The blue waters of Lake Michigan fill every view in this corner of the wolverine state. Set to the north of Muskegon, the Grand Traverse Bay region offers excellent water sports, golfing, family activities, and miles of sand and sand dunes at the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. With its focus on the great outdoors, northwestern Michigan is a phenomenal place to enjoy a family camping vacation.
You can make a nice tour of the Grand Traverse Bay area by beginning in Frankfort, Michigan, at the southern tip of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, driving north through the park, stopping at Northport, and then heading south along the Bay shore to Traverse City.
The charming, quiet town of Frankfort is set on the stunning Betsie Bay, a historic sailing harbor on Lake Michigan. But Frankfort's focus isn't solely on the Great Lake. The town also has access to phenomenal fishing on the river and inland lake, over nineteen golf courses, and plenty of trails for hiking and viewing the changing leaves in fall. The Great Lake provides Frankfort with its golden sandy beaches and stunning views. If you bring your fishing boat or sailboat to Frankfort, you can make use of the seven full-service marinas. As you explore the town, be sure to ask about the local shipwrecks, the railroad history, and the way to the lighthouse. This area is also renowned among mushroom hunters as outstanding morel country.
From Frankfort, head north on Highway 22. This scenic route will carry you right down the length of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, giving you sweeping views of the lake, framed by golden sand dunes. Settle back and enjoy the scenery, but be sure to stop from time to time to explore the park. You'll find forested islands, antique farmhouses, and winding trails that are ready and waiting to be discovered.
As you leave the park's visitor's center, start your tour on the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive. This 7.4-mile route will carry you past dunes and woods, offering fabulous views of Lake Michigan and Glen Lake. From there, take the Cottonwood Trail for a hike along the dunes, and possibly even a dune climb. If you reach the top of the dune, you'll be rewarded with even better views of Glen Lake. The climb can be strenuous, but kids love it, and the run back down is a ton of fun. If you have the time, consider hiking through the dunes all the way to Lake Michigan (a 3-4 hour trip).
The park has plenty of other trails to try. The Dunes Trail is a 3.5 mile trek that leads to the lake and back. The loop trail to Sleeping Bear Point is 2.8 miles long and full of amazing scenery. And for easier hiking, try the Duneside Accessible Trail.
Before you leave the park, be sure to stop by the U.S. Coast Guard Museum, where you'll learn about the history of the U.S. Life-Saving Service, the Coast Guard, and the shipping past of the Great Lakes. On the second floor, you'll see a recreation of a Steamer Wheelhouse, complete with views of the Manitou Passage Shipping Channel.
On the way out of the park, you'll pass through Glen Haven, a lumber-milling village that has been restored to be as it was in 1900. Volunteers work the old-fashioned blacksmith shop, the cannery boathouse, and the general store. You can learn about Michigan's shipping days and even buy some old-style products in the store.
If you have the time for a fun day trip, head to South Manitou Island. The island has a reconstructed old-fashioned village, an old schoolhouse, and a lighthouse with views of the island and the shore. Take a hike to see the remains of the shipwrecked vessel, the Francisco Morazan.
Highway 22 will lead you through the park exit, past lovely Lake Leelanau, across the peninsula to Northport and views of Grant Traverse Bay. The cosy town of Northport was one of the earliest settlements in the country. Its access to the lake and to Grand Traverse Bay made it a key trading destination. Today the town offers excellent boating access, a harbor park, and plenty of art galleries and antique shops.
While you're exploring Northport, take a tour of the cherry and apple orchards in the hills around town. You can take a picnic lunch to Leelanau State Park, home of the restored Grand Traverse Lighthouse. The Leelanau Conservancy's Kehl Lake Preserve has superb bird watching and wildlife viewing. As you head south along the bay, stop in at Omena Bay's Lavendar Lane shop and the Leelanau Wine Cellars.
Once you've had your fill of beaches and lake vistas, it's time to visit Traverse City! This is the big-city destination in the area, because it's where you'll find the best shops, theaters, art galleries, and other family activities. You can head out to play mini golf, drive a go-kart on a race track, or ride the restored antique carousel at the mall.
Traverse City has plenty of options for boaters and fishers, with easy access to Grand Traverse Bay. There are also tall ships that call Traverse City home, some of which offer rides and tours. You'll find terrific dining options here, from seafood and steak houses to international and American cuisine. And for a bit of adult fun, head to the twin casinos, operated by the Grand Traverse Band of Ottaway and Chippewa Indians.
This scenic area is jam-packed with beauty, friendly people, and wide-open spaces. Your family is sure to remember their trip to the Sleeping Bear Dunes and Grand Traverse Bay. With all the fun in the sun available in northwestern Michigan, you may never want to go home!