Northwest Lower Michigan is well-known for its shoreline, orchards, peninsulas, and wineries. For these reasons and more, this area of the state has been known to be an escape. Although the region has grown significantly over the decades, you can still find quaintness and solitude and beauty.
Benzie County, which is situated below Leelanau and Grand Traverse counties, is where you can find all of the above – a recipe for lifelong memories and renewal of spirit.
Distance: 43.3 miles
Driving Time: 57 minutes
Stop #1: Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore
Located between Empire and Frankfort of M22, Old Indian Trail offers wanderers the choice of two trails: the Black Arrow Loop and the Green Arrow Loop. Each loop is approximately 2.5 miles long, with the Black Arrow Trail slightly closer to Lake Michigan. Both trails lead you through a maple-beech forest – and a brief hike through the beach dunes – and meet at a scenic lookout of the big lake.
Seventeen miles north along the M22, in Leelanau County, is the entrance to Pierce Stocking Drive. This article gives you some of the highlights. One of the biggest attractions of the National Lakeshore, the 7.4-mile long Pierce Stocking Drive has numerous overlooks and an observation deck 450 feet above lake level. It’s a popular roadway for walkers and bikers, so be careful driving and abide by the 20-mph speed limit.
Stop #2: Frankfort
This gem of a Lake Michigan town is dripping with charm and beauty. It’s a favorite spot for surfers – yes, you read that correctly. You can surf on fresh water and Frankfort is the spot to do it. There is an outfitter that will get you all the gear you need. If you’d rather stay on dry land, there is plenty you can do. The Point Betsie Light just north of Frankfort is the oldest standing structure in Benzie County (1858) and still fully operational. Just south of town, you can wander Elberta Beach and down the pier to the Frankfort Light, a towering white structure. Bring a fishing pole if you like, but be cautious on windy days as the railing-less pier can see its share of waves. For a hike, visit the Green Point Dunes Nature Preserve. The 1.7-mile walking trail – dog-friendly if you have a leash – is wooded and shady with some slight elevation changes. There are stairs that lead down to the beach, too. Hikers and bicyclists will appreciate The Betsie Valley Trail, which is 27 miles long and begins in Frankfort’s Lake Michigan Park. The first several miles of the trail is wheel-chair accessible because it’s paved, but the rest of the way is packed limestone. Traversing the entire trail will take you around Crystal Lake, through wetlands, through part of the Pere Marquette State Forest, and through several small towns.
Stop #3: Beulah
Beautiful Beulah is where you’ll find something for adults and something for kids. The children’s science museum, Cognition, is a hands-on experience and perhaps a welcome respite from all the outdoor activities. As for the adults, visit St. Ambrose Cellars. The picturesque farm setting has plenty of outdoor seating at picnic tables with red umbrellas. Choose to sip on an estate mead, red, or white wine. There is a gorgeous public beach on Crystal Lake, the colors of which rival the Caribbean.
Stop #4: Thompsonville
Thompsonville is home Crystal Mountain, a ski resort that is a favorite destination during the winter months; however, visiting in the other seasons also has its perks. You can hike 25 miles around the hills and even go for a chairlift ride in the fall to see the colors. There’s a water park the kids will be clamoring to visit, and there are golf courses and a spa for mom and dad. While you’re in town, visit Iron Fish Distillery, Michigan’s first farm-based distillery. Tours are available, capped with a tasting flight. In the tasting room, or to bring back to the campsite, choose from an assortment of gins, vodkas, rums, bourbons, and whiskeys.
Stop #5: Honor
If you time it right, you might be able to see a drive-in double feature at the Cherry Bowl, one of the last drive-in movie theaters in the state. Watch old-time cartoons and commercials before and between films. There is a concession stand with all the goodies, but you are welcome to bring your own movie snacks as well. If you have a truck, back into a spot, lay out some blankets or sleeping bags in the bed, and enjoy the show. Of course, any standard vehicle will do. The audio runs through the radio (does anyone use radio anymore?).
Another very popular thing to do in Honor is to float or paddle the Platte Rive. It’s an easy, casual route that takes about three hours and concludes at Lake Michigan and North Bar Beach. Bring your own tube, kayak, or canoe, or rent one from an outfitter. Although the river time was relaxing in and of itself, make sure you have beach supplies handy for your time at the beach. Don’t restrict yourself to a schedule. Make a day of it!