Mackinac Island
Mackinac Island (creative commons/Chris Clayson)

View Road Trip Following Lake Michigan in a larger map

Fly In: Chicago O'Hare

Fly Out: Pellston Regional Airport

Few outside the Midwest take the scenic trip up Michigan's western shoreline along its namesake lake - which makes it something of a local secret. This all-American road trip boasts soaring dunes, sand-swept beaches, glowing lighthouses, and charming lakeside towns. From the Riviera of the Midwest to the Most Beautiful Place in America, the left side of the Michigan mitten has no shortage of thrills for young and old. This ideal family road trip culminates at Victorian-era Mackinac Island. From savoring Traverse City's famed cherry pie to splashing in an indoor water park in Mackinaw to tumbling down Sleeping Bear Dune, this three-day journey -- steeped in good old-fashioned Americana -- is a retro-adventure of the sort you may remember, and one your kids may never forget.

Day #1: Chicago to Holland

Holland, MI (creative commons/norjam8)


Fly in, get comfortable in your 2011 Infiniti FX35 (Hertz; $340/night), and get out of town for a ride up the far side of Lake Michigan.

St. Joseph, MI (90 miles; 1 hour 30 min)

A 90-minute drive from Chicago, around the curve of Lake Michigan, you'll encounter miles of soft, sandy beach. Dubbed The Riviera of the Midwest, the deep-water port of St. Joseph is an up-and-coming resort community, part of a chain of charming small towns stretching from the state line northward. The lakeshore is sprinkled with remarkable sand dunes and verged by lush farmland that boasts some of the nation's finest orchards. You'll even find a surprisingly lively collection of vineyards.

Holland, MI (54 miles; 1 hour)

Holland's ode to all things Dutch doesn't end at Tulip Time. This themed Michigan city is a year-round destination. At Windmill Island Gardens, you can tour an authentic 250-year-old windmill imported from the mother country. Across town, Dutch Village offers wooden shoemaking demonstrations and Dutch cheese tastings. Head over to the Dutch art galleries at the Holland Museum to check out a collection of 17th-19th century Dutch art and furnishings - described as the finest collection of its kind in the United States.

Day #2: Holland to Traverse City

Sleeping Bear Dunes (creative commons/jkdevleer04)

Ludington, MI (90 miles; 1 hour 45 min)

Historic lighthouses illuminate your way through unspoiled dunes and alluring waterfront parks. This all-season resort town is an ideal stopover for hiking, biking, fishing, swimming, snowshoeing, cross country skiing, or simple relaxation. The tree-lined avenues of downtown house a growing art district and plenty of options for shopping and dining. Ludington makes a great stop for an early lunch and any number of afternoon activities.

Sleeping Bear Dunes (85 miles; 2 hours)

Sleeping Bear Dunes was voted The Most Beautiful Place in America by ABC's Good Morning America in 2011. The National Lakeshore boasts 64 miles of beachfront along Lake Michigan, two islands, 27 inland lakes, over 50,000 acres of land, and the monumental sand dunes that are the park's namesake. If you're fit and only have time for one activity, make sure to tackle the massive Sleeping Bear Dunes that plunge like a waterfall of sand toward the blue-green lake.

Traverse City, MI (30 miles; 45 min)

Traverse City qualifies as the largest metropolis in the 21-county Northern Michigan region, though you'd never guess it. Tourism is one of the city's key industries, so there are endless activities in both winter and summer months. The Traverse City area is the largest producer of tart cherries in the United States, so summertime is all about Cherry Festivals and cherry pies on the beach. In the winter, Traverse City is a great base for visiting nearby ski resorts like Crystal Mountain and Shanty Creek.

Day #3: Traverse City to Mackinac Island

Mackinac Island (creative commons/Chris Clayson)

Mackinaw City, MI (120 miles; 2 hours 15 min)

Most head to Mackinaw City to get to Mackinac Island, though the city itself has its own charm. Because there is limited accommodation on the island, most major hotel chains have operations on the mainland and boast indoor water parks, miniature golf, and candy shops. Mackinaw City can be a bit of a tourist trap so if that's not your thing, it's best to grab some lunch (save room for fudge) and hop the ferry to Mackinac Island.

Mackinac Island (20 min by Ferry)

The ferry ride to Mackinac Island transports you back to a simpler time when vehicular traffic was horse-drawn, Victorian architecture lines the streets, and couples canoodle along the boardwalk at moonlight. Bike or hike through the historic parks or tour the island on horseback. Rock formations, majestic views, and historic ambiance combine to make Mackinac Island a superb spot to end your tour along the Michigan Coast.


Classic American Road Trip: Maine's Rocky Coast

American Road Trip: The Old South