Follow these four twisty two-lanes through Northern Michigan’s fall color blow-out. Each route, by the way, is plucked from the Michigan scenic byways list, so, you know, officially authorized purdy. Take your pick of Leelanau County, Tahquamenon River, Tunnel of Trees or Old Mission Peninsula.
Leelanau Scenic Heritage Route Byway
Following this route is easy when you’re starting on M22 in Traverse City and tracing the shoreline of Leelanau on the way up to Northport and back down to Empire, with an optional shortcut through Lake Leelanau via M204’s farmland scenery. Picking the stops? A bit more challenging, when you have six scenic overlooks (many within a national lakeshore recently voted the most beautiful spot in America by viewers of Good Morning America) to choose from as well as seven beaches, 19 water access points, six natural areas, 31 parks, 10 hiking trails and three golf courses. Oh, and then there are the 27 winery tasting-rooms and 32 restaurants and delis good for either full meal or road trip picnic fare. Plan ahead, or stop as your mood dictates (m22leelanauheritageroute.org).
Tahquamenon Scenic Heritage Route
This 63-mile stretch of true Northwoods along M123 is memorably explored by car—or you can abandon the asphalt and go by canoe in the nearby Tahquamenon River. Check out the byway website’s irresistibly peaceful paddle itinerary for exploring the route’s “culture of birch bark, blueberries, whitetail deer and whitefish filet.” Day one has you paddling the Tahquamenon River on a three-hour float launched at the M123 bridge north of Newberry. An early start offers the best shot to spot otters, sandhill cranes or even moose before sampling whitefish and blueberries (served in beer if you like) at the Tahquamenon Falls Brewery and Pub. Use your personal adventure quotient to decide between second-day options of a slow paddle to loon calls within the Pretty Lakes Quiet Area or shallow-water Lake Superior shipwreck tour guided by Woods and Water Ecotours. (explorem123.com).
Tunnel of Trees Scenic Heritage Route
Preserving a precious inventory of trees is one goal of Highway 119’s byway committee—and of that, you’ll be glad once you traverse this forest of maples, birch, aspen and pine that, in autumn, hugs the narrow, curvy two-lane in multi-colored splendor. Start on M119 where it heads north out of Harbor Springs and stop for a lunch of pierogis at quirky Legs Inn (lovely patio overlook!). Stops are limited otherwise, unless you take a tip and look for interpretive signs. You can legally stop at forest’s edge to read about Devil’s Elbow, a flowing spring believed by the area’s Odawa to be the home of spirits who made their presence known in darkness, or Old Council Tree, an ancient navigational marker.
Old Mission Peninsula Scenic Byway
About seven miles into your 18-mile drive north on M37 toward Old Mission Peninsula’s tip, you reach what locals call the “switch,” where—as elevations start to climb—you see the visible results of the route’s preservation focus and a view likely to make you gasp: peeks of two deep blue bays beyond rolling hills, classic red barns and fields patterned with grapevines and orchards. The agricultural bounty and views are on best display at overlooks by two of the largest wineries on the route—Chateau Grand Traverse and Chateau Chantal. Also detour down Swaney Road toward Old Mission village to sample the peninsula’s original a-list fruit, the cherry, served vintage-style in cherry phosphates at Old Mission General Store. Stretch the legs again with a climb up the lighthouse steps at the peninsula’s tip (open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. April thru October, weekends November and December), where the 45th Parallel crosses. (oldmission.com).