August 15, 2018

The Great Michigan Road Trip

Until this summer, I knew two things about Michigan: The state had some of the most Instagrammable lakes in the country and it’s home to Mackinac Island. Two good points, but there’s more to explore in the state. If you’re ready to road trip through Michigan, but have no idea where to begin, this post is for you.

This itinerary covers a little more than a week of exploring mostly the Lower Peninsula. The Upper Peninsula is going to be a trip in itself someday. Read my Michigan Bucket List to see what’s missing from this trip. 

A fun road trip through Michigan itinerary with details on where to stay, what to do, and where to eat. Stops include Grand Rapids, Ludington State Park, Traverse City, Petoskey, Mackinac Island, & Detroit

Disclosure: A portion of our stays and experiences were sponsored by convention and visitor bureaus and hotels. Many of our experiences were paid out of pocket, too. All thoughts, opinions and typos are my own.

Road Trip Through Michigan

What I loved about this road trip is that it provided a chance for city exploring with wonderful museums and restaurants, as well as plenty of outdoor adventures. And beaches, we got plenty of beach time. The places we visited were (in order of stops): Grand Rapids, Ludington State Park, Traverse City, Petoskey, Allanson, Mackinac Island, Frankenmuth, and Detroit.

Parked car near Lake Michigan beach
Lakeside parking in Michigan. Traveling nearly 1,000 miles was pretty comfortable in the Mazda CX-5 Grand Touring.

We were fortunate to partner with Mazda for this road trip! The 2018 Mazda CX-5 Grand Touring AWD was a comfortable fit for our family of four.

In case you were wondering, we did not drive from Nebraska to Michigan. We took a direct flight from Omaha to Detroit. 

Grand Rapids

We spent two days exploring Grand Rapids. The highlights included the John Ball Zoo and Grand Rapids Public Museum (which we did not leave nearly enough time to fully explore). If you go to the zoo, you can pay a little extra to do a ropes course or zipline through the zoo.

Ropes course at John Ball Park Zoo in Grand Rapids, Michigan
My whole family did the ropes course at John Ball Zoo in Grand Rapids. My youngest was 6 years old and decided it wasn’t as fun as she thought it would be.

Since our kids are still pretty young, we also visited the Grand Rapids Children’s Museum. If your kids are younger than age 8, I’d say it’s good to include on your itinerary.

Where to eat: Grand Rapids is known as Beer City, U.S.A., so I thought it was pretty necessary to find one that was family-friendly just so I could be a part of that scene. Since we were staying downtown, the Grand Rapids Brewing Co. was an easy walk from our hotel. There were several families there, and while they didn’t have a kid’s menu, they did adapt the regular menu to our kids’ preferences (no fancy stuff in the mac and cheese, please).

Exterior of Chez Olga in Grand Rapids, Michigan
Chez Olga was in Eastown in Grand Rapids. The restaurant serves Caribbean food.

We had dinner in a very unique restaurant called Chez Olga. While my kids were less than enthused by the flavorful Caribbean cuisine (it was SO good), they did like the unique look of the building. I wish we had more time to explore the neighborhood it was in. It was near the yummiest place for breakfast, too – Wolfgang’s.

Another great restaurant for breakfast is Anna’s. There was quite a bit of a wait because we had a late start to the morning. However, once seated, the service was quick.

Old lobby at Amway Grand Plaza Hotel in Grand Rapids, Michigan
The historic lobby of the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel had a fountain my daughter liked to watch.

Where to stay: The Amway Grand Plaza in downtown Grand Rapids was a combo of great location and great amenities. This hotel has a historic side with charming lobby and a modern side with a huge tower and family-friendly pool.

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Ludington State Park

Our next overnight destination was Traverse City, but on the way there, we decided to enjoy a pit stop at Ludington State Park.

Boardwalk at Ludington State Park in Michigan
Part of our hike around Lost Lake passed by campgrounds and a dock.

We enjoyed an easy hike around Lost Lake, taking a dip in the cold water about half-way. This park could easily be an overnighter (or two) for families.

If you want to swim in Lake Michigan, this has the beach you’re looking for (though the water was very cold when we were there in June). The beach by Lake Michigan Beach House is expansive.

Traverse City

Traverse City was our next stop, and we planned two days to explore the area. We ended up spending a lot more time around the hotel because of the view.

Pretty sunset at Cherry Tree Inn & Suites in Traverse City
Sunset at Cherry Tree Inn & Suites in Traverse City, Michigan.

Where to stay: Our hotel, Cherry Tree Inn & Suites, sits right on Grand Traverse Bay, and between the waves, the outdoor pool, and the pirate ship play set, our kids didn’t want to leave.

But we did. 

Bike riding in Traverse City
We biked along the T.A.R.T. in Traverse City. There’s a great, family-friendly brewery known for its pizza on the route called The Filling Station.

There’s a trails system in Traverse City called the T.A.R.T. and it’s not far from our hotel. We walked to a bike rental shop, and then hopped on the trail. It did cross over some city streets, so I’m glad our youngest was on a tagalong bike.

Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore view of Lake Michigan
The view of Lake Michigan from atop a 450-foot sand dune at Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore.

We also took a little side trip to Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore. We allotted just enough time to climb a dune and take the scenic drive through the park. 

If you have more time, plan for more of it, because it is a gorgeous, scenic lakeshore.

Glen Haven Beach in June
Glen Haven Beach is picturesque but when we visited, the water was freezing cold and the waves were high (for a lake).

The kids really wanted some lake time while we were there, but the lake itself isn’t that accessible inside Sleeping Bear (unless you’re willing to deal with climbing back up a 450-foot sand dune). Instead, we drove just a few miles away to Glen Haven Beach on Sleeping Bear Bay. The water was extremely cold and the waves were high. But the kids got their chance to play in the water.

Where to eat: During our T.A.R.T bike ride, we stopped at The Filling Station Microbrewery for lunch. They’re known for pizza, and for having a family-friendly atmosphere – there are little sand boxes set up for kids. The beer was good too.

Outdoor bar at Filling Station in Traverse City, Michigan
Food and drinks were ordered at the Filling Station’s outdoor bar. The family-friendly brewery/restaurant was located along the T.A.R.T. Trail in Traverse City.

The most memorable meal was at 7 Monks Taproom in charming downtown Traverse City (we did a little shopping before sitting for dinner). Even as a taproom, it’s a very family-friendly place with a kids menu. My husband ordered a burger that he says is a serious contender for the best hamburger ever. We stuck to the complimentary breakfast provided at the hotel. It was nothing special, but it was quick and convenient.

Moomers ice cream in Traverse City
You can enjoy Moomers ice cream while looking at dairy cows in the distance.

A trip to Traverse City is incomplete without a stop at the famous Moomer’s, an ice cream shop located on a dairy farm. We went there after our afternoon at Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore.

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Petoskey Area

Our route to Petoskey along US-31 was dotted with roadside food stands, and on impulse, we stopped at one offering freshly-picked strawberries and strawberry donuts.

Strawberry donut at a roadside farm stand in northern Michigan
A fresh strawberry donut from a Michigan farm stand.

Properly fueled for the rest of the trip, we arrived in Petoskey in time for lunch. After a brief walk along the bay, we walked to the picturesque downtown area to find our next stop: City Park Grill.

Ernest Hemingway plaque at City Park Grill in Petoskey, Michigan
The City Park Grill is an old Hemingway haunt in Petoskey, Michigan. He usually sat in the second seat from the end of the bar.

Where to eat: Petoskey boasts connections to Ernest Hemingway, so I wanted to dine where Hemingway once drank. If you go to City Park Grill, you can actually sit in the same barstool as Hemingway. I was with my family, so we got a dinner table, but it was tempting. 

We walked around the downtown area afterward, stopping in a bookstore and then venturing to a trail for a quick walk. The kids were preoccupied by a quest to find Petoskey stones, we so left the small town and headed to Petoskey State Park to search for them.

Two Petoskey stones among a handful of stones
My son’s rock collection from Petoskey State Park. The two rocks on the far right are Petoskey stones, which are fossilized coral known in the area.

We lucked out and found a few small ones at the state park. The water was very cold, so there was no actual swimming at the lake. 

Petoskey Brewing Co. is near Petoskey State Park, so once we left the park, we headed there for a late afternoon snack. They have tasty little ice cream bars the kids liked, and the beers were refreshing for the adults.

Exterior of Stafford's Crooked River Lodge
Dusk at Stafford’s Crooked River Lodge in northern Michigan. Shortly after I took this picture, staff made a fire in the hotel’s fire pit.

Where to stay: We stayed one night in the Petoskey area, in a lodge on a river called Stafford’s Crooked River Lodge & Suites. It’s a short drive from Petoskey, and feels a world away. The spacious suite was great, though we wanted to spend as much time as possible at the pool and, later, outside.

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Mackinac Island

Our only stop in the Upper Peninsula was on the tiny, car-free island of Mackinac Island. We had only 24 hours to explore it, and while that was sufficient time, it was so idyllic that we wished we had more nights to stay.

View of harbor in Mackinac Island
Soaking up the view of Mackinac Island while at Fort Mackinac.

To get to the island, most people travel by ferry. Time it right and your ferry may take you up close to the iconic Mackinac Bridge.

The best way to see the island, if you’re an active family, is by bike. It’s flat, the trail is wide, and you can’t beat the views.

We also spent time at the massive pool at the Grand Hotel, and had a very memorable experience at Fort Mackinac – we helped fire a cannon!

Where to eat: Our best dining experiences were at Grand Hotel restaurants (though we didn’t try the famous lunch buffet). Breakfast was a multi-course affair with multiple options to order, or a buffet to indulge in. 

Dinner was even more special – five courses, dress code enforced, and live music. The kids loved it – and they had a children’s menu. 

Ice cream shop entrance at Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island
Sadie’s Ice Cream Parlor had its own entrance in the Grand Hotel.

We had sweets while we were there, of course, There are several fudge shops to choose from on Mackinac Island, so you should try their famous fudge. Ice cream was also in order, so after our morning at Fort Mackinac, we walked back to Grand Hotel to have some cone at Sadie’s Ice Cream Parlor. The kids earned their free cones by completing a kid’s fitness program.

Speaking of Fort Mackinac, Grand Hotel runs a little cafe there. The view is astounding, and while we only had coffee and hot cocoa, it was a memorable experience. 

Grand Hotel exterior on Mackinac Island
The street that leads to the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island.

Where to stay: The most famous hotel on the island is the historic Grand Hotel. We were fortunate to stay this all-inclusive resort. There’s plenty to do there for the entire family, from complimentary lawn games and kid’s programs, to more elaborate affairs like afternoon tea.

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The plan was to make a lengthy pitstop in the very German town of Frankenmuth, located on our route between Mackinac Island and Detroit. We’d dine on some must-try fried chicken I’d heard about and we’d enjoy some German beer.

Fountain in Frankenmuth, MIchigan
Frankenmuth was a town in Michigan that felt more like a German village.

However, we had a bit of a family medical emergency. So, while I strolled along one of the main thoroughfares with the kids, my husband visited their minor medical center.


Our final stop was Detroit – a large city that that needs a few days to explore. 

Diego Rivera fresco at Detroit Institute of Arts
The frescoes by Diego Rivera are one the highlights of the Detroit Institute of Arts. My kids stood still for about 5 seconds to let me admire them.

Given the oppressive heat of June, we stayed indoors mostly, visiting great museums like the Detroit Institute of Arts, The Motown Museum, and the Michigan Science Center.

Model T at Greenfield Village
I loved the picturesque Main Street at Greenfield Village. Guests can pay a little extra to ride around in in a Model T.

We also spent a full day at The Henry Ford, with just a couple early morning hours at Greenfield Village. Both could be a day in themselves. Both were big hits with the kids.

Where to stay: Detroit is sprawling and you have an abundance of choices. The place we stayed at is in Troy, Mich., a Fairfield Inn & Suites nicely located near the interstate, and a convenient drive to Beaumont Hospital (long story). Frankly, though, it would not be best for visiting all of the key Detroit attractions.

An awesome road trip itinerary through Michigan - Tips on where to eat, stay & play in cities like Grand Rapids, Detroit & Mackinac Island #roadtrip #vacation #familyvacation

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  1. Definitely want to drive around Lake Michigan.
    Your photos make me want to leave today!

  2. Looks like an amazing trip! Michigan is definitely on our list of places to travel with the kids to!

  3. Heading to Mackinac City and Mackinac Island in October with husband and teens so I really enjoyed hearing about your experience there!

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