Northern Michigan Fall Colors
Have you heard the good news about northern Michigan fall colors? It’s just brilliant!
That’s because the fun doesn’t stop in northern Michigan once the cooler weather sets in. Some might even argue (us included) that autumn in when the fun really starts to heat up.
That’s because fall is when Michigan really comes alive with fun: cider mills, pumpkin patches and corn mazes seem to spring up along country roads; driving tours for leaf-peeping become a top weekend drive priority and a day-trip to visit an apple orchard and take in some peak colors sounds like a perfect idea.
We’ll confess: Fall in Michigan is our favorite season, when our senses are are overwhelmed by the sights and smells of the season.
We’re talking blue, sparkling lakes; hiking trails alive with brilliant color; soft autumn breezes brushing gently against your skin and the scent of cinnamon-spiced cider and donuts filling the air.
Read on to discover six amazing places to experience fall color in Michigan.
Northern Michigan Fall Road Trips: Your Fall Travel Guide
With just about every corner of the state ablaze with beautiful color, it’s easy to plan a fall road trip and find a place to see some changing fall foliage.
One of our favorite spots for a fall color tour is the Traverse City area
Here, you’re never too far from autumn beauty. The combination of nature trails, crystal-clear lakes, fun beach towns and great dining and much more make the area a must if you’re seeking a perfect weekend getaway.
We’re sharing six of the best spots in the Traverse City area to visit for a scenic drive, fall road trip or vacation getaway. We hope you’ll enjoy them and have some pure Michigan fall fun!
Read on to discover the best places to play stay and eat in these areas and start planning your Michigan Fall Color getaway now!
Best Time to See Fall Color in Michigan
For some reason, the colors seem even brighter this year, and the gorgeous landscape with wide-open spaces to explore make an trip up north even more appealing this year.
The unseasonably warm, autumn weather has slowed the color change, providing visitors with a longer season for fall color tours and autumn foliage peeping.
Expect Peak Fall Colors in this area in start in early October.
Getting to the Traverse City Area
Traverse City in the Michigan’s northern lower peninsula is easily reachable by car and plane if you plan to travel Michigan to see some spectacular fall foliage.
BY CAR: From metro Detroit in southeast Michigan, it’s about a four-hour drive. From Grand Rapids in west Michigan, it’s about a three-hour scenic drive.
By AIR: You can also fly into the Cherry Capital Airport (TVC). a full-service commercial airport with major airline service to about 300 domestic and international destinations.
Northern Michigan Fall: Six Amazing Places for a Fall Michigan Vacation
Here are six don’t-miss places in the Traverse City and Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore area that make our list for amazing fall vacation spots.
Old Mission Peninsula
Old Mission Peninsula is a narrow peninsula of land jutting out from traverse City and extending into Grand Traverse Bay, dividing the bay into East Bay and West Bay.
Just 18 miles long and about 3 miles wide, this gorgeous sliver of land is home to some of Michigan’s most stunningly picturesque land. It’s also the proud home to burgeoning wineries and age-old farms and fruit orchards.
It’s the stuff that travel dreams are made of: pristine bay waters of varying blues and hilly terrain that rises and falls in just the right places.
Drive along M-37, the main highway to the tip of the peninsula, where you’ll find Mission Point Lighthouse. You’ll pass lush wineries beckoning you to their tasting rooms in stunning settings overlooking the bays of Lake Michigan.
This is Michigan wine country, so be sure and factor at least a few stops at one of the local wineries into your travel itinerary.
Visiting Old Mission Peninsula in the Fall
You’ll also pass farm stands selling fresh produce; pumpkins of all shapes and sizes as well as apples in every type of variety line the road in the fall months.
It’s easy to spend a whole day exploring this beautiful spot, and in the fall the rich colors of the foliage invite you to meander down the side roads.
There are spots along the shoreline just south of the lighthouse to pull over and wander down to the shoreline and take in the magical Grand Traverse Bay vistas.
Stay, Play and Eat on Old Mission Peninsula
STAY: You can chose to stay at one of the many hotels in Traverse City, or you stay at one of the wineries dotting the peninsula. We’ve stayed a few times at the Inn at Chateau Chantal always love the comfortable suites with amazing views of East Bay. Accommodations range from upscale to moderate, check with the individual wineries for more information. You can find more in our guide to Traverse City wineries found here.
EAT: We love to keep it light during the day with some snacks and picnic food(local dried cherries, etc.) from Old Mission General Store. You can also try one of the wineries for a charcuterie board or other yummy appetizers. We also love a leisurely dinner at The Boathouse or the Peninsula Grill.
PLAY: If you visit, be sure and allow yourself time to explore Old Mission Peninsula in a leisurely fashion. Don’t miss these spots:
2 Lads Winery – Set high on a hill overlooking East Bay, this sleek and modern winery fits right in the rugged landscape beautifully. The wine is quite good, too: their Pinot Noir is a My Michigan Beach favorite.
Bowers Harbor Vineyards – Visit this family-owned vineyard with a dog-friendly outdoor patio and lawn; after trying a delicious glass of wine or cider ask about taking a short self-guided hike on the Interpretive Nature Trail located on the grounds.
Harbor View Nursery and Lavender Farm – Tour fields of bright lavender and purchase fragrant soaps, sachets and even fresh lavender honey.
Jolly Pumpkin – You can eat and drink inside, but we prefer ordering take-out from the website and heading over to the spacious lawn for a picnic overlooking West Bay.
Mission Table – This upscale farm-to-table restaurant in the Bowers Harbor Inn is located on five acres overlooking West Bay. Great food in a stunning setting.
Elk Rapids MI
Elk Rapids is absolutely charming in autumn.
Travel just north of Traverse City along M-31, the highway that runs along the east arm of Grand Traverse Bay and take in the spectacular scenery along the way to Elk Rapids.
You might think that the town’s shop and restaurant-owners would be weary from the visitors that fill the downtown in summer month, but that’s clearly not the case.
Instead, planters and pots filled with bright mums and fall floral splendor are on every corner and autumn decor is everywhere. the effect is very inviting.
Elk Rapids is a town surrounded by water: Elk Lake on the west side and Lake Michigan’s Grand Traverse Bay to the east. The salmon-filled Elk River runs straight through the middle, streaming into Lake Michigan in the most beautiful way.
We love the way this Michigan beach town makes the most of it’s location on the bay, which is highlighted by a stunning waterfront park that offers excellent ADA beach accessibility. In addition to paved pathways through the park, there is an accessibility mat on the beach, complete with comfortable benches.
Veterans Memorial Park and the Elk Rapids Sandbar is a sprawling beach park, perfect for families, couples and anyone who enjoys clean, picturesque spots.
Visit Elk Rapids in Autumn
Grab a seat on one of the many park benches or picnic tables and gaze across the azure bay at Old Mission Peninsula rising along the horizon, and let the kids play on the play on the swing sets and play structures.
This is a friendly and welcoming town: there is even a large sand box on the beach with buckets and shovels and other beach toys to be enjoyed by visitors.
Walk along the wide bridge over the Elk River and take in the picturesque views. If you peer over the side, you’re guaranteed to see some Michigan wildlife in the form of the fish enjoying life below the surface.
After you’ve visited the beach, take a stroll down the town’s main artery, River Street.
Explore the shops and eateries lining the way, where you’ll find a mix of shops, boutiques and eateries along with stately historic buildings.
Stay, Play and Eat in Elk Rapids
STAY: You’ll find lots of private vacation rentals here ranging both in price and amenities; you can also stay at one of the many lodging options in Traverse City, just minutes away. We usually stay at the Grand Traverse Resort and Spa, where you’ll everything from spacious condos to standard hotel rooms.
EAT: The dining scene in Elk Rapid is pretty impressive for such a small town: you’ll find hip eateries serving up Cajun food (like Pearl’s New Orleans Kitchen) and American House Woodfired Pizza, and many other solid options.
PLAY: Here are some our favorite spots in the Elk Rapids Area:
Cellar 152 Pub and Provisions – Dine in or carry-out; whatever you do don’t miss the chicken pot-pie at this comfortable yet elegant restaurant on River Street.
Elk Rapids General Store – If there is a better pizza in the area, we certainly aren’t aware of it: the Herbivore Pizza is simply fabulous. They also serve a variety of sandwiches and craft beer.
Rennie Orchards – U-Pick or ready for purchase fruit in season and especially fun in autumn at pumpkin and apple time.
Stony Cabin Toys – Books, board games and toys galore in this cute stone building on River Street, Elk Rapids’ main drag.
Twisted Fish Gallery – This popular gallery and sculpture garden is a must-stop for casual and serious collectors alike, with am ever-changing selection of art including jewelry, fine art, sculptures and more.
Suttons Bay MI
Delightful little Suttons Bay is hands down one of our favorite spots to visit in fall for many reasons, but let’s start with the natural beauty of the area.
Located directly across Grand Traverse Bay from Old Mission Peninsula, this beauty of this area intensifies in the fall months.
Set directly on the west bay shoreline, Suttons Bay lights up with vibrant colors in autumn. The green leaves change to startling reds and golds, and even the bark on age-old birch trees seems whiter against a backdrop of brilliant blue sky.
Next, add the bright turquoise and deep blues of Lake Michigan and your fall color palette comes to life.
Visit Suttons Bay in the Fall
Aside from the endless opportunities for fall outdoor activities in Suttons Bay, one of our favorite things to do is wander St. Joseph Street (the town’s main street) and visit the shops and restaurants.
Suttons Bay is the quintessential quaint Michigan: old buildings scrubbed clean and brought back to life while still retaining their original charm.
You’ll find a mix of upscale and mid-range restaurants, galleries, gift shops and eclectic boutiques lining the well-manicured street, an it’s easy to spend a day meandering the few blocks that make up the downtown area.
Stay, Play and Eat in Suttons Bay
STAY: You’ll find an assortment of charming Inns, Bed and Breakfasts and private rentals here.
EAT: Don’t miss Martha’s Leelanau Table – Be sure and make a reservation for a table or carry-out at this charming and delicious restaurant in downtown Suttons Bay. Dinner at Martha’s is a must for the complete Suttons Bay experience: it’s gourmet home-cooking at it’s best.
PLAY: Here are some of our favorite stops in Suttons Bay:
Bay Books – Billed as a “little bookstore with a whole lot of literature,” this inviting book store is easy to walk into and very hard to leave. Book lovers of all ages will feel right at home in this cozy spot.
Happy Woman Store – You’ll fall in love with this lovely little boutique – and it’s lovely owner, Linda, too. It’s her perfect eye for style that makes shopping and browsing the collection in this store a delight. Don’t miss it.
Hop Lot Brewing Company – We found the perfect restaurant and beer garden, and it’s here in Suttons Bay. The gorgeous outdoor seating space is roomy and comfortable: a great setting to relax and enjoy some home-brewed craft beer or cider and some good food. We’re big fans of the homemade pretzel- be sure and try one.
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Leland’s Fishtown is more than just a collection of old fishing shanties lining the long dock leading out to Lake Michigan, it’s a glimpse into another time.
There is a lot to this still-operational commercial fishing village, it’s not all salmon and trout (although the restaurants around here serve it up perfectly).
Many of these picturesque shacks are now home to upscale boutiques and artisanal foods, and the surrounding little streets offer even more of these.
It’s fun to stroll along the old wooden docks and visit theses stores and imagine yourself back in another, simpler time.
There are also wooden benches and lookout area where you peer into the river and see the fish (see salmon swimming upstream if you time your visit right) that have made this little village what it is today.
Visit Leland, MI in the Fall
Take some time and explore Fishtown and the surrounding boutiques, galleries and restaurants but whatever you do, don’t miss the beaches here.
The picturesque town is set on a tiny bit of land between Lake Michigan and Lake Leelanau offering magnificent views, especially in the fall when the trees lining to shoreline light up with color.
With Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lake Shore in the not-too-far distance, this stretch of Lake Michigan beach is just gorgeous.
Stay, Play and Eat in Leland
STAY: If you’re into camping, check out Leelanau State Park. Located at the top of the Leelanau Peninsula, this pretty spot offers 3 mini-cabins in addition to rustic campsites. There’s also many lodges, Inns and private rentals available, which you can find here.
EAT: Don’t miss the Village Cheese Shanty. This spot on the Fishtown docks is an absolute must for anyone in the area: their delicious sandwiches are renown with good reason. Served on fresh-baked breads and croissants, there’s a reason visitors usually make this their first stop in Fishtown.
PLAY: You’ll find lots of fun shopping; here’s a list of some of our favorites.
Duneberry and Dune Dude – A well-curated collection of both men’s, women’s and children’s resort wear featuring favorites like Lilly Pulitzer, Tyler Boe and Jude Conally at reasonable price point.
Verterra Winery & Tasting Room – We fell in love with Verterra on our first visit to their rustic tasting room in downtown Leland. Be sure and stop in for a wine tasting, if you’re lucky the sparkling Pinot Blanc will be available.
Leelanau Books – You’ll find a great collection of regional books as well as many other great titles. This cozy little book shop has a nice youth collection and even offers children’s story times and programming.
Riverside Inn – This comfortable spot is both a restaurant as well as a Bed and Breakfast. The restaurant has a Peach and Blueberry Salad that is simply wonderful. Just a block from downtown Leland on the banks of the Leland River, this is worth a visit for lodging and/or dining.
Glen Arbor, MI
You’ll find some of Michigan’s most spectacular scenery in Glen Arbor, and it’s not just the views from the gorgeous Lake Michigan beaches.
Set right in the middle of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lake Shore, the rolling terrain lights up in the fall when the leaves start to change color.
While Sleeping Bear Dunes is a great summer destination, the natural beauty continues all year round, especially in autumn. It’s a perfect spot to find some outdoor adventures, whether you’re hiking or biking in the dunes or kayaking along the Lake Michigan shore.
Visit Glen Arbor in the Fall
Plan your leaf peeping trip to Glen Arbor carefully: there is so much spectacular scenery that you need to be sure and leave yourself time to savor each spot.
The Sleeping Bear Dunes Visitors Bureau provides up-to-date information and trail maps to help you plan: not all of the spots require hiking but many do.
Downtown Glen Arbor is small but mighty: you’ll find some Michigan powerhouses here in terms of both restaurants and boutiques – all situated on M-22, the main highway through the two and one of Michigan’s most scenic roadways.
Nearby Glen Lake, one of the clearest aqua inland lakes in Michigan is also a most-see: be sure and stop off the at roadside picnic area along M-22 and take in the landscape.
Stay, Play and Eat in Glen Arbor
STAY: Glen Arbor is home to one of our favorite resorts in the state, The Homestead. This full-service luxury resort is set on lake Michigan right in the middle of the dunes. Need we say more? Choose from a wide range of accommodations including large condos to standard hotels rooms. The best part? It’s pet-friendly.
EAT: Make your way to Art’s Tavern on M-22 in downtown Glen Arbor. Order a burger. That’s all you need to remember.
PLAY: Be sure and visit these spots in Glen Arbor:
Boonedocks – Dine in or dine out on the docks surrounding this downtown Glen Arbor restaurant. The All-American menu features burgers, steaks, fish and more and there’s even little shops to visit on the grounds.
Cherry Republic – If you love cherries, you’ll find everything your heart desires in this cute downtown Glen Arbor location. It’s more than just a store offering cherry jams, salsas, sauces and candies; there is also winery and restaurant. There’s a lot of fun packed into this spot, so plan accordingly.
The Homestead – This sprawling full-service resort in the heart of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lake Shore is one of Michigan’s most popular destinations. Located on the shores of Lake Michigan, The Homestead offers comfortable accommodations and fun activities throughout the year, including skiing and snowshoeing in the winter months.
Totem Shop – This large outdoor sporting goods store offers clothing, shoes, hats and accessories from bathing suits to hiking boots: you can find something for every season.
Sweet, understated Empire is home to some of the most gorgeous landscape in the entire country
Nestled on the shores of Lake Michigan in the middle of the Sleeping Bear Dunes, Empire has managed to keep its low-key, laid-back vibe despite being one of the most popular destinations for travelers in the state.
It’s almost as if the town wanted to stay in the background and let nature take over: there’s a little downtown area with some shops and restaurants, and everything you else you might need, but it is very relaxed.
Visit Empire, MI in the Fall
Empire is also home to many scenic trails for hikers, bikers, and horseback riders who revel in the peaceful setting.
Whatever you do, don’t miss the spectacular sunset from Empire Beach in downtown.
For some reason, the sunsets always seem a little more spectacular here. Don’t ask why, just trust us. Get here just before dusk, follow the signs pointing the way to the beach, sit back and watch the show.
Stay, Play and Eat in Empire
STAY: We use The Homestead in Glen Arbor as our base when visiting Empire. Just a few short miles north, this full-service luxury resort is set on lake Michigan right in the middle of the dunes. Need we say more? Choose from a wide range of accommodations including large condos to standard hotels rooms. The best part? It’s pet-friendly.
EAT: We always make it a point to stop by Joe’s Friendly Tavern. A perfect evening includes take-out from this longtime standard, packed neatly in containers and a spot along the shoreline to watch the sun set on Lake Michigan. If the weather is warm, you can hop out and eat on the beach; if it’s cooler outside, just stay in your car, turn up the heat and watch nature’s best show.
PLAY: Don’t miss these favorite spots in Empire.
Grocer’s Daughter Chocolate – Try some of this ethically-sourced, handmade artisanal chocolate and you’ll have a hard time eating store-bought candy bars: it’s just that good. They also serve hot-chocolate that is out-of-this world. Make this a must-stop.
Miser’s Hoard – It’s a mix of old and new gifts, home goods and antiques, and you could easily spend half of a day looking at everything they have to offer. Located on a pleasant tree-lined street, it’s a fun way to spend a morning or afternoon – especially in the fall.
Shipwreck Cafe – Out-of-this-world sandwiches on fresh-baked bread and buns with local greens are a big part of the menu at this favorite Empire spot. Salads and soups round out the menu; you can’t go wrong at Shipwreck.
More Spots for Michigan Fall Color Tours: Upper Peninsula
- Brockway Mountain
- Hungarian Falls
- Lake of the Clouds
- Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park
- Copper Harbor in the Keweenaw Peninsula
- Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore
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