Planning a road trip along US-12 Heritage Trail in Michigan? Awesome Mitten contributor Aaron Cruz shares his experience and suggestions to help you plan your own Michigan road trip itinerary!
Editor’s Note: This article was originally written during the summers of 2016 and 2017. It has been updated for accuracy.
Exploring US-12 Heritage Trail from West to East
The calendar has finally flipped to September. The days in The Mitten are getting shorter and cooler as the Indian summer has taken over, and the time of year makes me think to myself, “We need to take advantage of the warm and sunny weather while we still can.”
What better way than an end-of-summer Michigan road trip?
In looking for a summer-themed adventure with a little bit of everything, the historic US-12 Heritage Trail and Southwest Michigan came to mind.
Between New Buffalo and Coldwater, travelers will go from Lake Michigan and a beach town setting to countryside and small-town charm. Lots of greenery, open road, and warm weather fun, all with a little history mixed in awaits this kind of trip.
My Michigan road trip started on US-12 at the state line with Indiana. Heading north, I was quickly in the heart of New Buffalo along Lake Michigan. The swim trunks, flip-flops, and beach towel came out.
It was time to experience the warm sand of New Buffalo Lakefront Park and Beach. I took one last swim in the Great Lakes for the season. Afterward, I walked along the beach town’s main drag in flip-flops stopping at the touristy T-Shirt Factory to buy a souvenir.
Making the turn inland and to the east, I quickly ran into the Village of Three Oaks. I got out of the car to walk around the quaint downtown noticing all the people dining outside at Froehlich’s gourmet shop.
Walking in and now amongst the homegrown preserves, jams, breads, and other treats, I ordered a deli sandwich with a summer theme, The Picnic Basket. I enjoyed my food while staring out at the town, later washing it down with a random whiskey tasting at Journeyman Distillery.
Buchanan, Sturgis, & Coldwater
Being a coffee lover, I cooled down to an iced coffee at Union Coffee Shop in Buchanan.
Further to the east, Great Lakes Chocolate & Coffee (now Five Lakes Coffee) in Sturgis and North Woods Coffee Company (now Everfresh Cafe) in Coldwater provided additional iced coffees, my preferred summertime beverage. I’d stop at all these again, each having food and snack options as well.
While the coffee was refreshing, I desired a true warm summer day treat. That next led me to downtown Niles and the Paris Soda Company. Upon entering the authentic fountain shop, I was transported back in time with the 50s décor.
I hung out at the soda fountain counter as I awaited my double scoop of carrot cake ice cream in a waffle cone. The shop also offers summer-friendly sundaes, floats, and malts.
I walked around downtown Niles capturing photos of the buildings on Main Street. That was followed up by a walk along the mile-and-a-half-long Riverfront Park along the St. Joseph River. The ice cream cone slowly disappeared from my hand.
St. Joseph River
Between Niles and Coldwater, I kept getting out of the car at various points. Random parks, photo opportunities along the St. Joseph River which you will cross over and over again, and right in the middle of the road to capture the US-12 scene were the reasons.
Tip: US-12 dips to within a mile or two of Indiana a lot in Southwest Michigan. Quickly head south at random points to grab “Welcome to Pure Michigan” sign shots with countryside backdrops.
More To Explore in Southwest Michigan on US-12
Throughout the trip, I took advantage of the history the Heritage Trail has to offer. The train depot in Sturgis, the Tasty Nut Shop and Soda Bar in White Pigeon, and the Blue Hat Coffee / Gallery in Coldwater were among the highlights.
While in Coldwater, I also went on a history walk. I enjoyed the small-town stroll checking out sites like the Tibbits Opera House and Wing House Museum.
Tip: There were a few places I didn’t have time to get to. In the future, I hope to check out Fernwood Botanical Garden and Nature Reserve in Niles and the drive-in duo in Coldwater sometime. A coney and homemade root beer at Short’s Root Beer Stand and a movie at Capri Drive-In sounds like a fun summer evening, too.
Exploring US-12 Heritage Trail from East to West
Last year I ended the summer in style. I completed an amazing Michigan road trip along the US-12 Heritage Trail between New Buffalo and Coldwater.
Having such a good time, I decided to hit up the same trail again this summer. It was time to roll down the windows and road trip the eastern half of the route for a Michigan road trip on US-12 Heritage Trail.
I experienced Michigan Avenue and US-12 between the heart of Downtown Detroit and Coldwater. This side of the US-12 Heritage Trail is an urban environment, mixed with historical small-town charm. Of course, there is a lot of comfort food involved.
Starting in Michigan’s biggest city, I parked the car near Campus Martius where Michigan Avenue begins. I experienced the beach (you heard that right), landscaping, city vibe, and the surrounding skyline.
Right down Michigan Avenue in the Corktown neighborhood, Astro Coffee and the historic train station is where it is at.
Tip: Slows BBQ. Enough said!
Heading westward out of the city brought me into Dearborn, the home of Ford Motor Company. I didn’t visit on this trip, but The Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village come highly recommended for car lovers and history buffs.
Speaking of theaters, just a few miles further west, I admired the larger-than-life mural on the eastern side of the State Wayne Theater in Wayne.
After driving for a bit it was time to stretch the legs. Now in Ypsilanti, I walked the Riverside and Frog Island parks along the Huron River.
After grabbing a coffee at Cultivate Coffee (indefinitely closed) in Depot Town (yes, I like coffee!) it was time to head back outside. I spent time at the Ypsilanti Water Tower which was built in 1890.
I also strolled along the pond at Mill Pond Park and around downtown. Saline is home to the most picture-friendly house on the route, the Davenport-Curtiss House.
Along the Way
At this point in the trip, the urbanization ends, and the US-12 Heritage Trail turns into a two-lane countryside journey for the duration. I parked alongside the road every so often (leading to curiously from the other drivers) to capture farmland road shots.
Tips: Boaters, here you will find a public boat launch to hit the lake. All you need is a Recreation Passport. Also, come back to drive US-12 in Irish Hills in Autumn.
Now approaching the middle of the Mitten, I stopped in Somerset Center at McCourtie Park. You will find a vast park for the kids to play in or play disc golf. I stopped to take in the cement folk art bridges that dotted the grounds.
A few blocks away I shopped the fruit, bakery, wine, and more of Meckley’s Flavor Fruit Farm where their orchard served as a backdrop.
You’ll find numerous historic churches and buildings with old-school architecture along the US-12 Heritage Trail. Munro House B&B and the Great Episcopal Church were a couple of such stops I enjoyed in Jonesville.
Allen & Quincy
Continuing on westward approaching Coldwater you can experience the antiquing capital in Allen and water fun on the chain of lakes near Quincy.
I couldn’t believe how many places there were to antique. I stopped to see some of the types of things that were for sale.
Marble Lake is where it is at in Quincy for water lovers. Bookmarking that spot for another trip.
Comfort Food on My Michigan Road Trip Along US-12 Heritage Trail
I haven’t mentioned the comfort food I enjoyed on my Michigan road trip along US-12 Heritage Trail because I’m still full from it all – ha-ha!
The trip started with watching them make my two loaded coneys at American Coney Island in Downtown Detroit. Chili, onions, and mustard topped hot dogs, what could be better?!
Tip: Stop literally next store at Lafayette Coney Island and compare.
Ypsilanti’s Depot Town offers Sidetracks. A burger with sweet potato fries is the recommendation, delicious. If you are in town in the early morning, hit up Abe’s for breakfast.
Further west I randomly came across Special Ed’s Donuts in Somerset Center. Everything is made and served fresh from a portable bus. The custard-filled long john topped with a chocolate glaze -oh my goodness.
Coney Hut Drive Inn in Jonesville offers a vintage drive-in eating experience. A double bacon cheeseburger with battered fries was the selection to end the trip. I was definitely feeling comfortable at this point.
Tip: Brecon Grille is the place in Saline to experience comfort food.
What other spots would you recommend checking out along the US-12 Heritage Trail? What Michigan road trip would you like to take to end summer in style?