Sand dunes and dark skies: Can’t-miss stops on a road trip around Lake Michigan

Circle your way around Lake Michigan, taking your time to detour at state parks, lighthouses, lakeshores, and more

Photo courtesy of Pure Michigan

You could easily spend a few months making your way around Lake Michigan, stopping to camp for a week here or a week there. And you should: This roughly 1,100-mile route touches on two big cities, a national park, two national lakeshores, hundreds of acres of state and national forests, and too many lighthouses to count. If you drove it without stopping (which we don’t recommend) and averaged 65 miles per hour, the trip would take around 17 hours straight. 

There are countless possible stops and detours along the way, but here are a few of the highlights of a clockwise tour around Lake Michigan.

a modern white art museum with large retractable wings against a blue sky
The wings of the Milwaukee Art Museum open and close throughout the day. | Photo courtesy of Milwaukee Art Museum

1. Wisconsin 

Beginning in Milwaukee, your first stop should be the Milwaukee Art Museum. The building, designed by Santiago Calatrava, is as much a piece of art as the works it holds. This remarkable structure features a wing-like screen—as wide as a Boeing 747—atop the roof, which opens in the morning with the museum, closes and reopens at noon, and closes when the museum closes. 

On your way out of town, stop at Kopp’s Frozen Custard for a turtle sundae. On your way north, stop at Harrington Beach State Park, a mile-long beach on Lake Michigan. There’s also a campground here if you’re ready to call it a night. 

Continuing north on Interstate 43, you’ll hit the city of Sheboygan and its western suburb, Kohler, where Kohler faucets and plumbing originated in 1873; today, the town features an upscale resort complex called Destination Kohler, with multiple golf courses, restaurants, hotels, and the Kohler Waters Spa. Grab a famous Sheboygan brat and squeaky cheese curds at Majerle’s Black River Grill, a classic Wisconsin supper club, and wash it down with a brandy old-fashioned sweet. 

Pressing north, stay on I-43 and veer west from the coast toward Titletown. If you have time, get off of the interstate in Manitowoc and take Highway 42 north through Two Rivers to visit the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Still Bend home. Highway 42 carries on all the way up to Sturgeon Bay, the gateway to Door County—a region worthy of a trip in its own right. 

Related A summer road trip guide to Wisconsin’s Door County, the Cape Cod of the Midwest

a bronze statue of Vince Lombardi stands watch over Lambeau Field at dusk
Vince Lombardi stands watch over legendary Lambeau Field. | Photo: Evan Siegle

If you only stop at one place in Wisconsin, make it Lambeau Field. If it’s not a game day, visit the Hall of Fame and tour the stadium to learn the history behind this storied organization. If it’s game day, tailgate in the parking lot with some of the friendliest football fans you’ll ever meet. Then head north on Highway 41 toward Marinette, Wisconsin, which turns into Menominee, Michigan, just across the Menominee River in the state’s Upper Peninsula.

2. Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (UP) 

The first stop along the southern coast of the UP is Escanaba. To get there, drive a long stretch of Highway 35 through the Escanaba River State Forest. The waterfront O.B. Fuller County Park offers a great place to stay, with five campsites right on the lake. In Escanaba, tour the Sand Point Lighthouse, established in 1867 by the National Lighthouse Service. Upper Hand Brewery (Michigan is known as “the Mitten” for its unique shape) makes for another good stop here, with a dog-friendly patio. Heading east out of Escanaba, stay on Highway 2 all the way through the rest of the UP. 

Related The Yoop Loop: Can’t-miss stops on a road trip through Michigan’s Upper Peninsula

A little bit past midway on your journey east, stop in Naubinway for the Top-of-the-Lake Snowmobile Museum, where “the history of the snowmobile comes to life.” If you’re hungry—and even if you’re not—now’s a good time to begin partaking in the pasties (pronounced PASS-ties) that the UP is so well-known for. Stop at Hiawatha Pasties on your way out of town but leave room for more, as Lehto’s Pasties awaits further down the road just northwest of St. Ignace. 

a long suspension bridge over water is lit up at night
Crossing over the Mackinac Bridge is a rite of passage for every Michigander. | Photo courtesy of Pure Michigan and Ryan Gajewski

If you want to break up the drive, Brevoort Lake Campground in the Hiawatha National Forest is a solid choice. Coming into St. Ignace, the last town in the UP, several spots merit a stop. Bridge View Park offers a fantastic view of the Mackinac Bridge, or if you’d like to stay, Straits State Park offers campsites with a view of the bridge as well—book early, though, as sites with a view fill up fast. The bridge itself is a tourist attraction and driving over it is a rite of passage for any Michigander. Spanning nearly 5 miles, with nearly 1.4 miles suspended, it’s an experience you won’t soon forget.

Related 4 national parks in the Midwest to visit by RV

a grey stone lighthouse stands next to the shore against a clear blue sky
Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse. | Photo: Mackinac State Historic Parks

3. Michigan’s Lower Peninsula

Now that you’ve crossed the bridge into the Mitten proper, there are a lot of historical stops in Mackinaw City. First, make sure you don’t sound like a tourist: No matter how it’s spelled—Mackinaw or Mackinac—it’s always pronounced macki-NAW. Historical interpreters seasonally populate Fort Michilimackinac, a reconstructed 18th-century fort and fur trading village, to offer visitors a taste of life here during the time of the American Revolution. Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse has stood since 1889 and offers tours, restored quarters, and exhibits; and the Icebreaker Mackinaw Maritime Museum features the Icebreaker Mackinaw WAGB-83, which was known as the largest icebreaker on the Great Lakes until it was decommissioned in 2006. 

Related The couple behind Michigan’s Wacky Taxidermy and Miniatures Museum wants to keep Mackinaw City weird

a road curves through trees in the fall
The Tunnel of Trees is magical in the fall. | Photo courtesy of the Petoskey Area Visitor’s Bureau

As you head west out of Mackinaw City, one scenic spot piles onto the next. The Headlands International Dark Sky Park, one of 60 in the U.S., offers spectacular stargazing opportunities, and you can camp at Wilderness State Park. Once you hit Cross Village, you’ve officially entered the iconic Tunnel of the Trees, among the country’s most spectacular scenic drives. From Cross Village to Harbor Springs, this narrow, 20-mile stretch of Michigan 119 is shrouded in hardwoods, which form a canopy over the road. The drive is particularly spectacular in the fall.

Related The top things to do on a Tunnel of Trees road trip

Next up: Petoskey and Charlevoix. Bear River Valley Recreation Area in Petoskey offers a 1.5-mile paved trail as well as forested areas and a bit of whitewater on the river itself. In Charlevoix, it’s all about the beach. Head to Michigan Beach Park for a wide, sandy beach; Fisherman’s Island State Park to camp and enjoy 6 miles of coastline; or North Point Nature Preserve for a lovely observation deck over Lake Michigan. 

a wooden crate that says cherries with several cups of yellow and red cherries on top
The Cherry Festival is the perfect time to visit Traverse City. | Photo courtesy of Ryan Gajewski and Pure Michigan

From there, follow Highway 31 all the way into Traverse City, arguably Northern Michigan’s most popular tourist destination. This charming town leans hard into its reputation as the Cherry Capital of the World, culminating in the National Cherry Festival, held each July. Even if you’re not there for the festival, cherry foods, candles, and other goodies abound. 

Wine lovers will want to take a few extra days to visit both the Old Mission and Leelanau Peninsulas, each stuffed with rolling hills and wineries galore. Take Highway 22 out of town and up into the Leelanau, going as far north as the Grand Traverse Lighthouse, and then head down the west side of the peninsula, where you’ll soon reach Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.

From north of Manistee to artsy Saugatuck, you’ll pass through Ludington and six state parks, each with gorgeous beaches, hiking trails, and camping opportunities. It’s worth it to time your visit for Holland’s Tulip Time Festival in May, when the small town bursts with bulbs, not just in public parks, but in private yards as well. Take a walking tour or visit the Tulip Immersion Garden. Further south you’ll hit the town of Saugatuck, well-known for a thriving art scene. 

a windmill stands in a field of pink and white tulips against a blue sky
Try to time your visit to Holland to coincide with the Tulip Festival. | Photo courtesy of Drew Mason and Pure Michigan

Close out the Michigan portion of your tour in the towns of South Haven, Benton Harbor, and New Buffalo—plus another coastline dotted with gorgeous state parks. This area is also well-known for brewpubs, so if you get thirsty, pop into Harbor Light Brewery in South Haven, Silver Harbor Brewing Company in Benton Harbor, and Beer Church Brewing Co. in New Buffalo—located in a former church. 

4. Northern Indiana

Only 45 miles of Lake Michigan meet the Indiana coastline, but what a spectacular 45 miles it is—especially the portion that encompasses Indiana Dunes National Park. What began as a National Lakeshore in 1966 became a national park in 2019. Today, the area features more than 15,000 acres of not only dunes, but also beaches, woodlands, marshes, prairies, and more. After visiting the dunes themselves, which can tower to over 100 feet, birdwatchers shouldn’t miss a walk along the Heron Rookery Trail. The 3.3-mile trail, which follows the Little Calumet River, once featured more than 100 great blue heron nests. Although the herons have moved on, the woods are alive with other birds, including woodpeckers, kingfishers, and migrating warblers. 

Related 100 years in the making, Indiana gets its first national park

Before you hit Chicago, camp at the park’s Dunewood Campground, which is open year-round.

5. Northern Illinois

As you cross from Indiana into the metro Chicago area, you’ve got a few choices. If you want to stay as close to the lake as possible, jump on Interstate 90 just east of Gary, Indiana, and jump off on South Ewing Avenue, which will turn into the storied Lakeshore Drive as you cross the Calumet River. You can take Lakeshore Drive all the way through Chicago—just be prepared for heavy traffic—until you hit the Edgewater neighborhood. Then, unless you want to travel on surface streets north through suburbs like Evanston and Winnetka, you’ll veer away from the lake and pick up Interstate 94 North toward Milwaukee. 

Related Preserving the past: How one museum is using VR technology to tell the stories of Holocaust survivors

a field of yellow and orange daffodils in bloom
Daffodils bloom in the spring at the Chicago Botanic Garden. | Photo courtesy of the Chicago Botanic Garden

Both the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center in Skokie and the Chicago Botanic Garden in Glencoe are worthy stops along the way. At the garden, stay on Highway 41 north rather than dipping back over to I-94, and then pick up Highway 137 through Waukegan—the Illinois Beach State Park and Nature Preserve makes for a nice stop—to hug the lake. The road turns into Highway 32 once you cross the border back into Wisconsin, where you’ll pass through the cities of Kenosha, Racine, and back to Milwaukee.

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