The Western Great Lakes Region

The great lakes are one of the most unique areas in the world. With a total surface area of nearly 32,000 square miles, the lakes span a vast area from new york to Minnesota. This itinerary is going to take you through some of the best the western regions has to offer.

#thisismyroute

Prepared by:
James

States: 
Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan

Start/End: 
Chicago, Illinois

Total miles:
1,800

Suggested days: 
At least 16

Type: 
scenic road trip

Recommended for: 
First-timers to the United States, honeymooners, photographers, road trippers, 

Suggested season
spring, summer, fall

Overview

This route is perfect for those who want to experience the beauty of the Great Lakes Region. In this itinerary you will travel through three states and visit Lake Michigan, Lake Superior and Lake Huron. The upper reaches of this region are full of spectacular scenery, rolling hills and forests that stretch on to the horizon.  You are going to fly into Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport. We know you are going to want to spend a few days in America’s Second City, but save it for the end of your trip when you can unwind after all your travels. 

How to Prepare

We recommend approximately 16 days for this trip in order to experience each town and activity without feeling too rushed. You have a lot of miles to cover, so we suggest spending at minimum a day at each stop.  This itinerary is full of suggestions of some of the best places to fully experience the area, with overnight stops in the towns along the way. Plan your trip accordingly so that you experience the places that spark your interest the most. These areas can be crowded in the summertime, and for good reason. There are multiple events and the weather is beautiful. Wintertime can be beautiful in these places, however, the regions around the Great Lakes can be very cold with significant amounts of snowfall, so take that into account as you decide your travel dates. Fall in this region is characterized by beautiful blue skies and amazing fall foliage.  The majority of this trip will be short drives between stops, but this is to allow you the most time at all the amazing places that you have traveled so far to see. Though this itinerary is a day to day guide, it is only a guide and you should feel free to adapt it however you want, taking as much time as you need to fully experience this wonderful part of the world.

DAY 1: land in Chicago, travel to green bay

3.5 hours/200 miles

Once you get into Chicago, we would recommend getting your things together and heading off to start your road trip.  Once you get into Green Bay, our recommendation would be to head to Bay Beach Wildlife Sanctuary to get your first look at the Green Bay of Lake Michigan. It’s a well earned way to stretch your legs after your long day of travelling. After your exercise, you are going to need some refreshments and we would recommend heading to the Noble Roots Brewing Company to get this done.  Get a room for the night at St. Brendan’s Irish Inn. It’s a great hotel with an old-world feel right on the banks of the Fox River.

Best place to get outdoors:

Fox River State Trail

Can’t miss it:

Lambeau Field-Home of the Packers

Best place to see a waterfall:

Fonferek’s Glen County Park

Best place to see trains:

National Railroad Museum

Best place for a stroll:

Vulture City

Classic Wisconsin Dinner:

The Stadium View

DAY 2: Escanaba in da Moonlight

2 hours/110 miles

Welcome to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, or the Yooper, if you want to sound like a local. Escanaba is a port city located on the shores of Little Bay De Noc, and is a great introduction to the Northern regions of the Great Lakes.  Yoopers are known to be extremely friendly and welcoming people and make anyone feel at ease. Most tourists leave the UP with a feeling that they can’t wait to return. We agree. The first place you must visit when you get to Escanaba is Sand Point Lighthouse. It will give you a commanding view of the bay.

Go for a swim:

Aronson Island

Get some culture:

William Bonifas Fine Arts Center

Best place to eat like a Yooper:

Swedish Pantry

DAY 3: Houghton and Isle Royale National Park

3 hours/160 miles

Included on the list of “100 Best Small Towns in America” Houghton, is also the gateway to the Keweenaw Peninsula and an access point to one of the least visited National Parks in the Lower 48, Isle Royale. If you decide to visit Isle Royale, you should maybe think about spending at least an extra day in the area so that you have time to do everything there is in this amazing area. One of the first things we would recommend doing when you get into town is to head to the Breyers Lakefront Resort for a great night’s rest.

Best hike:

Nara Nature Park

Best scenic drive: 

The Covered Road

Best photo op:

Kwewwnaw Rocket Range

Buy a book:

The Bookworm

Best place for a stroll:

Downtown Houghton

Best place for dinner:

Pilgrim River Steakhouse

DAY 4: Marquette

Sunset over Lake Michigan.
2 hours/100 miles

With a population of almost 22,000, Marquette is the biggest city in the Upper Peninsula, and it shows in the myriad of things there are to do here. Because of it’s almost unfathomable number of outdoor recreation opportunities, Marquette is a young, hip and vibrant town with a thriving scene. It’s also a great place to find a waterfall, with somewhere around 77 in the surrounding area. One can’t miss experience is to take a plunge off the famed Black Rocks into the deep waters of Lake superior. A great place to stay for the night is the Birchmont Hotel.

Best way to learn about the area:

Marquette Maritime Museum and Lighthouse

Must see:

Marquette Farmer’s Market

Best scenic hike:

Sugarloaf Mountain

Best place to shop local:

Downtown Marquette

Eat like a Cajun in the Yoop:

Lagniappe

Best Local Beer:

Ore Dock Brewing Company

DAY 5: munising and the Grand Isle

1 hour/42 miles

You have a short driving day today, which is good because that means you can have the time to eat a leisurely breakfast at Donckers. Try the Bacon Waffles. Once you roll into Munising you will notice one thing. There seem to be a lot of beautiful trees around. That’s because Munising is completely surrounded by the Hiawatha National Forest. Munising is an outdoor wonderland, so get prepared to snap a lot of photos. The first thing you need to do when you get into town is to head to the Munising Vistor’s Center. Its a great little start to your visit, with a nice gift shop attached. Just off shore, is the exquisite Grand Isle National Recreation Area.

Best place a natural history lesson:

Pictured Rocks Interpretive Center

Can’t miss it:

All the waterfalls

Best place for a hike:

Grand Island

Best place for a stroll:

Downtown Musining

Best way to see Pictured Rocks:

Superior Parasail

Best place for a burger:

Eh! Burger

DAY 6: Grand Marais and Pictured Rocks

1 hour/50 miles

The historic village of Grand Marais is located on the south shore of Lake Superior at the eastern gateway to Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. The town may be small, but it has a big heart and will be your base camp to explore the surrounding area. One thing this area is known for, are all the beautiful agates just waiting to be found. Visit the Gitchee Gumee Agate and History Museum to start your hunt. The first thing we would recommend doing is heading to the Agate Cross Bed and Breakfast. It’s a beautiful base from which to explore this beautiful place.

DAY 7: St. Ignace and the straits of mackinac

2 hours/110 miles

Today you are going to leave the shores of Lake Superior for Lake Huron and the port city of St. Ignace. St. Ignace is the second-oldest city founded by Europeans in Michigan, and sits on the northern end of the Mackinac Bridge. The town is proud of its history, and shows it with the amazing number of festivals it holds each year. But more than that, it has a vibrant downtown with shops and boutiques that line State Street. One can’t miss experience is to take one of the ferries to Macinac Island. In fact, there is so much to do between these two communities, that you may want to seriously consider spending more than one day here. Stop in at the Chamber of Commerce to help guide you on your way.

Best place to get some culture:

The Museum of Ojibwa Culture

Best hike to a scenic view:

Castle Rock

Most unique experience:

The Mystery Spot

Best place for a stroll:

The Huron Boardwalk

Get a Yooper pastie:

Bessies Homemade Pasties

Best night out:

Biere De Mac Brewing

DAY 8: Alpena

2 hours/102 miles

Say goodbye to the Yoop as you travel the shore of Lake Huron to Alpena. Alpena is a unique town, in the fact that a marine sanctuary exists with the city limit’s. Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary encompasses 4,300 square miles of Lake Huron, protecting one of America’s best-preserved and nationally-significant collections of shipwrecks. But Alpena is also a bustling modern city of almost 11,000 people with numerous art galleries, museums and wineries. Nearby Thunder Bay Island has an amazing lighthouse and is worth the 13 mile trip by water.

Best place for outdoor recreation:

Rockport State Park

Best shopping:

The Center Building

Best place to get some culture:

The Besser Museum

Best place to view some wildlife:

Island Park and Wildlife Refuge

Best place to shop local:

Alpena Farmers Market

Best local beer:

Austin Bros. Beer Co.

DAY 9: Unwind in Tawas Bay

1.5 hours/70 miles

Known as the Sunrise Coast, Tawas Bay is known for giving its visitor’s one very important thing; the ability to relax and unwind in one of the most tranquil settings in America. Made up of the small communities of Tawas CityEast TawasOscoda and Au Sable, The Tawas Bay area is all about stopping to smell the breeze off Lake Huron.  And the best place to start is the Tawas Bay Beach Resort. The name of the game in the Tawas Bay area is all about strolling the miles of beaches, shoes in hand, cares left behind.

Best place for a stroll:

Shoreline Park

Best outdoor recreation:

Tawas Point State Park

Best scenic drive:

River Road Scenic Drive

Most eclectic museum:

Wurtsmith Air Museum

Best way to see the coast:

Au Sable River Queen

Best way to dine on a cruise:

Charity Island Dinner Cruise

DAY 10: Bay City

1.5 hours/70 miles

Its back to the bright lights and big city, Bay City, Michigan. We’re going to give it to you straight–this is a really fun town. From the river walks to the museums to the thumping downtown area and the numerous city parks, Bay City truly has a little something for everyone. Your first stop should be the Bay County Chamber of Commerce in downtown Bay City. They will have all the information you need to explore the town.

Can’t miss it:

Center Avenue Historic District

Best museum:

Saginaw Valley Naval Museum

Best place to stock up on candy:

St. Laurent Brothers Candy

Bet place to shop local:

City Market

Get out on the water:

BaySail

Best place for dinner:

Old City Hall

DAY 11: Traverse City

2.5 hours/140 miles

Fancy a cherry? Well then you have come to the right place. Traverse City is the largest producer of Tart Cherries in the United States. Near the time of cherry harvest, the city hosts the annual week-long National Cherry Festival in the first full week of July, attracting approximately 500,000 visitors annually. The surrounding countryside also produces grapes, and is one of the centers of wine production in the Midwest. Not bad for a city of around 15,000. Traverse City also runs the gamut of outdoor activities, mixed with a city that is all about things to do. How great is Traverse City? It has been named the Number 2 small town travel destination in the United States by Trip Advisor. Not too shabby at all. The first thing we would recommend doing when you get into town is head to the The Village at Grand Commons. It is a great introduction to all things Traverse City.

Best way to see the city:

KaBrew! Kayak brewery tour

Best museum:

Dennos Museum Center

Best hike:

Manistee River Trail

Best shopping experience:

Downtown Traverse City

Can’t miss it:

Mission Point Lighthouse

Best place to find amazing food and craft cocktails:

Georginas

DAY 12: muskegon

2 hours 45 minutes /219 miles

With 27 miles of beaches and dunes, Muskegon is a truly of a water recreationist’s paradise. It;s the largest city on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan. While technically located on Lake Muskegon, the city has access to Lake Michigan through a narrow channel at Muskegon State Park. The harbor areas around Lake Muskegon are a simply fantastic way to spend some time, though one are that you can’t miss would be Harbor Town, located on the spit of land between Lake Muskegon and Lake Michigan. And while you are there, make sure you check out Docker’s Fishhouse and Lounge. Its a great place to watch the boats.

Best place to catch the sunset:

Pere Marquette Park

Best shopping area:

Downtown Muskegon

Best place for dinner:

The Hearthstone

DAY 13 and 14: To Chicago and the Windy City

3 hours/187 miles

Chicago is a world-class city, though one that is somewhat peripheral due to its location away from the coasts. This perhaps makes the city even better, though, as Chicago has retained much of its local culture and history over the centuries. There is enough to do in Chicago that one could easily spend a week sightseeing there, but if you only are dedicating a couple days to the city, you can easily concentrate your time on the key attractions. As the city is fairly spread out, you could pick a neighborhood to concentrate on – like the famous Loop, or the less traveled PilsenUkrainian VillageLogan Square and Wicker Park – or ping pong around the city by public transit to see Cloud Gate and Millennium Park, the Magnificent Mile, the Field MuseumGarfield Park Conservatory and other deservedly known places. There is a lot to explore in Chicago and anywhere you go will be worthwhile.

Best place to get some culture:

The Art Institute of Chicago

Best American experience:

Watch the Cubbies play at Wrigley Field

Best place for a stroll:

Lakefront Trail

Best place to catch the blues:

The House of Blues

Best Chicago style deep dish pizza:

Gino’s East

Best neighborhood:

Streeterville