Fall is a pretty spectacular time to take a scenic drive around Michigan. Along with the weather being cooler and the roads being less crowded compared to summer, you can’t beat the scenery. With that said, there are tons of fall color drives in Northern Michigan.
We can’t possibly list them all, so we’ve created a detailed list of seven of our favorites…
M-22 Scenic Drive & Lake Michigan Coastal Tour
Taking about 2.5 to 3 hours to drive straight through, M-22 along Lake Michigan and the Gold Coast is about 125 miles. The scenic highway is often referred to as The Most Beautiful Place in America, so it’s definitely one of the best fall colors drives in Northern Michigan.
The route traces the shoreline from Manistee all the way up the west side of Leelanau Peninsula, going through many charming towns along the way. Then, the highway travels down the east side of the peninsula to Traverse City. Let’s take a look at some must-see attractions.
Manistee, Onekama, & Arcadia
Before you leave Manistee, you should check out a few places — Manistee North Pierhead Lighthouse, the 1.75-mile Manistee Riverwalk with informational markers about the river and city, and a fringe-covered Victorian surrey carriage tour of the historic Dempsey Manor.
Driving north on M-22, you’ll come to Onekama, a village known as the Two Lake Town because it’s home to Lake Michigan and Portage Lake. There are a lot of great dining and shopping experiences. As you leave the town, take a short detour to the Artesian Well to fill up your bottles with some of the region’s purest well water.
About 15 minutes north is Inspiration Point in Arcadia, one of the highest points in the area. You can climb 120 steps to look out over Lake Michigan. Nearby is Arcadia Marsh Nature Preserve, one of only 15 coastal marshes remaining along the Lake Michigan shoreline in the Lower Peninsula. Just north of the marsh are the Arcadia Dunes.
Elberta, Frankfurt, & Empire
Elberta and Frankfurt have a few nice places to grab a bite to eat and go shopping. In Frankfurt, Leelanau and Forest Avenues have vibrant Victorian homes. Point Betsie Lighthouse in Frankfurt has been operating since 1858 and makes for picturesque photos.
Continuing north, you’ll drive around part of Crystal Lake and pass Long Lake, Platte Lake, and Little Platte Lake on your way to Empire. If you need to stretch your legs, you can stop at the Empire Bluff Trailhead, which leads to a scenic lookout with views of Lake Michigan.
You could stop at the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore too.
After crossing Glen Lake on M-22, you’ll pass Glen Arbor and Pyramid Point. Next, you’ll pass Little Traverse Lake and head north toward Leland, which is sandwiched between Lake Leelanau and Lake Michigan.
This community has excellent dining and shopping, and it’s the home of historic Fishtown, which celebrates the history of commercial fishing in Northern Michigan.
Northport, Suttons Bay, & Traverse City
Then, M-22 leads you to Northport, passing the winery Green Bird Organic Cellars & Farm along the way. After that, the route heads south to Suttons Bay. You’ll pass Leelanau Cellars in Omena, which has a fine tasting room.
In Suttons Bay, you can take a break from the road trip at Suttons Bay Beach. Along the rest of the way to Traverse City, you’ll pass several more vineyards and wineries. Then, you’ll find plenty more things to do in Traverse City.
Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive in Sleeping Bear Dunes
Back at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is one of the most scenic fall colors drives in Northern Michigan. Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive is only a 7-mile loop, but it’s packed with autumn color. Since it’s so short, the drive only takes about 25 minutes.
However, you can easily spend an entire afternoon exploring the area. The park has 65 miles of shoreline on Lake Michigan, several sandy beaches, 450-foot bluffs, inland lakes, lush forests, and unique wildlife.
The Sleeping Bear Point Coast Guard Station Maritime Museum is nearby and educates the public on the history of Great Lakes shipping, the U.S. Coast Guard, and the U.S. Life-Saving Service.
M-37 on Old Mission Peninsula
Spanning from Traverse City to Mission Point Lighthouse, M-37 on Old Mission Peninsula offers fantastic views of the changing leaves. The round trip takes about 1 hour if you drive straight through.
Old Mission Peninsula cuts up the middle of Grand Traverse Bay, creating west and east bays and providing water views on both sides.
M-119 Tunnel of Trees Along Lake Michigan
Another one of the most popular fall color drives in Northern Michigan is the Tunnel of Trees Scenic Heritage Route, which is located along M-119.
The 40-minute drive (depending on traffic) is about 20 miles and stretches from Harbor Springs to Cross Village, twisting around the jagged coastline of Lake Michigan.
Historic Motor Tour on US-27
Built in the early 1900s, US-27 was a major north-south highway that ran from Cheboygan, Michigan, to Miami, Florida. Now, the Michigan section of highway goes by various names, including Old US-27, as it passes through several cities and towns along a Native American trail.
The route between Cheboygan and Harrison is one of the prettiest fall colors drives in Northern Michigan and takes about 2.5 hours straight through.
You should check out Cheboygan State Park as well.
Gaylord to Grayling
Shortly after beginning your road trip, US-27 hugs the west side of Mullett Lake, crosses the Indian River, and then passes the southeastern tip of Burt Lake, both of which reflect the colorful landscape.
Then, you’ll pass through the villages of Wolverine and Vanderbilt before you get to Gaylord, a premier location in Northern Michigan for golf. The city has 15 courses of meticulous greens that are surrounded by the brilliant hues of autumn.
Continuing south, US-27 runs along the east side of Ostego Lake, which is part of Ostego State Park. Before you approach downtown Grayling, you could stop by Hartwick Pines State Park. And, of course, the W.J. Beal Tree Plantation is an 80-acre multicolored paradise with 40 tree species.
Back on US-27, the road runs against the west sides of Higgins Lake and Houghton Lake. When you get to Harrison, you have the chance to spend time in Wilson State Park and Clare County Veterans Freedom Park, which is located downtown.
Heritage Route US-23 Along Lake Huron
Connecting Mackinaw City to Standish, Heritage Route US-23 is a 200-mile scenic highway that takes you down the Lake Huron shoreline, otherwise known as Sunrise Coast.
If you don’t stop along the way, this picturesque drive takes about 3.5 hours. However, there are tons of places to explore, so it’s easy to spend a few days on this fall foliage road trip.
Before you hit the road, consider visiting several attractions in Mackinaw City. Some examples include Headlands International Dark Sky Park, McGulpin Point Lighthouse, Mackinac Bridge, Colonial Michilimackinac, and Historic Mill Creek Discovery Park.
Cheboygan, Rogers City, & Presque Isle
About 20 minutes into the US-23 drive, you go through Cheboygan where you can visit many attractions, such as those we mentioned above.
To the west of Rogers City, you can take a short adventure to Ocqueoc Falls, the biggest waterfall in the Lower Peninsula. Continuing the trip south, you come to Presque Isle, which is home to the Old and New Presque Isle Lighthouses.
Alpena & Ossineke
Harrisville & Oscoda
When you get to Oscoda, the Wurtsmith Air Museum preserves and educates visitors on the history of Wurtsmith Air Force Base and Northeast Michigan aviation. For some beach time, check out Oscoda Township Beach Park, which has 1,000 feet of waterfront, a 300-foot pier, and other amenities.
Tawas City & Au Gres
Upon reaching Tawas City, you may want to take a short detour to the tip of the small peninsula. This is where you’ll find Tawas Point State Park, which is heaven for nature lovers and has a wealth of colorful Michigan leaves.
The park is also home to Tawas Point Lighthouse, which offers tours and has a museum. Afterward, you can continue the road trip to Au Gres where you can see Gravelly Shoal Lighthouse from Lookout Point, which juts into the harbor.
Finally, US-23 leads you to Standish. For outdoor recreation, visit Wigwam Bay State Wildlife Area, a more than 3,000-acre wildlife preserve with over 900 acres of wetlands.
To learn more about railroads, head to the Standish Historic Depot & Welcome Center for displays of depot memorabilia and artifacts.
River Road Scenic Byway Along the Au Sable River
Extending for 22 miles from Lake Huron in Oscoda, the River Road Scenic Byway is a designated American scenic byway by the Federal Highway Administration.
It takes about 20 minutes to just drive through River Road, but you can extend your road trip to Hale via M-65, which takes a total of about 35 minutes.
Since the road runs along the Au Sable River and Huron National Forest, there are many hiking and cross-country trails, as well as trails for snowmobiles and other off-road vehicles.
Frequently Asked Questions About Fall Colors Drives in Northern Michigan
Where can you drive for fall colors in Michigan?
There are hundreds of roads that feature fall colors throughout Michigan. In Northern Michigan alone, we’ve found seven with some of the best views of the changing leaves and nearby attractions — M-22, Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive, M-37, M-119, US-27, US-23, and the River Road Scenic Byway.
How are the fall colors in Northern Michigan?
When the leaves change color in Northern Michigan, you’re greeted by classic autumn color — such as vibrant reds, oranges, and golds.
When will fall colors peak in Michigan in 2021?
No matter where you are, the weather has a significant impact on when leaves change color. In Northern Michigan, the peak colors emerge between late September and early October. The farther south that you are, the later that the colors change.
How long do fall colors last in Michigan?
From early color to the last bits of color, the leaves may change for two to three weeks. Again, how long the colors stay greatly depends on the weather.
Where are the best fall colors in Michigan right now?
The best way to plan when to go on fall colors drives in Northern Michigan is to track the change. You can follow predictions with this fall foliage tracking map. It includes predictions for all 48 contiguous states.