Northern Michigan is a fab region to explore with charming towns and unique natural wonders. It’s slightly off the travel radar, so you won’t find dense crowds. The region’s towns – Mackinac Island, Traverse City, Charlevoix and Petoskey – have a European feel and are within easy drive distance of Detroit, Ann Arbor and Grand Rapids. And it’s the fudge capital of the world. Do you need more reasons to visit?
If you do, read on to discover the best things to do in Northern Michigan’s. Personal faves include biking the car-free streets of Mackinac Island., climbing (if you’re up for it!) the amazing Sleeping Bear Dunes and gathering Petoskey stones. Here are the top things to do in Northern Michigan.
Read More: 30+ Fun Midwest Road Trip Ideas
What Is There to Do in Northern Michigan?
1. Visit Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore
This is one of the most beautiful stretches of sand dunes anywhere in the world. And the Lake Michigan waters this far north are surprisingly clear and blue. But it’s the dunes that are the draw.
Sleeping Bear Dunes is a National Lakeshore, encompassing 35 miles of shoreline. The towering sand dunes provide not only a treat for your eyes but also a playground for those physically fit enough to enjoy the 450 foot drop in terrain. I watched in awe as families ran down the dunes, then basically crawled back up, mostly on all fours. Signs were posted saying that it is possible you may have to be airlifted from the bottom due to the incline and strength needed to climb in the deep sands. In the winter people visit the area for cross-country skiing!
Make a whole vacation out of it by booking at one of the multiple campgrounds at Sleeping Bear Dunes. There are RV and tent camping sites available in this 70,000+ acre park. And it’s a great stop on your way to Mackinac Island. Find more sand dunes, campgrounds and free things to do in Muskegon, Michigan.
Packing List: Here’s what to pack for a camping trip and an RV trip.
2. Search for Petoskey Stones
I never imagined that I would enjoy combing the beaches for rocks on my vacation, but in Petoskey, it is a very cool thing to do. The stones are unique to the Great Lakes. You can find them in Northern Michigan along the shores of the Lower Peninsula. Petoskey stones are both rock and fossil and quite beautiful when polished. The rock is shaped like a pebble and has ringed designs that look fashionable to me.
With Michigan’s crystal clear water, it was easy to find them in the shallow blue waters along sandy beaches. Petoskey State Park is a popular hunting ground. The rocks make nice souvenirs, too. If you can’t find them on your own, never fear; Petoskey stones are sold around town.
Heading to Petoskey in the fall? You’ll be near one of the best scenic drives for autumn colors. Michigan’s M-119, also know as the Tunnel of Trees, runs along Little Traverse Bay from Harbor Springs to Cross Village.
Read More: 10 Unique Michigan Family Vacation Spots
3. Scenic things to do in Northern Michigan: Stroll Leland Historic District
Leland’s commercial fishing heritage is alive and well in “Fishtown.” This restored area offers quaint shops, 19th-century weathered fishing shanties and scenic waterfront views.
I enjoyed browsing the shops along Main Street (especially Leland Gal) and eating a famous Third Coast sandwich (Chicken breast, Maytag blue cheese, lettuce, tomato and Brownwood’s Kream mustard on pretzel bread) from Village Cheese Shanty. You can also charter a fishing boat in Fishtown, which would be a blast on the beautiful waters.
I’m a facts girl, so it was interesting to learn that Fishtown was named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1975.
SheBuysTravel Tip: Leland is located a little over 30 minutes from Traverse City. If you’re traveling with kids, Traverse City boasts a Great Wolf Lodge. We love mixing historic sights and scenic drives with the promise of an indoor waterpark for the little ones. Here’s what every Great Wolf Lodge first timer NEEDS to know.
4. Take a Boat Ride in Charlevoix
Charlevoix (pronounced char-la-voy) is a beautiful town in Northern Michigan. It is surrounded by four bodies of water: Lakes Michigan, Round and Charlevoix, plus the Pine River.
With so much waterfront property, it would be a shame to miss taking a boat ride to admire the elegant homes. These killer houses often have two, four or six incredibly fancy boathouses and slips, which made me feel a bit dreamy just seeing them. Make sure to schedule time for a quick trip to see the Charlevoix South Pier Light Station.
One of the best things to do in Northern Michigan in the summer has to be spending as much time on the cool waters as possible. Charlevoix in particular is popular with kayakers. You can choose between a Lake Michigan paddle, or taking a kayak out on Lake Charlevoix or Round Lake.
Read More: Fun and Surprising Things to Do in Lansing, Michigan
5. Explore Mackinac Island in a Horse & Buggy
To get to Mackinac Island, you must travel by boat. We arrived by ferry. Mackinac (pronounced Mack-i-naw) is a no-cars-allowed island. Once the ferry drops you off, you have three choices to get around: by bicycle (bring your own or rent them there), on foot, or by horse-drawn carriage. It’s located in Lake Huron between Michigan’s Lower and Upper Peninsulas. Don’t confuse it with Mackinaw City, located on the Lower Peninsula just before the Mackinac Bridge.
While you’ll spend most of your time on the island biking or walking, don’t miss the chance to take a “scenic drive” by horse and buggy. It’s the way things have been done there for years and years. I actually found it quite nice to explore Mackinac Island this way. The scenic trip was perfect for snapping pictures and seeing the pristine cottages and buildings. The horses were well-tended to and had plenty of rest time and water breaks. For those curious, there are 550 horses on the island.
More than 80% of Mackinac Island is actually a park. In fact, it was the second US National Park, designated soon after Yellowstone became the first national park in 1872. The land was later turned over to the state of Michigan and Mackinaw became a state park. That means there are plenty of outdoor activities to choose from for families.
6. Eat Fudge from the Fudge Capital of the World
I don’t really think we need a reason to eat fudge, but since Mackinac Island is the fudge capital of the world, you should definitely indulge.
Families gather in droves in the downtown fudge shops to watch master candy makers pour and flip the rich goodness to perfection in these heavenly smelling stores. Ryba’s Fudge Shops satisfied my sweet tooth with its Chocolate Mint fudge and English Toffee flavors of fudge.
7. Historical Things to Do in Northern Michigan – Fire a Cannon!
Mackinac Island is filled with history, including a self-guided walking tour of some of the historic houses. But take kids to Fort Mackinac, a historic site that was built during the American Revolution and remained an active military fort until 1895. There, kids can learn to march just like soldiers who lived at the fort — some with their wives and children! — did. The highlights: Playing with period children’s games and watching (and hearing) the deafening daily cannon blast. One lucky kid gets to help load and fire the cannon each day. Get more information about that here.
It is possible to do a day trip to Mackinac Island to visit Fort Mackinac, but we recommend planning for at least two days and staying in one of the island’s charming bed and breakfasts or shoreline hotels.
8. Taste Cherries in More Ways Than You Can Imagine
Michigan also bills itself as the Cherry Capital of the World. Find anything and everything you could ever want cherry flavored in the Great Hall at the Cherry Republic in Glen Arbor, a huge store dedicated to cherry salsas, syrups, jams, chocolates and more! The Winery, directly beside the Great Hall, offers cherry wine tasting while The Grand Cafe offers a tasty meal (cherry bratwurst, anyone?), snack or ice cream. Don’t leave the Cherry Republic without purchasing at least one jar of the delicious classic cherry salsa.
SheBuysTravel Tip: Do you really love cherries? You can combine Door County Wisconsin farmers markets with an Up North Michigan trip by booking passage on the historic Badger car ferry from Manitowoc, Wisconsin, to Ludington, Michigan. Arrive early so the kids can watch workers load the 18-wheel semis into the hull of this huge vessel.
9. Tour the Mushroom Houses in Charlevoix
Local resident Earl Young’s quirky Mushroom Houses can be toured on your own or through a more in-depth tour aboard a cute GEM car through the town of Charlevoix. See for yourself these 26 adorable gnome-like homes, with stone masonry walls and wavy eaves, designed by an eccentric man who was not a licensed architect.
The melted look on the chimneys of the hobbit houses was my favorite part. Wouldn’t it be cool to see inside them? Unfortunately, they are all rental properties so that isn’t currently an option without renting one of them.
10. Sample Wine at Mari Vineyards
Who isn’t a fan of wine sampling, especially when the wines are all lip-smacking good? On a tour of Mari Vineyards in Traverse City, you’ll enjoy the exquisite landscape and scenery almost as much as the tantalizing wines.
I recommend the Praefectus red and the Scriptorium Riesling white. Mari Vineyards has one of the most upscale and beautiful tasting rooms I’ve ever experienced. The winery staff was super knowledgeable about the grapes, climate and vintages.