Michigan’s 19 million acres of hardwood forest across both peninsulas explode into color each autumn. But there may be nowhere in the state where the colors are more vivid than along northwest Michigan’s M-22. Tracing the edges of the Leelanau Peninsula for 116 miles northwest of traverse city, this popular route is ablaze with the season’s reds, yellows and oranges, contrasted sharply by the deep blue waters and golden beaches of Lake Michigan’s northern inlets and bays. Pack the car and join the leaf-peepers for Michigan’s most colorful show.
It’s a region known for summertime beach getaways and winter snow sports, but the northwestern lake Michigan shore may be at her loveliest in autumn. Highway M-22 passes through Michigan’s brilliant fall color like a narrow ribbon, hugging the lake Michigan shore on its circuitous journey around the Leelanau Peninsula, the tip of Michigan’s pinky finger.
M-22 begins just east of Manistee, veering off Highway 31 on a northerly route past Portage lake and some of Michigan’s prime fruit country. Tidy orchards line both sides of the highway, and in autumn, many of the red- and yellow-leafed trees hang heavy with ripe fruit. stop in at one of many roadside markets to load up on fresh-picked apples and golden pears. Lake Michigan to the west makes a sparkling blue backdrop to all of the autumn color.
After a brief stop at the scenic overlook near Arcadia, a viewpoint that takes in miles of unbroken shoreline and acres of fall foliage, Travel north toward nearby Frankfort. A Victorian harbor town once kept busy by lumber barons, Frankfort marks the southernmost reaches of sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. Inland lakes Betsie, Crystal and the Plattes glimmer in the sun, and brightly colored hardwoods form a lovely canopy overhead. you can feel autumn in the crisp air here, in the damp hollows between ancient, weatherworn dunes.
DUNES AND FISHING SHANTIES
Towering 450 feet above the surface of lake Michigan, the Sleeping Bear Dunes look out over sweeping views of the inland sea and, on a clear day, the North and South Manitou Islands. The seven-mile Pierce Stocking Drive ranks among Michigan’s most spectacular national park drives. Several scenic overlooks offer opportunities to snap photos of golden sand beaches. And nearly 100 miles of footpaths make it easy to immerse yourself in the park’s natural beauty with the crunch of leaves underfoot.
M-22 leaves the Sleeping Bear Dunes behind, skirting the shore of lake Michigan en route to Leland, a small coastal town sandwiched between the Big lake to the west and Lake Leelanau to the east. The air smells of smoked trout and the docks are lined with the gray, weathered shanties of Fishtown, Leland’s commercial fishing center, one of the few remaining in Michigan.
With all the appearances of a turn-of-the-century port — you’ll see fishing nets spread out in the sun to dry and a host of weather-beaten boats — Fishtown offers a variety of shopping opportunities. Tucked between vendors selling fresh lake trout and smoked whitefish pâté are sweets shops offering up chocolates and rich, creamy ice cream, boutiques displaying chunky knit scarves and sweaters and gift shops with nautical-themed home décor.
Leland’s restaurants dish up plates of whitefish fresh from the boats that hauled them in that morning. Tasting rooms remind visitors that they’re entering Michigan’s most prolific wine-growing region. Cool-climate whites — Rieslings, Pinot Gris, Gewürztraminers and Chardonnays — have made this area famous among oenophiles.
TUNNEL OF COLOR
There’s scarcely a straight stretch of pavement from Leland to the village of Northport. The route twists and turns through a
tunnel of hardwoods for 10 miles, a blaze of fall color. This stretch of M-22 may be its prettiest, and is a route particularly popular with bicyclists and motorcyclists as well as automobile drivers.
Northport, a tiny, 19th century harbor town founded by Ottawa Indians, marks the northernmost point of M-22 before the route veers sharply southward along the Leelanau Peninsula’s eastern shore. Lake Michigan continually steals the show along the way, popping into view around every bend as the road passes lakeside cottages and tidy rows of vineyards.
Dozens of wineries populate the temperate hills of the Leelanau Peninsula. Traversed by the 45th parallel, the same line that runs through the great wine regions of central France and Germany, northern Michigan’s wine region produces similar varietals: white Rieslings, Chardonnays and Pinot Gris; red Pinot Noirs, Gamays and Cabernet Francs.
Located just south of Suttons Bay, a small, lakeside town known for its charming galleries and boutique shopping, Black Star Winery pours its wine amid 120 acres of vineyards and hardwood forest. The red- and white-painted winery and its Bed & Breakfast inn are designed in the style of a Kentucky horse farm. nearby, l. Mawby Vineyards specializes in crafting sparkling wines in the traditional méthode champenoise, using only grapes grown on the Leelanau Peninsula.
M-22 continues south, wrapping around the lower end of the West arm of Grand Traverse Bay, en route to Traverse City. The largest city in northwestern Michigan, Traverse City offers a variety of restaurants and wine bars including Trattoria Stella and the award-winning urban winery Left Foot Charley.
But it’s worth leaving the car behind and hopping on a bicycle to cruise one of the many trails extending deep into the red-and-gold foliage of Traverse City’s vineyards and hardwood forests. It’s one more glimpse of the spectacular color of autumn in northwest Michigan.
This article originally appeared in the 2015 fall/winter issue of Experience Michigan magazine. The contents of this article were checked for accuracy when it was published; however, it’s possible some of the information has changed. We recommend you call first if you have specific questions for the destinations, attractions or restaurants mentioned in this article.
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