The only problem with a fall visit to Traverse City, Michigan, is having to stop so often to take pictures.
Over the next month, myriad hues of red, gold, scarlet and orange will light up the hills and byways of this region, the colors appearing all the more brilliant thanks to being framed by the cobalt blue waters of Lake Michigan.
“I think fall is our best season,” said Mike Norton, media relations director for Traverse City Tourism. “The colors last a long time here, for one thing, starting first at the tops of the hills and then spreading downwards toward the low-lying areas near the shore of the lake. The sumacs start to turn red in September, and we usually enjoy a full month of gorgeous colors through mid-October.”
While cooler temperatures and smaller crowds make autumn a wonderful time to travel anywhere in the Midwest, few destinations offer as wide a range of attractions as Traverse City. Here you can stroll along Lake Michigan beaches, sample vintages in several dozen wineries, enjoy freshly picked produce at roadside stands, and bike the countryside on an extensive network of paved trails.
Traverse City — a town of 15,000 located five hours north of Chicago — sits at the southern end of Grand Traverse Bay. Beaches and parks along its waterfront are complemented by the Boardman River that winds through town, offering many ways to enjoy the water. Or wander the streets of the downtown, which has upscale boutiques, fine art galleries, hipster microbreweries, and restaurants that serve locally sourced meals. The Cook’s House, Georgina’s, and Trattoria Stella are among the town’s best eateries. For a more casual meal, sample the six to eight food trucks that are part of Little Fleet, an open-air bar on East Front Street.
Wherever you dine, be sure to sample the fruits of the local wine industry along with your meal.
“The quality and breadth of our locally produced wines are steadily increasing,” says Ryan Rozycki, wine steward at the Blue Goat Wine Shop, a local landmark for more than 50 years. “Our wineries are located on two peninsulas north of Traverse City: Old Mission and Leelanau. Having water on both sides tends to moderate the weather, cooling the grapes during the summer and keeping them warmer in the winter. That’s especially important for our pinot noirs, which in a good year can be phenomenal. We’re also known for our riesling, Pinot Blanc, and chardonnay.”
Take Highway 37 north to explore Old Mission Peninsula. The 20-mile route will take you past bucolic scenes of orchards, farms, woodlands, vineyards, and wineries. With ripe grapes hanging heavy on vines in the fall, a fruity aroma often wafts across the hillsides.
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One of the peninsula’s most scenic vineyards is Brys Estate Vineyard & Winery, a 91-acre property that’s been awarded more than 400 medals. After sampling its wines, head down the hill to its Secret Garden, a farm that grows thousands of aromatic lavender plants. A farmhouse-style shop serves lavender-related products that include a lavender-infused ice cream with a surprisingly rich, complex flavor.
With a winery constructed in the style of a Tuscan villa, Mari Vineyards is another popular stop. Its owners produce outstanding red wines in addition to the whites for which the region is known.
At the end of the peninsula is Lighthouse Park, where an 1870 lighthouse overlooks a stretch of sand perfect for strolling and beach combing. Or you can set off on a hike that wind through the park’s 500 acres of woods, bluffs, meadows, and high ridges.
Neighboring Leelanau Peninsula is home to more wineries, but visitors flock here for another reason as well: the Leelanau Trail, a 15-mile, paved route that will allow you to sample the sensory joys of autumn at a slower pace than by driving in a car. In the fall, the rustle of falling leaves, whiff of wood smoke, and cool breezes off the lake make this a bike ride to remember.
After touring the peninsulas, head to the region’s premiere attraction: Sleeping Bear Dunes National Seashore. Established in 1970, the park protects a 65-mile stretch of pristine Lake Michigan shoreline. In addition to sand beaches and 400-foot-tall dunes, the park has thick forests of beech and maple, serene inland lakes, and two rivers that wind their way through woodlands to the big lake, offering scenic kayaking and canoeing.
The park’s name comes from an Anishinaabek Indian legend. Many years ago, it is said that a mother bear and her two cubs swam across Lake Michigan to escape a forest fire on the other shore. The bear climbed to the top of the bluff to wait for her offspring, but her two cubs drowned, forming North and South Manitou Islands (which are also protected by the park). The outline of her sleeping form could be seen for many years atop the dune, though wind and rain have now largely eroded it.
In the fall, the steep hillsides of the park blaze with colors. Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive offers an array of panoramic views, including ones from high atop the sand dunes. You can also tour the park by biking the Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail, a 22-mile paved route, or by hiking the Dunes Trail, which leads for 3.5 challenging miles across the sands. Before leaving the park, learn more about the region’s history by touring the small settlement of Glen Haven, where a restored general store, cannery and a working blacksmith shop are open to visitors.
Finally, end your tour of the area in the sweet little village of Glen Arbor, which is located just outside of the park. Stop by the Cherry Republic to sample a wide array of cherry-infused foods, from ice cream and chocolate to cherry chicken salad (the region is one of the nation’s top cherry producing areas). Savor the flavors, stroll the streets, and end your day at the Glen Arbor beach, the perfect spot to say goodbye to this beautiful corner of the Midwest.
TRAVERSE CITY ACCOLADES
— 25 Coolest Midwest Vacation Spots: Midwest Living
— Top 10 Beach Towns in America: AOL Travel News
— One of America’s Favorite Towns: Travel + Leisure Magazine
— One of America’s Five Top Foodie Towns: Bon Appetit
— Top 10 Places to Enjoy Local Wines: USA Today
IF YOU GO
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For more information on Traverse City, Mich., and the surrounding region, contact www.traversecity.com or 1- (800) 872-8377.