Michigan, The Great Lake Escape

This tour along the closest thing North America's got to an inland ocean leads to placid shores, self-propelled water exploration, giant sand dunes, and the end of are-we-there-yet wining.
  |  Gorp.com
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Sleeping Bear National Park
Where Bedtime Should Never Come: Michigan's Sleeping Bear Dunes National Park  (courtesy, NPS)

Leelanau and Old Mission peninsulas jut into Lake Michigan like slumbering alligators cooling off in an oasis. Between these spits of land, white sails tack back and forth and kayakers resemble mythological creatures, half-man, half-boat, as they paddle propeller-style. Closer to the shores of the Traverse City State Park, children float in inner tubes and scream happily as they splash one another. Venture to the northern Lake Michigan area in the warm-weather months for a week and you'll be treated to far more than a fun frolic in a great lake. Slow down and explore the region at a slow pace on bike or on two feet and you'll find diverse terrain, from the rolling countryside of the Leelanau Peninsula to the steep sand piles of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.

Days One, Two, and Three: Traverse City to Leelanau State Park (35 Miles)
Spend the first several hours of your day on the beach at Traverse City State Park (231.922.5270; reservations, call 800.44.PARKS; www.michigandnr.com). A fun place for lunch in town is Don's Drive-In (231.938.1860), a genuine carhop that dates back to the 1950s. Then make your way north on Routes 22 and Route 201 to the northern tip of the Leelanau Peninsula. Further north, stop at Leelanau Cheese (231.271.4970) in Omena to purchase a chunk of raclette cheese. John and Ann Hoyt learned cheesemaking in Switzerland and now ply their trade in a converted gas station, creating raclette and cheeses with local flavor, like cherry fromage blanc. In Northport, buy a fresh baguette made daily by Stonehouse Bread (231.256.2577). Then it's on to Grand Traverse Lighthouse (231.386.7195) at the tip of the peninsula to enjoy this Parisian picnic.

Built in 1858, the white brick lighthouse looks absurdly small compared to the great expanse of water that surrounds it. Stroll past yellow and purple irises to the rocky coastline and sit on a large boulder to savor the view. A handful of Leelanau State Park's 52 campgrounds are right on the water (231.386.5422; www.michigandnr.com).

The next day, you're in for a treat. Arguably, the most dramatic view of Lake Michigan can be found at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore (231.326.5134; www.nps.gov/slbe) on the westernmost shores of Leelanau Peninsula. Towering dunes, some as high as 440 feet, line both sides of the Cottonwood Trail, sliding steeply to the shores of Lake Michigan and nearby Glen Lake. Stroll on the 1.5-mile loop amidst the dunes, which, close up, look like a sandbox that only a giant enjoy.

The roads of Upper Michigan are also hilly. You'll realize that when you're biking up and down the countryside that makes up the core of the Leelanau Peninsula. The bulging green hills here are home to rows of cherry trees and grapevines, grazing cows, horse pastures, and tall silos standing erect in the distance. Indeed, the shores of Lake Michigan feel far away, as if you were biking in a rural state like Vermont. Add cherry trees and vineyards, however, and you have a destination that is entirely unique. Stop for lunch in the town of Lake Leelanau at the deli, Kejara's Bridge (231.256.7720). They feature smoothies and wraps.

Published: 24 Feb 2006 | Last Updated: 10 Aug 2012
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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