Thanks to Mike Norton of the Traverse City Convention & Visitors Bureau for providing this most helpful information.
Foliage.org: What are the projected dates for Traverse City, Michigan foliage seasons?
Thanks to its coastal location and diverse landscape, the fall color season around Traverse City usually lasts a bit longer than in neighboring areas. Color changes usually begin in mid-September in the higher elevations south and east of Grand Traverse Bay, especially the steep inland valleys of the Boardman, Jordan and Manistee rivers. By the end of the month, when those areas are experiencing peak colors, the coastal forests along the Lake Michigan shoreline and the larger inshore lakes are just beginning to show good coloration and can often continue to grow in intensity well into October.
Foliage.org: Are there areas, vistas, scenic lookouts or other destinations within Traverse City that are known for their uniquely beautiful autumn foliage displays?
One of the best places to enjoy the interplay between water, sky and foliage is the Old Mission Peninsula, a narrow ridge of land that juts into the center of Grand Traverse Bay — nearly 20 miles long and in some places as little as a mile wide. A beautiful patchwork of orchards, vineyards, forests and villages, the peninsula is a perfect place for a morning or afternoon drive that combines fall color with beautiful views of the bay, visits to wineries and roadside fruit stands, and unforgettable meals at several charming restaurants.
Northwest of Traverse City is the larger Leelanau Peninsula, the “little finger” of the Michigan mitten – a place of beautiful scenery and quaint lakeshore villages, and home to the magnificent Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, whose steep hillsides and lush hardwood forests burst into sheets of flaming scarlet, orange and gold each fall. Set against the deep indigo of Lake Michigan, the towering bluffs and islands of Sleeping Bear are particularly dramatic when clothed in their autumn finery.
Some of the same feeling can be had just to the northeast of Traverse City, in the glacier-scoured Chain of Lakes region of Antrim County. This is a dramatic landscape of rolling drumlins and long, deep blue glacial lakes. Two of the largest, Elk Lake and Torch Lake, are particularly beautiful when the hills in which they nestle are aflame with fall colors. Nearby is the steep valley of the little Rapid River, whose forested slopes look as though they could have been transported from the Appalachians.
Finally, the highlands to the south of Traverse City are dotted with dozens of small lakes, sturdy farm towns and dense forests of evergreens and hardwoods – as well as the majestic Boardman Valley. Much of this intensely varied landscape is contained in the Pere Marquette State Forest, and it is best explored by heading out into the maze of twisting roads that wind through the forests, around lakes and along the tops of high wooded bluffs.
Foliage.org: What are the local and regional roads or highways that are favorite scenic routes for Fall tourists?
The most spectacular views along the Old Mission Peninsula are generally to be had along M-37 (also known as Center Road), which runs along the steep ridge at its center, through the charming hamlet of Mapleton to the picturesque lighthouse at Old Mission Point, providing frequent bird’s-eye views of the surrounding landscape. On the other hand, many sightseers prefer to amble along the roads that follow the shoreline on either side, stopping to visit the historic village of Old Mission and the quiet settlement of Bowers Harbor.
The coastal fringes of the Leelanau Peninsula can be sampled easily along M-22, which follows the shore of Grand Traverse Bay to Northport, then turns abruptly southwest to skirt the coast of Lake Michigan through Leland, Glen Arbor and the Sleeping Bear Dunes. (Be sure not to miss the side jaunt on M-109 through the “ghost port” of Glen Haven and past the famous Dune Climb to the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive, which offers splendid views of the
surrounding lake and dune country.)
A good introduction to the Chain of Lakes region can be had by following U.S. 31 north from Traverse City, past orchards and farms along the shore of East Grand Traverse Bay to the lively little port of Elk Rapids. From here, it’s possible to drive east between the lakes and into the hills above them, where the autumn views of distant blue hills evoke fall in the lochs of Scotland. The tiny village of Alden, on Torch Lake, makes a great stop for lunch and some shopping, while the summit of Shanty Creek near Bellaire provides awe-inspiring views of the surrounding countryside.
Foliage.org: What festivals or other public events are taking place during the Fall foliage season?
Cyclists of all skill levels meet for the Leelanau Harvest Tour, a scenic ride through the Leelanau Peninsula’s fall colors.
The village of Bellaire holds an annual Harvest Festival and Scarecrow Extravaganza (they’ve been doing it for years.)
The stores in downtown Traverse City hold an event called Happy Apple Days. The streets are decked with cornstalks and festive mums, and merchants have bushels of apples to share – free — with their customers. Around the same time Youngsters of all ages throng the streets for the annual Downtown Halloween Walk, where they trick-or-treat at local stores. Nearby,
Shanty Creek Resorts near Bellaire has a number of fall events, including a festive Oktoberfest event, a scary “Haunted Woods” and a free Fall Color Tour that includes views from the top of Schuss Mountain.
Foliage.org: Are there historic or cultural sites that are popular destinations for Fall foliage travelers? What are they?
Thanks to its location on the shores of Grand Traverse Bay near the once-bustling Manitou Passage (a time-saving but frequently hazardous route between the mainland and the mysterious Manitou Islands) Traverse City is a convenient base for exploring four historic lighthouses, all located in a relatively compact area. The most easily accessible of the Traverse City area’s lighthouses is the Grand Traverse Lighthouse. Located at the tip of the Leelanau Peninsula, near the village of Northport, it is one of the oldest lighthouses on the Great Lakes, guiding ships through the northern entrance to the Manitou Passage for 150 years.
Today it is a museum surrounded by a picturesque state park where visitors can envision the once-isolated life of lighthouse keepers and their families, with extensive exhibits and period furnishings from the 1920s and 1930s. Its popular “volunteer lighthouse keeper” program also provides opportunities for enthusiasts to spend several weeks living in the lighthouse, carrying on routine maintenance and answering the questions of its frequent visitors.
Some 45 miles to the south near the town of Frankfort, the Point Betsie Lighthouse – “the second most photographed lighthouse in the U.S.” — marks the lower entrance of the Passage. Built in 1858, its brightly-colored buildings are clustered in a scenic dune area at the very edge of the surf. Point Betsie was the last lighthouse on the eastern Lake Michigan shore to be staffed by the Coast Guard; it was automated in 1983 and is still in operation.
Like its neighbor to the north, the lighthouse now belongs to a nonprofit group, the Friends of Point Betsie Lighthouse, which recently completed a $1
million exterior restoration and is raising money to restore the interior as well. It, too, is open for regular tours.
The picturesque Old Mission Point Lighthouse was built in 1870 to warn ships away from the dangerous shoals extending into Grand Traverse Bay at the tip of the Old Mission Peninsula, but was replaced by an offshore beacon in 1933. The lighthouse is open for tours, and is the centerpiece of an attractive park with popular beaches, historical exhibits and extensive hiking and skiing trails, and is a popular destination with visitors and locals alike.
Even more picturesque, but somewhat less accessible, the South Manitou Island Lighthouse can only be reached in summer, after a 1.5-hour ferryboat ride from the Lake Michigan port of Leland. But it’s certainly worth the trip; a classic 100-foot tower, the light rises abruptly from the shore of the island – and visitors are free to climb its 117 steps to the top for a thrilling view of water, sky, forests and dunes. Established in 1840 to beckon vessels to what was then the last deepwater harbor north of Chicago, the original wooden light was replaced in 1871 with the current building. Today it is part of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore and administered by the National Park Service.
Foliage.org: What are some other popular tourist attractions for autumn travelers to Traverse City. What are some of the less well known, but much loved local attractions?
Fall is probably the best time of year to sample the bounty of Traverse City’s culinary scene. Dozens of farm stands line the rural roads, where snappy apples fresh off the tree, fleshy squashes, and glowing pumpkins crowd against each other, all vying for attention. One special stop is near the village of Northport, at the tip of the Leelanau Peninsula, where farmers John and Phyllis Kilcherman grow more than 240 varieties of nearly-forgotten “antique apple” varieties like the Winesap, the Snow Apple or the Strawberry Chenango. John also loves showing visitors the historic pop bottle collection that lines his barn walls, with over 10,000 bottles.)
Christmas Cove Farm is only open from mid-September to the end of November.
But it’s the wine country of the Old Mission and Leelanau Peninsulas that seems to be a kind of distillation of autumn. It’s a fine thing to stand at the top of one of those steep vineyards, savoring a glass of crisp, intensely fragrant Riesling as you gaze out across the festive landscape and feel the tender glow of that golden autumn sun against your skin.
Foliage.org: What are some favorite destinations or activities of families traveling during the Fall travel season?
You can cover a lot of ground by driving through the fall landscape – but to
experience the full sensory richness of autumn, you have to get out and
listen to the crunch of leaves, smell the spicy aroma of apples and
woodsmoke, breathe the crisp autumn air. Fortunately, Traverse City has
dozens of hiking and cycling trails, including the well-developed Traverse
Area Recreational Trail (TART) network, which provides more than 30 miles of paved multi-use trail.
Another great way to see the autumn foliage is to paddle a canoe or kayak
down one of the area’s gentle, slow-moving rivers – the Boardman, Betsie,
Platte and Crystal rivers are particularly fine — or around its many inland
lakes. (Adventuresome paddlers may even choose to venture along the shore of Grand Traverse Bay, whose deep waters are better protected from autumn winds than the open coast of Lake Michigan.) Horseback riding, once rare in this part of the country, is also growing in popularity as a low-stress way to
experience the joys of autumn.
One great family treat in Traverse City is Jacob’s Corn Maze, a 10-acre labyrinth of cornstalks (as large as 10 football fields) with three distinct trail systems. Once inside, visitors are free to lose themselves on 4.5 miles of winding, twisting paths whose green cornstalk walls are 6 to 10 feet high. It’s open on weekends until Oct. 31. Hours are 5-9 p.m. Friday, 1-9 p.m. Saturday and 1-7 p.m. Sunday. The farm is at 7100 E. Traverse Highway (M-72 west) 3.5 miles west of Traverse City. Admission is $8 for adults, $5 for children 3-11 and free to children under 3. For more information, log on to <https://www.jacobs-corn-maze.com/> www.jacobs-corn-maze.com or call 231-632-MAZE.
Foliage.org: What are some helpful resources for discovering local inns, bed and breakfasts, lodges, boutique hotels, and other local lodging and dining?
The Traverse City Convention & Visitors Bureau will offer “Fab Fall” Getaway Packages available at participating resorts and hotels. Packages include extras like discounts at downtown shops and dining establishments. Packages are directly booked through hotels. For specific information check out the Bureau’s web site at <https://www.visittraversecity.com/fab-fall-packages-228/> www.visitTraverseCity.com
Foliage.org: Is there anything else you would like to tell visitors thinking about traveling Traverse City for the fall foliage season?
Since fall colors can “peak” fairly quickly, the Traverse City Convention & Visitors Bureau is providing visitors with up-to-date information about autumn colors through its Fall Foliage Hotline. By dialing 1-800-727-5482, visitors can receive updated reports on the progress of the annual fall color display, including areas where the best colors can be found.
For a list of color tour driving routes and information about Traverse City’s super-affordable Fab Fall Getaway Packages, log on to the Bureau’s web site at <https://www.visittraversecity.com/> www.visittraversecity.com