I am so very excited to share with you my personal guide to Northern Michigan. Now if you visit me with any regularity you’ll know I am not about to share anything remotely hip or trendy. Sadly, I haven’t been on trend in a decade or so (or ever, as some might argue!). Nope, it’s all about farms, food, and flowers in my world. I can’t help it, that’s just what makes me tick.
My family has spent the past twenty summers on Torch Lake, in the North Western part of the state. Of course I am incredibly biased as I believe this is the most beautiful, charming place on earth, so my guide will be focused primarily on this region, and the surrounding counties. Michigan is a gorgeous (and large!) state- from the Upper Peninsula, to Detroit– there are so many cool areas to explore, so don’t be fooled into thinking this is a comprehensive guide to Michigan. I’ve broken my guide into five sections, and each would make for a fabulous weekend or day trip. For each section, I’ve tried to give a little synopsis of the area, and further broken it down into my favorite attractions, shops, restaurants and things to do. I’ve included a combination of my pictures, and my moms…she is the queen of capturing sunsets and landscapes, and her love for Northern Michigan shines through in these photographs. I’m hoping that readers who know and love Northern Michigan will chime in with comments about their favorite places to go, and things to do. I’d love to see this grow into a resource for anyone hoping to travel the area. So without further ado, here’s my take on “Up North:”
1. Torch Lake
The color of our lake rivals that of the Caribbean waters- its turquoise depths are truly stunning to behold. But don’t take my word for it, National Geographic voted Torch Lake the third most beautiful lake in the world. Not that I’m one for bragging, but come on…that is pretty impressive for our little ole’ state of Michigan. You can easily spend a day on the water, or better yet, a whole summer!
Alden: Nestled on the shore of Torch lake, this is the sweet town that we have called home for the past twenty summers, and it is near and dear to my heart. It is a super tiny town, and some would pass right through it in the blink of an eye. But it is worth a stop for lunch, and a browse through some of the sweet shops. Afterloon Delights is our favorite lunch spot (and their cinnamon buns are deadly). The Warm Fuzzy is a cute yarn shop, and The Alden Mill Shop is stocked full of amazing spices and kitchen gear. Curiosities is a killer antique shop, full of great deals if you dig a little. The RedEye Gallery and The Pear Tree are well curated little shops. And don’t miss Higgins for huge scoops of ice cream. On Thursday evenings the Alden Stroll takes place with food, music and a farmers market (links to shops and events on the Alden website). Finally, a favorite late afternoon hiking trail, Coy Mountain, starts right in town.
Grass River Nature Preserve: An incredible wetlands ecosystem, Grass River is part of the Chain of Lakes, connecting Torch Lake and Clam Lake to Lake Bellaire. Boardwalks allow you to walk through the marshy land and explore the wildlife and foliage. There is a nature center that has several activities for kids, including pelts, feathers, skulls and bones to touch. Vijay loved the snake that they had (we even witnessed him eating a mouse- eek). The little nature center is a great place to spend a rainy afternoon.
The Dockside: Pull your boat up to the dock, tie up, and indulge in some good ole’ bar food. If you are into boats and people watching, this is a great place to grab lunch, and its very kid-friendly (meaning loud and messy!).
Rugg Pond: A bird watching paradise with hundreds of waterfowl and migratory birds. The pond is also home to a pair of rare Trumpeter Swan. They raise their cygnets here every year, making for great pictures! For literary buffs, it is also worth noting that Ernest Hemingway once spent a night fishing from the Rugg Pond dam powerhouse.
The Seven Bridges Natural Area: A series of charming bridges that cross over Rapid River, and lead to beautiful meadow views. After almost falling to a developer’s axe, a group of local women banded together to save this special place.
Soul food: For a small, Northern Michigan town, it’s kinda amazing that Elk Rapids has not one, but two amazing Cajun cooking joints. Sweet Mama’s Kitchen is the new place in town, and their Jamaican fish tacos are to-die-for, as are their hand cut french fries, and homemade Southern-style desserts. Pearl’s New Orleans Kitchen always has a line out the door thanks to their reliably good Southern cookin’.
As the largest city in Northern Michigan, Traverse City’s claim to fame is its cherry harvest. It produces the largest crop of tart cherries in the country, and to celebrate this feat, it hold an annual Cherry Festival, which draws around 500,000 visitors the first full week of July. I’m not one for crowds, so I tend to steer clear of the city during this particular celebration, but other than that, I’m always up for a trip to the “big city!”
The Village at Grand Traverse Commons: This collection of cute shops, coffee joints, bakeries and restaurants is housed in a former insane asylum known as the Traverse City State Hospital (above painting of the hospital by Bill Hyslop). My husband thinks it’s a bit spooky, and it does look like One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest could have been filmed there, but I love it. A few musts: Higher Grounds coffee (simply the best, and a sweet sandbox for the kids to play in while you enjoy your cuppa), Trattoria Stella for upscale dining, Boutique a la Vie for on-trend clothes, Gallery Fifty for interesting artwork, High Five Threads for awesome proud-to-be-Michigan t-shirts, and perhaps most importantly, Pleasanton Brick Oven Bakery for insanely good cookies and breads (get it…insanely good…ha).
Front Street: The main shopping strip of the downtown area, Front Street is home to over 100 cute shops, and fabulous restaurants. A few of my favorite shops include Cali’s for cute clothes and home goods, Fustini’s Oils and Vinegars for unique and tasty olive oils, American Spoon for amazing jams and preserves, Horizon Books, an indie bookstore, and Green Island for eco-friendly finds. There is an amazing antique store-Wilson Antiques– three levels, and super fair prices. I snagged two gorgeous quilts for under $100 each (in perfect condition too- that’s a steal!). As far as restaurants there are too many to name, in fact Bon Appetite named Traverse City one of America’s Top 5 Foodie towns. I’ll recommend this article, and the links to explore the dining scene. But for a quick bite while shopping on Front Street, I will mention that we love our old standby’s PoppyCock’s, and Zakey, and I’ve been dying to try The Cooks House.
TART (Traverse Area Recreation Trail): Have you heard of Rails to Trails, a conservancy devoted to turning old, unused rail lines into bike trails? TART is a gorgeous Rails to Trails 10.5 mile biking/ walking trail that runs through Traverse and connects you to shops, restaurants and scenic views.
Traverse City’s Sara Hardy Farmers Market: A visit to this market at the height of summer is a feast for the senses. Stalls overflow with berries of every color, cherries galore, and fresh flowers. Organic vegetable stalls mingle with ice cream and cheese vendors. I even came across a booth selling Emu steaks, and Emu jerky (surprisingly delicious). You know my affinity for farmers markets- and this one did not disappoint.
Traverse City Film Festival: Started in 2005 by Michael Moore, The TCFF has blossomed into the largest film festival in the Midwest, and one of the most respected in the country. For one week in late July/ early August, foreign films, documentaries, and American independent films are given the stage, and around 100,000 people come out for viewings.
Old Mission Peninsula: Known for its gorgeous vistas overlooking Lake Michigan, fabulous sunset viewing, wineries and cherry orchards, you could easily spend a weekend getting lost in the beauty of Old Mission Peninsula. The special, mild climate here is perfect for growing grapes, so I would highly recommend indulging in a vineyard tour, or two.
This might be my favorite daytrip of the bunch. Leelaunau Peninsula, sometimes referred to as “the little finger” of the Michigan mitten, offers a smattering of cute towns, as well as incredible natural beauty in the form of the famous Sleeping Bear Dunes. In my early years, before we owned our own cottage, my family spent our summers in Glen Arbor. We would spend weeks exploring the dunes, partaking in the Junior Ranger program, and hanging out at Art’s Tavern. I love going back to this area and reliving those amazing, early childhood memories. It turns out the boys loved it as much as I once did- the dunes especially are such a kick for little ones!
Leland: Located on a small sliver of land between Lake Michigan and Lake Leelanau, Leland is a historic, and vibrant small town. There are plenty of shops, as well as galleries, restaurants and bakeries..and a great indie bookstore, Leelanau Books. The historic district, known as Fishtown, is made up of old commercial fishing shanties, built right on the harbor. Today, tourist shops and eateries, call these old shanties home. There is still one working fish market on the docks, Carlson’s Fish Market, and their smoked fish is out of this world! For a unique and tasty experience, head a little ways out of town to Cedar Sole Hydro Farm, Michigan’s largest hydroponic farm, which also runs a taco stand. The tacos are made using all local ingredients- the fish tacos were outstanding. Be sure to tour the farm while you wait for your order. Finally, for a taste of Provence in Northern Michigan, stop by the lavender fields at Leelanau Lavender Breezes, a picturesque farm selling a variety of lavender products, as well as fields of cut-your-own lavender.
Suttons Bay: A sweet little town that lies halfway up the eastern shore of the Leelanau Peninsula. While I probably wouldn’t spend an entire day here (it is tiny!), it is certainly worth including on your Leelanau Peninsula daytrip, just to catch the handful of charming shops and restaurants. Grab a bite to eat at Martha’s Leelanau Table, serving simply prepared, locally-sourced food, and knitters, stock up on my personal favorite, Madelinetosh yarn at Thistledown, Sutton Bay’s great yarn shop.
Sleeping Bear Dunes: It is hard to describe the magic of the Sleeping Bear Dunes. Imagine towering sand dunes plunging steeply into the crystal blue waters of Lake Michigan, so steep in fact, that it almost gives you vertigo! Winding dune walks, beautiful meadow hikes, rolling farmland and sprawling woods complete the natural beauty. Some of our favorite things to do: The Dune Climb, a drive along the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive, which brings you to the largest, steepest dune of all and the Lake Michigan overlook, hiking the various meadow and dune walks, driving through the Port Oneida Rural Historic District with its beautiful farmland, picture taking at the DH Day Farm, and finally, participating in the various ranger-led activities, including the Junior Ranger Program. After a day at the dunes, stop into Glen Arbor, a charming little town on the shore of Lake Michigan, for some good eats, a browse through the cute shops, and ice cream at The Pine Cone.
A small island located in Lake Huron, Mackinac Island has an old-world feel thanks to the fact there are no cars allowed on the island. Bikes and horse-drawn carriages are the preferred means of transportation, which makes for a beyond-charming scene. The island is only accessible by ferry (or small aircraft), so plan ahead.
Biking: The very best way to see the island in its entirety is by biking, and there are plenty of bike rental options in town. The trail around the island’s shoreline is 8.2 miles, but you can easily make a day of it, depending on how often you stop, if you include some hiking on the various footpaths, and if you pack a picnic lunch. More than 80% of the island is preserved as Mackinac Island State Park, so there is natural beauty aplenty. Not to be missed- Point Lookout, Fort Mackinac, Arch Rock, Sugar Loaf and Round Island Lighthouse.
Grand Hotel: Dating back to 1887, the Grand Hotel will make you feel a bit Gatsby-ish. It’s not a cheap place to stay, but even if you aren’t a guest you can still poke around the beautiful grounds and interior for a $10 fee. Inside you will find a charming ice cream parlor, old world glamor decor, cute shops, a great swimming pool, a golf course, stunning gardens, duck pin bowling, and plenty more. It’s a very kid-friendly resort, just be sure to bring some smart clothes for the kiddos, this place is fancy!
Main Street: One word- FUDGE. Mackinac Island is famous for its fudge- and their fudge alone is worth a trip to the island. The rest of the shopping can be a bit kitschy/ touristy for my taste, but it is still fun to browse the many little shops that line Main Street, Market Street, Astor Street, Hoban Street and Fort Street.
*Traverse Magazine: A monthly magazine focused on all things “Up North.” Very informative, and you can pick it up at any bookstore in the area.
General things to do
Farms– Michigan farmland is beautiful…that is just a fact. From the weathered barns, to the fields of hay bales, and grazing sheep, there is much beauty in the working land. Keep your eyes open for picturesque farms…it is worth pulling to the side of the road to capture the beauty (or at least, that’s my favorite thing to do!).
Pick-Your-Own: Our favorite PYO spot is King’s Orchard (just east of the most northern tip of Torch Lake) where you can stock up on cherries, raspberries, apricots, peaches, plums and nectarines. They have a market with great fruit products- preserves, juices, dried fruits, etc. There are also tractors for the kids to play around on…an obvious selling point for us!
Flowers: There are gorgeous fields of wildflowers everywhere you turn, and you can’t help but want to grab a bundle to spruce up your dinner table. While we were in Michigan, the sweet peas were blooming and oh…were they something. I would highly recommend traveling with a small pair of scissors so that you can cut a wild flower bouquet at a moments notice!
Foraging: If you know what you are looking for, foraging is amazing in these parts. There are all the greens and mushrooms you could ever hope for, as well as an abundance of berries- black raspberries, saskatoons (aka june berries), mulberries, and elderberry are just a few of treats that we found. We made black raspberry and lemon buttermilk pancakes and I think the boys ate ten between the two of them!
Alright….that’s it from me! This is where you come in…have you spent time in Northern Michigan? What are your favorite things to do, and places to explore?