Grand Traverse Bay in northwest Lower Michigan is really one large expanse of water separated by Old Mission Peninsula, effectively “splitting” it into East and West Grand Traverse Bay.
The bays lead to Lake Michigan. For this driving tour, you’ll meander all the coastlines, starting in Charlevoix County in Norwood, traveling south to Traverse City, up and down Old Mission, then north into Leelanau County to Leelanau State Park.
Distance: 118 miles
Driving Time: 2 hours, 45 minutes
Stop #1: Norwood
This unincorporated village has fewer than 200 permanent residents, but it’s not the town you’re here to see. Norwood Township Park is a beautiful, quiet beach on the northeast coastline of East Grand Traverse Bay – and the perfect spot to take in a leisurely swim. The view is expansive, as this is where the bays converge with Lake Michigan. There’s water for as far as the eye can see.
Stop #2: Torch Bay Nature Preserve, Kewadin
It’s time to stretch your legs! Torch Bay Nature Preserve is 38 acres full of easy hiking trails through mature wooded dunes, leading ultimately to East Grand Traverse Bay. It’s wheelchair accessible, too. The out and back trail takes about half an hour to complete, but don’t rush away the sense of serenity when you reach the shoreline.
Stop #3: Elk Rapids
From Kewadin (golfers, A-Ga-Ming is a must-play, the views are unparalleled), travel south to the village of Elk Rapids. The downtown street includes a couple eateries, a large antique shop, a one-screen movie theatre, and several uniquely local storefronts. Kids will enjoy the ice cream shop. Everyone can visit the expansive beach and cross the wood bridge. It’s a small-town taste of northwest Michigan charm.
Stop #4: Traverse City
Traverse City seems to have been consistently included in Top 10 lists in recent years – best small town, best wine, best ice cream. The area’s beauty is the big draw, but that can come with a price: crowds and traffic. A lot of folks have chosen to make the move north and many others come to visit. It’s one of the most popular destinations in Michigan. With all that popularity and growth, the downtown area is bustling, with your choice of eateries and shops, most of which are exclusive to the Grand Traverse region. You can choose to stop at one of the sandwich shops and then find a beach or park for a picnic lunch, or maybe you want to go exploring the shops. The Old State Hospital grounds, also known as the Commons, also has its fair share of shops and galleries, as well as a network of trails through meadows and hardwood forest. The Fairy Trail is a favorite for families with young children, invoking a bit of fancy and magic.
Stop #5: Old Mission Peninsula State Park
This “stop” is really a drive up and down the picturesque Old Mission Peninsula. As you drive north, take Center Road through the middle of the peninsula, also known as M37. You’ll pass multiple wineries along the way, so if you would like to try some Michigan wine or snag a bottle to bring back to the campsite, stop in; many wineries have beautiful views and small plate menus. Drive all the way to Old Mission Peninsula State Park, home of Old Mission lighthouse. Once parked – there is space for an RV – you can take a tour of a lighthouse, walk the beach, and explore the neighboring trail network. It’s a favorite spot for picnics, pictures, and engagements. Then, hop back in the vehicle and drive back south using Peninsula Drive, which follows the shoreline of West Bay. You’ll pass beautiful homes on your way back to Traverse City. At the base of the peninsula, turn right onto Munson Avenue and start making your way north out of town into Leelanau County to your next destination.
Stop #6: Suttons Bay
The drive on M22 in Leelanau County is one of the most beautiful drives in the country. You’ll be taking just the east side of it, before it wraps around the tip of Michigan’s “little finger” and takes you to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore and the Lake Michigan side.
Stop #7: Omena
This little town just up the coastline has a couple art galleries, a favorite local restaurant (Knot Just a Bar), and a beautiful view of the water. Leelanau Cellars, where the motto is “Drink Happy Thoughts,” also has a tasting room in town with a fantastic outdoor seating area overlooking Omena Bay. Popular choices are Brut and Late Harvest Riesling, along with their Raspberry Bubbly Moscato. In the fall, try their spicy Witch’s Brew.
Stop #8: Northport
Continue the drive north into Northport. There are several specialty gift shops worth visiting, including Northport Pottery and the Pennington Collection. Visit Christmas Cove Farms to pick up supplies for the campsite if you’re visiting in August and September for fresh fruit and a feel of the past. Nearby Christmas Cove Beach, which is sandy yet with ample opportunity to find some cool rocks to take home as souvenirs. It’s not as well known as your next destination, which is why we recommend that you visit. Take it all in.
Stop #9: Leelanau State Park
Ten minutes from the town of Northport is Leelanau State Park (recreational passport required), which consists of 1500 acres of beauty. By far the biggest attraction is the red-roofed Grand Traverse lighthouse, which gives visitors a view of the broad expanse of dancing water stretching out before them, complete with museum. The nearby pavilion is ideal for an outdoor picnic, and the trail system (Cathead Bay Trails) can take you to Manitou Overlook. There’s also the three-mile Mud Lake Trail.