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.
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.
Update: This post was first published in August 2018. It was last updated in July 2021.
Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links. 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.
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.
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).
We had dinner in a very unique restaurant called Chez Olga. My kids were less than enthused by the flavorful Caribbean cuisine (it was SO good), but 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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
There’s a great, family-friendly brewery known for its pizza on the route called The Filling Station.
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.
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 (for a lake). 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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
Tip: Ernest Hemingway usually sat in the second seat from the end of the bar at the City Park Grill.
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.
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 near Petoskey
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.
- Things To Do In Petoskey With Kids
- Where To Stay Near Petoskey
- My Petoskey Area/Little Traverse Bay Bucket List
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.
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.
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
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.
- 24 Hours On Mackinac Island With Kids
- Family Guide To Staying At The Grand Hotel
- 5 Things For Kids To Do AT Fort Mackinac
- My Mackinac Island Bucket List
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.
However, we had 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.
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 (temporarily closed until Summer 2022), and the Michigan Science Center.
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.
Tip: Guests at Greenfield Village can pay a little extra to ride around in in a Model T.
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:
Ludington State Park
Sleeping Bear National Lake Shore & Glen Haven Beach
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