Fantastic Fall Scenic Drives in Michigan

By October 18, 2023
fall foliage appears allow a roadway in Michigan.

Embraced by four Great Lakes, dotted with thousands of inland waterways and lakes and crisscrossed by 20 National and State Byways, Michigan outshines others when it comes to memorable scenic drives. And Michigan’s breathtaking fall foliage makes the state even more attractive in autumn.

Whether your ride of choice is a self-contained RV or a motorcycle, a pick-up truck or the family SUV, immerse yourself in Michigan’s fall color on one of these historic travel routes. You’ll discover a season perfect for getting off the expressway and exploring the back roads. Add to the visual splendor the abundance of roadside farm stands, the excitement of the season’s wine harvests and the smaller crowds and you’re sure to agree: Fall is the perfect time for a Pure Michigan road trip.

West Michigan Pike – US 31

Ever since the advent of the automobile Midwestern visitors have been drawn to road trips along West Michigan’s shoreline. In 1915, the West Michigan Pike made the journey easier than ever, connecting Lake Michigan towns from Michigan’s southern border to Mackinaw City for the first time via US-31. And while the original 500-mile pike has altered a bit from a century ago, the West Michigan Pike still encompasses some of Michigan’s loveliest scenery as it passes through beach towns like St. JosephSouth HavenHollandGrand Haven and Muskegon.

Explore the gently rolling hills of Lake Michigan Shore Wine Country en route to St. Joseph. Autumn is harvest time, offering opportunities to taste at award-winning wineries like Free Run CellarsTabor Hill Winery and Round Barn Winery, Distillery and Brewery. In St. Joseph enjoy the last warm rays of the summer sun at Silver Beach or Jean Klock Park before heading north again.

US-31 leads like an asphalt ribbon through brilliant hardwood trees pausing in Lake Michigan towns, each with their own unique personality. Take a break to explore the Michigan Maritime Museum in South Haven; the galleries and boutiques in charming Saugatuck; the breweries and Dutch windmill in the college town of Holland; or sample hard ciders at Vander Mill Cider Mill and Winery just outside of Grand Haven.

US-31 continues north, skimming the Lake Michigan shore on its way to Muskegon. Surrounded by thick hardwood forests, this region of Michigan was once home to lumber barons who used their wealth to build stately homes and cultural institutions. Admire the lavishly-carved woodwork, decorative ceramic tiles and elegant turrets at the Hackley & Hume Historic Site. Then check out the Muskegon Museum of Art, both remarkable reminders of Muskegon’s most successful lumber magnates.

Silver Lake State Park marks the final stop on the contemporary West Michigan Pike. This region is the heart of Michigan’s fruit belt, scattered with roadside farm stands selling autumn’s fresh-picked apples, pears, squash and pumpkins on the honor system. Get a little exercise bicycling one of Michigan’s most beautiful rail trails, the Hart to Montague Trail State Park. Brilliant orange and yellow leaves from a tunnel above the paved multi-use path that stretches 22 miles in length. Closer to Lake Michigan, the region’s namesake Silver Lake draws visitors even when autumn’s chill makes the water too cold for swimming. Spectacular sand dunes tower over 3,000 acres of land between Silver Lake and Lake Michigan. Climb atop the park’s golden dunes for photo-worthy views of the Big Lake to the west, and inland Michigan’s blazing autumn color to the east.

Historic Motor Tour – US 27

A century ago, US 27 formed one of America’s great north-south driving routes, tracing a historic Indian trail and linking Cheboygan in northern Michigan to Miami, Florida. While US 27 is no longer an official state highway, it’s still possible to travel the two-lane road through gentle hills, thick forests, scenic farmland and charming small towns especially lovely when dressed in autumn’s colors. The driving tour takes travelers back in time and past farms and tiny markets bursting with the season’s harvest.

The rural roads around Coldwater make for a charming road trip. But consider traveling the autumn landscape via train one afternoon. The Little River Railroad offers the rare opportunity to ride an authentic century-old steam engine. In the fall, trips include scenic color tours and Halloween-themed trips. More than 800 historic buildings lie within the city limits of Marshall, making this historic district the largest in Michigan. Take a driving tour past the Italianate and Queen Anne buildings, shop for antiques and spend the night at the National House Inn, a former stagecoach inn, railroad hotel and a suspected stop along the Underground Railroad.

Continue north on Old US 27 and your road will snake through central Michigan’s farmland, where fields of corn and wheat are being readied for harvest in autumn.  The crisp air and falling leaves signal football season. What better time to make a stop in East Lansing to watch the Spartans of Michigan State University take on the weekend’s Big Ten rival. Or visit Michigan’s flagship historical center in Lansing, the Michigan Historical Museum. See the story of the Great Lakes State, from prehistoric times to the lumber, mining and automotive eras, in a sprawling display that includes something for everyone.

Once winding, hilly US 27 reaches Clare, you’ll share the road with black horse-drawn buggies. This is the heart of Michigan’s Amish country. Take time to stop at a local farm stand, its shelves laden with autumn’s harvest of apples and pumpkins, and shop for Amish-made cheese, furniture or quilts before continuing your road trip north. Golfers relish the opportunity to pause their travels in Gaylord, a prime location for northern Michigan golf. 15 courses lie scattered around the community of Gaylord, their meticulous greens surrounded by a blaze of orange, yellow and crimson-colored trees in autumn.

Your fall color tour passes between two of Michigan’s loveliest inland lakes as it nears its end. Skirting the southern tip of Burt Lake, part of the famed Inland Waterway, before veering off to parallel the shore of Mullett Lake, US 27 takes in views of the glassy water that reflects the colorful landscape and the sky’s gathering clouds. Waterfowl grow restless and prepare to fly south, and the road carries you farther north to the waterside town of Cheboygan. Enjoy the Lake Huron shoreline. Shoot photographs at one of the city’s lighthouses, the Cheboygan Crib Light or the Cheboygan River Front Range Light. Or just relax and visit the downtown shops for souvenirs of your Michigan road trip.

Black River National Forest Scenic Byway – CR 513

Set in the far western corner of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, CR 513 leads from the small town of Bessemer to the Lake Superior shore. Once a wagon supply route to the area’s iron mines, the 15-mile route could easily be overlooked, located in a remote corner of Michigan and surrounded by one million acres of the Ottawa National Forest. But if the Black River National Forest Scenic Byway is short, it is also sweet and spectacularly so when the area’s hardwood trees explode into autumn color.

Take a journey through the length of the Upper Peninsula, where the trees turn color and the air grows crisp weeks earlier than Michigan’s Lower Peninsula. Then cap off the road trip with a drive along CR 513. Along the route, attractions like Potawatomi Falls and strolls along the North Country National Scenic Trail provide a reason to stretch the drive into a day-long visit.

You can cap it all off with a visit to Copper Peak. The former ski flying hill, the highest in North America, is worth a visit for its 800-foot chairlift and 26-story elevator. Taken together, they transport visitors 1000 feet above Lake Superior. On a clear day, you can see three states and all the way across the lake to Canada. Clear or not, you can count on fantastic 360-degree vistas at the top of Copper Peak, views of the surrounding Pure Michigan countryside in all its autumn glory.

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