Michigan’s best moments: top things to do in the Great Lakes State

Waterfall at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Lake Superior, Michigan
Seek out waterfalls at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, a highlight among the best things to do in Michigan © Rudy Balasko / Shutterstock

Michigan isn’t known as the Great Lakes State for nothing. The state's share of the largest group of freshwater lakes on the planet is well worth some triumphant flag-waving, but its allure is hardly confined to water. 

From its obvious attractions (Detroit, the Great Lake shorelines, Mackinac Island) to lesser-known gems (Isle Royale, Ocqueoc Falls, Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum), Michigan is chock-full of natural splendor and historic attractions.

Here are the best things to do in Michigan. 


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Cyclists ride on Market Street on Mackinac Island on a sunny day in Michigan
Ride a bike along Market Street on Mackinac Island © Alexey Stiop / Shutterstock

1. Cycle around Mackinac Island 

The 8.2-mile jaunt along state highway M-185 (aka Lake Shore Boulevard) on Mackinac Island affords a unique opportunity. With the teal-blue hue of Lake Huron as your extraordinary postcard-perfect panorama, you can tackle America's lone car-free highway harnessing nothing but pedal power.

Astonishingly, cars got the boot from Mackinac way back in 1898 – just 12 years after their invention – and the whole island is a calm and carefree destination as a result – except for the crush of "Fudgies," as outsiders are known, who come for what is perhaps America's most famous fudge. But hey, you could do worse than a traffic-free island full of sugar, butter and milk!

2. Hide away on Isle Royale

If you prefer your hiking, camping and similar outdoor endeavors with a huge dose of isolation and wildlife over traffic jams and crowds, hop on a ferry or flight to Isle Royale National Park, 18 miles from the closest Lake Superior shores. 

This road-free paradise has decidedly more moose (at least 1600 at last count) than merrymakers, and an excursion here is definitely one for outdoor purists. Isle Royale is a get-away-from-it-all type of getaway.

Planning tip: Some 165 hiking trails traverse the 210-sq-mile island, where you're on your own in rudimentary camping facilities, unless you opt for the lone choice of lodging, Rock Harbor Lodge.

A rocky cliff covered with trees drops into the blue water at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in Michigan
Soak in the beauty of the splendid colors at Michigan's Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore © Posnov / Getty Images

3. Witness a rainbow of colors at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore

You can spend days and days devouring all that's on offer in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, but a caravan of splendid color awaits at Pictured Rocks National Seashore, the first such lakeshore in the US (designated in 1966). A series of yellow sandstone cliffs awash in ever-changing hues paint the landscape pretty along a 15-mile stretch northeast of Munising.

Planning tip: The colors of Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore are just one highlight. The wider park is home to explorable caverns, picturesque waterfalls, dramatic rock formations, soaring sand dunes and numerous Instagram-ready lighthouses – check out Au Sable Point Light Station.

Dune Climb Overlook at dawn at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in Michigan
Watch the sunrise over Glen Lake at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore © Owen Weber / Getty Images

4. Walk through the sand at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore

Michigan's Sleeping Dunes National Park harnesses a showstopping 35 miles of dunes and beaches along the northern end of the state's 300-mile western shoreline, dubbed the Gold Coast. This safeguarded patch of bronzed loveliness serves up some unexpectedly inviting sands as well as 70,000 acres of protected wilderness crisscrossed by 100 miles of hiking trails. 

Planning tip: Located 28 miles west of Traverse City, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore works well as a day trip, but campgrounds can accommodate overnighters as well. Either way, you won't encounter a shortage of distractions, be it capturing the perfect sunset or rambling along in your Salomons.

5. Admire vintage autos at the Gilmore Car Museum 

Gilmore might not be as well known as Ford or Chrysler, but the Gilmore Car Museum clocks in as North America's largest auto museum nonetheless. Spawned from the vintage collection begun in the 1960s by Upjohn pharmaceutical magnate Donald S Gilmore, the mammoth museum is set on a 90-acre campus in the small town of Hickory Creek, northeast of Kalamazoo. 

Showcasing more than 400 vehicles in 190,000 sq ft of exhibit space, you can ogle a 1927 Ford Model T, a 1913 Rolls Royce, a 1920 Pierce-Arrow and a potpourri of classics from the '50s, '60s and '70s as well as survey the fully restored and functioning 1941 Silk City Diner, a recreated 1930s Shell Station and six onsite partner museums.

6. Drink in Traverse City

Traverse City, the largest city in the northern half of the Lower Peninsula, is a wonderful spot to base yourself for Upper Peninsula diversions: Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, the Traverse Wine Coast (Traverse City sits on the 45th Parallel, the same as Italy’s Piedmont and France's Bordeaux regions) and a wealth of hiking and biking possibilities nearby. 

But the city itself is a good time, too, with microbreweries (Short’s Production Facility Pull Barn and Right Brain Brewery are hophead favorites), farm-to-table restaurants and waterfront dining.

Planning tip: The Upper Peninsula is at your doorstep, but Traverse City is worth a few days of exploring.

Kayaking along Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Michigan

7. Swim at Ocqueoc Falls

All but one of Michigan's waterfalls are located in the Upper Peninsula, some 300 in total, sewing up the region as the state's go-to for tumbling torrents, but you don't have to venture quite that far north if you're short on time. The Lower Peninsula's lone cascade, Ocqueoc Falls, sits about 12 or so miles inland from Lake Huron's northern shores at Rogers City. 

A terraced drop of about 5 feet over limestone bedrock into a swimmable pool, Ocqueoc is a refreshing, family-friendly spot to spend an afternoon cooling off after conquering the 6 miles of hiking, fat-tire biking and cross-country ski trails in the vicinity.

8. Sample Michigan's craft beer in Grand Rapids

Within beer geek circles, cities like Portland and Asheville are held up as holy grails of ale, but Midwesterners need not travel so far west or east. Grand Rapids is the Midwest's beer capital and was declared "Beer City USA" in 2012, right alongside Asheville.

Founders Brewing Co. undoubtedly put Michigan's hophead haven on the map and shouldn’t be missed, but Grand Rapids has more than 80 other breweries in town. If you want to drink at the source, head to Brewery VivantNew Holland Brewing – The KnickerbockerHarmony Brewing Company and Mitten Brewing Company or belly up to the bar at the original HopCat, whose 50+ taps present a formidable challenge to any serious craft beer connoisseur.

9. Take a photo of the Holland Harbor Lighthouse

​Standing sentinel at the entrance to a channel between Lake Michigan and Lake Macatawa in Ottawa County, "Big Red," as the Holland Harbor Lighthouse is known, is more than just another pretty lighthouse (of which Michigan boasts more than any other US state). Striking firehouse-red color aside, its distinctive architecture – a square building with gabled roofs and a 32ft-tall tower – stands out among a sea of maritime beacons.

Planning tip: The best and most easily accessed vantage point for photos is from across the channel at Holland State Park's north pier, but the lighthouse can be approached on foot via private property.

Neon signs light up Monroe Avenue in the Greektown district of Detroit, Michigan
Detroit's nightlife is buzzing once again – don't miss it © Mike Kline (notkalvin) / Getty Images

10. Rediscover Detroit

A boomtown that fell on hard times, Detroit has reinvented itself and is relishing its revival as one of the hippest cities in the US. Immerse yourself in the city's storied automotive history at the Henry Ford Museum and Automotive Hall of Fame in nearby Dearborn, Art Deco masterpieces (GuardianFischer and Penobscot buildings, among many others) and its soulful musical past (Motown Historical Museum). 

Check out Prohibition-era Detroit in the eastern neighborhoods, sometimes referred to as Little Venice, and embrace the dizzying buzz that results from plunging into the city's hip restaurant, brewery and caffeine scenes. Detroit fell down, but it certainly got up again.

11. Learn about a ship cemetery at the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum

Lake Superior’s infamous Shipwreck Coast is a notoriously unforgiving 80-mile stretch of shallow waters on the southern end of the lake that's a literal graveyard for an estimated 600 doomed vessels. At the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum at Whitefish Point Light-Station, world-class exhibits take on the eerie task of chronicling the demise of numerous ill-fated journeys. 

The most famous of all is the massive SS Edmund Fitzgerald, sunk in 1975 and immortalized a year later in the Gordon Lightfoot hit song, "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald."

Detour: Beyond the museum, visitors can tour the Whitefish Point Light Tower.

This article was first published on August 25, 2021 and updated on August 11, 2022

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