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!
Tackling the serene North Loop
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.
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.
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.).
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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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