Lake Michigan Circle Tour
The Lake Michigan Circle Tour is a designated, signed scenic road system that circumnavigates Lake Michigan. I recently made this drive of 1,315 miles over four days.
The Lake Michigan Circle Tour features excellent roads, plenty of campsites, nature trails for hiking, huge sand dunes, beautiful vistas galore, fabulous beaches, and nearly 100 historic lighthouses.
It is a relaxing drive, Lake Michigan is surrounded by friendly people, and there is no shortage of motels and bed-and-breakfasts in which to lodge. Note that most B&B's require a two-night stay during tourist season.
I have read that the Lake Michigan Circle Tour can be accomplished in 1,150 miles, but I chose to stray from the marked route because I wanted to see every nook and cranny along the way.
When I told my daughter Sarrah I was going on the Lake Michigan Circle Tour, she said, "That sounds like fun! Where do you get on?" That is one great part of it; you can get on anywhere around the lake.
A Place to Begin: Warren Dunes State Park, Indiana
I began the Lake Michigan Circle Tour in my hometowns, the Twin Cities of St Joseph and Benton Harbor, Michigan. Since I plan to write a future article about from whence I came, I won't get into that now.
Driving south from St. Joseph along the Lake Michigan shoreline, we reach the Indiana state line in 30 miles. Halfway there, we encounter Warren Dunes State Park. With nearly 2,000 acres of large sand dunes and beaches, Warren Dunes receives a million visitors annually. Hang-gliding permits are only $10.
Michigan City, Indiana is the center of the first metropolitan area we enter, home to 100,000 people. Just past the city, we find Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. This national park covers 15,000 acres along 25 miles of the Lake Michigan coast.
Through Gary to the Gold Coast
On our way west around the bottom of Lake Michigan, we drive through Gary, Indiana. Gary was once the home of the largest steel mill congregation in the world. The labor unions drove the steel industry out of America, and this area is now desolate. Chicago, Illinois, looms ahead.
North of Chicago, we travel through the Gold Coast area, followed by Evanston, Wilmette, Winnetka—where we see hundreds of fabulous mansions.
Kenosha and Racine, Wisconsin
Kenosha, WI, with a population of 100,000, is the first city we come to after crossing the border from Illinois to Wisconsin. We are now headed straight north. Kenosha is a very nice, growing city with a thriving tourist industry.
Millions of automobiles were manufactured in Kenosha back in the day. Presently, half the workforce commutes to Chicago or Milwaukee.
Farther north a bit, we drive through Racine, Wisconsin. Racine, which means "root" in French, is home to 80,000 souls. Malted milk and the garbage disposal were invented in Racine, Wisconsin.
Racine, Wisconsin claims to have the most Danes of any city in North America. The beautiful Johnson Wax headquarters building, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, is a National Historic Landmark.
Milwaukee, Wisconsin ranks 26th among U.S. cities in population. There are 2,000,000 residents in the Greater Milwaukee Area. The name is a conflation of two American Indian words and means roughly "gathering place on good land near water." Four rivers run through the city. The lakefront is, of course, awesome.
I had not been to Milwaukee in a long time. The downtown area surprised me—it is clean and lively and very cool. Milwaukee is also the proud home of Harley-Davidson.
From its beginnings, Milwaukee drew large numbers of German immigrants, who brought their love for beer with them and made Milwaukee the beer capital of the world. A huge contingent of Poles was attracted to Milwaukee, too; the majority settled on the south side of the city. Milwaukee is therefore heavily populated with Catholics and Lutherans.
38 percent of residents inside the city limits are black. The workforce is more blue-collar than most American cities. I have also read that Milwaukee is a haven for Lesbians. The politics of Milwaukee are decidedly dominated by social liberals.
Port Washington, Wisconsin
Now and then during my travels, I see a place on the map that I have had to drive through to get to someplace else that made me stop and sing its praises. Port Washington, Wisconsin is such a place.
This city of 12,000 people sits 25 miles north of Milwaukee and is the cleanest city I saw on my journey.
Port Washington is the original home of Paramount Records, and features the largest collection of pre-Civil War buildings in Wisconsin. It also boasts one of the largest charter fishing fleets on the Great Lakes. One look at its harbor and I could see why.
I could live there.
Sheboygan is called home by 115,000 people, many of them of German ancestry. The city is 50 miles north of Milwaukee.
In 2005, the tallest flagpole in the United States was raised in Sheboygan—338 feet high, and weighing 65 tons—to display the American Flag. The Dairyland Surf Classic, the largest lake surfing competition in the world, is held each year at Sheboygan. Sheboygan is also well known for bratwurst, and hosts the World Bratwurst Eating Championship. I believe the record is 58 bratwursts in ten minutes.
Manitowoc is a community in which 50,000 souls make their abode. Shipbuilding was the mainstay of the economy in the early years of Manitowoc. The oldest custom yacht builder in America, the Burger Boat Company, still produces a few yachts there each year. Worth a visit is the Smithsonian-affiliated Wisconsin Maritime Museum, one of the largest nautical museums in the United States.
The last coal-fired passenger and vehicle ferry on the Great Lakes, the S.S. Badger (S.S. stands for steamship), still sails 60 miles across Lake Michigan and back (four hours each way) every day between from Manitowoc and Ludington, MI. I've not been on it, but it is on my bucket list.
Door County, Wisconsin
Door County, Wisconsin, is a peninsula that juts into Lake Michigan and a popular family vacation area. While the year-round population is only 28,000, during the summer season the "Cape Cod of the Midwest" plays host to 200,000 visitors daily. Many Door County businesses are only open in season.
The name "Door County" comes from the strait off the tip of the peninsula, that the French nicknamed "Death's Door," because it is littered with shipwrecks. Treacherous shoals and unpredictable wind gusts contribute to the hazard.
Door County is known for its 12 lighthouses, cherry orchards, and fish boils, which feature the locally caught whitefish.
Green Bay, Wisconsin
Green Bay is the last major stop on the Lake Michigan Circle Tour in Wisconsin. From here, we head north about 55 miles into the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.
Green Bay, population 300,000, is best known as the home of the Green Bay Packers football team, so named because the city is a major center of the meatpacking industry. The Packers have won 12 championships in the National Football League—more than any other team.
The residents are predominantly Catholics, though Lutherans also maintain a strong presence. A major attraction is the National Railroad Museum. I didn't go there, but I did go out to hear a hot, live, avant-garde jazz-reggae band called "Shaker and the Egg" at a dive named IQ's. When I asked the nice girl at my motel how to get to the address, she said, "I've never been to that part of town. It's bad." I thought, "perfect."
Menominee, Michigan, is across the state border from its twin city, Marinette, Wisconsin. The two cities have a combined population of 65,000, with slightly more on the Wisconsin side. The area population has dropped 50 percent in the last 100 years. The majority of the citizens are of German descent.
Menominee is also the name of an American Indian tribe; it means "Wild Rice." There was a time when Menominee produced more lumber than anyplace in the United States. Manufacturing provides the most jobs today. The local high school consistently turns out excellent athletic teams.
Menominee was the most impressive city I saw in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. The historic downtown has been gentrified. It looks like a fine place to live. Now we proceed northbound.
Escanaba, Michigan, is home to 17,000 souls located in a "Banana Belt," which means it enjoys warmer weather than the region it is in as a whole. The schools close the first day of deer hunting season.
Escanaba is a major center for Great Lakes Shipping. The chief employer is a paper mill. The lighthouse is on the National Register of Historic Places.
Leaving Escanaba, I drove east 142 miles, through forests mostly, near the Lake Michigan coast of the Upper Peninsula to St Ignace, Michigan. I passed through the towns of Gladstone and Manistique. I saw a lot of small motels and restaurants with few customers. I noticed that these enterprises were very clean, and seemingly all dressed up, as if expecting a crowd.
One of the side trips I took off the Lake Michigan Circle Tour was to explore Garden Peninsula. Near the tiny village of Garden was a little store that combined groceries, liquor, gas, and movies. The most remarkable feature is a butcher shop, which produced home-made Slim Jims—easily the best I ever had.
Nearby is Fayette Historic State Park, which features a "ghost town." The town of Fayette once led the Upper Peninsula in iron-smelting. During 24 years of operation, Fayette produced a total of 229,288 tons of iron. 500 people lived there before the blast furnaces closed. Today, the town is preserved so we can see what life was like there from 1867 to 1891.
St Ignace and Mackinaw City, Michigan
The most outstanding feature of this area is the magnificent Mackinac Bridge. The bridge connects the Upper and Lower Peninsulas of Michigan; and the little towns of St Ignace and Mackinaw City. The Mackinac Bridge is the third longest total suspension bridge in the world. It is a mile and a half across.
The Mackinac Bridge took four years to build and opened in 1957. The high winds frighten a number of people, and professional drivers are on hand to drive your car, motorcycle, or semi truck across for you. Only one vehicle has ever blown off the bridge to the waters 200 feet below—it was a Yugo.
The waters below are the Straits of Mackinac, which links Lake Michigan to Lake Huron. Actually, these two lakes are one lake. An early mistake by geographers declared them separate lakes and by the time it was figured out that Lake Huron and Lake Michigan are one—nobody wanted to change the names.
St Ignace (pop. 3,000) is one of the oldest cities in Michigan. It sits on the site where the French missionary Father Marquette established a mission in 1671—and he is buried there.
Mackinaw City is a village of only 1,000 people but it is the number one tourist destination in Michigan—due to its proximity to Mackinac Island. Fort Michilimackinac, which dates from 1715, is also popular with tourists.
Petoskey sits next to the deepest natural harbor of the Great Lakes. It is a high-end town, in one of the most beautiful areas of Michigan. 7,000 people call Petoskey home, though the population swells with swells during the summer. It is not dead in winter either, since there are ski resorts nearby.
Because of a flat tire in the middle of nowhere (when I strayed from the marked Lake Michigan Circle Tour), I had to ride 40 miles in a tow truck to Petoskey. The driver, from Cheboygan Towing, was a wonderful and helpful fellow. He stayed with me while his dispatcher called around feverishly to find a room for the night—the entire town was booked.
Due to a last-minute cancellation, the wonderful folks at the Apple Tree Inn— highly recommended—took me in. And they had a van pick me from the Odawa Casino. I'm not a gambler, but it was fun to visit this beautiful place and watch the action. Lord knows that by then I needed a drink.
Charlevoix is 16 miles west of Petoskey. It sits on a strip of land between Lake Michigan and Lake Charlevoix—pretty good sized at over 17,000 acres.
Charlevoix has only 5,000 full-time residents, but it is a major destination for upper-crust vacationers. During prohibition, Charlevoix, MI was a hangout for Chicago gangsters.
Before reaching Charlevoix, I came to a spot on Lake Charlevoix where the road ended. No worries, my car (with me in it) was put aboard the four-car Ironton Ferry. This cable ferry takes ten minutes to cross the south arm of the lake. The cost is $3.25. The Ironton Ferry makes the trip 100 times per day in season.
Traverse City, Michigan
Traverse City is the largest city in northern Michigan, with an area population of 142,000. The Traverse City region is the largest producer of tart cherries in the United States. 500,000 people attend its annual Cherry Festival. Greater Traverse City is also known for its wine production, but tourism is the lifeblood of Traverse City.
The Traverse City area is a great place to live or visit. I drove up and around the Leelanau Peninsula, which is as picturesque as you might want it to be, and home to a thriving organic farming movement. My daughter Sarrah's fiancé, Jerrad Grinstead, told me that I should pick her up a "Petoskey Stone," which I did in the hamlet of Omena.
The Petoskey Stone is the state stone of Michigan; it is a fossilized coral found only in the Traverse City region. I traveled southwest to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. On my way, I stopped at a convenience store that sold delectable home-made sandwiches, produced by a local woman.
For the remainder of our Lake Michigan Circle Tour, we will head straight south, following the Lake Michigan coast. First, we pass through the towns of Empire and Frankfort.
Manistee and Ludington, Michigan
Manistee, Michigan, had more millionaires per capita than any city in the United States during the 1880s. From what I have seen, it has fallen on hard times. It is home to 6,000 people today. It was once a center for logging and the manufacture of roofing shingles. Now salt production is king in Manistee.
Ludington, Michigan, has a population of 8,000 people. I was very impressed by Ludington. It is a gorgeous city, with flowers everywhere, and lovely restored Victorian mansions lining its main avenue.
Ludington was a lumber town back in the day, but it is now focused on its wonderful beaches and quaint downtown of art galleries and boutiques.
We continue southbound, passing through a very nice village called Pentwater, and the twin cities of Montague and Whitehall, which also seem to be fine places to dwell.
Muskegon is the largest city we have seen since Green Bay on our Lake Michigan Circle Tour. 170,000 people live in the Muskegon area. The city has a large black community. Muskegon is the most populous town on the eastern shores of Lake Michigan.
Muskegon means "swamp." I expected to find a cesspool of a place, based on a visit there twenty years ago, but I am pleased to report that Muskegon is being revitalized.
Pere Marquette beach is the largest free public beach on the east side of Lake Michigan. Muskegon Lake is renowned for fishing, particularly Walleye. No city in Michigan boasts more high school football victories than Muskegon. The state's largest amusement park is in Muskegon: Michigan's Adventure, which features seven roller coasters and a water park.
Grand Haven, Michigan
Grand Haven, MI, is ten miles south of Muskegon. It was once a trading post, owned by the first millionaire in America, John Jacob Astor, who made his fortune fur trading. Grand Haven was heavy into logging, lumber, and shipbuilding in the old days, later diversifying into manufacturing.
Good Morning America proclaimed Grand Haven State Park as one of the top five beaches in the United States. Grand Haven is called the Midwest Mecca of beach volleyball. The Grand Haven Coast Guard coordinates all Lake Michigan Coast Guard activities.
The first bank robbery by "Baby Face" Nelson was committed in Grand Haven. The Grand Haven Musical Fountain was built in 1962, at that time the world's largest such fountain. Grand Haven became the first city in America with wireless internet access citywide in 2004—even reaching boats 15 miles offshore.
23 miles south of Grand Haven, we come to Holland, MI. These two cities combine to form a "metropolitan statistical area" with 260,000 residents.
Holland—the "Tulip City"—was founded in 1847 by Dutch Calvinists fleeing persecution in The Netherlands. Holland is sometimes called the "City of Churches;" it boasts 170 places of Christian worship, and it is the birthplace of the "What Would Jesus Do?" movement, started by a local church in 1989.
The H. J. Heinz Company has operated the world's largest pickle factory in Holland, MI since 1897. It processes over a million pounds of pickles per day during the green season.
The "Well-being Index" ranks Holland as the second healthiest and happiest city in America. The Tulip Festival is held each May, which involves six million tulips. The Tulip Festival attracts a million visitors, making it the third largest annual town festival in America. Reader's Digest named the Tulip Festival "the best small-town festival in the country."
Saugatuck became a noted art colony over a hundred years ago, during the Arts & Crafts Movement. Today, Saugatuck is a top tourist destination for its lovely harbor, unparalleled beaches, and quaint downtown—full of art galleries and unusual shops. Only a couple thousand people actually live there. The town is well known among men who enjoy homosexual behaviors.
Saugatuck is the last stop on our Lake Michigan Circle Tour. I drove through the lovely hamlet of Pullman and found a great little grocery store, Preferred Market. On my way back to our starting point, I passed through two more nice towns, Fennville and South Haven. And then I found the Hagar Bar & Grill on Lake Michigan Beach, seven miles north of St Joseph, where I stopped and sang a bit of Karaoke. The Hagar Bar & Grill has outstanding food, and the world famous DJ Dale Parsons.
Lake Michigan Facts
The star of the Lake Michigan Circle Tour is Lake Michigan itself. I grew up on Lake Michigan, the only Great Lake located entirely within the United States, and the largest lake on earth entirely within one country.
Lake Michigan is 307 miles long and 118 miles wide at its widest point. The lake's greatest depth reaches 923 feet; its average depth is 279 feet. The Lake Michigan shoreline is 1,640 miles long.
Twelve million people live along the coast of Lake Michigan. The beaches of Lake Michigan, especially those on the Michigan side, are known for their exquisite beauty. The sand is soft and off-white, known as "singing sands," because it squeaks under your feet due to its high content of quartz.
The Milwaukee Reef runs under Lake Michigan from Milwaukee to Muskegon and divides the lake into northern and southern pools. Each pool has a clockwise flow of water. The water is five to ten degrees warmer on the Michigan side during summer.
© 2010 James A Watkins