Michigan doesn’t have to work hard to make its case for being a mighty American road trip destination.
The state is home to more beaches than the entire Atlantic seaboard, it’s bordered by four of the five Great Lakes, and more than half of the state’s land is blanketed by forest.
Toss into the mix some towering sand dunes, isolated lake islands and scenic byways, plus a dash of roadside allure (Covered bridges! Lighthouses! Kitschy historic downtowns!), and you have an indelible blueprint for a classic road trip.
Here are eight road trip ideas to get your Michigan motor running.
Driving around Michigan's "Mitten"
Best road trip for exploring the Upper Peninsula
Detroit–Detroit; 987 miles
Driving gloves at the ready, this road trip is the big one. Speaking of gloves, Michigan's Lower Peninsula is nicknamed “the Mitten" because of its distinctive shape (look it up – it makes more sense when you see it on a map), and threading along its outer edges on this epic drive takes in some of the state's best natural scenery.
Heading out of Detroit and following the coast clockwise, you'll skirt the extensive shorelines of Lake St Clair, Lake Huron and Lake Michigan, the latter of which is home to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, one of only three protected lakeshore areas in the country and the perfect spot to spend a night under canvas.
Road trippers who prefer a cozy B&B to a night in the wild needn’t stress though. The route brims with lakeside villages and towns, including St Joseph, Tawas City, Harbor Springs, Petrosky, Traverse City, Elberta, Ludington, and Douglas, all with attractions and charm to warrant a pause of a night or two. Once well rested, finish off the journey by climbing the cloud-kissing sand dunes at Warren Dunes State Park, 15 miles northeast of the Indiana border. Tower Hill, the park's tallest dune, stands at a whopping 240ft.
The Gold Coast
Best road trip for beaches and shoreline
Saugatuck–Mackinaw City; 366 miles
Appropriately named the Gold Coast, Michigan's 300-mile western shoreline is a sun-kissed stretch of golden beaches and wind-whipped sand dunes. Together, the M-22 Scenic Drive and US-31 run the length of it, hugging the Lake Michigan coast from the beautiful resort town of Saugatuck to the end of the line 293 miles north in Mackinaw City, which is actually a village that's home to an 18th-century French fort.
Along the way, the meandering stretch of road passes storybook orchards and vineyards, snug harbors, Victorian mansions, Hemingway haunts and slow-paced, accommodation-rich beach towns.
Planning tip: Looking for Michigan's best beaches? Oval Beach in Saugatuck, Fifth Avenue Beach in Manistee and Good Harbor Bay Beach south of Leland are great spots for a quick dip in summer.
Michigan in the middle
Best road trip for seeing Michigan old and new
Detroit–St Joseph; 206 miles
Lengthy shorelines commandeer the lion's share of travel adventures in this state, but Michigan's middle ain't too shabby, either, offering a cultural rewind of sorts, from new and improved Detroit to a bygone era in St Joseph.
Begin in the storied metropolis of Detroit, where iconic American brands Ford, Chrysler and Motown built a city that has rebranded itself in the last decade, emerging from years of economic decline like a hipsterized phoenix. Enjoy the fruits of formerly abandoned buildings turned distilleries, breweries, cafes, galleries and boutiques before heading west on I-94 to Ann Arbor, a college town home to the University of Michigan.
Next up on the route is Battle Creek, boasting southwestern Michigan's only natural history museum, located within a massive 72-acre arboretum. Continue on to Paw Paw, where you can dabble around the edges of southwest Michigan wine country, before reaching St Joseph, on the shores of Lake Michigan, where the famed Silver Beach Carousel twirls amid an antiquated era of refined amusement.
Taking it slow in Harbor Country
Best road trip for a short shore drive
Michiana–Sawyer; 17 miles
For a taste of Michigan's western shoreline without the commitment of a 300-mile trip, the eight charming beach towns that make up Harbor Country, on the southern end of the coast, offer up an adventure in miniature.
Along the shore, golden sands, picturesque marinas and handsome hamlets pepper the route from Michiana, mere steps from the Indiana border and only an hour from downtown Chicago, to Sawyer, the northernmost Harbor Country community. Highlights along the way include the region's largest public beach in New Buffalo, one of Michigan’s largest organic distilleries (Journeyman in Three Oaks), Michigan's most-awarded and longest-running winery (St Julian Wine Company in Union Pier) and a surplus of antique shops, artsy boutiques, fine-dining restaurants and preserved Americana charm.
Planning tip: You can drive the route in a mere 22 minutes, but that's not the point – this is a leisurely road trip of discovery.
Upper Peninsula lighthouses
Best road trip for lighthouse spotting
Munising–Escanaba; 513 miles
Few items feature prettier on a postcard than a well-preserved lighthouse, and no state boasts more of these maritime icons (129!) than Michigan. (Maine sits humbly in second place with 80 lighthouses.) Michigan's Great White North, the Upper Peninsula features 40 or so of these nautical towers, most built in the 1800s, of which a dozen or so are open for tours.
This counterclockwise themed adventure begins with the Munising Range Lighthouses at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore and follows the peninsula's edge east, south and back west to Escanaba, where both the Peninsula Point Lighthouse (1866) and Sand Point Lighthouse (1867) are open for tours and tower climbs.
Along the way, don't miss preserved gems such as the Au Sable Light Station (also in Pictured Rocks), Crisp Point Lighthouse in Paradise (which has sat beautifully on Lake Superior’s ominously named Shipwreck Alley since 1904), the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum at Whitefish Point Lighthouse and the views on offer atop the Point Iroquois Lighthouse in Brimley.
River Road National Scenic Byway
Best road trip for nature
Oscoda–Hale; 26 miles
Extending westward from Lake Huron into the Huron–Manistee National Forests, the River Road National Scenic Byway affords an opportunity to drive into the natural wonders of Michigan's interior. Hugging the Au Sable River, once a vital route for transporting giant white pine from the forest to Lake Huron's sawmill towns, this family-friendly road trip takes in riverside campgrounds, scenic outlooks, monuments, historic sights, hiking and cross-country ski trails.
Planning tip: Learn more about the area's logging history at Lumberman’s Monument Visitor Center.
Best road trip for scenic views
Au Gres–Mackinaw City; 179 miles
Lake Michigan tends to hog most of the headlines, but Lake Huron is perfectly content in its position as the quiet underdog to the east, offering those who choose the Huron Shores Heritage Route a long list of wineries, lighthouses, art galleries, marine sanctuaries and, of course, spectacular sunrises.
This road trip begins in Au Gres, the gateway to Michigan's sunrise side, before jutting straight north paralleling some 200 miles of shoreline along US-23 all the way to Mackinaw City, where ferries can be caught to tranquil Mackinac Island.
Besides the postcard-perfect day breaks, worthwhile stops include Charity Island Lighthouse, Tawas Point State Park (boasting one of eastern Michigan's best beaches), Thunder Bay Marine Sanctuary (the Great Lakes' only marine sanctuary) and Cheboygan, home to wineries, breweries, lighthouses and endless small-town charm.
Tunnel of Trees
Best road trip for forests
Harbor Springs–Cross Village; 16 miles
Michigan's historic M-119 scenic route, otherwise known as the Tunnel of Trees, is a narrow ride along a stunning bluff overlooking Lake Michigan that sits under a canopied thatch of hardwoods and evergreens.
In addition to the outstanding forested vistas in all directions, openings in the patchwork reveal spectacular water views over the lake. Beyond the scenery, the route dishes up small-town charisma in spades, including old-timey general stores, farms offering up provisions, vineyards, breweries, artist boutiques, studios, galleries and a wealth of historic diversions. You can stretch this road trip out a little on each end as well, tacking on the charming town of Petoskey (with cozy B&Bs, spas and golf), 10 miles south of Harbor Springs, and Wilderness State Park (beaches and hiking trails), 16 miles north of Cross Village.
Planning tip: This route is at its most colorful and brilliant in fall, when prisms of light fight for space through breaches in the lush foliage, but each season has its highlights.