Avoid the heavy road traffic of Labor Day Weekend by taking your well-deserved escape mid-September to mid-October.
The scenery, shops hiking paths and wine trails of the northwestern edge of Michigan from Frankfort and Sleeping Bear Dunes to Leland and Traverse City are snapshot perfect. And they follow state and local Covid protection protocols.
Just around Lake Michigan, a little more than half an hour from Chicago next to Porter IN, the fomer Indiana Dunes State Park was recently given National Park status.
Extending 15 miles around the southern part of Lake Michigan, the park is a birders destination, but with 50 miles of trails, this is also a great place to hike if you like dunes, water views, forests, prairies and even rivers.
You know about traffic jams but if you drive through this national park you will likely encounter “bear jams,” the phrase the locals use to characterize the stopping of cars to take photos when bears cross the road.
A second item to know if you go is that Gatlinburg, where you may start your park tour, is home to a large artists community. So save time to do “The Loop,” the eight-mile Tennessee Heritage Arts & Crafts Trail.
The Park Headquarters is at 107 Park Headquarters Road, Gatlinburg, TN 37738. For more information call (865) 436-1200 and see NPS Plan Your Visit. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is about 585 miles (about a 9.5 hour drive) from Chicago.
If looking for a breath-taking, backpacking, boating or fishing experience check out Isle Royale, MI , a National Park island in Lake Superior. Wheeled vehicles not allowed. Camp out or snag a room at Rock Harbor Lodge.
Drive to a departure town such as Houghton, Michigan about 400 miles from Chicago and 200 miles north of Green Bay WI. Visitors then take the NPS’ Ranger III boat over to the Isle. Different boats go from other towns.
Transportation services go there from Houghton and Copper Harbor, Michigan and Grand Portage, Minnesota.
Houghton is off of US-41 at the base of the Keweenaw Peninsula. For more information and tips visit NPS Plan. For Houghton and Isle Royale info call (906) 482-0984.
The park is beautiful any time of year. Visit in the fall to do its Pierce stocking Scenic Drive or in the winter if you like to snow shoe. Or visit in the spring when birds and wild flowers fill the woods. Come back in the summer to hike or bike the Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail. The park’s Port Oneida Rural Historic District features late 1980s farm life and crafts.
Do climb the immense sand dunes. The dunes at Sleeping Bear, town of Empire and at Pyramid Point are on bluffs about 400 feet above Lake Michigan.
The clue about what to see and do is the word Lakeshore. There are 65 miles of Lake Michigan shoreline plus inland lakes and streams. Park Headquarters are at 9922 Front St., Empire, MI 49630 Park Headquarters call (231) 326-4700 or try the Philip A. Hart Visitor Center (231) 326-4700, ext. 5010. See NPS Visit to plan the trip.
Adjacent towns such as Glen Haven, and Leland further north on the Leelanau Peninsula, are fun to visit. So is boating out to South Manitou Island for its lighthouse. The park has campgrounds. Click here for accommodations and attractions and to plan your visit. Add a couple of days to visit the wineries and towns on the Leelanau Peninsula.
Sleeping Bear Dunes is about 331 miles, about 5 1/2 hours, from Chicago.
Even though leaves are already beginning to change, only a few places on the US border with Canada reach peak color in September. The problem is that when trees are ablaze with reds and golds in mid-October the roads are often clogged with what some locals in famed fall states call “leaf peepers.”
One way to avoid some of the traffic and find a place to stay is to go during the week, not the weekend. Another, is to go early or late in October instead of the middle weeks.
To help you on your way here are some sites to check for color and a couple of color drives to take.
The University of Illinois Extension site has links to several states’ fall color reports and some suggested drives at Extension Illinois
Color drives and wine tasting await in Traverse City, MI
Called TC by residents and frequent vacationers to the Grand Traverse Bay area, Traverse City is known as the Cherry Capital in spring and summer. So if you go up there pick up some chocolate covered ones or the preserves.
However, in fall go for the color, the apples and the wine. Michigan, and particularly the Traverse City area, is known for all three.
All the drives around TC are spectacular as you motor north from the city up the Old Mission and Leelanau Peninsulas because much of that area has OMG hill top views of Traverse Bay’s bright blue water.
A great place to stay in the middle of the National Lakeshore is The Homestead, a full service resort with wonderful views and a great location.
If thinking of staying on the Leelanau Peninsula check out Black Star Farms. Its rooms fill quickly with return guests so try to decide early.
Basically a B&B style inn with gourmet breakfasts and a glass of wine to welcome guests, the place is nicely located to drive north to shop and eat in Suttons Bay, explore Northport further up and the lighthouse up at the point. Black Star Farms also has its own wine and is near several other wineries.
Go west from Suttons Bay to the cute town of Leland and its historic Fishtown.
The Leelanau Peninsual has several excellent wineries so take the wine trail there. Pause to look across the vineyards towards the bay to snap a photo.
Over on the Old Mission Peninsula, two fun places to stop while doing wine tastings there is the old General Store and the lighthouse. Be sure to have the camera or cell phone ready because, well, just go, you’ll see.
Thoughts on where to stay
Some of the wineries on Old Mission have accommodations but there are several good adult lodging choices in TC Including the Wellington Inn B&B and the Park Place Hotel. Families might like the Sugar Beach Resort Hotel because it has an indoor pool, game room and comp’d breakfast. But the TC area has enough different type accommodations to suit every budget and lifestyle. Same is true for restaurants because the area is a year-round destination.
Start planning now for your fall getaway. Have fun!