Northern Michigan road trips

Metro | Published September 20, 2023

Tunnel of Trees, Harbor Springs/Shutterstock image

Legs Inn/Photo by Brian Louwers


By Greg Tasker

NORTHERN MICHIGAN — What better way to truly explore the beauty of autumn than a road trip, especially in northern Michigan. While there are plenty of scenic rural stretches across the state, the upper stretch of the mitten offers countless panoramas of forested ridges, dunes and lakeshores ablaze in fiery reds, oranges and yellows.

Fall officially starts Saturday, Sept. 23, but colors across the northern lower peninsula are expected to reach partial to peak displays the first two weeks of October, according to various sites tracking fall foliage. If you’re thinking about a road trip north, here are a few scenic drives to consider.


Tunnel of Trees, M-119
This 20-mile scenic stretch along Lake Michigan, from Harbor Springs to Cross Village, is by no means a road less traveled (expect heavy traffic on weekends and other times), but there’s a reason why it’s so popular and a must-visit in the fall. Officially a state highway, M-119, this shoreline road is thick with trees, their canopies reaching over the roadway. In the fall, the trees create a tunnel of colors. Adding to the magic are glimpses of Lake Michigan, nature preserves and small villages. Just outside Harbor Springs, Pond Hill Farm offers a one-stop fall extravaganza, with pumpkin patches, hay rides, u-pick fruit, hot cider, donuts and more. There’s a playground for kids and farm animals to feed. Farther north, stop at the Good Hart General Store, in the village of Good Hart, home to a few hundred people. The general store is a rare find and serves as the village’s grocery, bakery, deli and post office. You can pick up homemade pies, cookies and other treats. If you’re looking for a diversion to a local beach or picnic spot, the store staff will guide you. At the end of the sometimes twisting route lies Legs Inn in Cross Village. It’s as kitschy and rustic as you might imagine but the inn is well-known for serving some of the best Polish fare around — including pierogi, smoked whitefish and stuffed cabbage.


M-22, Manistee to Glen Arbor
It’s a long and winding road from Manistee to Glen Arbor, but one far less-traveled than the popular Tunnel of Trees. Pick up Route 22 just north of Manistee and follow along the Lake Michigan coastline, past orchards and vineyards and farm stands selling apples and other seasonal produce. The two-lane highway passes through small communities like Onekama, Arcadia, Elberta and around picturesque inland lakes. There are spots along the way to pause and take in views of Lake Michigan. Stop in Frankfort for a cold brew at Stormcloud Brewing Co. or shop along its tidy main street.  Farther north, the road passes through Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. Learn more about the nearly 72,000-acre park at the Philip A. Hart Visitor Center in Empire or detour along Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive for even more impressive views of Lake Michigan. Empire is also home to one of the best chocolatiers around, the Grocer’s Daughter Chocolate Shop. Always busy, Glen Arbor boasts several restaurants, gift shops, wine tastings, bike rentals and paddling adventures. M-22 continues along the perimeter of the Leelanau Peninsula, with easy access to about two dozen wineries, busy with harvest in the fall, and other small towns — Leland, Northport and Suttons Bay.


River Road, River Road National Scenic Byway
The River Road parallels the winding Au Sable River in northeastern lower Michigan, from Oscoda to Huron-Manistee National Forest. The 22-mile stretch, known as the River Road National Scenic Byway, offers wonderful views of the famous river from high vantage points and stops at well-known landmarks. One of the best viewing spots is the Foote Pond Overlook, where you can see the river from high sand bluffs. It’s also a great location to see eagles that nest nearby. The river, which empties into Lake Huron, was once a major transportation route for floating giant white pines from the surrounding forests. The Lumberman’s Monument Visitor Center pays homage to that past and shares the stories of lumberjacks through videos and displays. A 14-foot bronze Lumberman’s Monument stands high on a bank overlooking the river, a sure-bet photo opp for Instagramers. Along the way, stop at Iargo Springs and descend the 300 or so stairs to the clear springs. The stairs were built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s, but the springs were first discovered and used by Native Americans. The surrounding forest is abundant with outdoor activities, everything from camping and hiking to trails for off-road vehicles. Cap your road trip with a ride on the AuSable River Queen, the only paddlewheel boat operating in northern Michigan. It’s a wonderful way to enjoy views of exploding colors along the river, from the river.

Greg Tasker is a Traverse City-based freelance writer.