Last Updated on March 25, 2023
If you’re not ready to jet off to far-flung destinations, then explore places on your own doorstep that have previously been edged out by more seductive overseas temptations. Michigan, with its abundance of natural beauty, outdoor adventures, fine dining, and even finer wineries, is the perfect place to kick start your Midwestern travel adventures.
Within a short 40-mile radius of Traverse City, you can hike or cycle miles of forest trails, laze on sandy beaches, splash in the world’s fifth-largest lake, canoe along inland waterways, play championship golf courses, sample extensive offerings of local wines and beers, discover farm to table dining, visit coastal villages, and be captivated by tales of heroism at lighthouse museums.
With accommodation options for every budget and a host of good dining locales, Traverse City really is the perfect place to pitch your tent.
Scenic Views Along M-37 to Old Mission Lighthouse
Start by heading northbound on M-37 on the 20-mile scenic route towards the Old Mission Lighthouse. Michigan’s M-37, an undulating road with wineries on both sides and water beyond, is made for cruising, not racing. Make use of the numerous pull-overs to take in the scenic views.
Look out for Chateau Grand Traverse winery, nestled among the vineyards, and the expansive vista beyond to Grand Traverse Bay. Have your camera ready to capture an Instagram-worthy shot.
In the fall, many roadside stalls hawking local apples, pears, maple syrup, and other fresh goods compete for your attention. Often unattended, they rely on trust and an honesty box.
M-37 ends at Lighthouse Park with plenty of free parking which could not be closer to the lighthouse nor to the recreated settlers’ log home from the 1850s. Access to the ground floor of the lighthouse is free; $4 will buy you passage to the second floor displays and to the very top (via a short but tight vertical ladder) where the original light once operated.
It’s well worth the money to look out over Lake Michigan and learn just how tough and lonely former lightkeepers’ lives were.
Stop in Old Mission
The sleepy town of Old Mission is just around the corner and worth a quick stop.
Step back in time in the eclectic Old Mission General Store. Steal away to the neighborhood Haserot Beach off Swaney Road, a small sandy beach with a roped-off swimming area and a kids’ play area. It’s no wonder the locals like to keep this their little secret.
Chateau Chantal Winery–Wines With a View
The drive back to Traverse City is dotted with many simple, feel-good gems if you keep your eyes peeled. A barn with a brightly colored striped roof, a vintage telephone box, vines growing in symmetrical patterns, baskets of apples arranged on a stone wall. Nothing fancy, just simple, homey, and honest to goodness living.
Pop into Chateau Chantal Winery, whose name alone conjures up French sophistication, and enjoy a glass of their exquisite Proprietor’s Reserve Chardonnay as you take in the spectacular vista of the vineyards, orchards, farmlands, and bay beyond.
Beer and Comfort Food at the Jolly Pumpkin
When USA Today named the Jolly Pumpkin (located on Peninsula Road on the road back to Traverse City) the 4th Best Brewery in America in 2018, it catapulted this large oak-beamed restaurant, micro-brewery, and distillery into a must-eat spot.
This popular eatery has the best truffle French fries, but bring a friend, the portions are way too much for one person, even when washed down with local artisan ale.
Grand Traverse Light and Less Obvious Gems
Another famous old stalwart of maritime safety is Grand Traverse Light at the end of M-22. Built in 1858, the lighthouse is on the National Register of Historic Places and, although it was replaced with an automatic light tower in 1972, the building and grounds are beautifully maintained and serve as an excellent museum.
Returning to Traverse City, spend a few moments in the village of Suttons Bay, with its bright pastel-colored shop fronts and small water wheel tucked away just off the main street. It is a charming place to stroll, window shop, and grab a bite to eat. Hurry, anxious, and loud are words that have not yet arrived here.
About three miles north of Suttons Bay on M-22 is Belanger Creek, which most people cross at about 45-mph. Here you will discover one of those rough diamonds that are dotted all over this area and remain beautifully anonymous. On one side of the road is a picturesque small pond and on the other, an abandoned old water mill with water flowing from the pond through a mill race. The water wheel has long stopped turning, but it is a blissfully serene sneak peek into a bygone age.
Bonobo and Mari Wineries
There are many wineries around Traverse City, but Bonobo and Mari Vineyards are two worth adding to your itinerary.
At Bonobo, we were treated to a private, impromptu tour of the winery (amazing how a simple “can we see the winery?” can lead to a whole tour), chatted with the folks harvesting the grapes and, of course, sampled a number of wines (the 2018 Pinot Gris Select was a firm favorite).
Stop by the sandstone Mari Vineyards Winery and kick back outside on the large outdoor patio overlooking a gentle hill down to the bay. On cooler days outdoor heaters and woolen blankets around the knees still make this an attractive destination.
Climb the Sleeping Bear Dunes
You cannot come to this part of the Midwest and not climb the Sleeping Bear Dunes at the National Lakeshore. Some 40 miles west of Traverse City, these are serious sand dunes; just when you think you will see the vast expanse of Lake Michigan as you crest the next dune, another mountain of sand looms up ahead of you.
Eventually, water does appear and after confirming it isn’t a mirage, it’s time to scramble down and take a dip in the clear, freshwater and watch a spectacular sunset.