The very first trip Nisheet and I took together was the Lake Michigan Circle Tour (it’s an actual thing, highway signs and all). It was a very spontaneous trip. We worked for the same company at the time, and it was the day before Labor Day Weekend. Neither of us had plans, so we thought why not? It turned out to be a great idea and was one of the best trips in the Midwest we have ever taken.
The Lake Michigan Circle Tour is a scenic route that follows highways and roads around Lake Michigan and passes through Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Keep a lookout for the Lake Michigan Circle Tour signs, but if you end up on a different highway, don’t worry, just keep on to your next destination and you’re bound to end up back on the official tour route. For those not familiar with Lake Michigan, it is the 3rd largest great lake by surface area, but it is still huge. In fact, it looks just like an ocean (minus the sharks) and will take you over 1,000 miles to drive all the way around. Nisheet and I completed the circle in 4 days (and got home at 3am), but I recommend you take at least a week. We were extremely rushed and missed some stops towards the end of our journey. If you are flexible with your trip, I’d also recommend that you do not book hotels or campsites ahead of time. You never know which stop you will want to spend extra time at. However, you must be aware that it can be difficult to find vacant campsites and hotel rooms during peak times (around Memorial day, 4th July, and Labor day). Also, we started in Chicago because that’s where we lived at the time, but you can start anywhere.
Chicago has a beautiful lakefront, and even has an 18 mile trail along the shoreline that is great for biking, skating, or walking. Along the way (or nearby) you will see some of Chicago’s top attractions including the Museum of Science and Industry, Adler Planetarium, and Navy Pier.
The Indiana Dunes sits at the very southern tip of Lake Michigan, and is a getaway retreat for Chicagoans. It is a unique setting with large dunes and natural beauty with power plants plopped down right next to the beaches. The visitor’s center is a great place to learn some of the area’s history. Then head over to Mount Baldy for a short hike and a nice beach. You can also go hiking, biking, and camping in the area. And it’s probably best to not climb the dunes if there are signs saying to stay off. Not only will you be preventing man made erosion, but you are staying safe. In 2013, a young boy was swallowed up by a dune and had to be rescued!
South Haven will welcome you to the Michigan beach-town lifestyle. It is quaint and charming, it has cute little shops and restaurants, and of course is has a beautiful white sandy beach. You may get excited when you see a large statue of a cartoony looking boy holding a cheeseburger outside a well known Michigan chain restaurant, Big Boy, but skip it and instead have brunch at the wonderful Phoenix Street Cafe. There was a long wait when we went, but the smoked salmon plate and the Eggs Benedict that we devoured was worth it. Afterwards, take a stroll along the river to the beach.
Wanna brag to your friends back home that you went to Holland for vacation? Then make a stop at Holland, MI which is actually like a little Holland. The residents pride themselves on their Dutch heritage, their wooden clogs, and over 4 million tulips. Each spring when the tulips are in full bloom, Holland holds a festival called Tulip Time. Not only can you see millions of tulips, but there are parades, a craft fair, dutch dancers, and carnival food. If you miss Tulip Time, you can still enjoy the sandy white beach at the Holland State Park and the shops and restaurants on downtown’s 8th Street. Also, be sure to stop at New Holland Brewing for some Dragon’s Milk and a pizza straight from the oven. Tip: The beach is located in a state park which charges an auto entrance fee, but there is FREE parking along the road only a short walk if you want to avoid the fee.
Grand Haven is another quintessential Michigan beach town. The town itself is filled with shops and restaurants, and the beach is just down the road. I highly recommend eating a Pronto Pup while you are in town. It is essentially a corn dog with a stripe of either mustard or ketchup, but it is so much better as can be seen from the long lines of eagerly awaiting customers. The beach itself is very nice and has several volleyball and grilling areas. There is also a pretty lighthouse that is worth walking down the pier to see. Tip: Like Holland, the beach is technically in a state park, but you can park along most of the nearby residential streets for FREE.
The dunes in Western Michigan are the largest collection of freshwater dunes in the world, and one fun way to explore them is by dune buggy. You can rent your own buggy, or can go on a dune buggy tour. I recommend Mac Wood’s Dune Rides in Mears, MI. The tours aren’t necessarily as exhilarating as going on your own since the buggy is more like a truck with seats in the back and they take on the dunes slower, but they are a very safe alternative and the guides are funny and very knowledge about the dune’s history, vegetation, and wildlife.
Sleeping Bear Dunes is a National Lakeshore, and it was voted the “Most Beautiful Place in America” on ABC’s Good Morning America in 2011, so obviously you will want to stop here and check it out for yourself. The park stretches across 35 miles of the Lake Michigan shoreline, and the dunes approach a height of 450 feet. Besides the massive dunes (aka. very thick beaches), you will discover ghost forests to hike through, rivers to kayak, lush forests to camp in, and starry skies to gaze at. Our favorite hiking trail is the Dunes Trail which starts at the famous Dune Climb and then continues over various dunes to the beach. Bring lots of water, sunscreen, and a hat! Tip: While you are in the area, check out the Cherry Republic in Glen Arbor for cherry everything. Extra Tip: The Platte River Campground located within Sleeping Bear Dunes is a great place to rest for the night.
The Grand Traverse Lighthouse is located at the very northern tip of Leelanau Peninsula. You can take a tour of the lighthouse (which is setup like a 1920s keeper home) or just admire the views. Be warned, there might be biting black flies during the hot summer days along the lake. They were very annoying when we visited.
If you get hungry on your way to the next stop, Traverse City, stop at Hearth and Vine located near Suttons Bay at the Black Star Farms Winery. Although they are a winery, they also have excellent hard ciders and to-die-for wood-fired pizzas.
Traverse City a.k.a “The Cherry Capital of the World” provides a nice change from all the MI beaches and lighthouses (although it has those too). It is has a gorgeous lakefront trail that is perfect for an evening bike ride, and it has has a wide variety of restaurants, boat tours, and wineries. Speaking of wineries, Old Mission Peninsula is nearby, and I highly recommended going on a self guided bike tour of the wineries. And don’t forget to taste some cherry wines! Also, in case you missed it earlier on your trip, the Cherry Republic has a store here as well.
Mackinaw City is to fudge as Traverse City is to cherries. This city has so much lip-smacking delicious fudge that if you aren’t careful you will leave with a bellyache. Besides fudge, it is also known for the Mackinac Bridge which is a picturesque large suspension bridge that connects the lower and upper peninsulas. If time permits, you can also take a short ferry ride to Mackinac Island where cars are banned. Tip: Mackinac is pronounced the same as Mackinaw [mack-i-naw] .
For having a population of only 3,000 people, Manistique has a lot to offer. The historic townsite of Fayette is nearby which once upon a time had one of the most productive iron-smelting operations in the Upper Peninsula. The buildings were eventually boarded up due to a declining market, and now you can walk around the historic site, see the buildings, learn the history, and marvel at the views. Another area attraction is Kitch-iti-kipi which is a large spring spanning 200 feet. Manistique is also located on the edge of the Hiawatha National Forest which has camping and hiking.
When I think of Green Bay, 2 things come to mind. Green Bay Packers and cheese. I’m not a huge football fan, but if you are, head over to Lambeau Field for tailgating and a game (if it’s the right season) or take a stadium tour. Personally, I’d skip that and head straight for the cheese. You will definitely want to taste some fresh cheese curds that squeak when you bite them. For fried cheese curds, Titletown Brewing is known to have some of the best.
Door County is the Cape Cod of the Midwest, so while it is beautiful, it can be very touristy. That also means there are lots of activities to do though. You can go biking, hiking, kayaking, and camping at one of the state parks. You can take a ferry to Washington Island. Or can have a sunset dinner at one of the many restaurants.
Another great stop during your Lake Michigan Circle Tour is the city of Milwaukee. As the largest city in WI, this city has a lot to offer. One of the must-stop places is the Milwaukee Art Museum, if only to view the unique movable wing-like rooftop structure that opens during the day and closes at night. Other notable stops include the Milwaukee Public Market, Lakefront Brewery, and Miller Brewery.
The city of Racine doesn’t have much to offer, however, the ONE reason you must stop here is to try the very famous Racine Danish Kringle. This delectable oval pastry consists of 32 layers of flaky dough and comes with a variety of fillings and toppings. There are tons of local bakeries that sell Kringle and usually they start flying off the shelf starting early in the morning and are gone by the afternoon. One of the best places to try a Kringle is at the O & H Danish Bakery.
Distance: 1,000+miles (depends on actual route taken)
Length: 1 week minimum recommended, but the Lake Michigan Circle Tour can technically be driven in a day without any stops
Best Season: Late Spring – Early Fall. A lot of the beach towns along the Lake Michigan Circle Tour become dead in the winter. Plus, winters can be very snowy, especially in the upper peninsula.
Accommodations: Luxury beach resorts – rustic camping. Your choice.
Lake Michigan Circle Tour Road Signs: Can be green, blue, or brown, but they are all basically the same.