Michigan’s M-22 stretches for 116 miles (187 kilometers) along Lake Michigan’s shoreline from Manistee to Traverse City. Most visitors come for the miles of freshwater coastline and the opportunity to climb the towering sand dunes in Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, but end up discovering the region’s bounty of fruit and wine and its storied past.
On this tour, we’ll weave among the lakes and small towns to uncover stories about the early lumber industry, maritime and fur trading history, and Native American culture of the Great Lakes. With colorful sunsets, world-famous cherries, and gorgeous hikes through forests and dunes, Northwest Michigan is a wonderful place to visit.
M-22 is a designated state highway that runs along the northwest coast of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula, hugging the shoreline of Lake Michigan from Manistee to Traverse City (or vice versa). Our tour takes advantage of bonus lakeside driving, by following all the way around the Leelanau Peninsula, and can be driven in either direction.
Visitors can access Michigan’s M-22 Scenic Drive from Manistee or Traverse City. This trip can be done from south up or north down, so the starting point is up to you. If beginning in Manistee, you can get there from State Highways 31 or 55. If starting in Traverse City (or from another locale further north), Highway 31 is your best bet.
The nearest International airports are Grand Rapids International Airport (GRR) which is 130 miles (209 kilometers) from Manistee, and Capitol Region International Airport (LAN) in Lansing, which is 181 miles (291 kilometers) from Manistee. There are a few nearby domestic airports, including Cherry Capital Airport (TVC) in Traverse City. And each airport has multiple car rental agencies.
If you’re planning a trip “up north” then your travel might already involve some drives along the coast. If you’re coming from the Chicago area, the I-94 will take you northwards to I-196 – get on Highway 31 North in Holland, and in about two hours you’ll be in Manistee.
Those coming south from the Upper Peninsula will want to hop on Highway 31 a couple of miles south of Mackinaw City. From there, it is about two hours to Traverse City.
Regardless of where you start this drive, you’ll definitely need your own vehicle to properly explore this area – as public transportation is extremely limited. You may also want to bring along a bicycle; there are several paved bike paths along this route which can be a fun way to enjoy the area’s sights.
There are a few stops that have entrance fees, including Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. For Sleeping Bear Dunes, a pass is one fee per carload and it lasts for a week. You can also use your America the Beautiful – The National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Pass, which covers all occupants in a vehicle.
While some state parks, museums and sites take a credit card for entry fees, it’s best to have cash – some stops are unstaffed or ask guests to pay on the honor system.
Accommodations along the M-22 Scenic Drive can be limited, especially in the busy summer months. Be sure to book well ahead, whether that is in hotels or campsites. There are a number of resorts and small hotels along the drive, especially in bigger towns like Frankfort, Glen Arbor, Leland, Northport, and Suttons Bay. Vacation homes can be an interesting option, though like hotels, these tend to book up quickly, and may require a minimum night stay during high season.
There are several camping options in Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. The Platte River Campground is open year-round and offers everything from walk-in tent sites to RV sites with electric hookups. The D.H. Day Campground is located just outside of Glen Arbor and offers a bit more rustic experience. Reservations are almost always necessary during the summer months but first-come, first-served sites are often available the rest of the year as long as you arrive early in the day. State-run campsites and cabins can be reserved on the Department of Natural Resources website. There are also a number of RV parks on the main tour route and in other nearby areas.
Michiganders will tell you that each season has its charms, but most visitors aim for dates between Memorial Day and mid October – when most of the sites you’ll want to visit will be open. Summer is obviously warm and everything is wide open to enjoy, and as a result it’s the busiest season and you can expect to encounter traffic.
Cooler weather may put some visitors off, but spring will have you ahead of the crowds and you can enjoy bright colors from the fruit blossoms in the region – with the likelihood of warm sunshine. Fall has the super-bonus of the terrific orange and red fall colors display to rival any.
High summer temperatures range between 70s and 90s, with lows down to the 50s. Winter highs are usually in the 20-30s and you can count on at least some snow anywhere from November to the start of April. Whatever season you visit, it’s best to bring layers for swinging temperatures and brisk coastal winds.
One of the area’s most notable events is the Traverse City National Cherry Festival in July. It started as a “Blessing of the Blossoms” festival, but now the celebration is held in July, right around the time when cherries are ripening. The festival stretches over a week and includes a parade, an airshow and of course, the crowning of a Cherry Queen. There are also plenty of cherry-based fun like a pit-spitting match, cherry pie-eating contests, orchard tours, and plenty of cherry wine and beer. It really is a wildly delicious event. There are also many art festivals, farmer’s markets and regattas in the summer months. And of course, fall brings harvest festivals and Oktoberfest celebrations.
While you could complete the drive from Manistee to Traverse City (or vice versa) in a single day, most visitors will want to spend at least one night during their trip to take in all the sights at a relaxed pace. Also, consider a few nights somewhere like Traverse City, Glen Arbor, Leland or Empire as your base while you venture out to explore each day. Remember, it’s easy to fill a day just at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore!
There are charming towns along the drive, and most are small and easy to explore. Be sure to save some time to stroll the downtowns, get a coffee at a local shop, savor some fresh fruit, and chat with store owners. And leave a lot of time for the outdoors – Michigan’s coastlines and hiking trails are a treasure. Slow down and take pleasure in the little things: searching for ancient fossils, spotting rare birds, or taking in a gorgeous lakeside sunset. With all the history, nature and sights in Michigan, we wouldn’t be surprised if you stretched your stay for a few days.
Michigan’s peak season is definitely summer, when the weather is sunny, the waters are warmer, and school is out. Many of the historical sites are only staffed during these summer months, so you may have to brave the crowds if you’re visiting in summer to take in everything the area has to offer. Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is a big draw for the region, bringing more than a million people every year.
While Sleeping Bear Dunes may be extra busy, there are a lot of – ahem – sleepier spots that are off the beaten path where you can avoid the crowds. We recommend waking up at dawn and hitting the road – you’ll beat many of the other visitors to the best parking and see many sites while the day is still quiet.
With towering dunes, endless beaches, wilderness islands and miles of trail to explore, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is definitely the main feature along the M-22 Scenic Drive. One thing you won’t want to miss here is the Dune Climb. It’s the most popular thing to do in the park, and involves climbing a series of sand dunes with fantastic views of Lake Michigan in the distance.
A mini-drive within the main drive in Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive was once nominated for the Most Beautiful Place in America series. This slow but extremely beautiful 7-mile (11-kilometer) loop drive is not to be missed, taking in viewpoints, dunes, a covered bridge, changing forests – including a ghost forest – and even the Sleeping Bear itself.
Northwest Michigan is a hotspot for birders, and the Arcadia Marsh Nature Preserve is one of the best spots along this route to view rare and endangered species. The Arcadia Marsh is one of Lake Michigan’s few remaining coastal marshes, and visitors can access the marsh through a boardwalk trail that leads straight through the heart of the preserve.
This roadside viewpoint offers one of the most scenic views of Lake Michigan. This is one of the highest points along Lake Michigan so it offers one of the tallest views around. Climb the 120 steps to the top lookout platform for an even more dramatic view.
With its sandy rich soil and cool climate, the Leelanau Peninsula is an ideal spot for growing grapes. Visitors will find 25+ vineyards scattered throughout the peninsula specializing in riesling and ice wine, a sweet dessert wine unique to this region.
Located at the very tip of the Leelanau Peninsula, Leelanau State Park is home to the Grand Traverse Lighthouse, one of the Great Lakes’ oldest and most storied lighthouses. The lighthouse keeper had to constantly fend off pirates in its early days of operation, and you can learn more at the lighthouse museum.
This picturesque coastal town is the best place in northwest Michigan to get acquainted with old-time fishing life. Visit the historic town to see preserved shanties along the shore, and be sure to leave room for some locally caught smoked fish or a fried fish sandwich.
The Point Betsie Lighthouse marks the southern entrance of the Manitou Passage, one of the Great Lakes’ most treacherous stretches of water. It’s one of the most photographed lighthouses in Michigan and guided tours are available of the 19th century keeper’s residence and 34-step tower.
Traverse City has long been known as the “Cherry Capital of the World”. In July and August, the countryside surrounding Traverse City is filled with fruit stands and markets brimming with baskets of sweet, dark cherries. All things cherry are celebrated in the annual National Cherry Festival held in Traverse City each July.
The Whaleback is one of Leelanau’s most interesting geologic landmarks and it can be seen from various vantage points from across the peninsula. This fragile bluff literally looks like a whale perched on the shore of Lake Michigan, and a short trail yet challenging trail leads to a spectacular viewpoint atop the bluff.
Fantastic hiking opportunities abound in Michigan, and we’ve done our best to highlight the best trails along the M-22 scenic drive. As far as must-do hikes, here’s a few of our top suggestions.
Located just south of the town of Arcadia, the Arcadia Marsh Preserve protects one of the last remaining coastal marshes along Lake Michigan’s shoreline. A short boardwalk trail passes through the heart of the preserve and offers incredible bird viewing opportunities, so make sure to bring your binoculars. The marsh is home to nearly 200 bird species including several threatened and endangered species.
If you only have time for one hike in Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, make it the Dune Climb. It’s one of the biggest draws in the park, if not the most popular hike on our tour. The trail climbs several large dunes and offers incredible views of Lake Michigan in the distance.
You really can’t go wrong with any of the trails at Leelanau State Park. The park protects over 1,300 acres of forest and lakeshore at the top of the Leelanau Peninsula. The park’s 8 miles (13 kilometers) of trails pass through beautiful woods, inland lakes and pristine beaches.
If you’re looking for a lesser-visited hike in Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, head to Pyramid Point. The whole loop trail is 2.7-miles (4.3-kilometers) long and passes through old farm fields and beech-maple forests, before arriving at a wonderful view of Lake Michigan.
Except for the many vineyard tours and wine tastings along our route, most of the stops are family-friendly. There are a lot of beach stops along the way, but be careful swimming – most beaches don’t have lifeguards and Lake Michigan can get rough.
Speaking of water, there are options to rent tubes, kayaks or canoes in a few spots along the drive. In particular, there are outdoor outfitters in Glen Arbor, close to Sleeping Bear Dunes.
As far as family-friendly historic sites, we recommend the Point Betsie Lighthouse, the Glen Haven ghost town, Leland Fishtown, Leelanau Park Lighthouse, the Botanical Garden and the Dennos Museum. And if you’d like to do some biking, we recommend the paved TART trail that connects Suttons Bay and Traverse City. If you didn’t bring your bike, there are bike rental companies in both cities.
Many of the towns we’ll pass through have a rich Indigenous, fur trading, and lumber industrial history. Lighthouses abound, and many towns have historical societies that are staffed by locals who love to talk about the history of the region. We recommend taking your time and stopping at a number of historical landmarks along your way. In particular, Point Betsie, Elberta and Frankfort, Empire, Glen Haven and Fishtown all have rich histories to explore.
Some visitors are surprised to learn that Michigan ranks among the top ten grape growers in the United States. The Leelanau Peninsula alone is home to over 25 distinct wineries. This region is especially known for its whites, but you’ll also find plenty of sparkling wine, an interesting sweet dessert wine called ice wine, and other interesting varieties. The Leelanau Peninsula Wine Trail is organized around three loop drives and we’ll definitely pass by some of these wineries on our tour. It would take days to visit every single tasting room on the peninsula.
The 45th Parallel marks the halfway point between the Equator and the North Pole, and the M-22 has the unique claim of crossing the 45th parallel twice. Along the drive there’s park where you can pull off and spend a little time contemplating our precise position on the planet.
Along the drive, we are likely to see apple, apricot, pear, and plum trees, but this area is best known for sweet and tart cherry trees. Springtime means blossoms galore, and during the summer and fall, dozens of fruit stands are set up. And of course of you’re here in July, you won’t want to miss the National Cherry Festival held in Traverse City.
Pull up a stretch of sand anywhere that faces west and you’re in for a beautiful sunset experience. But in particular, Inspiration Point, Sleeping Bear Dunes, Point Betsie and Leelanau State Park are stunners.
Layers: Layers are your friend for any visit to Northwest Michigan, both for fluctuating temperatures and for sun and bug protection.
Footwear: For short hikes, a pair of comfortable walking shoes should suffice. For longer hikes, bring along a pair of trail shoes or hiking boots. You’ll probably want a couple pairs of shoes – we like sandals, hiking shoes or boots, and a pair of more casual sneakers.
Beach Supplies: A swimsuit and water shoes or sandals will be handy on the many beach opportunities we will highlight along the drive. And bring some chairs or a blanket to make a comfy spot to watch the sunset or listen to the waves. A towel is also handy for drying off, dusting off sand, or even as an impromptu layer for a chilly evening.
Daypack: A daypack is handy for carrying water, snacks and sunscreen. It’s not a bad idea to also throw in some first aid supplies, hand sanitizer, and bug repellent.
Sun Protection: Be sure to pack sunscreen and a hat – sunglasses are also helpful for sun protection, especially near water.
Bug Repellant: With lots of water comes lots of bugs, so bring some bug spray to make the days more pleasant.
Water: You’ll want to bring along a reusable water bottle to keep hydrated.
Binoculars: For birders and nature lovers, a set of binoculars are helpful for spotting birds and other animals from afar.
Phone Charger: Don’t forget your charger for your phone – you’ll be using it a lot between the tour and all the pretty pictures you’ll be snapping.
Plastic Bag: We always carry a plastic bag when we hike, so we can do our part and help keep the trails and waterways clean. If you see some trash along the way, pick it up, drop it in the bag. When you get back to the trailhead, simply drop your bag in the recycling or trash bin and voila! You’ve helped keep the parks beautiful
for everyone who visits.