Families searching for a family-friendly road trip this fall to see wondrous sights, explore four states and enjoy nature in every direction look no further than the Lake Michigan Circle Tour. Follow state highways entirely around Lake Michigan that start in Illinois, head to Indiana, Michigan and Wisconsin before making the trip back home. If you follow this plan, you will spend about 15-16 total hours in the car, travel about 1,100 miles, all the while taking time to visit a national park, state parks and three indoor waterparks.
Traverse City, Mich.
There are plenty of nice stops between Chicago and Traverse City, but those would make a nice long weekend another time. Instead, opt to spend the first night in Traverse City and devote your exploring to the northern parts of Michigan and Wisconsin on this trip. Treat your kids to a stay at Great Wolf Lodge and enjoy the indoor waterpark before you head out into the natural beauty of Sleeping Bear Dunes, about a 45-minute drive from downtown Traverse City. The national park features perched dunes that are more than 400 feet above Lake Michigan. Your family can explore dozens of miles of shoreline and check out an island lighthouse, coastal villages and maritime history. Eat like a local at Traverse City Pie Company. The restaurant features a selection of sandwiches, soups, salads and pies and a relaxed setting. It even has a few board games for the kids. Order the cherry crumb pie and savor the fruit that made Traverse City famous.
The next major stop on your journey will be Petoskey, where you can look for a famous Petoskey stone along the lake and take a chocolate-making tour at the original Kilwin’s (Monday through Friday only). For adventurous kids who would enjoy an easy hike, check out Bear River Valley Recreation Center.
Harbor Springs, Mich.
As you leave Petoskey, travel the upper peninsula along highway M-119, also known as the Tunnel of Trees and one of the state’s most iconic attractions. In Harbor Springs, let the kiddos do the gourd slingshot, take a tractor ride and visit the animals at Pond Hill Farm, and be sure to bring your appetite to Legs Inn (open for season through Oct. 20). Even without a map (you will have lots of spotty cellphone service, especially the farther north you travel), you will know when you arrive at this historic spot with authentic Polish cuisine and breathtaking patio views of the lake.
Mackinac Island, Mich.
Mackinac Island (pronounced Mack-in-naw due to its history of being occupied by both the British and French) has been a national landmark since the Victorian era, and while it may be most famous for its fabulous fudge shops and lack of automobiles, it has so much more to offer. If you can’t score a good deal on a room on Mackinac Island itself (they can be quite pricey), plan to spend the night in Mackinaw City or St. Ignace as both are an easy ferry ride away. Be sure to choose a ferry ride to the island that leaves before noon and goes under Mackinac Bridge for great photos. When you exit the ferry docks, everything you need to get started is within the first few blocks. Rent a bike to explore the eight-mile island or buy tickets for a horse carriage tour. Let kids explore Fort Mackinac and the butterfly gardens. Finish your day with dinner at the Pink Pony, an affordable and delicious island hot spot.
On your drive out of St. Ignace, stop by St. Ignace Deer Park to feed and pet the many varieties of deer, then head onto Kitch-iti-kipi Springs in Palms Book State Park. Kids will enjoy the self-operated raft ride 200 feet across the spring as they look down into the clear water and see many fish swimming along with them. Next, stop at the Escanaba Municipal Beach and show the kids the “top” of Lake Michigan. After they play in the sand, they will enjoy the large neighboring park. Tip: Before you get to the beach park, there is a McDonald’s with a gas station and convenience store with toys and snacks. My kids still talk about this place.
Green Bay, Wis.
As you enter Wisconsin, plan to spend the night at the Comfort Suites Green Bay with its own small indoor waterpark and free breakfast. Visit Bay Beach, a municipal amusement park with a long history of entertaining Green Bay families (closed for regular hours in September). The park hosts the family-friendly Boo Beach celebration on Oct. 11-12. If you miss the Boo Beach, check out the neighboring Bay Beach Wildlife Sanctuary, an urban wildlife refuge open year-round that features animal exhibits and miles of hiking/skiing trails.
Door County and Sheboygan, Wis.
Follow the circle tour along the coasts of Door County and enjoy a day exploring a popular Midwest vacation spot with five state parks and 12 lighthouses. After your mini tour of Door County, head to the last indoor waterpark on the trip and stay at Blue Harbor Resort in Sheboygan. This resort is complete with surfing experience, mini golf, s’mores at the nightly campfire and breathtaking views of the rocky shoreline and lake. While in Sheboygan, check out the Sheboygan’s Above & Beyond Children’s Museum. From Sheboygan, it is less than three hours to drive back to Chicago.
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This article originally appeared in the October 2019 issue of Chicago Parent. Read the rest of the issue.