Leaf-peepers take note: Michigan's Traverse Bay area is perfect for your annual fall color pilgrimage. Its characteristic landscape of rolling glacial ridges, lush forests, and wide expanses of open water makes the perfect canvas for nature's annual masterpiece.
About 20 miles west of Traverse City, set against the deep indigo of Lake Michigan, the towering bluffs and islands of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore are particularly dramatic clothed in their autumn finery, but the Traverse City area abounds in such scenic delights.
One of the best places to enjoy the interplay between water, sky and foliage is the Old Mission Peninsula, which juts nearly 32 kilometers (20 miles) into Grand Traverse Bay and, in some places is as little as a mile wide. It's a patchwork of orchards, vineyards, forests, and villages perfect for a morning or afternoon drive interspersed with visits to wineries, roadside fruit stands, and a meal stop at one of several charming restaurants.
The most spectacular views along the peninsula are generally on M-37 (Center Road), which runs along the ridge at its center, through the hamlet of Mapleton to the lighthouse at Old Mission Point.
Or, it's quite as lovely to amble along roads that follow the shoreline on either side with stops at the historic village of Old Mission and Bowers Harbor.
Northwest of Traverse City, the much larger Leelanau Peninsula has its share of beautiful scenery, quaint lakeshore villages, and fascinating history. And it is home to the magnificent Sleeping Bear Dunes. The M-22 follows the shore of Grand Traverse Bay to Northport, then turns abruptly southwest to skirt the coast of Lake Michigan through Leland, Glen Arbor and the Sleeping Bear Dunes.
From here a must-do side jaunt on M-109 goes past the ghost port of Glen Haven and the famous Dune Climb to the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive (permit required), which offers splendid views of the surrounding lake and dune country.
Still, when it comes to fall colors, the peninsula's hilly interior often provides a more brilliant show than the coast. The farmlands, woods, vineyards, and small towns along the slopes above Lake Leelanau and the Glen lakes still retain traces of their Polish and Bohemian founders.
Some of the same feeling can be had just to the northeast of Traverse City, in the glacier-scoured Chain of Lakes region of Antrim County. This is a dramatic landscape of rolling drumlins and long, deep blue glacial lakes. Two of the largest, Elk Lake and Torch Lake, are particularly beautiful when their hillsides are aflame with fall colors. Nearby is the steep valley of the little Rapid River, whose forested slopes look as though they could have been transported from the Appalachians.
A good introduction to this region follows US 31 north from Traverse City, past orchards and farms along the shore of East Grand Traverse Bay to the lively little port of Elk Rapids. From here, it's possible to drive east between the lakes and into the hills above them, where the views of distant blue hills evoke fall in the lochs of Scotland. The tiny village of Alden, on Torch Lake, makes a great lunch stop. The summit of Shanty Creek, near Bellaire, provides awe-inspiring views.
The highlands to the south of Traverse City are dotted with dozens of small lakes, sturdy farm towns, and dense forests of evergreens and hardwoods as well as the majestic Boardman Valley. Much of this intensely varied landscape is contained in the Pere Marquette State Forest, and it is best explored by heading out into its maze of twisting roads.
One route to take is to circle Long Lake whose islands and coves provide a pleasant fall backdrop for a drive to the village of Interlochen, home to the renowned Interlochen Center for the Arts.
From here, it's an uncomplicated trip east through rolling farmlands to Kingsley and the even smaller hamlet of Mayfield on the Boardman River. Then there's a choice of following the river valley or ascending the steep bluffs above the river to the Forest Lakes region. Of course, most serious leaf-peepers would do both.