Do thoughts of countless beaches, rolling sand dunes, picturesque lighthouses, undisturbed parks, and nature preserves, all along turquoise water get you excited? If so, then consider the Northern Lake Michigan road trip from Frankfort to Ludington, where hopping from one resort town to the next on this road trip made me forget about the day-to-day.
I just lived in the moment and soaked in everything that this part of Michigan has to offer. Make sure to have your camera on and your feet ready to roam!
I set goals for what I would like to see, ideally, but ultimately whatever scenery and road signs caught my eye won on this special Lake Michigan road trip.
After starting the day catching the sunrise over Pere Marquette Lake, I walked along the remote Buttersville Beach and through Summit Park, and then headed into town. Walking amongst the sculptures at Waterfront Sculpture Park, the “Follow the Leader” piece caught my eye where it depicts children who are our future. Right alongside the park is a pair of marinas, along with the S.S. Badger car ferry which shuttles people between Wisconsin and Michigan in the warmer months.
It was time to hit the coastline and Stearns Park. After walking the beach, I made the half-mile track from the parking area down the pier to the Ludington North Breakwater Light. That was a short stroll compared with what I was going to undertake next.
Driving past miles of sand dunes lining each side of the road, I headed ten minutes up M-116 along Ludington State Park. Within the state park, I decided to take the 1.8-mile hike to Big Sable Point Lighthouse. My camera was always out while on the sandy trail, as well as when I climbed up the 125 steps to the top of the light.
The paths off the sandy trail and vista points along M-116 are worth a look. After doubling back down the trail, it was time to hop onto U.S. Route 31 for about a half-hour countryside ride towards Manistee.
It was exciting to be in this coastal town, after seeing and hearing the Manistee Pure Michigan commercial so many times. In the quaint downtown area, I walked along the Manistee River on the one-and-a-half-mile Riverwalk, then headed to the beach and strolled down the North Pier towards the North Pierhead Lighthouse.
I soon realized that I was seeing double, double the lakes that would be. Each town not only had Lake Michigan beaches at its disposal but also an inland lake (or two) of its own. In Ludington, it was Pere Marquette Lake, here, it’s Manistee Lake.
South of town, I stopped at a vista point to get shots of the lake and the S.S. City of Milwaukee a National Historic Landmark which you can tour a few doors down.
When on a road trip, I am always looking for an off-the-beaten-path spot. Sundling Park was the find on this particular day. A few miles off the main track stood the nondescript entrance to the narrow park. I walked through the overgrown grass until reaching the entrance to the beach. It was just me and Lake Michigan along the sandy shores after that.
Exiting Manistee I stayed on U.S. Route 31 until reaching M-22, a highway well known to road trippers for its scenery and natural beauty.
Onekama and Arcadia
You’ll soon be riding along the shoreline of Portage Lake as you enter the flower-lined main street of Onekama. I found a great place to stretch and grab some shots of the lake and small-town charm at Portage Lake Park.
Continuing on M-22, I pulled off the road and got out of the car a few blocks before hitting downtown Arcadia. I was surrounded by Arcadia Lake sat to one side and the green marsh of Arcadia Marsh Nature Preserve to the other.
What really got me was what was straight ahead, the open road as far as the eye could see. Back in the car, I passed through Arcadia and flat terrain quickly became hilly as Arcadia Point emerged. I climbed the 120-step staircase to the top of “Inspiration Point” to soak in the majestic scene.
Pro Tip: Just north of Inspiration Point stop at Arcadia Dunes, the C.S. Mott Nature Preserve and Green Point Dunes Nature Preserve are both short-to-moderate length hiking trails through woods ending up at sand dunes along the coast.
Continuing on north along M-22, you’ll come up to Betsie Lake and the village of Elberta. Along the lake, I parked the car at the city park off Centre Street to capture the sailboats docked and passing by and Frankfort off in the distance. I went for a short stroll on the Betsie River Trailway, a 22-mile trail, which runs alongside the Betsie River State Game Refuge, then Crystal Lake and beyond.
It was time to head to the other side of Betsie Lake. The highlight of my time in Frankfort was right along Lake Michigan at the beach; I walked on the sand and then onto the pier towards the picturesque North Breakwater Lighthouse.
I watched as kids jumped off into the water bringing back memories of my youth. By the lighthouse, waves were crashing onto the pier and making the scene even more electric.
The last part of my journey on this Lake Michigan road trip brought me to Point Betsie Lighthouse just north of town. I recommend capturing the lighthouse from the beach, majestic.
On the way to Point Betsie, I managed to catch a glimpse of Crystal Lake. The turquoise waters made me ask, “Am I in the Caribbean or Pure Michigan?!” Each Michigan road trip I take makes me love the Mitten even more.
What other sights would you recommend visiting on a Lake Michigan road trip between Ludington and Frankfort?