By Scott Ellis 2018
I’ve been asked to list things to do in Michigan. With any of these items listed you are encouraged to do your own research. It is by no means a complete list of things to do in Michigan.
Keep in mind that the pronunciation of some of these places are Native American words spelled by the French and English. That’s why Mackinac is pronounced the same as Mackinaw. Up North and Northern Michigan means the same thing. Generally, it is north of Bay City and south of the Mackinac Bridge. The Upper Peninsula is north of Northern Michigan. Go figure.
The Lower Peninsula (LP) is shaped like a mitten. Many references to places in Michigan (MI) use this guide, such as the Thumb area. As kids we would place our left hand on a paper and trace it to make the outline of this half of the state. Other abbreviations I use are: UP for the Upper Peninsula, SP for state park, NP for National Park and CG for campground.
Highlights for the LP include the dunes of SW Michigan, Hwy M-22 and the Leelanau Peninsula, Traverse Bay area, Northern MI golf courses and ski slopes, Frankenmuth and the Detroit Metro area.
Highlights of the UP include Mackinac Island, Soo Locks, Whitefish Point and Copper Harbor. And don’t miss the shorelines of Lake Superior and Lake Michigan. Fantastic views. And get a pastie or fresh whitefish to enjoy while in the UP.
Many people like to do circle tours of the Great Lakes. The Michigan coastline gives you a head start on three of the lakes. Speaking of coastlines, Michigan has lighthouses all around each peninsula. Many people like to plan a visit to many of these during their trips. They are beautiful and historic.
There are plenty of casinos in Michigan from which to choose if you’re into gaming. I haven’t listed them, but they are easy to look up. Some offer free camping with electric, too.
Blue lines are highlighting especially scenic drives. Much of the Northern LP and all of the UP are scenic, as well.
THE LOWER PENINSULA
AREA 1 Southwest area
In the Southwest corner of the LP, you will find plenty to do. New Buffalo is a boating community and has a restaurant called The Stray Dog. Good food and you can buy a logo shirt in the gift shop. Warren Dunes SP has a fantastic beach and dunes to climb. Traveling with dogs? This SP has a dog beach, too. Good camping here and at other state parks. Nearby you can bring your dune buggy (buy a state license) to ride the dunes or you can ride with a tour company. Great fun.
Take the Blue Star Hwy north toward Saugatuck. If you like antiques, you’ll find some nice shops. Saugatuck is an artist/ shopping town. Spend some time walking the small downtown area. Farther up the road is Holland. This city was founded by Dutch and has a huge windmill, De Zwaan, imported from the Netherlands. Yes, you can find tulips to buy there. In the spring the bulbs planted along the roads spring up in time for the Tulip Festival.
North of Holland is Grand Haven. This is a small town with a nice downtown. Even better, it has the Musical Fountain. For years, the fountain was the largest one of its kind in the world. Great show and it’s free.
Continue north to Muskegon for more amusements. The only amusement park in Michigan is the Michigan Adventure Park. It has enough roller coasters and other rides will keep family members entertained. Or you can tour the USS Silversides submarine in town.
Ludington has a dock for the SS Badger. This car ferry travels between Michigan and Wisconsin across Lake Michigan. It is huge and can carry anything from motorcycles to semi-trucks. It’s quite an experience. It takes about 4 hours to cross 60 miles.
AREA 2 Leelanau Peninsula/ Traverse Bay
You can take a pleasant DRIVE on M-22 along Lake Michigan. This highway starts in Manistee and follows the curve of the lake up into the Leelanau peninsula. Great ride with great views going through the famous Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. You will go through Frankfort and other small towns for shopping and restaurants. In Beulah, you can eat at the Cherry Hut. Good food and some of it includes cherries of course. My wife wants a cherry pie from here instead of a birthday cake every year.
Still farther inland is Interlochen. This is a music camp for aspiring musicians and has camping, golf and a stage for well-known entertainers. Speaking of golf, there are several ‘up north’ golf courses in this area. You won’t be disappointed at Sugar Loaf and Crystal Mt.
The Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore starts in Empire and includes the Pierce Stocking Drive. Don’t miss it. Visit Glen Arbor for shopping. I highly recommend Cherry Republic for all things cherry. North of Glen Arbor is Leland which has an area called Fishtown. This historical fishing village has shopping and a jumping off place to visit the Manitou Islands. On the other side of the peninsula is Suttons Bay. Shopping is big, but so is wine. There are tastings for those looking for wine country.
M-22 travels south on this side of the peninsula as it makes its way to Traverse City. This is a big city that acts like a resort town. Along the Traverse Bay are beaches and calmer waters for all water sports. There is a large SP in town with access to the water. Wilson Antique shops and Moomers ice cream shops are both popular. The Cherry Festival draws a large attendance. Nearby is Acme where you’ll find championship golf courses like The Bear, designed by Jack Nicklaus.
AREA 3 Mackinac Area (not the island)
DRIVE US-31 from the Traverse Bay area towards the northern tip of the mitten, to get to Mackinac. Along the way you will go past farmers markets like Friske’s. Stock up and enjoy a cherry donut. Charlevoix is a resort town where Ernest Hemmingway lived. Take a tour of the Mushroom homes too. There’s plenty of golf courses for summer fun and ski slopes for winter activities in the Boyne Mt. area. Petoskey has a variety of things to do. Shopping, B&Bs and a nearby SP with lake access. Look for famous Petoskey stones, these fossils are millions of years old and wash up onto the shores of Lake Michigan and Lake Huron. At the north end of town is Kilwin’s. This well-known chocolate maker offers tours that are free to the public. Don’t miss Indian Hills Gallery for Native American goods.
To the west of Petoskey is Harbor Springs. A not-to-be-missed DRIVE for sports cars and bikes is at the south end of M-119, also called the Tunnel of Trees. Twenty miles of curves and views along Lake Michigan. It is only 1 ½ lanes wide so be careful when passing oncoming traffic. Half way up M-119 is Good Hart, a small village with a General Store with great meat pies. At the north end of the Tunnel of Trees is Legs Inn in Cross Village. Great Polish food with a view of Lake Michigan that can’t be beat.
The Wilderness SP is in the north west corner of the LP for good camping. A short drive from the Mackinac area offers one of the original dark sky areas called Headlands International Dark Sky Park. Go there in the day time to see the Visitor Center and return at night for a view of the sky without light pollution.
Mackinaw City is a good jumping off point to get to Mackinac Island (see the UP part of this list). We like camping at Tee Pee CG and Mackinaw Mill Creek CG. FOOD: we recommend Mackinaw Pastie and Cookie Company and Scalawags for white fish. Under the south end of the bridge is Fort Michilimackinac. This fort, which recreates life in this territory in the early 1800s, includes an Indian village.
AREA 4 Central Northern Michigan And the Sunrise Side
South of the Mackinac area is Gaylord. This is GOLF mecca. Some of the most memorable courses you can play are in this area. We recommend Tree Tops. Garland is nearby, too. Good restaurants in town include: Big Buck Brewery, Gooblers (for turkey and family dining) and Cops and Donuts. Near the donut shop is Jay’s Sporting Goods. Big store with nice employees. You can take your dog in, too. There is a very good Harley Davidson dealer in town and near it is Call of the Wild. This store/attraction is a fun diversion unlike most touristy destinations.
South of Gaylord are two popular inland lakes. Houghton Lake offers everything for water sports. In the winter, ice fishing is offered, and Tip Up Town in January is a festival for the family. Higgins Lake is more relaxed and off the beaten path. Nearby is Clare where the first Cops and Donuts began. And Jay’s has a store here too. The Lumber Jack restaurant in West Branch pays tribute to the logging industry that powered the Northern Michigan economy before tourism. Good food with a motel attached.
DRIVE US-23 along the Lake Huron coastline to visit small towns and laid-back lifestyles. In Alpena, you can take a glass-bottom boat tour of some shipwrecks. Good dog beaches in the area, too. At the south end of the Sunrise Side is Pinconning. There are several cheese shops and many offers Pinconning cheese which is similar to cheddar.
AREA 5 The Thumb
Imagining the back of you left hand, you can easily identify the thumb. In the space between the thumb and fingers is Saginaw Bay, named after the city of Saginaw. Just south of Saginaw is Frankenmuth, a German themed city that will keep you busy. Shop at Bronners, the largest Christmas store you’ll find, eat at Zehnders for all you can eat chicken dinners, Birch Run is a large outlet mall near Frankenmuth. Frankenmuth is an ambitious city that often has festivals for a variety of themes. We like the DOG Bowl on Memorial Weekend.
Back to Saginaw begin your DRIVE on M-25 all the way around Michigan’s Thumb to Port Huron. Through small towns you can enjoy this often-missed section of Michigan. Caseville has the Cheeseburger in Paradise festival. Great burgers with an atmosphere not necessarily family friendly. Port Austin is a boating community with two great state parks, Port Crescent and Sleeper. FOOD: Eat at the Farm Restaurant. Continue around the Thumb to Grindstone City. At the General Store get some ice cream. Warning: only get one scoop. You can’t eat two, they’re big scoops. In Lexington, you will find many fine restaurants like Sweetwater and antique shops. The Lakeport SP is on Lake Huron and has two campgrounds.
Port Huron sits at the south end of Lake Huron and the mouth of the St. Clair River. This made it an ideal place to build the Blue Water Bridge to Canada. It’s a beautiful drive over the bridge and is a good way to go to Niagara Falls and cut travel time to New York. The city offers many fine restaurants like Freighters under the bridge. There are other activities like visiting the Maritime Center at Vantage Point. Here Boat Nerds watch the freighters as they make their way in the river. It’s a busy river and not very wide so you’re close to the ships.
DRIVE M-29 to follow the highway that travels along the same path as the freighters. This is popular for Sunday drives on any day of the week. St. Clair River winds its way to Lake St. Clair. Not a ‘Great Lake’, but still really big and sits between Michigan and Canada for all water sports. There are ferries that shuttles cars to Canada and local island too.
AREA 6 The Detroit Metro Area
The Detroit Metro area does not enjoy a great reputation but offers a lot of choices. Professional sports teams are based in Detroit, Chicken Shack is a local fast food chain that has some of the best BBQ ribs. Museums abound like Dossins Great Lakes and the DIA. The Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village in Dearborn each need a day to appreciate. If you’ve never seen an automotive plant, you can take a tour of the plant where the Ford trucks are made. See this on the same day as the museum. The Detroit Zoo is in Royal Oak. Nautical Mile in St. Clair Shores offers many fine restaurants and a short, pleasant DRIVE along Lake St. Clair into the Grosse Pointe cities. Then visit the Edsel and Eleanor Ford House in Grosse Pointe.
DTE Music Theater in Clarkston is only one of several music venues featuring major entertainers. We like the Morley Chocolate tour in Clinton Twp. Greektown has many great restaurants and one of three casinos in the city.
Downtown Detroit has festivals at Hart Plaza during the summer. Eastern Market is an enjoyable farmers market on the weekends. There are two ways to enter Canada from Detroit; the tunnel and the beautiful Ambassador Bridge. We prefer going through Pt Huron, though.
Restaurants: The Detroit Metro area has many restaurants featuring a variety that many places don’t have. Of course, there are Italian and Chinese restaurants, but the unique demographic in this area yields are wonderful variety of places to eat. There is a large Polish population and many with great polish food. We like the Polish Village Café in Hamtramck. Although we don’t have a large Greek influence, we do have some Greek restaurants. Don’t miss having a Coney dog. Coney Island restaurants offering Greek food and of course Coneys. No one makes a hot dog like a Detroit area Coney. Why it’s named after an amusement park in New York I have no idea. You can get excellent Lemon Soup and baklava too. Try the National Coney Island restaurant chain.
Many pizza places, but Buddy’s and Jets are the most recommended. The locally owned Chicken Shack has broasted chicken, but we love the ribs with broasted potatoes the best. Cider mills are popular in the late summer and fall. There are many Irish pubs to choose from on St. Patrick’s Day and Mexican restaurants on Cinco de Mayo. The largest Middle East population outside of the middle east is in this area. The restaurants mirror this demographic. Indian and Thai food is available, too.
Festivals: If you catch the timing right, you can enjoy some of these festivals.
Detroit Jazz Festival, Movement Electronic Festival, Polish Festival, Italian Festival, Highland Festival, Arts, Beats and Eats, Ann Arbor Art Festival, Romeo Peach Festival, Ferndale Blues Festival, Downtown Hoedown, Michigan Balloon Festival, Michigan Renaissance Festival, APBA hydroplane races.
The biggest events in the Detroit area must be the cruises. No, not cruises on the water. The Woodward Dream Cruise is held in August along the famous Woodward Ave. The cruise honors the cruising that took place in the 50’s and 60’s in the suburbs north of Detroit. These days you will find over one million people attending this one-day event to see tens of thousands of classic cars. In addition, Gratiot Ave was a popular cruising destination back in the day and there is more than one cruise currently held on this famous road. This offers more opportunities for car lovers to participate.
AREA 7 South Central Michigan
Ann Arbor is known for the University of Michigan, but it is a city with more variety per square mile than anywhere you’re likely to find. Zingerman’s Deli comes highly recommended. Ethnics foods abound and the Ann Arbor Art Fair is world famous.
Chelsea is a small town with a well-known theater, the Purple Rose Theater founded by actor Jeff Daniels. The locally owned Jiffy Mix company offers tours. South of Chelsea is Tecumseh, Adrian and Blissfield. This is an antique destination. There is a train ride out of Blissfield, too.
Farther west is Marshall. This quaint town has a tour of the lovely homes in the area. Shuler’s is a fine dining restaurant and nearby Cornwall’s Turkeyville for a more family dining cafeteria. Turkeyville has a nice campground, too. American Museum of Magic is in Marshall.
You’ve heard of Battle Creek. Breakfast cereal got its start here. There used to be a tour at Kellogg’s, but sadly no more.
The Air Zoo near Kalamazoo is not a zoo, but rather an aviation museum where the planes have animal names. My favorite is the SR-71 Blackbird.
Just north of Kalamazoo is Hickory Corners, home of the Gilmore Car Museum. If you love cars, don’t miss this gem located in a dozen buildings on the site. If you like motorcycles, go in early June when they have gathering of vintage motorcycles. Bikers come from all over to see the bikes and get access into the museums, too. Get riding roads around the area, too.
In Grand Rapids, the Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park is worth several hours of your time to stroll through and enjoy the exhibits.
The Upper Peninsula
AREA 8 Eastern UP
The Upper Peninsula (UP) list starts at the bridge. Not just any bridge. The Mackinac Bridge is long and high. It connects the two peninsulas of Michigan. If you’re scared of heights, the bridge offers drivers to help you get across. It is closed during high winds and on Labor Day. There is a fee to cross so if your GPS is set to avoid tolls, it will take you through Chicago to get to the other side of the bridge. The UP is like a separate state and many of the Yoopers (UPers) feel disconnected with the Lower Peninsula. The most famous food is the PASTIE. Pronounce is like PASS TEE. Do not call it a PASTE TEE. That’s something different.
St. Ignace is like a small version of Mackinaw City. It is a tourist city which has ferries to take visitors to Mackinac Island. It has CGs, motels and attractions like the Mystery Spot. It has the oldest family-owned grocery store in the USA, Doud’s. There’s a smaller version on the island.
Mackinac Island is part of the UP and it cannot be reached by a bridge. Most people take a ferry to the island. Ferries leave from Mackinaw City or St. Ignace. Some people bring their bicycles with them because there are no motor vehicles allowed except for emergencies. The most famous resort is the Grand Hotel. You may have seen it in the movie Somewhere In Time. There are so many visitors to the hotel that they charge admission. The Grand has a fantastic golf course. The front nine is short, but fun and you get to use a golf cart. To get to the back nine, you get on a horse drawn carriage for a 30-minute ride into the woods. Well worth it. You will see many shops that sell fudge and tee shirts back in town. Free samples will help you pick the fudge shop you like the best. You will also find butterfly houses and horse drawn buggy tours. Do not miss Fort Mackinac. It is very well maintained. Fort Mackinac is huge and does reenactments with cannon blasts and soldiers in uniforms. The Grand Hotel runs a small café at the fort. Most of the hotels downtown have restaurants, too.
Back in the UP, travel north east to the Soo. Sault St. Marie (SAULT is pronounced SUE) is famous for the Soo Locks to gently lower boats from Lake Superior to the Lake Huron level. This is also a good place to cross into Canada.
Tahquamenon Falls near Paradise is a great SP for camping and seeing the falls. Just north of Paradise is White Fish Point. Many shipwrecks occurred near here and therefore there is a great museum dedicated to teaching about these wrecks. It includes the bell of the Edmund Fitzgerald and a moving video is shown concerning this ship, the crew and retrieving the bell. You will enjoy the views of Lake Superior on the beach behind the museum.
Snowmobiling is popular all over the UP, but the Newberry area brings in many from the Lower Peninsula during the winter.
The whole UP is beautiful and there are many scenic drives all over. A not-to-be-missed DRIVE is H-58 between Grand Marais and Munising.
AREA 9 Central UP
There is a lot in this part of the UP. Munising offers boat rides to the Pictured Rocks area, shipwreck tours and while you wait for a boat ride you can visit the local waterfalls. Lil’ Abner’s Dogpatch is a restaurant with fun décor.
DRIVE along the Lake Superior shore. Take time to stop at a roadside park to wade into the water. Warning: it’s cold even in the summer.
Once you’ve entered the Keweenaw Peninsula, look for copper mine tours. Set your GPS for Gay, MI to reach the east side of the peninsula for a pleasant DRIVE alone Lake Superior on the way to Copper Harbor. Watch for the water fall and a photo stop. Copper Harbor is a jumping off point for Isle Royale NP, visit the Harbor Haus for a great meal with a view. The waitstaff have a unique greeting to the boats returning from the island. Visit Fort Wilkins SP for a day visit or camping. Drive to the top of Brockway Mountain for a view. If you’re on a bike, let gravity take you back down to the bottom.
South of the Keweenaw Peninsula is the Porcupine Mountain SP where you can visit the Lake of the Clouds or go camping. If you’re looking for a good DRIVE, go online and search porcupine UP motorcycle and auto tours for ideas. I’ve only done the Lake Superior tour and it was fun and informative, but most of it out of Michigan.
Hwy 2 takes you toward Escanaba. In Iron Mountain, Mi, look for iron mine tours. There will be great views of Lake Michigan on your way back to Mackinac. Along the way, is Lake Kitch Iti Kipi in Manistique. It is a small, beautiful spring-fed lake. You can propel yourself across the lake on a raft with a glass bottom. Fun for the kids and fun to say out loud. Just north of Lake Kitch iti Kipi is the Seney National Wildlife Refuge. There are two drives through the park to look for wildlife.
Heading towards Mackinac, you will DRIVE on Hwy 2. Try to keep your eyes on the road even though the views of Lake Michigan are fantastic. And the beaches, they’re right by the road! Stop and check them out. At the Cut River bridge, you can drive over it, but you’ll miss how impressive the bridge is if you don’t stop at the rest area beside it and stretch your legs.
At this point, you’ve completed the drive back to the Mackinac Bridge. The UP is one big scenic drive with some sights more spectacular than the others. Drive it. Eat pasties and blueberry pies. Relax.