Michigan is one of my very favorite states to visit and a Michigan road trip is an experience like no other. There’s real truth behind all those Pure Michigan ads! From the idyllic small towns to the diverse wildlife to some of the most amazing scenery I have ever seen, Michigan has it all making it the perfect place to plan a road trip and take some time to explore. We’ve taken more than one Michigan road trip and here is what I think is the Ultimate Michigan Road Trip Itinerary for an adventure you will never forget. With a 1,500 mile road trip route starting and ending in Detroit, there’s so much to see and do including one National Park, two National Lakeshores, a National Scenic Trail, a State Park, a National Forest, two Great Lakes, a college town, small towns, big cities, unforgettable hiking and backpacking, a couple of ferry trips and some really delicious restaurants. Whew! So put your vacation request in now, actually request a few extra days, because with this Michigan road trip plan, you’re heading out for an epic adventure.
The Ultimate Michigan Road Trip – Starting Out
Start your Michigan Road Trip in the great city of Detroit which has been experiencing amazing revitalization and offers tons of things to do. For more information, check out Visit Detroit to help plan your visit. If you’re traveling with kids, I suggest you visit the Sea Life Aquarium, the Detroit Zoo and the Michigan Science Center. There’s also tons of options for sports fans with professional Baseball, Hockey, Football and Basketball Teams. Or head out to some of the many bars and restaurants that Detroit is known for. A free Discount Pass is even available to help you save some cash. Not a bad way to start a road trip, right?
2. Ann Arbor
I first visited Ann Arbor when I was on a college visit to University of Michigan with Sophie, and I fell in love. And it’s only about 45 minutes away from Detroit. The ultimate college town, Ann Arbor is vibrant, quaint, hip, and happening all at the same time. Visiting here made me want to enroll in college all over again! Click HERE for your free Visitor Guide, but definitely don’t miss visiting the Big House, University of Michigan’s Museum of Art or a walk down Main Street for your choice in tons of fantastic restaurants, shops and bars. Peek into the Law Library too if you have time- it makes studying actually look enviable!
3. Mackinaw City
The next stop on your Michigan Road Trip is Mackinaw City where we like to stop for lunch and to stretch our legs before heading into the Upper Peninsula. There’s tons of touristy things to do here so check it out before heading over the great Mackinac Bridge which is the 5th longest suspension bridge in the world, spanning the Straits of Mackinac that separates Lake Michigan and Lake Huron. The Mighty Mac is a HUGE bridge, and you can feel it moving in the sometimes strong winds. Cross over it and it’s like you’re in another world. Because you kind of are!- You have now entered the Upper Peninsula.
Ultimate Michigan Road Trip – The Upper Penninsula
4. Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore
We’ve visited Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore several times, and we love it! Exploring the beautiful shores of the mighty Lake Superior is something you will never forget and you should definitely include a visit here during your Michigan Road Trip. Click HERE and HERE to read about some of the things we did on our visits. If you have extra time, a side trip to Grand Island National Recreation Area from here would also be amazing. Make sure you stop for pasties, an upper peninsula specialty, at Muldoons!
5. Copper Harbor
The gateway to Isle Royale National Park, the tiny town of Copper Harbor is at the very tip of the Keewenaw Peninsula along the shores of Lake Superior and is like no other small town I’ve ever been. So spend some time exploring here before catching the Isle Royale Queen IV for a three hour ferry across Lake Superior to Isle Royale National Park. So picturesque, quiet and quaint, Copper Harbor is the kind of town I didn’t know even existed anymore and we loved walking around, exploring the shops and restaurants and just taking the time to breathe. There are some fantastic mountain biking trails in Copper Harbor as well unforgettable kayaking and canoeing.
6. Isle Royale National Park
What can I say about Isle Royale National Park? Well I will start by saying that Isle Royale is a National Park like no other I have ever been and it has totally stolen my heart. Hop on the Isle Royale Queen IV from Copper Harbor to get to this awe inspiring National Park. Looking for quiet wilderness where you can walk for miles and never see a soul? It’s there. How about some of the most amazing diving, kayaking and canoeing you can ever do? It’s there. And how about wildlife like no where else on earth, a place where you can fall asleep to the call of loons and the howling of wolves and wake up to the sounds of moose splashing in the water right outside your campsite? Yep, it’s there too. You can read about our visit to Isle Royale National Park and our hike on the Greenstone Ridge Trail HERE. But even if you aren’t a fan of camping, you should definitely plan a trip to Isle Royale as they have restaurants and a hotel here too!
7. Porcupine Mountains State Park
We LOVED LOVED LOVED our visit to Porcupine Mountains State Park where we backpacked over the summer on the Lake Superior Trail and Big Carp River Trail. and while I would always say you should camp or backpack in such amazing wilderness, you could also stay in the Kaug Wudjoo Lodge if you don’t like that sort of thing. Even short hikes take you to beautiful views. This beloved park is amazing and such a wonderful place to explore.
The Ultimate Michigan Road Trip- Back to the Lower Peninsula
8. Leland and South Manitou Island
Once you get back to the lower peninsula, head to Leland on your Michigan Road Trip to bask in the picturesque shores of Lake Michigan while enjoying the numerous shops and restaurants before heading out on the Manitou Island Transit Ferry to South Manitou Island where you can hike, swim, camp and fish for the day or several. Read about our trip to South Manitou Island HERE. Make sure to plan for dinner at the Bluebird!
9. Empire and Sleeping Bear Dunes
It’s only a short drive from Leland to Empire, home of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. Named by Good Morning America as the “Most Beautiful Place in America,” there is a ton to do in the area! Click HERE for more information. From hiking the trails and namesake dunes to swimming in the crystal clear water of Lake Michigan, we had a blast visited this beautiful area. You can read about our visit to this beautiful National Lakeshore HERE.
10. Cadillac and the Manistee River Trail and North Country Trail Loop
Last summer we had an open weekend so Sophie, Naomi and I along with some of their friends spent a few days in the Huron-Manistee National Forest hiking the beautiful 23 mile loop composed of the Manistee River Trail and a section of the North County Trail. You can read about our trip HERE. But even if you don’t like to hike or camp, you could spend a lovely day on the Manistee River in a kayak or canoe. This National Forest is another beautiful outdoor area in Michigan that you should include on your road trip adventure.
Michigan Road Trip Resources:
There are several excellent books about Michigan Road Trips including Backroads & Byways of Michigan: Drives, Day Trips & Weekend Excursions and Michigan Off the Beaten Path: A Guide To Unique Places.
For hiking guides, I really like Explorer’s Guide 50 Hikes in Michigan: Sixty Walks, Day Trips, and Backpacks in the Lower Peninsula and Hiking Michigan’s Upper Peninsula: A Guide to the Area’s Greatest Hikes.
A helpful resource about Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore is Geology and Landscape of Michigan’s Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore and Vicinity. For Isle Royale National Park, I found Isle Royale National Park: Foot Trails & Water Routes to be an indispensable resource.
Ludington, Michigan! Ludington State Park is one of the nation’s top ranked! The S.S Badger is the last coal operating ferry to exist and runs across Lake Michigan to and from Wisconsin. You can wave at the passengers as you walk across our pier. Our public beach still offers no charge for parking! The Mitten Brewing Co. just won awards for being one of the best breweries in the nation- all locally crafted beer and wine! House of Flavors is a must for breakfast, lunch or dinner- old 50’s style feel and home of the Pig’s Dinner (basically a mountain of ice cream and toppings). Small town charm with quaint shops downtown leading all the way to the beach. YOU MUST VISIT!! #pureludington
Great article. And yes, you missed few places, but it is hard to include all Michigan attractions in one article. We have so many great destinations… In the lower peninsula: South Haven, Saugatuck, Grand Rapids, Silver Lake dunes, Traverse City, Petoskey… In the upper: Tahquamenon Falls…
But that is a reason for another road trip!
You forgot Traverse City, Petoskey and Harbor Springs. Grand Rapids is a vibrant, beautiful city. Our state is beautiful and worth the time exploring.
It really is. We love visiting Michigan!
I love my GR!
We also loved Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore! I have pictures from there on my blog: http://duallearninghomeschool.blogspot.com/search?q=picture+rocks+national+lakeshore We loved camping at 12 mile beach! We are hoping to go an explore more of Michigan this summer-fall.