The Best USA Road Trips

Lake Michigan & Lake Superior Circle Road Trip

Lake Michigan & Lake Superior Circle Road Trip
By Sarah Bence

The Midwest’s five Great Lakes make up the largest freshwater system in the world.

The lakes’ shores are lined with sand dunes, and inland in Michigan and Wisconsin you’ll also find dense forests, waterfalls, and natural springs. This route loops through Wisconsin and Michigan, passing through Isle Royale, the nation’s most remote national park, two of only four national lakeshores (broadly equivalent in status if not fame to national parks) and crossing Lake Michigan by car ferry.

Lakes Michigan & Superior road trip

Approx. distance: 1,250 miles

Duration: 16 days

Suggested route: Milwaukee, Manitowoc, Ludington, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Traverse City, Mackinac Bridge, Whitefish Point, Tahquamenon Falls, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Marquette, Copper Harbor, Isle Royale National Park, Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park, Green Bay, Door County Peninsula.

Lake Superior coastline at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore on Upper Peninsula Michigan usa

Lake Superior's Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore

The route

Start in Milwaukee, Wisconsin or Chicago for a longer drive but a more accessible airport if you are flying into the region. Drive an hour north on I-43 along the Lake Michigan coastline to Manitowoc, which you might be familiar with from the documentary Making a Murderer. Here, board the S.S. Badger car ferry for a four hour journey across Lake Michigan to Ludington, Michigan.

In Ludington, enjoy Ludington State Park or Nordhouse Dunes Wilderness Area, where you can camp overnight and walk along wide, sandy Lake Michigan beaches. Drive north to Manistee, and meet up with M22, just south of Onekama. This 116-mile scenic highway snakes along the Lake Michigan coastline and is drivable in one day, but you might prefer stretching the drive into a couple days to experience everything. If you only have one stop, make it Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.

M22 will take you to Traverse City, your last overnight stop in Michigan’s lower peninsula. Enjoy the local wine and cider scene with a side trip down Old Mission Peninsula, where you’ll find plenty of wineries to stop at for tastings.

From Traverse City, drive 2 hours to Mackinac Bridge. Take the marginally longer route along US-31 which follows the coast, and through the northern Michigan towns of Charlevoix and Petoskey. To extend your trip here, take the ferry to Mackinac Island for a day or overnight trip. No cars are allowed on Mackinac Island, but you can travel the island by foot, bike, or horse-drawn carriage. Stock up on the famous Mackinac Island fudge before leaving.

Once you’ve made it to the upper peninsula, drive north along M-123 to Whitefish Point. Here, you can walk along the stony Lake Superior shore and visit the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum. From Whitefish Point it’s a 45-minute drive inland to reach Tahquamenon Falls State Park. There are four campgrounds in the park, or if you’re passing through, make a lunch stop at Tahquamenon Falls Brewery & Pub for a microbrew and pasty (a must-eat while in the upper peninsula).

From Tahquamenon Falls it’s another 1 ½ hour drive to Munising. Along the way, stop in McMillan to visit Nature’s Kennel where you can meet and ride with working sled dogs. Munising is a small town along Lake Superior and your base for visiting Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. Spend a few days here exploring Pictured Rocks by hiking trail, kayak, or cruise.

The drive from here to Copper Harbor, at the tip of the Keweenaw Peninsula, takes about 3 ½ hours but you can stretch it out with a stop in Marquette, 45 minutes west of Munising. Visit Presque Isle Park, and grab a meal at Donckers, an old-fashioned candy shop and café.

Copper Harbor is the jumping off point to visit Isle Royale National Park – the only national park on this route, and one of the most isolated in the country. Leave your car in Copper Harbor and take the Isle Royale Queen IV passenger ferry to Rock Harbor. A day trip only gives three or four hours at Isle Royale, which isn’t enough time to experience the park. Plan to spend a few days here, either staying at the Rock Harbor Lodge or camping.

After your return to Copper Harbor, drive 2 ½ hours down the Keweenaw Peninsula to the Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park. Here, visit the Lake of the Clouds for panoramic views, and camp at various sites including the Presque Isle Rustic Campground, Union Bay Campground, or a rustic cabin (reservations required).

From Porcupine Mountains it is a 5 ½ hour drive back to Milwaukee, the starting and ending point of this route. You can break up this drive into multiple days with stops at Crystal Falls, Green Bay, or a side trip up Wisconsin’s Door County Peninsula, which has been called the “Cape Cod of the Midwest”.

Highlights

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore

The National Park Service has only four national lakeshores and two of these are in Michigan, one in each peninsula. Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore stretches over 35 miles of Lake Michigan shoreline. Pick up a permit from the Sleeping Bear Dunes Visitor Center, and as you drive into the park stop at Grocer’s Daughter in Empire for hand-made chocolates.

Stop nine along the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive gives an opportunity to clamber down the huge, steep dunes to Lake Michigan. Beware, the climb back up can take over an hour.

Mackinac Bridge

Mackinac Bridge is the fourth longest suspension bridge in the world at 26,372 feet. It connects Michigan’s lower and upper peninsulas and takes less than 10 minutes to drive across. As you drive north across the Straits of Mackinac, Lake Michigan is on your left and Lake Huron is on your right.

Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore

The second national lakeshore along this route is Pictured Rocks, a range of unique and colourful sandstone cliffs along Lake Superior. Over 100 miles of hiking trails cut through the lakeshore. If hiking isn’t your thing you can enjoy the scenery by kayak, canoe, paddleboard, or boat from the lake itself.

Impressive formations here include Chapel Rock, Miner’s Castle, Gitchee Gumee, and Indian Head.

Isle Royale

Lake Superior is home to Isle Royale National Park, the most remote and least visited national park in the country. Isle Royale has one large island, reachable by ferry, and 450 smaller islands. The island is particularly famous for its over 50-year wolves and moose study, the longest continuous study of a single predator-prey relationship in the world. Tourists should be mindful of wolves during their visit, and stay on the trails.

Lake Michigan & Lake Superior Circle Road Trip

Sarah Bence

Sarah Bence is a travel journalist based in her home state of Michigan, after living in the UK for three and a half years. She writes for Lonely Planet, Fodor's, Roadtrippers Magazine, Business Insider, and more.

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