Day 123: Fall Colors in Benzie and Leelanau Counties

As October arrives, Mother Nature unleashes her annual display of orange, yellow and red, turning the rolling hills and lush valleys of northern Michigan into a canvas of color. Throw in the countless shades of blue found in the waters that surround them and you’ve got a spectacular combination.

Photo courtesy of Nick Nerbonne- Benzie County

For me, the fall is all about photography. When the sun appears and I’ve got some time, I like to hop in the car and drive west from my home in Traverse City in search of foliage at its colorful peak. With no particular destination in mind, I just go where the road takes me, stopping to capture a scene that catches my eye.

Over the years I’ve developed a mental list of locations that are more reliable than others, or simply photograph well any time of year. Most of those locations seem to be in Benzie and Leelanau Counties, both within a short drive of downtown Traverse City.

Benzie County
Benzie may be Michigan’s smallest county, but its winding back roads and scenic vistas make it an excellent fall color destination. The diverse landscape ranges from country lanes to small lake villages, often within a few miles.

Turning down an overlooked country road often takes you right where you want to go. I found this scene on Fowler Road between M-22 and County Road 669.

Photo courtesy of Nick Nerbonne- Benzie County

Following this seasonal road down to the Betsie River turned out to be a good decision.

Photo courtesy of Nick Nerbonne- Benzie County

Crystal Lake is the centerpiece of the view from the clubhouse at Pinecroft Golf Plantation near Benzonia.

Photo courtesy of Nick Nerbonne- Benzie County

Drive over Warren Hill between Crystal and Platte Lakes and you’ll be treated to this view of Sleeping Bear Dunes and Empire Bluffs.

Photo courtesy of Nick Nerbonne- Benzie County

If you drive west long enough from anywhere in Benzie County, you’ll end up at M-22, one of Michigan’s most scenic highways. From here, at the intersection with County Line Road, drive north along the Lake Michigan shoreline to discover your own Benzie County secrets.

Photo courtesy of Nick Nerbonne- Benzie County

Benzie County Fall Color Tip: Crystal Mountain Resort & Spa offers scenic chairlift rides every Saturday in October. Take the family and enjoy the panoramic views of the Betsie River valley from the top of the mountain.

Leelanau County
Nationally known for its bounty of Montmorency tart cherries, Leelanau County has also built a reputation as a quality wine appellation in recent years, featuring over 20 wineries throughout the peninsula. Autumn is harvest time in the vineyards, and is an excellent time for a wine tour while you enjoy the fall colors.

Lake Leelanau divides the Leelanau Peninsula in two, seen here at the Narrows from M-204.

Photo courtesy of Nick Nerbonne- Leelanau County

Driving south from Leland on M-22, you won’t miss this historic red schoolhouse, now a private residence.

Photo courtesy of Nick Nerbonne- Leelanau County

The Sleeping Bear Dunes emerge from the fog along M-109 south of Glen Arbor.

Photo courtesy of Nick Nerbonne- Leelanau County

Take this road from M-22 just south of Empire to the Empire Bluffs trailhead for a scenic hike through mature forest and take in the view of Lake Michigan from 400 feet above the water.

Photo courtesy of Nick Nerbonne- Leelanau County

A seasonal road just off M-22, also south of Empire, beckons explorers looking for the road less traveled.

Photo courtesy of Nick Nerbonne- Leelanau County

Leelanau County Fall Color Tip: The Port Oneida Rural Historic District, about 3 miles north of Glen Arbor in the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, includes numerous historic farms and barns, many of which have been restored to their original splendor.

~Nick Nerbonne, Contributing Writer 

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