We love its charming towns, its fascinating history, its culinary treats and, above all, its glorious lakes. So at the risk of offending the Harbaugh haters in our readership, Columbus Monthly has put together the ultimate alphabetical guide to visiting Michigan, from A (Ann Arbor) to Z (Ziibiwing Center) and every letter in between.
A is for Ann Arbor
If you can stomach the sight of The Big House, Ann Arbor is absolutely worth a visit and consistently ranks among the top 10 college towns in the U.S. (according to WalletHub). Plenty of restaurants, bars and museums, as well as a walkable downtown, a lovely arboretum and a renowned art festival, make for an enjoyable weekend trip.
Museumgoers will want to check out the University of Michigan Museum of Art, the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology and the Museum of Natural History. For something a bit more peculiar, visit the Sindecuse Museum of Dentistry, where you can see exhibits ranging from “Tooth Fairy Magic” to the evolution of dental techniques from 1860 to 1940.
If you fancy the outdoors, the university’s impressive Nichols Arboretum (aka the Arb) is on the edge of central campus and features nearly 3.5 miles of trails that pass by gardens, fields and the Huron River. Art lovers will want to mark July 21–23 on their calendar. That’s when the Ann Arbor Art Fair takes over more than 30 blocks in the city’s downtown. The event is the largest juried art fair in the nation and showcases works by nearly 1,000 artists. While downtown, be sure to wander down the roofed passageway known as Nickels Arcade, built in 1918. The architectural gem features a coffee shop, antiques store, old-school barber, gift shop, shoe store and more.
B is for Beaches
Of course, the Great Lakes are Michigan’s big draw. Fabulous beaches stretch along the state’s 3,200 miles of shoreline, especially along Lake Michigan, Lake Superior and northern Lake Huron. In general, the farther south and west you go, the more crowded the beaches get.
One note: All the Great Lakes are expected to have water levels this summer that are lower than in 2020 and 2021 but still above average, so call ahead for beach conditions.
Among the finest beaches:
New Buffalo Beach: It’s not huge, but it’s convenient for out-of-state visitors (a five-hour drive from Columbus) because it’s near the Indiana state line. Amenities include a snack bar and paddleboard and kayak rentals.
Grand Haven State Park: A wide beach in a charming southwest Michigan town, Grand Haven is nice for swimming, relaxing and beach walking, and there’s a photo-ready, classic red lighthouse on the pier. The only negative is the giant line of motorhomes and campers parked on a large portion of the beach. Also, it gets very crowded in midsummer but has a lovely offseason.
Ludington State Park and Stearns Beach: Lake Michigan looks gorgeous from these two fine, white-sand beaches. The city beach is right in town and features free parking and accessible pathways. Ludington State Park nearby is a truly wonderful beach that goes on for miles. Ambitious walkers can stroll 2 miles down the shoreline to reach the black-and-white-striped Big Sable Point lighthouse. Top drawer.
Empire Beach Village Park: In the middle of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, this dinky beach is a hidden gem of sandy heaven on Lake Michigan and South Bar Lake.
Harrisville and Negwegon State Parks’ beaches: Along northern Lake Huron between Oscoda and Alpena, these two low-key state parks are secret favorites of many Michiganders. Negwegon didn’t even have a permanent sign until recent years. It features long strips of sandy beaches, and you can find Petoskey stones on these glistening stretches.
Bete Grise beach: A fine beach on frigid Lake Superior, though the shallow, sheltered waters here are warmer than other parts of the mighty lake. Way up in the Keweenaw Peninsula near the northern tip of the Upper Peninsula, this beach was once threatened with condo development but was bought for a preserve. Its 4,000-foot shoreline is open to the public, and it is a treasure.
Au Train Beach: Right off M-28 between Marquette and Munising in the Upper Peninsula, this pleasant white-sand beach is near the main road, so it is not exactly a quiet getaway. But the beach is nice, and the water is sparkling clear and oh-so cold.
C is for Cars
Other inventors came and went, but Henry Ford’s clever moving assembly line and affordable cars for the common man transformed Detroit into the Motor City. Michigan is full of auto heritage sites, but if you can visit only one, it should be the Ford Rouge Factory Tour. Start at The Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, where autos on display include Ford’s first car (the 1896 Quadricycle Runabout) all the way up to the industry-changing 2002 Toyota Prius hybrid. Then take a museum bus to the nearby Dearborn Truck Plant. The plant is part of a famous complex historically known as The Rouge. Stroll an elevated walkway for a third of a mile above the busy, modern F-150 truck assembly floor. It’s an incredible ballet of humans, robotics and moving aluminum alloy truck parts that magically turn bits of metal into the majestic vehicles that consumers buy. There is nothing artificial about it—you are seeing the real factory floor.
If you have time to delve into more sumptuous auto history, spend a morning visiting the charming Ford Piquette Avenue Plant in Detroit’s Midtown, where the Model T was born. Then head to the nearby Detroit Institute of Arts, where the Detroit Style: Car Design in the Motor City 1950–2020 exhibit has stunning design art and 12 sexy concept vehicles that will make car lovers swoon. For more Michigan auto heritage spots, see motorcities.org.
D is for Dark Skies
With the Great Lakes bordering it to the west, north and east, Michigan is surrounded by something that few other states in the continental U.S. have: dark skies. Without light pollution from nearby cities, the state is ideal for stargazing and, in the right conditions, even viewing the aurora borealis, or Northern Lights. The northern parts of the state have some of the best spots for nighttime views, but there are options closer to home as well.
Michigan boasts six dark sky preserves—areas with artificial light restrictions—in state parks: Lake Hudson Recreation Area in Clayton, Negwegon State Park in Harrisville, Port Crescent State Park in Port Austin, Rockport Recreation Area and Thompson’s Harbor State Park in Rogers City, and Wilderness State Park in Carp Lake. There are also two internationally designated dark sky parks: Headlands Dark Sky Park in Mackinaw City and Dr. T.K. Lawless Park in Vandalia. But you don’t have to go to a designated dark sky preserve for great sights; other state parks, like Ludington State Park Beach or Hoeft State Park in Rogers City, also offer ample opportunity.
For your best chance to see the Northern Lights, head as far north as travel plans allow between late August and early April; Headlands is a particularly good park for this, and its website offers links to forecasters that can predict aurora appearances a few days in advance.
Also worth a visit is the Grand Rapids Amateur Astronomical Association’s James C. Veen Observatory, near Lowell, which offers private reservations and group tours Sundays through Fridays from March to November and public viewing nights on select Saturdays from April through October.
E is for Edmund Fitzgerald
The S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald went down in a storm Nov. 10, 1975, killing all 29 men aboard, an event memorialized in song the following year. No Great Lakes shipwreck since has been deadlier. And there’s an Ohio connection: The ship was under permanent charter to Cleveland-based Oglebay Norton Co., although bound for Detroit on its fateful journey.
A 1995 expedition by the Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society recovered the ship’s bell and replaced it on the still-underwater wreck with a replica listing crewmen’s names. The original is on display at the society’s Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum at Whitefish Point, site of one-third of Lake Superior’s 550-plus wrecks (out of some 6,000 throughout the five Great Lakes). “There is no answer as to why the Fitzgerald sank,” says Sean Ley, the society’s development director. “No one is ever going to know specifically.”
Facts About the Sinking of the S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald
Length: 729 feet, the largest Great Lakes ship from its 1958 launch until surpassed in 1971
Volume: 13,632 gross tonnage, nearly 50,500 cubic yards
Cargo: 29,250 tons of taconite pellets, marble-sized balls of processed iron ore
The Storm: 58 knots steady wind, 70-knot gusts, up to 25-foot waves
Wreck site: 17 miles NNW of Whitefish Point, ½ mile from the Ontario shore
Depth: 535 feet below the surface; the ship lies in two pieces
Elegy: 2.4 million plays of Gordon Lightfoot’s “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” on his YouTube channel
F is for Frankenmuth
You can find plenty of charm, fun and kitsch in Frankenmuth, a small Central Michigan city that fully embraces its German roots. Dubbed “Michigan’s Little Bavaria,” the town—nestled along the Cass River—juxtaposes modern appeal with quaint architecture (don’t miss the covered bridge). Stop for the day, or choose from multiple lodging options, including two hotels with indoor waterparks.
Explore on foot or book a carriage or riverboat tour. There are festivals for all seasons, from the World Expo of Beer (Michigan’s largest beer sampling event) to Oktoberfest and Zehnder’s Snowfest. “World-famous chicken dinners” are the cuisine of choice. Get your fill at the Bavarian Inn Restaurant or Zehnder’s of Frankenmuth.
In the mood for shopping? Browse the River Place Shops, an outdoor venue with heated cobblestone walks and more than 40 merchants and attractions. No trip is complete without a stop at Bronner’s Christmas Wonderland, the world’s largest Christmas store. The 2.2-acre shop is open year-round and overflowing with décor, lights, trees and 6,000 styles of Christmas ornaments in every size, shape and color of the rainbow.
G is for Gitche Gumee
The Ojibwe name for Lake Superior was famously name-dropped in both Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s 1855 epic poem “The Song of Hiawatha” and Gordon Lightfoot’s 1976 folk-rock earworm “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.” Today, the name lives on in various businesses and destinations along the mighty lake’s Upper Peninsula shoreline, from Gitche Gumee Agate and History Museum in Grand Marais to Gitche Gumee Landing Gift Shop in Ontonagon. Indeed, Gitche Gumee, which roughly translates to “big sea,” is a fitting moniker for the largest freshwater lake in the world by area, with its fearsome November storms, bitterly cold temperatures and extraordinary surface area and depth. It’s large enough to contain all the other Great Lakes, with enough room left over to fit in three additional Lake Eries. As the delightful Lake Superior Twitter account likes to boast, “Without me, they’d be called the Good Lakes.”
H is for Holland
More than just a tourist town, this western Michigan city is a time capsule with a current twist. Its deep Dutch roots still thrive today, but they mix with a diverse population and a modern flair. Two attractions unique to Holland make it special: Holland State Park and the De Zwaan windmill.
Vacationers crowd into the state park in summer, drawn by the fact you can park your camper within sight of the azure shores of Lake Michigan. With its wide, white-sand beach and its view of the Holland Harbor “Big Red” Lighthouse, the park is a classic Michigan summer experience.
Partner that with a step back in time to 1800s Dutch life. The city-owned Windmill Island Gardens bloom with 100,000 tulips during the city’s Tulip Time Festival each May, but all year long the island gives visitors a glimpse of history. De Zwaan, “the swan,” was brought to the city of Holland in 1964—a heavily damaged historic windmill that was the last one allowed to leave the Netherlands. The only working authentic windmill in the United States, it has 80-foot-long arms that turn in the wind and gears that grind wheat into flour. Take a tour of the five-story windmill; there’s a splendid view from the top floor. Stroll through the flowers, over small bridges and across canals, and don’t forget to buy gifts. It’s all part of the way Holland has woven its past into today’s life.
I is for Islands
Tourists to Michigan usually head straight for Mackinac Island, the Lake Huron gem near the Mackinac Bridge. With its “no cars allowed” ambiance and Victorian summer vibe, the island welcomes throngs of visitors. Yet Mackinac is not the only island worth visiting in the state. Try these others, too:
Isle Royale: The most remote of all islands in Michigan, it is a national park in the middle of Lake Superior. Fly or take a ferry from either Copper Harbor (3 hours) or Houghton (6 hours). The pristine park is the site of a long moose/wolf study that follows the fates of prey and predator. Isle Royale has two very humble lodgings in Rock Harbor and Windigo, but no other amenities to speak of. Campers and hikers must bring everything they need. This park isn’t for casual day-trippers but is a truly life-affirming, remarkable destination. It’s open only from April 16 to Oct. 31.
Drummond Island: Take a 15-minute car ferry ride from the eastern Upper Peninsula mainland to access Drummond Island. Stay at a rustic hotel or campground, dine at low-key, casual establishments, and get ice cream at the iconic Tee Pee. Drummond has 100 miles of off-road and all-terrain-vehicle trails, great snowmobiling and a whole lot of water views.
Beaver Island: A two-hour ferry ride or short plane trip from Charlevoix, this Lake Michigan spot has a downtown, lodging and plenty to do on a day trip or overnight. The 13-mile-long island has a fascinating history. It once was a stronghold of a breakaway Mormon group, then became populated by Irish immigrants. Even today, it has an Irish flair—locals call it the Emerald Isle.
Manitou Islands: Part of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, these two islands, 18 miles out into Lake Michigan, can be reached by ferry or seaplane. They are undeveloped but open to camping, hiking and day-tripping. No vehicles are allowed, and few amenities are available. Take a guided tour on South Manitou or be in the great alone on North Manitou.
J is for Jampot
On the lake side of a sharp bend of M-26 near Eagle Harbor, the gold-topped domes of the Monastery of the Holy Protection of the Theotokos shine through a gap in the pines and poplars. Across the road to the south, long lines form every summer across the gravel lot of The Jampot. The shop sells scrumptious baked goods and otherworldly jams and preserves packed with wild fruits and berries picked on the Keweenaw Peninsula. The wild blueberry jam is summer in a jar, and heavenly over vanilla ice cream. The sweet treats are made by brothers of the Society of St. John, who founded the Ukrainian Greek Catholic monastery in the Eastern Orthodoxy tradition in 1983 next to Jacob’s Falls on the Lake Superior shore. Monks give up personal possessions and live communally to study Scripture, sing choral music and revel in nature’s splendor. They don’t even listen to the radio.
The store opens late May through October, Tuesday through Saturday. A limited selection is available online at poorrockabbey.com. Sales support monastery operations and its mission of religious painting, sculpture and music.
This must-stop is just one of the many attractions of the scenic and remote Keweenaw: the college-town vibe in Houghton, the architectural grandeur (and excellent brewpub) in Calumet, the seagull-serenaded calm of Copper Harbor after the morning ferry leaves for Isle Royale. Leaving Copper Harbor, take the 10-mile Brockway Mountain Scenic Drive to a lookout at the highest point between the Rockies and the Alleghenies. The Jampot is just 30 minutes away.
K is for Kilwins
Northern Michigan remains the homeland of Kilwins, even though the chain has a national presence with 140 stores all over the country, including one at Dublin’s Bridge Park. Over the past seven decades, Kilwins’ confections have become an up-north tradition, with tourists indulging their sweet tooths at stores in Mackinaw City, Charlevoix, Harbor Springs and other popular Michigan vacation destinations.
Fudge, of course, is a big draw, especially at the Kilwins outpost on Mackinac Island, the self-proclaimed fudge capital of the world. The island is home to 13 fudge shops and the Aug. 26–28 Mackinac Island Fudge Festival, which in the past has featured fudge bingo, fudge-infused cocktails and a “fudge-o-war” (a tug-o-war contest among the island’s fudge shops). But the Kilwins goodie menu goes far beyond that vacationland treat, including caramel apples, caramel corn, ice cream, chocolates, toffee and brittles, with many products handmade by employees as customers watch.
Don and Katy Kilwin founded the business in Petoskey, Michigan, in 1947. Today, Kilwins, now owned by Don and Robin McCarty, remains based in the quaint Lake Michigan resort community, where a visit to its cute downtown wouldn’t be complete without a stop at the original shop on Howard Street. Also in Petoskey is the Kilwins Chocolate Kitchen, a bigger facility that features chocolate-making tours. Because of the pandemic, the tours are now self-guided, with visitors observing—at a safe distance and through windows—production kitchen employees making the business’ signature goodies.
L is for Lighthouses
Michigan is heaven for lighthouse fanatics, boasting more maritime beacons than any other state. In total, there are more than 120 lighthouses along the state’s 3,200-mile freshwater coast—a longer shoreline than any state other than Alaska. Many of these lighthouses are no longer operational, but preservationists have worked to keep them in good condition and accessible to the public, from Detroit in the south to Copper Harbor in the north to Big Sable Point in the west.
You could devote a lifetime attempting to visit each of these monuments, but a more practical option is to spend a few hours aboard one of the lighthouse boat cruises offered by Shepler’s Ferry in Mackinaw City. Best known for carrying visitors to Mackinac Island, Shepler’s also provides a handful of tours showcasing 14 nearby lighthouses on Lake Huron and Lake Michigan, including Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse, Round Island Light and White Shoal Light. All tours visit at least five lighthouses, feature expert narration from a member of the Great Lakes Lighthouse Keepers Association and include a pass underneath the Mackinac Bridge, the connector between the Lower and Upper peninsulas. One tour also offers an up-close look at the Les Cheneaux Islands, an archipelago of 36 islands along 12 miles of Lake Huron’s Upper Peninsula shore east of the Mackinac Bridge. Ticket prices range from $75 to $112, with cruises running from June to September.
M is for Motown
Housed in the original “Hitsville U.S.A.” house on West Grand Boulevard, the Motown Museum shimmers with Detroit’s happy history of music. The museum is somewhat of a shrine these days for worldwide celebrities and musicians (singer Paul McCartney even paid for the piano to be restored). But Motown Records had humble roots, starting with a decision by young entrepreneur Berry Gordy in 1959 to create a small recording studio to feature Detroit singers. He auditioned kids from the city, and suddenly, the music of Stevie Wonder, the Supremes, the Temptations, Smokey Robinson, the Four Tops, Mary Wells and Marvin Gaye blazed across the music world. Gordy also took a chance on some kids from Indiana called the Jackson 5.
The small museum seems to have an endless supply of gold and platinum records, magazine covers, costumes, sheet music and photos. But it is truly beloved because of its authentic feel. You can see the tiny apartment where Gordy lived above the studio in the early days of Motown Records. You also can stand in Studio A, where so much fantastic music was made, and see the small control booth where that genius was recorded.
The Motown Museum opened in 1985, but only in the past decade has it truly been appreciated. Now, worldwide fame means opportunity. The museum is expanding with $55 million in improvements. That means construction, but fans should not worry—the original Hitsville U.S.A. house will remain as-is. The museum has been temporarily closed for elevator repair and for construction of a new plaza walkway in front, but it is due to reopen for visitors this summer. Check motownmuseum.org for reopening updates.
N is for Nautical
Michigan floats about 800,000 recreational boats, third-highest in the nation, according to the U.S. Coast Guard. Why? Water, water and more water. The state borders four of the five Great Lakes and boasts 11,000 decent-sized inland lakes. Any visit to Michigan isn’t complete without spotting a commercial freighter on the big lakes or getting out on the water yourself. You also can witness two of the finest sailboat races in the world: the Chicago Yacht Club Race to Mackinac (this year July 22) and the Bayview Yacht Club Mackinac Race (July 13).
The 113th “Chicago Mac” race, as most people call it, starts at Navy Pier in Chicago, crosses Lake Michigan, passes Michigan’s Manitou Islands and ends at Round Island Lighthouse at Mackinac Island. One great spot for spectators is Mackinaw City, where more than 230 boats with 3,000 sailors aboard stream under the Mackinac Bridge over a couple days to the finish in a parade of colorful sails and tall masts.
The 98th “Port Huron to Mackinac” race, as the Bayview race is commonly known, starts in Port Huron an hour northeast of Detroit. About 180 sailboats begin at the Black River, sail under the Blue Water Bridge and out into Lake Huron. You can get close to the boats at either end of the race or see boats that are following a “shore course” route breeze right past the harbors of Port Sanilac and Lexington in Michigan’s Thumb.
O is for Outdoor Festivals
As the pandemic fades, Michigan’s summer outdoor festivals are back full strength this year. Three of the most famed will have you licking your lips, staring in awe and tapping your toes.
Traverse City, July 2–9
The region is the state’s largest sweet-cherry grower, so at the festival, visitors can buy cherry pie, cherry juice, cherry jam and cherry chocolate, then cheer the cherry queen in the Cherry Royale Parade. But that’s just a start. The event has an airshow, foot races, concerts, a classic car show, an amusement park and fireworks. And, oh yes, you can enter a pie-eating contest—cherry pie, naturally. The city is packed during the festival, so book lodging early.
Grand Rapids, Sept. 15–Oct. 2
This competition of artwork in any medium is open to artists from around the world. Visitors choose their favorites and help select the winners. Hundreds of pieces of art are displayed in the city for 18 days, at venues both inside and outside, and all viewing is free. With $450,000 in prizes, it’s a magnet for fine artists. Started in 2009, ArtPrize has turned into one of the most-visited art fairs globally. Art critics and the public don’t always see eye-to-eye on what is most worthy of praise, but the show is always provocative.
A Labor Day weekend institution for the last 40 years, this event is the largest free jazz festival in the world. Up to 60 acts perform in downtown Detroit at the open-air Hart Plaza and Campus Martius. The 2021 festival featured blue chip jazz artists like Herbie Hancock.
P is for Pizza
The Detroit-style pizza craze is sweeping the nation, but you can get a bite of the original in Michigan. Back in 1946, Gus and Anna Guerra created a Sicilian-style pizza in a deep, square baking pan, which created the first pizza with a crispy bottom and edges. The result: thick slices with an airy, light center and a satisfying, crunchy taste. The Guerras’ original Detroit restaurant, Buddy’s, now a 21-store chain, is still home to the Detroit-style pizza. Ditto for Cloverleaf Pizza in Eastpointe, a later Guerra restaurant, where the pizza is called the Motor City Square. Of course, nearly every pizza joint in the state now claims to have a Detroit-style pizza, but it’s fun to sample the original recipe. Yum.
Q is for Quirky Public Art
Fans of Dublin’s Field of Corn or the Short North Gothic Mural will find that the Detroit area can easily quench their thirst for quirky and quixotic public art. Hamtramck Disneyland, just outside the city, was created by Dmytro Szylak, a Ukrainian immigrant who began installing kinetic, sculptural pieces on top of two garages he owned after retiring from General Motors in the 1980s. Szylak continued adding to the project until his 2015 death at age 92; today, local gallery Hatch Art owns and maintains it. Along the 3600 block of Heidelberg Street in Detroit proper, you’ll find The Heidelberg Project, the once-controversial, neighborhood-sized installation created by Tyree Guyton in the late 1980s as a reaction to blight in the area. Schedule a tour or explore on your own the street’s painted vehicles, enormous sculptures made from found materials in nearby vacant lots, empty houses painted over with colorful murals and more. And if Field of Corn really is your thing, we suggest a stop in Ann Arbor to visit the Food Gatherers Warehouse. The food bank installed several larger-than-life sculptures of its symbol, the carrot, emerging from the ground.
R is for Rivera, Diego
It’s a curious fact that at the height of the Depression, in the same month that police and Ford Motor Co. guards shot and killed four unemployed auto workers at a protest known as the Ford Hunger March, a world-famous Mexican muralist who was an avowed Communist came to Detroit to spend a year creating an artwork celebrating the auto industry. Ford president Edsel Ford hired Diego Rivera to cover the four walls of a courtyard in the Detroit Institute of Arts with murals celebrating Detroit’s industries—and that’s exactly what Rivera did. He created 27 huge frescoes combining detailed depictions of Ford’s River Rouge plant with allegorical images of the history of industry, from the birth of agriculture to modern medicine. Setting aside the pain of the Depression, Rivera created romantic images that celebrated the marvels of modern production and elevated the nobility of workers. (In a fascinating counterpoint, his wife, Frida Kahlo, who was with him in Detroit, was busy creating miniature paintings that addressed such topics as suicide and abortion.)
Rivera’s murals were immediately controversial. A Detroit News editorial called them vulgar and un-American; clergy objected to a modern nativity scene in which a doctor is vaccinating a baby. Others were troubled by frightening images of poison gas production, as well as many nudes. The depiction of the Ford Motor Co., however, was overwhelmingly positive. The museum’s art commission unanimously accepted the murals, and today’s visitors are the beneficiaries. Allow some time to explore this historic and massive work; DIA offers a multimedia tour in Spanish and English.
S is for Sleeping Bear
A visit to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is both tranquil and invigorating. Located along the crystal-blue waters of Lake Michigan on the northwest tip of the Lower Peninsula, this 35-mile stretch of beachfront splendor is one of the most scenic spots in the U.S. It’s no surprise it was named “The Most Beautiful Place in America” by Good Morning America in 2011.
With so much spectacular scenery to take in amid its 71,119 acres, two islands, 20-plus inland lakes and 12 miles of rivers and streams, it’s hard to know where to start. Two musts: the Dune Climb and Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive. The Dune Climb is a steep ascent up a giant wall of sand, but the reward is a scenic view of Glen Lake on one side and miles of dunes on the other. Follow the Dunes Trail, a 3.5-mile round trip to Lake Michigan, if you can endure a strenuous journey that takes two to four hours due to the rolling, sandy terrain.
For easier sightseeing, make the 7.4-mile, 12-stop Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive, which travels around the dunes. Do not miss No. 9, Lake Michigan Overlook. The stop is perched on a 450-foot bluff above the water and features the best view on the lakeshore. Sitting on the sand and admiring the clear-blue water is an experience to savor. It is possible to make the extremely steep descent to the shoreline, but visitors are advised not to do so—notably by a sign warning of a pricey helicopter-rescue fee.
Hiking along the lakeshore’s 100 miles of trails is another popular pastime. National Park Service rangers recommend starting with Sleeping Bear Point. This 2.8-mile trek is less congested and less strenuous than the Pyramid Point and Empire Bluff trails, which provide higher panoramic views.
Canoeing, kayaking and tubing are offered on the Platte River, whose warm water empties into Lake Michigan at Platte River Beach. Several other popular beaches are located along the lakeshore. In the winter, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing are common pursuits.
T is for Turnip Rock
Few kayaking adventures have a bigger payoff than a paddle to Turnip Rock, the limestone landmark just off the Lake Huron shore at the tip of Michigan’s Thumb. Wave erosion gave this tiny island its stunning shape, deemed one of the most amazing rock formations in the country by CNN in 2018 (and the only one from that list in the northern Midwest). It’s not easy reaching the rock; it’s only accessible by water because it’s flanked by private land, the Pointe aux Barques cottage community. You can leave your boat to explore the shallow waters around the landmark, but the rocks can be sharp and slippery, and you might perturb the nearby cottage owners if you stay too long (or make too much noise).
It’s a 7-mile round trip to reach Turnip Rock, passing by cliffs, water caves and undeveloped shoreline. Experienced kayakers can add an additional leg to the Pointe aux Barques Lighthouse, one of the oldest in Michigan. While the paddle to Turnip Rock is relatively easy, Lake Huron can be a dangerous place, so be sure to check weather conditions before heading out. A great resource is Port Austin Kayak, where you can rent equipment, pick up a packed lunch and seek advice on staying safe on the water. After you finish your voyage, spend some time exploring Port Austin, a charming, under-the-radar Michigan town. It boasts one of the state’s largest farmers markets and a waterfront park where you can cool off with a dip in Lake Huron’s blue-green waters following your Turnip Rock trek.
U is for U.P.
Drive the 5-mile gantlet over the Mackinac Bridge to a land of majestic vistas, outdoor adventure and all the whitefish you can eat. It’s best to divide the quest into sections, but wherever you go, something nearby is probably named Presque Isle.
East: Make Marquette a base of exploration. Stay in the restored historic Landmark Inn, eat and drink at the Vierling brewery a few blocks downhill and enjoy lakeside city parks. Hike up Sugarloaf Mountain. Take a side trip to Big Bay, where the restaurant at Thunder Bay Inn was built as a set for “Anatomy of a Murder.” Be sure to stop at Lakenenland Sculpture Park on M-28.
Must: Book a boat tour for the best view of mineral-streaked sandstone cliffs rising as much as 200 feet over turquoise water at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. Explore some of the 100 miles of hiking trails, from a quick jaunt to Miners Castle from the parking lot or a multi-day backcountry camping trek. Enjoy beaches both crowded and remote, but pay attention to local warnings on rip currents. In Grand Marais, (except in winter) eat excellent pizza at West Bay Diner while reading a novel by co-owner Ellen Airgood.
West: At Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park, crane your neck at never-logged hemlocks and hardwoods in the largest old-growth forest in the Great Lakes, taking up half of Michigan’s largest state park. Drive or hike up Summit Peak, 1,958 feet high. Hike the challenging Escarpment Trail, to be rewarded with a view of Lake of the Clouds. Catch a sunset from the rust-colored rocky shore.
Rest: Seek out some of the U.P.’s 300-plus waterfalls—Tahquamenon and Bond are standouts—and 40 lighthouses. Camp in the excellent, if primitive, federal and state forest campgrounds. On U.S. 2, stop at Gustafson’s Smoked Fish in Brevort, then picnic on a Lake Michigan beach right along the highway.
Skip: Frankly, pasties, the U.P.’s signature hand pies, are dry and under-spiced. Mine tours are only for those who enjoy several hours in dark, enclosed spaces. And Da Yoopers Tourist Trap: The sign warns you.
V is for Viticulture
Lake Michigan breezes make gentle weather for growing grapes. The result? Fine wine is made all along the western side of the state, from Paw Paw to Petoskey. Drive from winery to winery on a Michigan wine trail. Or hop on a tour bus that will do the driving while you drink safely. But an excellent way to experience Michigan wine country is to sip, dine and stay overnight at a winery. That is possible on both the Leelanau Peninsula and Old Mission Peninsula, north of Traverse City.
One of the most complete experiences is at Black Star Farms. Stay at the inn, have a dinner that pairs wines with the food, shop and wander 160 acres at its Sutton’s Bay location in the Leelanau. If European comfort is your goal, try Chateau Chantal on Old Mission. The French-style villa gives tours of the winery, but you also can stay overnight and enjoy spectacular views of Grand Traverse Bay. Your stay includes breakfast. Chateau Chantal also offers cooking classes and special wine dinners. Nearby is Chateau Grand Traverse, which also offers wine tastings and overnight accommodations with breakfast. Chateau Grand Traverse also has fantastic water views and is for adults only.
Beyond these “sip and stay” experiences, the winery scene in Michigan has matured. Some wineries pair tastings with meals, yoga, snowshoeing, you name it. Michigan is known best for its riesling and gewürztraminer white wines, but don’t miss sparkling wines, light reds and even sweet cherry wine.
Wine trail loops you can drive yourself include the Grand Traverse Bay Loop (see other loops of the Leelanau at lpwines.com). The Lake Michigan Shore Wine Trail in southwest Michigan has 15 wineries, including the state’s oldest, St. Julian (miwinetrail.com). And the Old Mission Peninsula Wine Trail includes 10 wineries (ompwinetrail.com).
W is for the Wright Museum
The Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History is an underappreciated destination in Detroit. With a soaring central dome and an intricate terrazzo floor called “Ring of Genealogy” by Detroit muralist Hubert Massey, the museum contains hundreds of thousands of documents and artifacts related to the African American experience. Its permanent exhibit is And Still We Rise, a history of Black people in America that covers 20 galleries. A current visiting exhibition is King Tutankhamun: Wonderful Things from the Pharaoh’s Tomb, featuring 120 replicas of the young king’s possessions (through Aug. 22). The vast museum even houses another museum, the National Museum of the Tuskegee Airmen, which is included in the admission price.
The Wright Museum has a long history. Dr. Charles H. Wright, a local doctor, began an “International Afro-American Museum” in Detroit in 1965. It grew in ambition until 1997, when the current museum was built. With its wide-open spaces and elegant architecture, the museum has featured multiple events. It vaulted into the worldwide spotlight in 2018, when it hosted mourners at a two-day public viewing of Aretha Franklin’s casket when the Queen of Soul died.
X is for Xichigan
Even in the heart of Wolverine country, Ohio State fans can find a safe haven. Most Saturdays during college football season, a scarlet-and-gray throng descends on the Buffalo Wild Wings in downtown Detroit’s Greektown neighborhood. The Motor City Buckeyes, Detroit’s OSU alumni club, has hosted viewing parties at the Columbus-founded sports bar for the past five years. And at this point, they’re pretty much taking over the place—or at least the second floor, the gathering spot for the faithful. An OSU alumni club banner permanently hangs in the space, as does a framed jersey from Craig Krenzel, the former Ohio State quarterback who grew up in the Detroit area. “When you’re a Buckeye in Michigan, we all find each other, and we stick together,” says David Emerling, the Detroit alumni club’s treasurer.
Club members welcome visitors to join them at their TV parties or come to the club’s tailgates on the Michigan campus when The Game is in Ann Arbor. Just be sure to contact the club—either through its Facebook page or its website—to make sure there’s room for extra folks. “We’re happy to welcome as many people as we can to our events,” says Ana Tyler, the club’s president.
Y is for Yesterdog
It’s not Michigan’s most famous hot dog stand. That honor goes to either Lafayette Coney Island or American Coney Island, the next-door neighbors and fierce contenders for sausage supremacy in Detroit. But Grand Rapids’ Yesterdog has earned plenty of fans since owner Bill Lewis launched the beloved Eastown restaurant in 1976 (during the presidency of Grand Rapids’ Gerald Ford, it should be noted). Among those fans is Adam Herz, the writer of the hit 1999 movie “American Pie.” Herz graduated from East Grand Rapids High School and based Dog Years, the hangout in the movie, on his own teenage haunt. “There’s nothing lovingly crafted or thoughtfully reimagined about their hot dogs,” declared Esquire in a 2010 ode to Yesterdog. “They’re boiled, bunned and topped with kraut, pickles, cheese or spicy chili (or some combination of all four) before they’re delivered to the counter in batches of 30 and divvied up on cafeteria trays. That’s all there is to it, and it’s magnificent.”
Z is for Ziibiwing Center
Learn about the people who lived on the land that is now Michigan long before white settlers colonized the area. The Ziibiwing Center of Anishinabe Culture & Lifeways in Mount Pleasant celebrates and educates visitors about the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe of Michigan. Anishinabe, which means “the first one lowered from above and placed on the Mother Earth,” or more simply, “true people” or “original people,” is the self-name of the Chippewa people; Europeans and other Native Americans also used the name Ojibwe to refer to the Chippewa.
Established in 2004, the Ziibiwing Center aims to reclaim, honor and share the history of the Saginaw Chippewa people. Today, the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe is the largest employer in Michigan’s Isabella County, thanks to its Soaring Eagle Casino and Resort (located across the street from the center) and nearby Soaring Eagle Waterpark and Hotel and Soaring Eagle Hideaway RV Park.
The center’s permanent exhibit is divided into 15 areas that explore petroglyphs, ancestral teachings and ways of life, the effects of colonization, the Anishinabemowin language and more. A seasonal Plant Walk exhibit, open June through September on the center’s grounds, offers education on more than 40 types of plants used by the Anishinabe people, and a changing exhibit features annual rotations of art and artifacts from across North America. On display now are artifacts related to the period of American history when Indigenous children were sent to residential schools to be assimilated into American culture, sometimes by force or without their parents’ consent.
This story is from the April 2022 issue of Columbus Monthly.