Beautiful beaches, towering forests, sparkling water, picturesque lighthouses, historic museums, and scenic beauty await you around every bend in the road on the Lake Michigan Circle Tour.
The 1,100 mile Lake Michigan Circle Tour route will take you through small towns and bustling cities, along miles of slow paced byways, past farm fields and roadside produce stands and lighthouses, and will help you build memories to last a lifetime. During the fall, the added thrill of seeing some of the most magnificent foliage adds an extra bonus to the trip.
You can begin your tour at any point along the route, but let’s start just north of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and follow Interstate 43 north to Manitowoc, where the Manitowoc Breakwater Light has been marking the entrance to the Manitowoc River since 1918. Manitowoc is well known among mariners for shipbuilding and ship repairs.
An excursion through the exquisite beauty of the Door County Peninsula and Washington Island is a vacation in itself. With over 300 miles of scenic shoreline, dotted with bustling harbors and quiet coves, Door County offers a wealth of water-based recreation. Sandy beaches, sailing, cruising, boating, fishing, boat rentals, charters or a unique car ferry ride to Washington Island are just a few ways to enjoy the sparkling waters of Green Bay and Lake Michigan.
Once you are done exploring Door County (and you can never see it all in this special place), take U.S. Highway 41 north to Peshtigo, a friendly little town with a tragic history. On October 8, 1871, the same night as the Great Chicago Fire which took the lives of some 300 people, a firestorm of horrific proportions roared through Peshtigo, destroying nearly every structure and killing as many as 3,000 people. The exact death toll will never be known, since many of the fire victims were loggers in town from lumber camps scattered throughout the region. The small Peshtigo Fire Museum has displays on the tragedy, and many of the fire victims are buried in a mass grave next to the museum.
A few miles further north, the city park in Marinette, Wisconsin has RV sites, or you can cross the Menominee River into Michigan, and stay at one of several campgrounds in the Menominee area.
From Menominee, State Route 35 hugs the Lake Michigan shoreline and offers spectacular views all the way to Escanaba. If you are ready to end your driving day at Escanaba, the Upper Peninsula State Fairgrounds just off U.S. Highway 2 has RV sites available.
From Escanaba, U.S. Highway 2 follows the north shore of Lake Michigan most of the way to the Mackinac Bridge, the five mile long engineering marvel that linked Michigan’s Upper and Lower Peninsulas in 1957.
If you have time, do yourself a favor and plan a day to explore Mackinac Island, which can be reached by passenger ferry from either St. Ignace on the north end of the bridge, or Mackinaw City on the south end. Wear comfortable walking shoes or bring a bicycle, because no motorized vehicles are allowed on the island!
If you have the time for side trips on your journey across the Upper Peninsula, two that are well worth your time are Sault Ste. Marie, where you can watch ocean going ships navigating through the Soo Locks; and the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum at Historic Whitefish Point, where you can learn about the hazards of life aboard a Great Lakes freighter.
Once you cross the bridge, plan at least a full day in Mackinaw City, because you’ll need it to tour Historic Fort Michilimackinac, which dates back to Colonial times. Here costumed guides and living history interpreters in period clothing tell you about life on the frontier, when control of this area was still being hotly contested between the British and the French.
Two other stops you should not miss here are Historic Mill Creek Discovery Park, which features an 18th century water powered sawmill, and the handsome Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse. And did I mention the delicious fudge this area is famous for?
Just south of Mackinaw City, U.S. Highway 31 swings west near Petosky, known for its beautiful Petosky stone, a form of fossilized coral, then follows the shoreline to the charming little town of Charlevoix, always popular with summer visitors. A few miles more will bring you to Acme, where you want to plan a stop at the Music House Museum, to see the world’s finest collection of mechanical musical devices.
Traverse City has a lot to offer, from the beaches along Grand Traverse Bay, to campgrounds, and lots of fun shops to browse in. There are several campgrounds in the area, as well as Traverse City State Park, which includes ¼ mile of beach, and over 340 campsites.
Northwest of Traverse City, U.S. Highway 22 makes a quick loop through the Leelanau Peninsula, which offers a wide variety of recreation and attractions, from winery tours to miles of trails for biking and hiking, gambling at the Leelanau Sands Casino, and charter fishing trips for Lake Michigan salmon.
Here, too, is the splendid Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, which offers you the opportunity to explore 35 miles of Lake Michigan’s coastline, and North and South Manitou Islands. And of course, don’t forget to climb the dunes, if you’re up to it! Sleeping Bear Dunes was a magical place to ancient Native Americans, and after one visit, you’ll understand why.
From the Leelanau Peninsula, U.S. Highway 31 follows the coastline south all the way to the Indiana State Line. But don’t be in too much of a hurry because there is a tremendous amount to see and do in the cities and towns along the way.
Ludington offers nice campgrounds, water sports, museums, and many good dining choices. A stop here could easily turn into a several-day visit to see and do everything you want to do.
65 miles south, Muskegon is one of our favorite Lake Michigan towns. Here you will find the Great Lakes Naval Memorial and Museum, which features the historic World War II submarine USS Silversides, along with a Prohibition-era Coast Guard cutter. A few miles away you can tour another venerable World War II warrior, the LST-393, one of only two Landing Ship Tanks still in existence. If you are a fan of lighthouses, there are two here to visit, the Muskegon South Pier Light Station and the White River Light Station, which dates back to 1875, and is open for tours.
From Muskegon, it’s only a short drive into Grand Rapids for a side trip to the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library and Museum, where you can learn about the life and career of our 38th President.
Forty miles south of Muskegon, Holland’s Windmill Island features an authentic 240 year old Dutch windmill, acres of tulips blooming in season, and other historical attractions from the Netherlands.
Saugatuck is an upscale artists’ haven, and tourists love browsing for treasures in the many shops on the main street and along the waterfront.
If you didn’t get enough of historic ships and maritime exhibits at Whitefish Point and in Muskegon, stop at the Michigan Maritime Museum in South Haven to see everything from prehistoric canoes to Chris-Craft cruisers on display.
At Benton Harbor, U.S. 31 veers away from the shoreline to South Bend, or you can choose to follow Interstate 94, which stays closer to the lake.
Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore and Indiana Dunes State Park offer many opportunities for camping, fishing, swimming, and just enjoying the scenery.
If you enjoy city traffic, you can complete your Circle Tour through Chicago, or bypass the big city and make a wide loop around it to return to the lakeshore north of the Windy City, for stops at the Grosse Pointe Light in Evanston, Illinois, and to explore interesting waterfront communities such as Waukegan, Kenosha, and Racine before you get to Milwaukee.
Another option is to take the S.S. Badger car ferry across Lake Michigan from Ludington, Michigan to Milwaukee, but then you miss all of the fun towns and places to explore along the shoreline from Ludington to Indiana Dunes State Park. Some travelers feel that is a tradeoff they are willing to make to avoid all of the congestion in the Chicago area. I’ll leave that up to you. No matter which route you take, as you can see, the Lake Michigan Circle Tour is a trip everyone will enjoy.
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Thought For The Day – Just because you are offended doesn’t mean you are right.
The S.S. Badger started life as a railroad ferry so I can guarantee your RV will fit inside it if you decide to take it from Ludington, Michigan, to Manitowoc, Wisconsin, in order to avoid Chicago.