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 Michigan road trip, but have no idea where to begin, this post is for you.

Guide for a road trip through Michigan - If you're looking for. things to do in Michigan, check out this week-long itinerary that includes stops in Grand Rapids, Ludington State Park, Traverse City, Petoskey, Mackinac Island, & Detroit. This family-friendly Michigan road trip guide includes tips on where to stay, what to do, and where to eat.

My Michigan itinerary covers a little more than a week of exploring mostly the Lower Peninsula, with overnight stays in Grand Rapids, Traverse City, the Petoskey area, Mackinac Island and Detroit. 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. 

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 kid-friendly 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, Alanson, Mackinac Island, Frankenmuth, and Detroit.

Michigan road trip stop at Ludington State Park
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. 

Michigan Road Trip Stop 1: 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.

Things to do in Grand Rapids, Michigan - Try the ropes course at John Ball Park Zoo
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 in Grand Rapids: 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 at Grand Rapids Brewing Co. while we were there. While the brewery 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).

Where to eat in Grand Rapids, Michigan - Try the Caribbean cuisine at Chez Olga
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 best Grand Rapids 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.

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

Where to stay in Grand Rapids: 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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Michigan Road Trip Stop 2: 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. Ludington is a popular state park, especially for campers.

Things to do at LudLudington State Park in Michigan - Take a round-trip hike to Lost Lake
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. We spent about two hours.

If you want to swim in Lake Michigan, Ludington 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.

The Lake Michigan Beach House serves food, though it is pricey and forgettable.

Michigan Road Trip Stop 3: 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. The hotel has its own private beach.

Where to stay  in Traverse City Michigan for a waterfront view:  Cherry Tree Inn & Suites
Sunset at Cherry Tree Inn & Suites in Traverse City, Michigan.

Where to stay in Traverse City: 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 because I’m a travel blogger and that would make for a short post. We made our Traverse City stop an active one with a bike ride and hike.

Things to do in Traverse City, Michigan - Ride bikes on the T.A.R.T., a paved trail system 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 from our hotel, and then hopped on the trail. It did cross over some city streets, so I’m glad our youngest was on a tagalong bike.

Things to do near Traverse City, Michigan - Take a side trip to Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore for a beautiful 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 short side trip from Traverse City to Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore. It’s not too far from Traverse City. We allotted just enough time to climb a dune and take the scenic drive through the park. 

If you have more time on your itinerary, plan for more of it to be spent at Sleeping Bear, because it is a gorgeous, scenic lakeshore.

Lake near Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore - Glen Haven Beach
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 in Traverse City: 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.

Where to eat in Traverse City, Michigan - Order pizza and a beer at the family-friendly outdoor bar at Filling Station
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.

Where to get ice cream in Traverse City, Michigan - Moomers is a world famous ice cream shop located near a dairy farm.
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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Michigan Road Trip Stop 4: 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 on US-31 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.

Where to eat in Petoskey, Michigan - Dine at City Park Grill known for its connection to Ernest Hemingway
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 in Petoskey: 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.

Things to do in Petoskey - Hunt for Petoskey 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.

Where to stay in the Petoskey area - Stafford's Crooked River Lodge in Alanson, Michigan
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 near Alanson. 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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Michigan Road Trip Stop 5: 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.

Things to do on Mackinac Island - Take in the view of the lake from Fort Mackinac
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 in Mackinac Island: 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. 

Where to eat on Mackinac Island - The Grand Hotel had several restaurants, including Sadie's Ice Cream Parlor
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. 

Where to stay on Mackinac Island - Grand Hotel
The street that leads to the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island.

Where to stay on Mackinac Island: 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 at the Grand Hotel for the entire family, from complimentary lawn games and kid’s programs, to more elaborate affairs like afternoon tea.

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Michigan Road Trip Stop 6: Frankenmuth

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.

Things to do in Frankenmuth, Michigan - Walk around the charming Main Street and admire the architecture and fountain
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.

Michigan Road Trip Stop 7: Detroit

Our final stop on our road trip through Michigan was Detroit, a large city that that needs a few days to explore. But, this itinerary just factored in about two and a half days.

Things to do in Detroit, Michigan.- See the 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 Henry Ford, The Motown Museum, and the Michigan Science Center.

Places to visit in Detroit - Explore Greenfield Village at The Henry Ford
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. You could spend a full day each at The Henry Ford and Greenfield Village. Both museums were big hits with the kids.

Where to stay in Detroit: Detroit is sprawling and you have an abundance of choices. The place we stayed at was in Troy, Mich., a Fairfield Inn & Suites nicely located near the interstate, and a convenient drive to Beaumont Hospital (long story following that Frankenmuth pit stop).

Frankly, though, a hotel in Troy is not the best option for visiting all of the key Detroit attractions.

Michigan road trip itinerary

To recap how we spent our time road tripping through Michigan, here’s a breakdown of all of our stops:

Grand Rapids

Ludington State Park

Traverse City

Sleeping Bear National Lake Shore & Glen Haven Beach



Mackinac Island



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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