When it comes to beating the summer heat, it doesn’t get much better than Michigan. The state truly has something for everyone: a cosmopolitan city on the upswing, storied university towns, and incredible natural wonders, including miles and miles of great lakeshore.
A road trip from Detroit to Mackinac Island is a terrific way to see some of the best of Michigan from the comfort of your vehicle and at your own pace. Here’s our favorite route, with fantastic stops along the way for you to consider.
We recommend beginning your road-trip adventure in the Motor City. Detroit, Michigan’s largest city, has long been a manufacturing hub. The area has enjoyed a renaissance in recent years and boasts a thriving arts and culture scene.
The Detroit Institute of Arts, located in Midtown, has one of the country’s largest art collections, featuring works that date from ancient civilizations to the present day. The Henry Ford Museum tells the story of the man who transformed the country with his innovative manufacturing methods — and the cars that first got Americans on the road. To learn more about the legendary sound that helped put Detroit on the map, head to the Motown Museum, housed in the building where Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, and The Jackson 5 recorded their hits. And to get a taste of the great outdoors in the city, Belle Isle is the place to explore, with its hundreds of acres of green space situated in the middle of the Detroit River near downtown.
Detroit’s got a robust food scene, too. Grey Ghost and Selden Standard are among the top New American restaurants in town. The Hygrade Deli serves up Detroit’s famous corned beef stuffed into its popular Reuben sandwiches, and Pegasus, located downtown, has been serving up saganaki (flaming cheese) and other Greek specialties for decades.
For a luxe stay, consider checking into the Shinola Hotel, affiliated with the high-end lifestyle retailer based in Detroit.
About 45 minutes west of Detroit sits the lovely, leafy college town of Ann Arbor. This is the home of the University of Michigan, Big Blue, and the Wolverines, and it’s the perfect place to pull over for your first road-trip stop. Of course, a stroll around campus is a must. Make time to wander the adjacent — and gorgeous — Nichols Arboretum.
Try Mani Osteria & Bar for terrific wood-fired pizzas.
Head an hour west of Ann Arbor, right along Interstate 94, and you’ll arrive at the Cereal Capital of the World, Battle Creek. This is where, at the turn of the 20th century, people looking for health and wellness flocked to the sanitarium run by the Kellogg brothers. It was also where W.K. Kellogg invented Corn Flakes and where America’s love affair with breakfast cereal began.
Kellogg’s is still headquartered in Battle Creek, and while you can’t tour the factory, you can learn more about the company’s impact on the town at the Cereal History Exhibit. It’s located across from the Battle Creek Welcome Center.
Grab a bite (and a brew, too) at Territorial Brewing Company, known for its German-style beer and pub grub.
Another hour west on Interstate 94 and Michigan 43 and you’ll have crossed the state, arriving at the shores of Lake Michigan. South Haven is worth a stop; it’s been a popular beach resort town since the early 1900s. The Michigan Maritime Museum is a must for boating enthusiasts, and a stroll on the beach is mandatory.
There’s plenty of boutique shopping downtown, and Clementine’s is where the locals go for delicious food and drinks. The restaurant, located in an old bank building, has served up American classics since 1982.
South Haven is a lovely place to stop for the evening as well; the Yelton Manor Boutique Hotel B&B is both lakeside and luxe.
From South Haven, head north along the lakeshore until you reach Holland, the undisputed tulip capital of Michigan. Each spring, this small town blazes with blooming color, as more than five million bulbs imported from Amsterdam open to the delight of tourists and locals alike. The town’s Tulip Time festival lasts two weeks and draws thousands of visitors who celebrate the fabulous flowers and Holland’s Dutch traditions and culture.
Even if you’re not lucky enough to visit during Tulip Time, Holland is well worth a stop for its charming downtown.
From Holland, take a quick jaunt to the east via Interstate 196 to visit Grand Rapids. It’s Michigan’s second-largest city, and it offers big-time cosmopolitan amenities.
A stroll through the incredible Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park, with its mix of flowers and sculptures (created by artists from Renoir to Rodin), is a must-do, as is a visit to Heritage Hill, one of the largest historic neighborhoods in the country. Its star is the Meyer May House, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. The Grand Rapids Art Museum has a stunning collection spanning centuries, and when you’ve gotten your fill of culture, there are plenty of breweries where you can throw back a pint or two.
Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore
When you’ve had your fill of Grand Rapids, gas up and head north on U.S. Route 131 to visit one of our country’s most incredible natural wonders. About 2.5 hours up the road is Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, and it’s a stunner. You’ll find miles and miles of sandy beaches and surreal dunes that soar 450 feet above Lake Michigan. The climb is worth the effort, and a walk along the Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail or a wade in Loon Lake is a great way to cool down.
If you want to spend more time at this impressive destination, visit our full-length piece on the park here.
A 40-minute drive east on Michigan 72 will take you to one of Michigan’s most charming small cities. Traverse City sits on Grand Traverse Bay, and its geography gives it a quaint maritime vibe.
Traverse plays host to the annual National Cherry Festival, which attracts hundreds of thousands of people each July for food, music, and fun. The orchards around town produce tart cherries, and at the festival they’re baked into pies, boiled into jellies, and even brewed into beer.
Traverse is also known for its many wineries and its adorable downtown. Hit up the Green House Cafe for a breakfast or lunch that will fill you up for a day of exploring.
Hop on U.S. Route 31 north along the water for about an hour, and you’ll get to Charlevoix, another beachcomber’s gem. This town was a popular stop for the lake passenger liners that cruised the Great Lakes at the turn of the 20th century, shuttling passengers from the big cities to summer lake destinations.
Today, Fisherman’s Island State Park is the perfect spot to spend an afternoon picnicking and hunting for Petoskey stones, beautiful chunks of fossilized coral common in northern Michigan. Architecture buffs will love the mushroom houses of Charlevoix, designed by architect Earl Young and fashioned from local stones and materials.
Stop for a bite at Smoke On The Water, which offers big breakfasts and barbecue.
From Charlevoix, head north once more to Mackinaw City, where you’ll need to ditch your car for a 45-minute ferry to Michigan’s famed Mackinac Island. This is a place where time seems to slow down, and the fact that no motor vehicles are allowed helps set the mood and the pace.
Stroll the downtown area, enjoy high tea or a cocktail at the splendid Grand Hotel, and consider a horse-drawn carriage tour of the island. There are plenty of places to bike or hike, and once you’ve had your fill of the great outdoors, you can sample the island’s famous fudge — guilt-free!
To learn more about this special place, click here.
Pro Tip: If you’re making this epic road trip during the summer, stop along the way to pick up fresh produce at roadside stands or local stores. This route takes you through some of Michigan’s best orchards and farms; don’t miss out on what they have to offer!