A Change of Scenery: Michigan Roads Worth the Drive
Written by Allison Kay Bannister. Photo: Point Betsie Lighthouse, courtesy of Pure Michigan.

If you’re headed anywhere in Michigan this summer, there’s a good chance you’ll end up on one of the state’s iconic roads or byways, especially if you stay along the coastline or any of the many waterways—or go just about anywhere in the UP.

The diversity of sights and stops along each route makes traveling close to home feel like a faraway destination. Of course, there are the old standbys, but there are also plenty of lesser-known drives that are worth the trip. Here are some favorites. 

The thumb is finally getting some deserved attention, and M-25, which runs from Bay City to Port Huron, is part of that draw. It’s about a 150-mile stretch, though there’s really an emphasis on the non-driving parts of this drive. Shop, stroll, and dine along the Saginaw River in Bay City, hit the Cheeseburger in Caseville festival if you happen to be in the area around mid-August, or park yourself in Port Austin for the day to take a kayak trip to Turnip Rock. Continue on to Harbor Beach for its scenic parks and trails or to take a guided boat tour and, finally, land in Port Huron where you can see freighters pass under the Blue Water River Bridge, put your toes in the sand at Lakeside Park, and enjoy culture, entertainment, and dining downtown.           

If you wanted to do M-25 in reverse, instead, you’d be pointed toward US-23 on Lake Huron, aptly named the Sunrise Coast. It starts in Standish and meanders all the way to Mackinaw City. You’ll definitely want to wake up early for this expedition because daybreak over the lake can be so breathtaking you might wonder why no one has ever used the phrase “ride off into the sunrise.” On the way, there tons of small towns to visit. Look for lighthouses in Oscoda and Harrisville, shipwrecks in Alpena, Ocqueoc Falls in Rogers City, and a side trip in the middle. 

Which is… River Road Scenic Byway, starting in Oscoda and heading west. The Au Sable River and the Au Sable Valley are the stars of the show on this drive. There are lots of turnoffs for panoramic views, as well as sightseeing opportunities, including Lumberman’s Monument. There are some interesting activities and exhibits centered around the timber industry there, too.

Crossing the Mackinac Bridge is a scenic drive in its own right, but if you venture further into the UP you’ll reach M-123, the Tahquamenon Scenic Byway. In addition to the spectacular Upper and Lower Falls, you can drive along the Lake Superior shoreline; check out Whitefish Point, which is known for birdwatching and the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum; take a break in the friendly villages of Newberry and Paradise; and maybe even get a chance to peep the Northern Lights. 

Back down in the mitten part of the state, there’s M-119, or Tunnel of Trees. It runs from Cross Village to Harbor Springs, and though it’s only 20 miles long, it packs a lot in. Talk to anyone, and they’ll say you have to go to Legs Inn, which features rustic stone architecture and authentic Polish fare. Drop in to Good Hart General Store while on this route, as well as Pond Hill Farm in Harbor Springs—both considered to be top attractions.   

If you keep going, you’ll hit Petoskey, which has an excellent historic gaslight district for dining and shopping. And, for sure, you’ll want to wade in the bay to search for the city’s eponymous stones. This is also where you can pick up Scenic Route 31, which almost entirely hugs Lake Michigan for 65-plus miles. As you travel through Charlevoix, you’ll see Victorian homes and Mushroom houses, and as you emerge from there, it gets more rural and dotted with orchards and wineries. Eventually, you’ll hit Torch Lake, and here you could take an offshoot on M-88 to grab a tall one at Shorts Brewery in Bellaire. Stay on the route, and you’ll pass through Elk Rapids, which is surrounded by water on all sides. Stop here to get in some beach time, antique shopping, or eclectic dining. 

From there, the sparkling Grand Traverse Bay comes into view, and you’ll probably want to slow down and take it all in. And, spend some time in the Cherry Capital of the World before embarking on the quintessential Michigan scenic drive: M-22. The cool thing about this winding highway is it has more than one section of interest. There’s the part that travels deep into wine country on the Leelanau Peninsula, with towns like Suttons Bay, Northport, and Leland as favorites, but then it keeps going into Benzie County, which has its own appeals. This includes Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore if you take a slight detour onto M-109 at Glen Arbor. You’re gonna want to do that! 

Pick M-22 back up in Empire and head to Frankfort, which has an artsy vibe, more sandy beachfront, and the popular Point Betsie Lighthouse. And, yes, it keeps going. An appropriate place to end your scenic drive, though, is in Arcadia, which lives up to its meaning as a place that offers peace and simplicity. There are a number of roadside turnouts with picturesque overlooks, and there’s even a spot called “Inspiration Point.” Need we say more?