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The Best Places to Experience Fall in the Great Lakes

Lighthouses, epic views, water stretching for miles—all paired with red, gold and orange leaves—makes the great lakes perfect places to visit in the fall. Here are five trips to consider this autumn.

Lake Superior – Driving Minnesota’s North Shore

I love a lighthouse, and Minnesota’s north shore has one of the best. Split Rock lighthouse is one of the many reasons why a fall drive up historic Highway 61 is a must for leaf lovers.

Fall in the Great Lakes

Start with exploring Duluth, known for its aerial lift bridge, steep hills and stunning Lake Superior views. Pick up some beer from Bent Paddle and sandwiches from Northern Waters Smokehaus, and venture up the highway. The Glensheen Mansion (said to be haunted after a grisly murder in 1977) and its lush grounds offer both historical context and beautiful views.

Fall in the Great Lakes

Further north, you’ll find the New Scenic Café, an unassuming spot serving up some of the most delicious, local ingredient driven food in the state. Russ Kendall’s outside Knife River does incredible smoked fish and has an old school vibe you can’t help but love. Two Harbors’ Agate Beach is a great place to stretch your legs and get up close and personal with Lake Superior. Look closely and you may find agates on this rocky outcropping near the 19th Century red brick lighthouse that now houses a B&B and museums. Need a beer? Castle Danger Brewery is right up the road.

Along the route to Grand Marais, you’ll pass Betty’s Pies (beloved by many). Silver Creek Cliff Wayside Park, just north of the tunnel, offers incredible lake views and easy, walkable paths for exploring.

Fall in the Great Lakes

Less than ten miles north, Gooseberry Falls State Park, boasts lovely hiking, loads of leafy trees and its namesake waterfall. Split Rock Light house resides a 10-minute’s drive north. For $10, you’ll get a short and sweet tour.

Fall in the Great Lakes

And finally, an hour north, you’ll arrive at the charming town of Grand Marais. This quaint town has it all— yummy food (from World’s Best Donuts and Sydney’s Frozen Custard, to Voyageur Brewing Company and Sven and Ole’s pizzeria, I hope you’re not on a low-carb diet). Book a night or two at the Mayhew, an Instagrammable inn that’s as cozy as it is stylish.

Lake Michigan – Northern Michigan

Few fall drives are as iconic as Northern Michigan’s scenic Tunnel of Trees. And this is just one of the show-stopping spots in this stunning fall destination.

Fall in the Great Lakes

If you’re flying, Traverse City makes for a great starting point. Explore the Peninsula, driving up route 37. You’ll find incredible wineries along the way (as well as Jolly Pumpkin Brewery, which also serves great food). Bonobo Winery boasts incredible views of the West Arm of Traverse Bay, and makes some delicious wine to boot.

After you’ve experienced the Peninsula, head back toward Traverse City and start heading north on 31. You’d think Lake Michigan is the big draw here, but in fact, it’s the inland lakes like Elk, Torch, and Charlevoix that really win hearts with their Caribbean blue waters. If you have time, venture off the main road to Bachmann’s Store in Central Lake—an old school candy shop with loads of charm.

Farther north in Charlevoix, you’ll find great shopping, dining and one-of-a-kind architecture. Check out one—or many!—mushroom houses designed by local native Earl Young. Continuing on, you’ll bop through many charming hamlets, including Petoskey. Views of Lake Michigan stun from downtown. Grab lunch and a beer at Tap 30, offering creative interpretations of bar food staples as well as loads of local brews. American Spoon makes excellent gelato, and in between your beer and ice cream, you’ll find lots of great little shops, including Dave’s Boot Shop, Cutler’s (who sell all sorts of house and kitchen gear), and the adorable Rocking Horse Toy Company. Harbor Springs, just around Little Traverse Bay, also boasts a cute downtown, with more shops, restaurants, and Tom’s Mom’s Cookies, a quaint local bakery.

Next, you’re on to the Tunnel of Trees—a roughly 30-mile venture down one of America’s most beautiful fall drives. The narrow M119 road meanders alongside Lake Michigan, but since the leaves are so dense, you only get peeps of the blue waters from a select few overlooks. After the curvy drive, reward yourself with a meal at the Legs Inn, a 100-year-old restaurant specializing in Polish food. This cozy lodge is a Michigan icon.

Since you’re already up there, why not take advantage of low season on Mackinac Island? This car-free island, a short ferry ride from the mainland, is jam-packed in the summer. Come fall, the lines for fudge and carriage rides dwindle. You’ll get leafy bike paths mostly to yourself.


Lake Huron – Bruce Peninsula, Ontario, Canada

Fall in the Great Lakes

There are so many places to experience Lake Huron, but one of the most scenic come fall has to be Ontario’s Bruce Peninsula. Just a three-hour drive northwest of Toronto, you’ll find this naturally stunning oasis. Crystal-clear blue waters, white-sand beaches, rugged rock formations, and lots of colorful leaves. Base your stay at The Orange Bicycle Guesthouse and Gardens, surrounded by beautiful grounds, comfortable rooms, and inviting atmosphere. In town, you’ll find great beer and food at Tobermory Brewing.

Fall in the Great Lakes

One of the area’s biggest draws is Fathom Five, Canada’s first National Marine Park, with over 20 shipwrecks and 19 islands within its boundaries. Boat tours (both jet boats and glass bottom boats) leave from Tobermory several times daily. Feeling a little more adventurous? Book a helicopter tour of the area.

Other ideas in the area—explore the town of Lion’s Head, home to a charming harbor, rock beach, and lighthouse. Greig’s Caves– 10 natural limestone caves—are located just outside Lion’s Head and worth the visit. After, grab lunch at Rachel’s restaurant, a ’50s-style diner serving up classics like burgers, meatloaf, and shakes.

Lake Erie –  Lake Erie Shores and Islands

Fall in the Great Lakes

When I say islands, you probably imagine the Caribbean. The great lakes have some pretty epic ones of their own, and when fall rolls around on Lake Erie, it’s all about the shores and islands. Due to the air’s higher moisture content, the leaves change a little later here, and stay on the trees longer as well, making for a particularly dramatic show.

Outdoorsy types will love the laidback vibe of Kelleys Island, just a short ferry ride from Marblehead. You can bring a car, but doesn’t renting a golf cart or bicycle sound more fun?  Accommodations on the island tend to be on the basic side, but who cares when the outdoors is the main draw? Kelleys Island Venture Resort makes for a great base, as well as numerous private cottage and home rentals.

Fall in the Great Lakes

Nearby South Bass Island is known for its party scene. Kelleys, on the other hand, really delivers on amplifying the natural world. Be sure to check out the Glacial Grooves, formed by the movement of ice across limestone around 20,000 years ago. These are the largest, most accessible example of this geological phenomenon anywhere in the world!

Just up the road from the grooves, you’ll find the North Shore Loop Trail. This easy one-mile hiking and biking trail leads to a rare alvar habitat, as well as past ruins from the island’s quarrying history.

No trip to Lake Erie is complete without trying a little local perch. They do a mean one at the Village Pump, a no-frills spot dating back to 1956. Sip on one of their famous brandy Alexanders while you wait for your plate of piping hot fried fish.

Lake Ontario – Niagra-on-the-Lake, Ontario, Canada

They call it the prettiest town in Ontario, and with its 19th Century downtown, Lake Ontario views, and beautiful vineyards, it’s hard to argue.

Fall in the Great Lakes

Drop your bags at Harbour House Hotel, a cedar-shake-clad lakeside hotel that spares no creature comfort (including ones for Fido—dog-friendly rooms available!). Some packages include a continental breakfast and passes for wine tasting at select vineyards.

Fall in the Great Lakes

And speaking of vineyards, does anything seem more lovely in the fall than wine tasting? 27 wineries operate in the region, with Peller Estates being one of the best. You may opt to do a wine tasting in their Estate Room or to really experience the vineyard, sign up for a hiking tour—led daily at 12 pm. You’ll sample wine and snacks along the way. For a truly spectacular dining experience, make a reservation at their winery restaurant.

Fall in the Great Lakes

Back in town, there are lots more excellent dining options to choose from. From farm-to-table cuisine at Treadwell to wood-fired pizza at Bistro Six-One and gelato at di Carlotta, you’re not going to go hungry.

For a lovely stroll under vibrant, leafy trees, head to historic Queenston Heights Park. You’ll find leisure and history in one scenic location. In addition to stunning landscaping and walking trails, there are the Brock and Laura Secord Monuments. Brock’s Monument, built between 1853-56, towers 184 feet above the park. The Landscape of Nations Memorial, erected in 2016, pays tribute to the contribution and sacrifices of the Six Nations of the Grand River during the War of 1812.

Fall in the Great Lakes

Here’s something you don’t encounter every day: Niagara on the Lake is home to a bona fide lavender field. Explore the aromatic greenhouse and lavender fields at NEOB Niagra.

And of course, Niagara-on-the-Lake is just minutes away from Niagara Falls. Photos and videos of the place cannot do it justice—it’s a powerful, beautiful, and unforgettable experience.

What are your favorite Great Lakes destinations? Share in the comments!

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Lighthouses, epic views, water stretching for miles—all paired with red, gold and orange leaves—makes the great lakes perfect places to visit in the fall. Here are five trips to consider this autumn.

This Post Has 5 Comments

  1. Tell Sam she needs to explore Coeur d’ Alene Lake in N. Idaho where Im at, lol
    Lake Coeur d’ Alene and our small town are gorgeous in the fall. Lots of TV stars have moved here and actually was at wedding that Anna Pierce (Patty Duke) officiated at.

  2. Door County, WI is like a touch of New England, with great fall color, lots of festivals, vacation rentals and hotels, restaurants both high end and down to earth. Favored by WI and IL travelers alike.

  3. Great post. Brings back memories of my first trip to Minnesota in October in about 1975. We drove from Minneapolis all the way to Thunder Bay, Ontario. Stopped at the Glensheen Mansion and Split Rock Lighthouse, Stayed at the Naniboujou Lodge near Grand Marais. The fall foliage was stunning to see for this girl from Los Angeles.
    Thanks for the memories!

  4. As a native of Michigan I have to cast my vote for your Northern Michigan tour. I didn’t see any specific mention of Leeland – several great restaurants in that town and the ability to taste wine from a number of the local wineries. Also good shopping; don’t miss local potter Benjamin Maier – gallery right on the Main Street, he is a must see!

  5. The best part of Michigan for beauty is the Keweenaw Peninsula and Huron Mts. Beautiful waterfalls and Lake Superior shorelines. It’s spectacular in the Fall. We met people who came from Arkansas to experience world class mountain biking trails near Brockway Mt. We met a group of retired ladies who chase the Northern Lights and drove up from Iowa for a weekend to see a particularly brilliant showing. They drove around the area until the wee hours taking photos of the glorious light show and we met them at breakfast as they were heading back home. I love meeting people while traveling.
    A stop at the Jampot for the best muffins cookies and brandy soaked fruitcakes made by a local monastery of brothers is a must.
    Fitzgerald’s serves a flights of whiskeys from around the world while you gaze at the pounding surf from the cozy bar.

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Fall in the Great Lakes
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