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How to make the most of the Lake Michigan Circle Tour

When it comes to Great American road trips along the water, California’s Pacific Coast Highway gets all the press. But I say the middle coast is incredibly underrated. Why not drive around Lake Michigan?

There are two ways to tackle this 900-mile, 14.5-hour drive. The first is to complete it all at once. The other? Break it into two separate trips—the north loop and the south loop. A ferry between Manitowoc, WI and Ludington, MI make it easy to bisect the huge body of water. The 620 passenger vessel can accommodate tour buses, RVs and cars, and takes about four hours. Sounds like a fun adventure to me!

In addition to resources on GoRVing.com, both Michigan and Wisconsin’s tourism boards do a great job of pointing you toward RV campgrounds along the route.
   

Tackling the serene North Loop

How to make the most of the Lake Michigan Circle Tour

Kick off your trip in Ludington, Michigan, heading north toward Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, and Traverse City. With its rich blue waters, white sand beaches and nothing but water on the horizon, it’s easy to see why this town is called the Caribbean of the North.

How to make the most of the Lake Michigan Circle Tour

If you can, allot a few days here. Explore Sleeping Bear Sand Dunes, the five local lighthouses (I have a thing for lighthouses!), and explore many great restaurants. From breakfast at the Grand Traverse Pie Company to Asian-inspired food at Alliance Restaurant, there’s no shortage of great places to grab a bite.

Next, it’s on to the “Tip of the Mitt” (aka the top of Michigan—you’ll notice locals regularly use their palm to denote locations within the state). Stop in Petoskey’s downtown, which overlooks Lake Michigan and offers terrific shopping, then continue on to Mackinaw City. From here, you must must must take the ferry to famous Mackinac Island. It’s one of my favorite places in the country. Touristy, sure, but I adore any place where no cars are allowed (here’s my travel guide to the island). Simply leave your camper or RV on the mainland and head over for the day or even overnight.

How to make the most of the Lake Michigan Circle Tour

From Mackinaw City, you’ll cross the “The Mighty Mac,” the 10th largest over water suspension bridge in the world. Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (aka the U.P.).

How to make the most of the Lake Michigan Circle Tour

For one of the strangest attractions in the area, visit Saint Ignace’s Mystery Spot, an area where gravity, allegedly, seems to have gone haywire. Is it a natural phenomenon… or cheesy tourist roadside stop? Hmm… maybe both. The route through the U.P. is quite rural, but offers many opportunities to immerse yourself in nature. Fall colors explore here, and there’s tons of great hiking and mountain biking.

Continue on to Marinette, WI. This area is known for its series of scenic and accessible waterfalls, located primarily in Marinette County’s Parks System. From there, it’s on to Green Bay, home of the Packers and historic Lambeau Field.

How to make the most of the Lake Michigan Circle Tour

If you can, allocate a few days to picturesque Door County, WI. A weekend and holiday playground for Milwaukee and Chicago residents, you’ll find quaint shops, wineries, restaurants, pretty campgrounds and more on this peninsula. And with that, you’re headed to Manitowoc, home to the largest maritime museum on the Great Lakes, and where you can hop aboard the ferry back to Ludington.

 

Exploring the scenic South Loop

How to make the most of the Lake Michigan Circle Tour

The south loop kicks off in Manitowoc. Head south down I-43 Sheboygan and into Milwaukee. If you’re lucky enough to drive through on a Friday, hit up one of the city’s many fish frys. In fact, no matter where you are in Wisconsin, this happens every single Friday. Think fried cod or perch served with tartar sauce, potato pancakes, apple sauce and coleslaw. Paired with a Wisconsin brewed beer or an old fashioned, it’s the quintessential ‘Sconnie meal.

How to make the most of the Lake Michigan Circle Tour

Next stop? Chicago. Route 137 joins Lakeshore Drive (US-41), taking you past the Lincoln Park Zoo, Navy Pier and the Shedd Aquarium. Indiana is but a blip on the Circle Tour, passing through industrial Gary (birthplace of Michael Jackson), then onto Dunes Highway near the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. If weather permits, stretch your legs along the sandy shoreline, or hike the West Beach Dune Succession Trail and boardwalk. Nearby you’ll find the town of Beverly Shores, where you may view the five historic Century of Progress Homes from the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair.

How to make the most of the Lake Michigan Circle Tour

The Dunes Highway continues on to Michigan City (which is actually in Indiana), then into the Great Lakes State. Explore the Riviera of the Midwest’s charming towns, like the wine lover’s haven of New Buffalo; St. Joseph and its delightful lighthouse and beach; and Holland, known for its Dutch heritage, quaint shops and restaurants, and its annual springtime Tulip Festival. Both Grand Haven and Muskegon are great stops for beach adventures, spectacular views of lakeside dunes, wilderness trails and more. There are plenty of places to park your RV for a night or extended stay.

How to make the most of the Lake Michigan Circle Tour

The farther north you drive, the more scenic and less populated the landscape. Meander through the communities of Whitehall, New Era, Shelby, and Hart, as well as Silver Lake Sand Dunes. The blue waters adjacent to the dunes are so crystal clear, you can actually view a wreckage of three ships that sunk on November 11, 1940. Art lovers will adore Pentwater, which hosts arts and crafts fairs all summer long. Fifteen minutes north of Pentwater, you’ll be in Ludington, where you may catch the ferry back to Manitowoc.

Have you driven the Lake Michigan Circle Tour? Any tips for making the most of the experience?

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When it comes to Great American road trips along the water, California’s Pacific Coast Highway gets all the press. But I say the middle coast is incredibly underrated. Why not drive around Lake Michigan?

This Post Has 11 Comments
  1. I did this trip late last Sept in my T@b camper for 2-1/2 weeks. Made it as far as Mackinaw Island, but not the upper peninsula, It was the hottest two weeks MI had experienced all summer. Stayed in state parks all around the lake down to Holland. Let me just say, Lake Michigan is absolutely beautiful and the beaches and clear water made for some great swimming! I highly recommend Sleeping Bear Dunes Nat Park, the wineries on Traverse Bay, and the trip back in time on Mackinaw Island! Can’t wait to go back and go up into the Upper Peninsula!!!

    1. @Kathy – Hello! I will be driving a camper for a 5 day trip around Lake Michigan, coming from Chicago. I saw your comment and was wondering if you had any additional suggestions/tips for camping. Sleeping Bear is definitely on the list already. I’m just trying to research easy places to stay for a night or two on the trip.
      Any advice is greatly appreciated!
      Stephanie

  2. I would love a paper map of the circle tour. Is that available? Been looking at lots of sites and see nothing. Thanks for any help.

  3. My husband and I took a week’s vacation to drive around Lake Michigan a number of years ago – stopping and staying in many of the lakeside towns along the way. Even though we’ve vacationed in west and northern Michigan our whole lives, we discovered things we had never seen before or hadn’t seen in years. Shopping in Saugatuck, swimming in Lake Michigan all along the way, seeing Dorr County, WI, Lambeau Field and New Buffalo for the first time. Driving through the Tunnel of Trees along Lake MIchigan north of Harbor Springs (and lunch or dinner at Legs Inn in Cross Village on a shelf overlooking the lake.) Hanging out in Chicago. But somehow we missed Silver Lake Sand Dunes, still need to go back to see them! If you’re going now, check out some of the many craft breweries along the way — Greenbush (Sawyer, MI), New Holland (Holland, MI), Founders (Grand Rapids, MI), Right Brain, Workshop, & North Peak (Traverse City, MI), Short’s (Bellaire, MI), 3 Floyds (Munster, IN) — and tour the not-so-small Miller brewery in Milwaukee! And those are just the ones we’ve been to – there are many more. It’s a great trip, so beautiful!

    1. West Michigan provides a paper map of the circle tour. It also shows most of the Lake Michigan Lighthouses on the route. You can print off your own map by downloading it or send a request and they will mail one to you.
      https://www.wmta.org/lake-michigan-lighthouse-map-circle-tour/lighthouse-driving-itinerary/
      You can also visit the: State of Michigan Historical Markers web site for additional places to visit:
      https://www.michigan.gov/mhc/0,4726,7-282-65121_62907—,00.html
      State of Wisconsin Historical Markers:
      https://www.wisconsinhistory.org/Records/Article/CS15267
      State of Illinois Historical Markes:
      http://www.historyillinois.org/HistoricalMarkers.aspx
      State of Indiana Historical Marker:
      https://www.in.gov/history/2350.htm
      I am also going to suggest a side trip to Beaver Island, Michigan which is the largest inhabited island in Lake Michigan, with a year round population. You can fly there from Charlevoix airport (15mins) or take the ferry from Charlevoix (2 and 1/2 hours) leave your car in Charlevoix you can rent a car (advance reservation suggested or rent a bike). There are a couple of primitive campgrounds that are only $10 a night both right on Lake Michigan!
      Thank you Samantha for your suggestions as well.

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