From sweeping sand dunes to scenic hiking trails to idyllic islands, there are Michigan adventures waiting for you all along Lake Michigan’s western coast!
As proof, I’ve compiled this bucketlist of the 9 best coastal Michigan adventures showcasing how much the state has to offer and inspiring you to see more of Pure Michigan (does anyone else tear up during those commercials, or is it just me??).
Whether you want an adrenaline rush or a relaxing nature escape, I have you covered. Let’s dive into the places that made the list, going from north to south:
1. Get to Know Traverse City
A coastal Michigan adventure isn’t complete without a stop at Traverse City. Yes, you can spend an entire week here and still have more to see, but a day trip will also give you a wonderful taste of this vibrant city.
My recommended itinerary starts with a stop at BLK MRKT for a delicious, perfectly-brewed coffee. Follow that up with a city stroll along Front Street. Take your time and stop to admire the murals that pop up on this main drag.
When you get hungry head to Mama Lu’s for tasty Mexican food (the fish and shrimp tacos are particularly popular). And for dessert you can’t go wrong with Peace, Love & Little Donuts.
The donuts here are the perfect size to try several flavors.
I went for the Dirt Cup, Boston Cream, Apple Pie, and Coffee Cream. All were delicious, but the Apple Pie (in the bottom right corner) was the winner!
If you’re ready to relax and the weather is cooperating, head to Clinch Park Beach and soak up some sun.
When you’re ready to eat again (I like to get to know cities through my stomach) go to Little Fleet. It’s a super cute food truck area with lots of seating and great dining options like Milkweed and Happy’s Taco Shop (scrumptious veggie burrito pictured below).
There are so many choices at Little Fleet you might regret all those donuts you ate earlier (though probably not!).
Pro tip: Take a quick jaunt north to Mission Point Lighthouse. It’s just a 30 minute drive from Traverse City (more on that in no. 5 below).
2. Explore Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore
Did you know that Michigan has the largest deposit of fresh water sand dunes in the world??
And although you can experience sand dunes along much of Michigan’s coastline, the best of the best dune hikes are at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.
The dunes at Sleeping Bear are big and sprawling, taking up 35 miles of Lake Michigan coastline. And one dune in particular used to resemble (you guessed it) a sleeping bear!
My favorite way to enjoy Sleeping Bear is on a camping trip. Anywhere from 3-5 days is ideal because there is A LOT to see here, including hiking trails, inland lakes, beaches, islands, and lighthouses.
I recommend downloading the Alltrails app to find hiking trails suited to your skill level and distance preferences. Three of my favorites are the Pyramid Point Loop, the Alligator Hill Trail, and the Sleeping Bear Point Trail.
But one of the best activities at Sleeping Bear — the monthly Star Party — won’t have you breaking a sweat. It’s an astronomy-lovers meetup with giant telescopes and plenty of star-spotting opportunities.
I attended one in late August and the Milky Way was right overhead. The shot above was my view with the naked eye. Incredible!
Pro tip: Don’t forget to check out the new Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail. It’s a lovely four-mile path for biking, running, and walking!
3. Take the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive
One of the most scenic (hey it’s in the name!) Michigan adventures is the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive.
This is a bit of a cheeky addition since it’s located inside Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, but there are so many cool sights here that it needed its own section.
The 7.4 mile drive loops through the Beech-Maple forest and local sand dunes with lookouts and viewpoints over the dunes, Lake Michigan, and Glen Lakes. You’re going to want to drive slowly, stopping frequently at various spots that catch your eye.
I recommend about 1.5-3 hours here. And if you have some extra time to spare, don’t miss the Cottonwood Trail dune hike.
Get the self-guided trail brochure at the trailhead before you head out so you can learn about the plant life and geology of the dunes as you go.
Pro tip: Stop at Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive viewpoint #9 for sunset. There are several lookouts here to watch the sun kiss the horizon. Pick your favorite and enjoy!
4. Visit South Manitou Island
On a beautiful summer day, South Manitou Island does a really nice job of impersonating the Caribbean. Don’t believe me? Take a look at a few of the dreamy beach photos I took here.
Getting to South Manitou Island is a fun adventure in itself!
The island is served by one ferry company, Manitou Island Transit, and the route is very popular in the summer months so I recommend reserving your spot in advance. With tickets secured, you’ll head to the sleepy fishing town of Leland to catch the ferry.
The ride takes about 1.5 hours and offers scenic views of a lighthouse completely surrounded by water. So keep your camera at the ready!
Once you arrive at South Manitou, check out the shipwreck next to the island’s southern beach and tour the South Manitou Island Lighthouse for incredible views in every direction.
The first photo in this section was taken from the top of the lighthouse. Who needs a drone when you have lighthouses?!
When you’re done climbing the lighthouse and walking around the island, there’s a lovely beach just past the visitor’s center with water is so clear you’ll swear you’re in the Bahamas!
See all the nice, smooth rocks in this photo? They’re perfect for skipping stones into the lake. My man hit his all-time record of 5 skips here. Can you top that?!
If you have more time in this part of Michigan, you could also camp overnight at North Manitou Island (since it’s not accessible for day trips). It’s something I’ve always wanted to do to test my camping prowess!
Pro tip: Give yourself extra time to explore Leland before or after taking the ferry to South Manitou. The tiny town is freaking adorable. And don’t forget to stop by Village Cheese Shanty to pick up one of their wonderful sandwiches to take with you to South Manitou for a beach picnic!
5. Hunt Lighthouses Along the Coast
Did you know that Michigan has more lighthouses than any other state in the US?! Over the years, I made it my mission to find the best of the best.
Lighthouse hunting makes any coastal Michigan adventure even more fun. So I hereby challenge you to find your favorites.
If you’re not sure where to start, here are a few of mine:
- Little Sable Point Lighthouse (Mears, Michigan; above left) — located in beautiful Silver Lake State Park with sweeping views of the sand dunes and Lake Michigan from the top (the 130-step climb up is so worth it!)
- Mission Point Lighthouse (Traverse City, Michigan; above right) — located at the end of the lovely M-37 drive, Mission Point Lighthouse invites visitors on self-guided historical tours to see what life was like for lighthouse keepers at the turn of the century
- South Manitou Island Lighthouse (Empire, Michigan) — discussed in the South Manitou Island section above, this lighthouse marked the location of the only natural harbor between here and Chicago from 1871 to 1958
- Muskegon South Pierhead Lighthouse (Muskegon, Michigan; below) — climb the 48 foot tall lighthouse and “experience the unique feeling of traveling back in time;” the docents are really fantastic and will happily share interesting facts about the lighthouse and the area’s maritime history
Pro tip: Don’t forget to explore the lighthouse piers and surrounding walkways; you never know what hidden gems you may find (like this giant lollipop I found near Muskegon South Pierhead Lighthouse).
6. Zip Across Sand Dunes with Mac Wood’s Dune Rides
When it comes to unique Michigan adventures, it’s hard to top Mac Wood’s Dune Rides. Operating since 1930, Mac Woods has been zipping thrill-seekers across Silver Lake’s sand dunes in its iconic, red scooters.
Just check out the happy grins below and tell me that these folks aren’t having the best time ever!
The scooters have undergone several iterations and today’s scooters are large, 20-person vehicles with 4-wheel drive and aircraft tires ensuring a fast, smooth ride over the dunes.
When I had my first ride with Mac Wood’s, I had the sweetest driver. He shared a ton of information about the area and slowed down several times so we could enjoy the fabulous views over Lake Michigan.
The ride is 40 minutes long, but you’ll wish it was longer!
Pro tip: Raise your hands overhead when the scooter goes down a big dune, and you’ll feel like you’re on an amusement park ride!
7. Go ORV-ing at Silver Lake
Going along with the dune-riding theme is ORV-ing at Silver Lake State Park. If you have an ORV (off road vehicle) or you’ve always wanted to rent one, there is no better place to see what it can do than the 450-acre ORV area at Silver Lake.
This area is open 7 days a week from April 1 – October 31 so time your visit accordingly.
I recommend reserving a campsite at Silver Lake State Park Campground so you can pop over to the ORV dune area at your convenience.
In order to drive here, you’ll need a recreation passport (which is required for entry into Michigan state parks and recreation areas) and a Michigan ORV license and trail permit.
You’ll also need an 8-foot dune safety flag, mounted 10 feet off the ground. If you don’t BYO, Duneland Off Road Center sells them and is right outside the entrance to the ORV area.
Pro tip: Even if you’re not into driving an ORV, I recommend visiting this area. Bring folding-chairs and a picnic and you can have a wonderful time watching the ORVs as the sun sets behind the dunes!
8. Hike Rosy Mound Natural Area
I’ve done a lot of coastal Michigan hikes, and the Rosy Mound Natural Area hike is one of the best. It’s a rare Goldilocks hike — both accessible and stunning — you won’t have to work too hard for the views.
Located in the charming town of Grand Haven, the Rosy Mound hike is made up of comfortable stairways and decks.
1,000 feet of stairs up and down may sound daunting, but the hike is short (just under a mile) and the scenic views through wooded dunes will motivate you onwards.
As someone who overheats while hiking, I really appreciated all the shade the dune forest provided along this route. It’s nice to end a hike without being drenched in sweat!
The best way to do this hike is to go slow, and take in the fabulous views that will start popping up as you near the end of the trail.
Pro tip: At the end of the hike, you’ll hit a really sweet beach (shown below); bring your bathing suit so you can take a well-earned dip in Lake Michigan. I loved this beach so much that I stayed for sunset and hiked back in the dark. If you want to stick around as well, I suggest bringing a headlamp for the hike back!
9. Discover the Perfect Apple Pie
What is a Michigan adventure if it doesn’t end in pie?? A darn shame, that’s what!
Time your visit here for the months of August – October and you can hunt down a delectable apple pie made with freshly harvested Michigan apples.
You could go for cherry or blueberry (Michigan excels at both), but apple is truly special. Maybe it’s because Michigan grows so many delicious apple varieties: Gala, Empire, Ida Red, McIntosh, and Jonathan (just to name a few).
So where do you find the perfect apple pie?
Ask 10 Michigan-lovers this question and you’ll get 10 different answers. But for me, it has to be Woodland Farm Market in Shelby, MI.
I stumbled upon this cute farm and bakery while driving home to Chicago from Silver Lake. The giant sign saying “award winning pies” caught my eye and made me pull over.
And I’m so glad I did!
Woodland’s apple pie is made with perfectly-ripe, local apples. They are sweet, a little tart and full of flavor. The crust is thick, but not so thick that it overwhelms the filling.
Then the crowning glory: the crumble topping which adds the loveliest crunchy texture to every bite. This pie is a 10/10.
Pro tip: Don’t miss Woodland Farm Market’s famous apple fritters. They’re a nice side-dish to the pie, ha!
Think of the above list as a build-your-own Michigan adventure playlist. I recommend choosing 3-5 for a first time trip and going from there.
If you’ve already been to some of these places then trying to “complete” the list should be quite doable.
Let me know if you’ve done any of these Michigan adventures and which ones you still want to do in the comments below.
If I missed your favorite, let me know. I love hearing your feedback and look forward to adding to this list in the future!
If you want the latest travel news, travel hacks, and fun facts about all things travel, subscribe to the Course Charted newsletter!
The newsletter is emailed monthly and subscribers get previews of all newly-released articles.
And while we’re digitally-connecting, follow me on Instagram @AlanaInWanderland and Twitter @CourseCharted — there you’ll get loads of wanderlust-inducing photography and tips to help you plan future travels.
I save some of the juiciest travel hacks and tips for my social channels so come join the fun!