As the summer fades into fall, the true natural beauty in Michigan begins to unfurl. From north to south, the tips of the leaves begin to change into their autumn hues, and people from all over the state often make it a point to take what’s affectionately known as a “fall color tour”. In fact, taking a scenic fall drive in Michigan is one of the best fall things to do in Michigan!
Whether you are looking to head north to enjoy one of the scenic fall drives early in the season, or you are waiting for the leaves to peak in your own region of Michigan, you will find that these are the best scenic fall drives in Michigan:
- US-41 – Delaware to Copper Harbor
- M-28 & M-64 – Porcupine Mountains to Wakefield
- US-27 – Grayling to Lake City
- US-31 & M-119 – Elk Rapids to Mackinaw City
- M-37 – Baldwin to Traverse City
- US-23, M-65, & M-55 – Oscoda, West Branch, & Tawas
- M-25 – Lexington to Caseville
- Pontaluna Rd – Norton Shores
- M-37 – White Cloud to Newaygo
- Caro to Frankenmuth
- M-83 & M-15 – Frankenmuth to Bay City
- Belle Isle
- M-29 – Metro Detroit
We may hate to admit it, but summer is winding down. Pumpkin Spice Lattes are back in season, my mother is already talking about Halloween, and I just pulled out my first flannel shirt. The realities are settling in that fall has arrived in Michigan.
Although summer is when we usually spend the most time on the road, we should not forget about how beautiful fall road trips can be. Michigan is one of the few lucky places that experience the magic of having our world turn into a brightly colored fairytale of orange, red, and yellow as the weather begins to cool.
Before all of your weekends fill up (I know mine are booking fast!), reserve a Friday, Saturday and Sunday to take a slow drive along one of the many beautiful Michigan highways. The colors will not be a disappointment, and there’s just something about making a stop on an empty beach during a cold fall day and restores peace and tranquility to the year.
Best Upper Peninsula Scenic Fall Drives
The first hints of fall arrive in early September in the Upper Peninsula, making this the first place that people can embark on a fall color tour each year. The summer winds cool off quickly and the weather is often particularly beautiful in September and early October, allowing you and your family to make wonderful memories as you wind down the picturesque country roads in this region of the state.
US-41 | Delaware to Copper Harbor
The Covered Drive is often considered to be a bucket list experience for those who enjoy taking fall colors tours in Michigan. This Upper Peninsula fall color drive has been nicknamed the Covered Drive because the trees stretch over the road to form a canopy, allowing you to feel completely engulfed by golden and copper leaves.
This scenic drive is located on US-41 and stretches for 18 miles between Delaware and Copper Harbor.
M-28 & M-64 | Porcupine Mountains State Park to Wakefield
Another Upper Peninsula fall color tour that you will want to experience is the scenic drive that extends from Porcupine Mountains State Park to the community of Wakefield. On the roads M-28 and M-64, you will not only see an array of colorful leaves on the trees, but you also will enjoy panoramic views of hills, lakes, and forests.
Have you ever heard of Wakefield? If you’re not from the U.P., it could be unfamiliar. This stretch of M-28 and M-64 curves by lakes, national forests, and rolling hills. The mountainous terrain is something of wonder for most of us Michiganders and has the power to transport us to faraway lands.
The western U.P. fall color drive takes roughly an hour, but expect it to last much longer as chances are you’ll be doing some serious fall hiking in the Porcupine Mountains and some serious relaxing next to Lake Superior and the inland lake of Gogebic.
Be sure to fill up on gas before the journey because you won’t see many signs of human life, and the evening adventures will be quite dark. With leaves will falling all around, the long journey will be worth the destination, but get up north fast because leaves turn much earlier in the U.P.
– Shalee Blackmer, Awesome Mitten Contributor
Northern Michigan Fall Color Tours
By late September or early October, the fall colors in Northern Michigan will be on full display, and you can head up that way to experience them for yourself. Northern Michigan fall color tours can often be combined with waterfront picnics along the lakeshore, hikes throughout state parks, and visits to wineries with 360-degree views of the fall colors.
US-27 | Grayling to Lake City
If you are the type of person who wants to see the crimson leaves reflected on the water’s edge, then you should consider taking the fall color tour between Grayling and Lake City. This tour winds along the edge of the mighty Au Sable River and is easily completed along the US-27 highway.
US-31 & M-119 | Elk Rapids to Mackinaw City
This popular Northern Michigan fall drive stretches along the northwest shoreline of Lake Michigan in the Lower Peninsula. Starting on US-31 in Elk Rapids, you can enjoy beautiful fall colors in Michigan along the lakeshore – all the way to the Mackinac Bridge in Mackinaw City!
The drive on US-31 from Elk Rapids to Petoskey is common (especially in the summer months), and I think we can already agree it’s a beautiful drive. Add the fall colors, and you’re looking at a picture-perfect drive along the lakeshore for miles.
Passing through towns like Charlevoix, Petoskey, Harbor Springs, and others, there are plenty of fall things to do and stops to make if you want to extend your Northern Michigan fall color drive experience. Not only will you enjoy views of Lake Michigan and Little Traverse Bay along the way, but you also will drive through the Tunnel of Trees.
Tunnel of trees? Yes, I know you’ve heard of it! This stretch of roadway with trees so dense it’s as if you are driving through a covered bridge made of glistening fall leaves is located north of Petoskey off of this particularly beautiful fall route.
Looking to spend the whole weekend exploring fall things to do in Northern Michigan? Add this route onto the Baldwin to Traverse City route below. Elk Rapids is only a 20-minute drive from Traverse City, and the combination is the definition of the ultimate Michigan weekend in the fall.
M-37 | Baldwin to Traverse City
This inland drive will take you through rolling hills (including the highest peak in the Lower Peninsula) and winding around some of the densest forests in the state. The direct route takes about an hour and a half to complete, but if you’re out to enjoy nature, I’d recommend 4 or 5 hours.
A section of this road travels through the Manistee National Forest, which is home to thousands of trails perfect for a fall walk and encompasses all kinds of wildlife, from squirrels to bears. You’ll easily be able to find yourself in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by nothing but the sound of rustling leaves.
When arriving in Traverse City, I recommend grabbing some dinner at the Blue Tractor. The warm pulled pork mac & cheese is going to be heaven after spending the day in crisp fall weather.
– Shalee Blackmer, Awesome Mitten Contributor
Best Scenic Fall Drives in East Michigan
The east side of Michigan is often referred to as the Sunrise Side because the sun rises each day over the sparkling waters of Lake Huron. If you are an early bird who wants to see the first rays of the sun cascade over the fall colors, then an East Michigan fall drive may be the best option for you.
US-23, M-65, & M-55 | Oscoda, West Branch, & Tawas
On roads such as US 23, M-65, and M-55, you can drive along Lake Huron and through the communities of Oscoda, West Branch, and Tawas. In addition to seeing the fall colors come to life between late September and the middle of October, you also can stop at peaceful parks, recreational areas, and lighthouses along the way.
The Tawas Point Lighthouse and Tawas Point State Park are particularly beautiful during the fall.
Highway M-25: Lexington to Caseville
Another scenic fall drive in East Michigan is located in the thumb, along M-25 between Lexington and Caseville. This is a hidden gem among all of the fall color tours in Michigan, and you will likely find fewer people on the road as you traverse along the edge of Lake Huron and travel past the tip of the thumb.
On this drive, you will discover beaches, hiking trails, and more.
This stretch of road brings travelers along quiet beaches, quaint towns, and even near the famous Turnip Rock. In order to make the most of the road, you should stop at every town along the route. Enjoy the downtowns and take a peek at the beaches, even if the water is too cold for a swim.
I recommend allotting 5 hours for the trip, which doesn’t include a possible detour for a kayaking trip in Port Austin. Starting in Lexington allows you to finish near Caseville just in time for a sunset over Lake Huron. The colors will run for miles along the wooded road and the chilled air is going to call for a coffee stop (the Raven Cafe is a great choice in Port Huron).
After summer, this part of Michigan is quiet, really quiet – expect deserted beaches and little traffic, which sounds the ideal autumn adventure.
– Shalee Blackmer, Awesome Mitten Contributor
Where to Take a Fall Color Tour in West Michigan
The fall colors along Michigan’s western shore typically arrive by early October and often peak by the third week of the month. It is one of the most spectacular regions in the state to enjoy these scenic fall drives, due to the sandy dunes that define the landscape in this area.
Pontaluna Road | Norton Shores
Drivers along US-31 will find that Pontaluna Road is a perfect exit to discover the fall colors of West Michigan. This road will lead to P.J. Hoffmaster State Park, a popular state park between Muskegon and Grand Haven that has brilliant fall color displays as well as rugged sand dunes and Lake Michigan shorefront.
M-37 | White Cloud to Newaygo
Another Michigan highway in West Michigan that is known for its fall colors is M-37, between White Cloud and Newaygo.
This drive cuts through the heart of West Michigan’s forests, giving you an opportunity to glimpse leaves of every possible hue along the way. Not to mention, the sunsets on the west side cast a glow that illuminates the leaves, making them feel as if they are falling straight out of a fairy tale.
Top Mid-Michigan Fall Color Tours to Enjoy
While many people flock to the country highways that wind along the state’s impressive lakeshores, the heart of the fall season actually takes place in Mid-Michigan. Some of the most brilliant colors are on full display along I-75, which runs north and south directly through the center of the state.
Caro to Frankenmuth
If you are looking for a fall color tour to enjoy in the first weeks of October, then this Mid-Michigan drive is the best choice for you. Drive southwest from the Caro area toward Frankenmuth, you will see plenty of trees in the middle of their annual transition.
M-83 & M-15 | Frankenmuth to Bay City
After touring Frankenmuth, M-83 to M-15 and start heading toward Bay City, where you will see fall in all of its glory in Michigan.
Where to Enjoy a Fall Color Drive in Metro Detroit
Fall is a beautiful time of year, but it also can be really busy. If you have suddenly realized that it’s the middle of October and you haven’t embarked on your fall color tour, don’t fret. You can still enjoy the colorful landscape in the Metro Detroit area.
One of the best scenic fall drives in Metro Detroit begins in the city of Detroit, on Belle Isle. This small island located on the Detroit River is home to stately hickory and elm trees that brighten with colors each fall.
M-29 | Metro Detroit
After doing a loop around the island, take I-94 to M-29, where you can drive along the St. Clair River and enjoy the crisp fall leaves juxtaposed by the sparkling blue waters of the river.
This road will take you through several Metro Detroit towns, including Rochester, which is home to some of the most famous cider mills in the state.
No fall color tour is complete without a cinnamon sugar donut and a cup of fresh-pressed Michigan apple cider. Be sure to check out our favorite Michigan apple orchards for the best cup of cider near you!
Frequently Asked Questions About the Best Fall Color Drives in Michigan
While the changing fall colors are a natural tradition in Michigan, it’s important to note that this seasonal display is at times fleeting and elusive. These frequently asked questions will help you make the most out of your fall color tour in Michigan.
When Do Fall Colors Peak in Michigan?
The fall colors peak in Michigan at various times each fall, and it is often largely dependent on the weather. Warm springs, summers filled with sunshine, and cool nights are necessary in order for the most vibrant hues to arrive. An unseasonably warm or dry weather pattern in the late summer or early fall can stunt the fall colors.
Generally speaking, the fall colors will peak in the Upper Peninsula and Northern Michigan in late September or early October. In the lower portion of the Lower Peninsula, fall colors typically peak in mid-to-late October.
How Long Do Fall Colors Last in Michigan?
The fall color season begins in the middle of September and often lasts until early November, with the peak typically occurring somewhere in the middle. It’s important to keep in mind that even those first hints of color are beautiful against the green backdrop, and the last leaves clinging to the trees before winter arrives are breathtaking in their own way.
When is the Best Time to See Fall Colors in Michigan?
Scenic fall drives in Michigan are beautiful no matter when you decide to go, but many people agree that the best time to see fall colors in Michigan is around the peak of the fall colors. This occurs in late September or early October in the northernmost regions of the state, but further south, it typically happens in the middle of October.
Where are your favorite places to take a Michigan color drive in the fall? We’re curious to find more places for colorful adventures in Michigan.