The Lake Michigan Tour, an 1100-mile designated scenic route that spans four states, begins “officially” at Ludington, halfway up the western edge of Michigan. Scenery along this thickly wooded stretch of lake shore, once the province of Chippewa, Huron and Ottawa Indians, is spectacular any time of year.
But in the fall, when cooler temperatures and shorter days have worked their alchemy on the thousands of maples, hickories, oaks and other trees, if it’s ever possible for a leaf-peeper to become glutted with sensational color, it could happen here. For hundreds of miles, to the route’s end at Mackinaw City, the road is a Technicolor tunnel, resplendent in dozens of shades of scarlet, rose, burgundy, orange, yellow and purple.
Ludington may begin the designated route, but the color on this mid-October occasion was just as fine many miles to the south. Thus when we passed a sign for “tours” at the Shelby Gem Factory, we began our trek there in quaint Shelby (on U.S. Highway 31), where quiet streets are lined by huge maples with glowing red canopies.
The gem factory, which produces simulated and synthetic stones, was founded in 1970 by chemist Larry Kelley, explained his wife, Jo, who runs the display room. Glass-front cases are festive with yellow and white gold jewelry set with the sparkling gems, simulated diamonds and emeralds that look like the real thing but are chemically different and synthetic rubies and sapphires in various colors with the same properties as those made by nature, but more pure. When faceted the stones are as brilliant as those dug from the ground, but contain no inclusions, are guaranteed not to scratch or fracture, and are significantly less expensive, costing $90 to $170 per carat. A 12-minute video explains some of the high-temperature process while divulging no “secrets.”
Continue north along Highway 31 into Ludington, a town of cafés, antique shops, bed & breakfasts and ornate historic frame homes. At Highway 10 turn left onto imposing Ludington Avenue – lined with false-front buildings – which dead-ends at Lake Michigan.
Nearby is the dock from where the 410-foot S.S. Badger, the largest car ferry built for the Great Lakes, departs for Manitowoc, Wisconsin. The coal-powered Badger, built in the 1940s to carry railroad cars, today transports only passengers and their vehicles.
Just south of Ludington on Buttersville Peninsula is Historic White Pine Village, comprised of several dozen antique buildings on 23 acres, “dedicated to preserving and presenting Mason County’s history,” said Neva Wood, whose husband Ron is director. White Pine, which opened in 1976, includes a historic post office, a courthouse, a lumbering museum, a general store and more.
North on the peninsula is the 30-foot shrine – a white wood cross on a stone base – to Jesuit missionary/explorer Father Jacques Marquette, who was traveling to the mission at St. Ignace when he died here in 1675. Along with Louis Joliet, Marquette explored the Upper Mississippi to the mouth of the Arkansas River.
Ludington State Park north of town is comprised of 5,300 scenic acres of shoreline, sand dunes, marshlands and forests, and includes three campgrounds, a canoe trail and miles of hiking and cross-country ski trails. The 1867 Big Sable Point Lighthouse can be toured.
From Ludington drive north toward Manistee, stopping to visit Lake Michigan Recreation Area and adjacent 3,450-acre Nordhouse Dunes Wilderness, a pristine oasis of sand dunes (no motorized vehicles allowed).
Manistee’s entire downtown is on the National Register of Historic Places. One of the main attractions is Riverwalk, a cobble of boardwalks, concrete pathways and wood stairs along the south shore of the satin-smooth Manistee River.
The S.S. City of Milwaukee – a railroad car ferry that launched in 1930 and is now a museum and National Historic Landmark – is docked at the north end of town. Every October it’s transformed into an eerie “ghost ship,” where visitors tour a haunted maze.
Orchard Beach State Park, on a high bluff over Lake Michigan, is north of town and offers fine campsites. Adjacent is 75-acre Lake Bluff Bird Sanctuary, with 178 species of resident or migrating birds. The sanctuary, on the Midwest Flyway, is especially popular in September when thousands of monarch butterflies migrate through.
We suggest a side trip to Kaleva, where over 70 years ago John Makinen of Northwestern Bottling Works built a jewel-like gabled house of 60,000 blue, green, clear and brown glass bottles laid on their sides, bottom ends out. Sadly, he died before his family could move in. Today, the home is a museum.
Return toward Manistee, then turn north on Michigan Highway 22, passing Portage Lake, Onekama, then Arcadia, a bucolic world of ancient maples with thick gnarled trunks and scarlet canopies. Surrounding hills are a tapestry of fall color.
Beyond elegant Frankfort, Point Betsie Road turns left to wind among rugged, grass-spiked sand dunes to Point Betsie Light Station, under restoration to its 1945 appearance. And ahead is Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, 71,200 acres of spectacular dunes, forests and beaches. At the Philip A. Hart visitor center in Empire a 15-minute slide show – “Dreams of the Sleeping Bear” – tells the story of the area and how it got its name.
According to Chippewa legend, a mother bear and her two cubs, fleeing a Wisconsin forest fire, tried to swim across Lake Michigan. The mother made it but saw her cubs drown before reaching land. “Great Spirit Manitou” pitied the bear and turned the cubs into nearby North and South Manitou Islands, and her into a perched dune known as the Sleeping Bear Dune. The dunes found at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore are part of the largest collection of freshwater dunes in the world.
Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive, a 7.4-mile loop past shadowy forests, Lake Michigan panoramas, and dunes spanning four square miles, is named for lumberman Stocking (1908-1976), who opened the area to the public. The dunes are laced with walking trails, among them the 1.5-mile Cottonwood Trail, which though a bit strenuous provides a close-up look at the remarkable dunes.
There’s more: a walking trail to lookouts 450 feet over the lake; sand beaches; canoeing on inland lakes and rivers; historic village Glen Haven; even a sheer 150-foot Dune Climb, which is exciting to climb up, though the brave ride sleds down in the winter when the dune is snow-covered.
Continue north to Leland, crossing the 45th parallel (midway between the North and South poles). Leland’s historic Fishtown, a commercial fishing district until 1930, is now a weathered quay with Dr. Seuss-like buildings housing shops and cafés along the Leland River. Salmon, gliding shadows in the black-green water, swim into the river to spawn.
Northport near the tip of the Leelanau Peninsula is next, an area famous for its apples and cherries. A walking tour of the town’s two dozen historic homes is available at the self-serve tourist center.
Continue to Leelanau State Park, 1,300 acres webbed with hiking trails; there’s a campground. At the “tip of the little finger” is 1858 Grand Traverse Lighthouse, open May through November. Drive south on Highway 22 to Peshawbestown, home to the Grand Traverse Resort and Casinos. Across the highway is the newly opened Eyaawing Museum and Cultural Center.
“Eyaawing” means “who we are” in Anishinaabemowin, the native language of the Grand Traverse Band – tells the 4,038-member tribe’s story through exhibits, programs and an interpretive path among native plants.
Traverse City is ahead. First, RVers might visit some of the peninsula’s many wineries; half a dozen are clustered north of town and scattered elsewhere along the route, which is also a wine-touring destination. Elegant Traverse City, in as sublime a location as anyone ever imagined for a town, offers numerous attractions: museums and theater, kayaking and sailing, hiking and biking, skiing, shopping and more. World-class Moomers Homemade Ice Cream sells more than 90 flavors. But it’s the cherries that put this former timber town on the map.
Known as the “Cherry Capital of the World,” Traverse City produces some 100 million pounds of the fruit per year, a third of the world’s crop, and hosts a week-long National Cherry Festival every July. We recommend Cherry Republic on Front Street, where every possible cherry creation is sold: cherry granola, cherry almond biscotti, chocolate covered cherries, dried cherries, cherry nut mix, cherry jam and more.
An 18-mile side-trip runs up Old Mission Peninsula. Views to West and East arms of Grand Traverse Bay, which the peninsula bisects, are magnificent. Wineries and produce stands are numerous as are apple and cherry orchards.
Jim Richards, owner of historic Old Mission General Store, says Thomas Jefferson, who as Secretary of State sent an expedition here in the 1790s, believed “there was no place better for fruit trees.”
The 1870 Old Mission Lighthouse and an 1856 log house stand at the tip. Four miles south is a log replica of the 1839 Indian mission built by Presbyterian missionary Peter Dougherty. Placards inside tell its story.
The nearby General Store, originally a shack at the water, was pulled here by oxen in the 1840s, said Richards. His tales of the store, which has had many additions over the years and sells everything from kerosene lamps and rag dolls to wooden shoes and deli meat, could fill a book.
From Traverse City continue north on U.S. Highway 31. Stops along the way include the resort town of Charlevoix, and Petoskey, a town known for its “jewels,” fossilized corals called Petoskey stones. The 350-million year old stones, beautiful when polished, are washed from the lake bottom onto area beaches. Local rock shops sell the stones.
Bay View, next, features dozens of Victorian-era mansions. At Little Traverse Bay, RVers may follow the shoreline to Cross Village then drive east to Highway 31, or remain on Highway 31 for more fall color.
Ahead is Mackinaw City. Attractions include the Icebreaker Mackinaw Maritime Museum, Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse, and Colonial Michilimackinac, a replica of the original 18th century fur-trade fort.
Five-mile long engineering marvel Mackinac Bridge spans the gap between the Michigan peninsulas. We drove it once during a prior visit, peering through the open decking at the turbulent waters of Lakes Michigan and Huron sloshing together far below – but not today. This time around, Colonial Michilimackinac, hunched in the shadow of the mighty bridge, is the end of the line.
West Michigan Tourist Association, (800) 442-2084, www.wmta.org.