An aerial shot of deep blue waters winding their way into the Michigan coast from Lake Superior through a marshy green wetland

Summer Road Trip into Michigan's Upper Peninsula

Even with its pristine freshwater shorelines and untouched swaths of forest, northern Michigan is sometimes overlooked as a destination for nature lovers. Follow along on our summer road trip into the Upper Peninsula, where we unlock this natural hidden gem.

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Several years ago, when travel unexpectedly changed and we found ourselves looking for new opportunities to explore outside our own backyard, we fell in love with Michigan. Over 18 months time we repeatedly packed our bags to drive north, venturing into new corners of the state and experiencing what each season had to offer.

Craving adventure and with just one week to satisfy it, we spontaneously planned the Upper Peninsula summer road trip we’d always wanted to do.

Low angle looking down a beach covered in pebbles with the waves coming in on the left and a forested hill on the right

Sleeping Bear Dunes

Our first leg added 425 miles to the truck’s odometer. We made our way north, kayaks and camping gear neatly loaded in the back, views of the water on our minds. Traverse City served as our first hub, the gateway to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.

Of course, Traverse City is in Michigan’s Lower Peninsula and this was technically our Upper Peninsula road trip, but we couldn’t resist stopping for a few attractions in the area.

Sleeping Bear’s Dune Climb served as a challenging introduction to the lakeshore, but offered beautiful views of Glen Arbor Lake as well as miles upon miles of rolling sand dunes.

Looking through tree branches at a distant sand dune covered in tall grassesA tall wood stake painted at the top with the number 4 stands along a sandy trail as a marker

Our hopes of reaching the top of the steep bluff with a view directly down onto Lake Michigan were shattered when we found the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive closed. In another failed attempt we went to North Bar Lake Beach hoping to walk along the water and reach the bluff from a different direction, but recent storms had left too many fallen trees in our path.

Instead, we resigned to our fate and passed an hour or more relaxing in the crystal clear waters along a sandy shore that, on a sunny day, could pass for the Caribbean.

Looking up a sandy hill on the beach covered in tall grass with a walking path

Once we pulled ourselves away from the beach we ventured down to the Empire Bluff Trail for a 1.5 mile round trip hike, ending at a boardwalk with unforgettable views of the dunes from high above.

A couple stands on a wooden walkway embracing with a sprawling forested coastline leading off into the horizonh

It seemed hiking, sunbathing, and swimming just weren’t enough to satisfy us that day. A spontaneous, and maybe slightly frenzied, Google search during the hour before sunset turned up a kayak put-in on Little Platte Lake.

We arrived to an empty parking lot, save one vehicle, which left just as we began unloading. With the last bit of daylight we took some photos and enjoyed a brief, but relaxing paddle on the lake’s shallow waters.

A woman smiles off into the sunset while seated on a wooden pier dipping her toes into a perfectly still lake
Looking down over the shoulder of a woman whose feet are dipped into the dark water of a lake causing ripples

Old Mission Peninsula

The second Lower Peninsula attraction we couldn’t resist and a fitting sequel to a day of physical outdoor adventuring was the wine trail along Old Mission Peninsula.

The exterior of Mari Vineyards in Michigan, a stone Italian style structure with a covered arches forming a walkway around an open patio

The Mari Vineyards villa, with architecture reflective of the family’s Italian heritage, is seated on top of a hill with serene views overlooking the east arm of the Grand Traverse Bay. Anyone familiar with the TV show The Curse of Oak Island will be able to associate it with Marty Lagina, one of the show’s primary cast members.

An unseasonable heat wave bringing temperatures in the 90’s made outdoor seating more than a little uncomfortable, but it still wasn’t enough to ruin our visit. We walked the grounds and continued on with a bottle of Malvasia Bianca in hand.

A woman in a long white dress reaches up to grab the brim of her sun hat while looking out onto a vineyard on a hillside leading out to the waters of Lake Michigan

Our next two stops offered a slight measure of relief from the heat. We checked in for our reservation at Brys Estate, which included seating on a shaded outdoor patio with views overlooking lush vineyards in all directions. 

Chateau Chantal, sporting the most relaxed atmosphere, welcomed us with the option of one glass or a tasting of three wines, included in the prepaid price of $10 per person. We opted for the glass and took them out to the west patio, where we were told we’d get better views and a more secluded atmosphere. 

Close up of a woman's hand holding a glass of rosé wine with greenery out of focus in the background

Both proved to be true and we spent our visit walking alone among the rows of vines along the ‘Founders Trail’ and enjoying the views, this time over the west arm of Grand Traverse Bay.

The microclimate lending itself to unique growing conditions for grapes isn’t the only thing this region of northern Michigan is known for. The National Cherry Festival in Traverse City draws over 500,000 people annually in July.

We’re suckers for a local specialty, so we pulled off the side of M-37, the route cutting north-south through the peninsula, and visited Edmondson Orchards’ Cherry Connection. Shortly after we walked away with two pounds of delicious cherries.

A woman in a white dress with a sun hat smiles as she pulls cherries off a tree and holds a red bucket
A woman whose face is out of focus holds up two cherries attached to one stem and smiles

Another roadside stop brought us to Hooper’s Farm Gardens, a residential property like something out of a fairytale. Several picturesque outbuildings literally surrounded by blooming gardens of all different flower varieties.

A rustic white two story building with an exterior staircase leading up to an open door with tall ornamental shrubs growing in front of itA woman in a long linen dress from the chest down standing in a grassy area and holding a wicker basket with flowers and a pair of gardening shears

The owner and her dog stepped out as we pulled into the small parking area and casually explained to us that nothing was off limits. We should just grab some shears, a basket, and make our way around the property, clipping whatever stems we liked and leave the money at the cash box.

Close up on a table where a woman is leaning over to wrap a bouquet of wildflowers in paper

After gathering and tying together an eclectic bouquet we ventured up to the very northern tip of the peninsula to take in the Mission Point Lighthouse, which dates back to 1870 and is perched on top of a 14 foot sand bank with wooden stairs leading down to its own small beach. We took our time to enjoy the views, having felt like we’d experienced about as much as one could in a day on Old Mission Peninsula.

Aerial shot looking straight on at an historic white lighthouse surrounded by dense forest with the water and coastline in the foreground

Torch Lake

We’d had Torch Lake saved on our Midwest bucket list for some time. As we passed north to cross into the Upper Peninsula we knew we had to dedicate an afternoon to its crystal clear waters and massive sand bar. We chose to first paddle upriver in our kayaks from the Michigan DNR boat ramp toward the southern end of the lake.

After breaking out into the open water we were immediately greeted with views of the sandbar. Anchored pontoon boats were scattered everywhere and sunbathers stood in water ranging from ankle to knee deep.

We chose a spot of our own, let the anchor drop into about two feet of water, and timidly climbed out of our kayaks. On another cloudless 90 degree day the comfortable water and Caribbean-like vibes were more than welcome.

Aerial shot of Torch Lake in Michigan with the light colored water over the sandbar taking up most of the frame and people and boats scattered all over
Two kayaks floating over the shallow water at the Torch Lake sandbar in Michigan

Crossing the 'Mighty Mac'

An hour and half drive north and we arrived at one of the highlights of any Upper Peninsula trip - crossing over the Mackinac Bridge. At 26,372 feet it’s the longest suspension bridge in the Western Hemisphere. We paid our $4 toll and officially entered the UP.

The clear skies and thick humidity quickly gave way to heavy fog as the sun set and we approached our first campsite at the Tahquamenon Rivermouth. Eager anticipation shifted to high alert in the fog as we passed unfamiliar ‘moose crossing’ signs along the side of the road.

Looking out from the shore at choppy water and the Mackinac Bridge leading off into the horizon

Tahquamenon River &Falls

Day one was set aside for a visit to Tahquamenon Falls. The lower falls surround a small island in the river and we jumped at the opportunity to rent a row boat and paddle our way across to the 0.5 mile loop trail. We couldn’t resist the chance to step into the water and experience the falls from up close either.

The upper falls offered a 0.3 mile trail to several overlooks, but our minds were preoccupied. Instead, we returned to dine at the Tahquamenon Falls Brewery and Pub. That’s right, a brewpub located inside a state park.

We sat down to enjoy a refreshing wheat ale, fall-off-the-bone barbecue chicken, and our first pastie - a UP staple, similar to a pot pie covered in brown gravy, that is a must-try. Oh, and it’s pronounced “PASS-tee”.

Sheets of water flowing over the wide Tahquamenon Falls in Michigan with a backdrop of evergreen trees
Looking through the trees at a distant shore where several row boats are docked and some people are paddling across the water

The evening along the Superior coast turned out to be extraordinarily calm and we knew we’d made the right decision bringing our kayaks along for the journey.

From the put-in just across from our State Park campground we paddled the winding mouth of the Tahquamenon, spotting wildlife in the marshy grasses and soaking in sunset from the water.

Aerial shot looking straight down at two kayaks sitting in deep blue water that meanders through a green marshland

Whitefish Point

Just a thirty minute drive from the falls took us to Whitefish Point, a cape jutting out into Lake Superior and unoccupied aside from the oldest operating lighthouse on the lake.

The stretch of Superior here is known as the “Graveyard of the Great Lakes” and visitors can come to learn more at the Shipwreck Museum or even dive in the bay and explore the remains of hundreds of ships lost at the Whitefish Point Underwater Preserve.

A small watchtower sits above the horizon with a wooden viewing platform, piled up rocks, and a sandy beach in the foreground

Au Sable Lighthouse

There are a couple of things you can’t see enough of in the Upper Peninsula: waterfalls and lighthouses. On day two we ventured out to Au Sable Lighthouse for a 3.0 mile round trip hike. The reward is the 86 foot tall, 19th century structure and outbuildings that make up the light station.

A tall white brick lighthouse capped with black stands next to a red brick building on the shore of Lake Superior in MichiganA woman in a blue dress sits on a wood structure over a dock and gazes out onto Lake Superior

According to the National Park Service a hot, humid day with south winds will bring biting flies to the shore of Lake Superior.

We had a hot, humid day with south winds. 

During our hike on the flat, well cleared trail along the wooded coastline we were overcome by flies. Fortunately we had done as much as we could to prepare and quickly made the change into our long pants and socks despite the heat. Insect repellant does nothing to dissuade the flies, but stepping out onto the beach with mild winds during the last mile or so of our hike seemed to keep them mostly at bay.

Close up looking straight down a man's pantleg which is covered in black flies

Pictured Rocks

We passed through the small city of Munising and settled into our next campsite on Au Train Beach. Rain that moved in overnight brought our only day of inclement weather and low visibility. The day that was set aside for kayaking up close and personal with the Pictured Rocks started off looking pretty bleak. 

We arrived early at Pictured Rocks Kayaking and checked in, assured that unless lightning or high rolling waves from the western part of the lake appeared, the tour was on as scheduled. A mechanical issue with our boat - PRK is the only authorized kayaking tour company in the area that launches your kayak from a boat - resulted in a two hour delay.

What might have spoiled the experience turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Between groups being moved onto a different tour or backing out all together we were left alone with our guide and one other couple. 

We set off for the 15 mile cruise to our starting point at Chapel Rock, where we were set afloat into the Superior in our double kayak, spray skirts tightly fastened over the hull to shield us from the choppy waves. 

Our two hours of paddling brought us directly to the base of massive 200 foot sheer cliffs, into the Chapel Cove, through narrow caves and underneath the massive arch at Lover’s Leap.

Soaked from at least the waist up from rain and with sore shoulders, we boarded the boat again for our return to Munising, with skies opening up and clearing for the sun to come back out. We finished the day with a beach bonfire a stone’s throw from our campground.

A small campfire burns in the foreground during a pink sunset with a sandy beach and shoreline out of focus in the distance

Chapel Loop

We were determined to finish our trip on a strong note and we knew that meant tackling the 10 mile loop trail beginning at the Chapel Basin.

A woman stands on a rock jutting out above Lake Superior with a rocky shoreline and arch in the distance

The trek takes hikers through the heavily wooded inland area passing by Chapel Falls and then roughly follows the river out to Chapel Beach, where you begin a 4.5 mile stretch along the coast to view formations including Chapel Rock, Grand Portal Point, Indian Head and Lover’s Leap from an all together different perspective.

The hike, not especially technical, but lacking in trail markings and muddy from the previous day’s rain, tested our legs. By the end we were exhausted, but thankful for the incredible views and photo opportunities it offered.

A tall waterfall cascades down a face of rock and is surrounded by dense forest with sunlight coming in overheadClose up on a set of deep footprints on a muddy trail with some water puddling inside them

Until Next Time

With that, our adventure through the Upper Peninsula was over and it was time to make the drive back home over 500 miles.

We were exhausted from pushing ourselves to see as much as we could with relatively short time, but we left feeling satisfied, like we had seen a good variety of what the area has to offer.

That, and we checked off another part of the country that we’d been wanting to visit for years. There’s plenty more to explore, having only touched the eastern end of the peninsula, but we always look at it the same way: just a reason to come back again.

Need some Michigan travel inspiration? Follow us on Pinterest for more.

A woman stands on the edge of a rocky cliff overlooking the shoreline of Michigan's Pictured Rocks with text overlay that says Summer Road Trip to Michigan's Upper Peninsula

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A woman stands in crystal clear ankle deep water on a beach.
A man sits in the sun on the rear of a sailboat.
A waterfall surrounded by large boulders and colorful fall foliage
A woman in a red coat walks down a boardwalk toward a picturesque red covered bridge during fall
Looking down a rocky river toward a pedestrian suspension bridge with fall foliage on either bank
A scenic lighthouse on a rocky coastline catches early morning sunlight while birds fly past
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