Michigan's Leelanau Peninsula
Lee-la-nau: "Delight of Life"
For the 2013 season (in northern Michigan, this is May through October), I was fortunate enough to work as the gift shop manager for Grand Traverse Lighthouse, located at the tip of the Leelanau Peninsula.
Leelanau Peninsula, which embodies the entirety of Leelanau County, is known by Michiganders as "the little finger" of the "mitten" (a reference to the shape of lower Michigan). The tip of the Peninsula brings together the waters of Lake Michigan (to the West) and Grand Traverse Bay (to the East).
The name "Leelanau" is a combination Native American and French term meaning "delight of life." I had known for years that the Leelanau Peninsula was beautiful, with areas of waters as turquoise as the Caribbean. During hours when the gift shop was closed, I got to know the flavor of the area's quaint little shoreline towns and their unique offerings. I saw a variety of flora and fauna in settings beautiful enough to cause me to simply stop and stare. I want to share some of the highlights, mainly to entice people to visit this area and see for themselves that there is truly beauty and awesomeness in the Midwest!
Getting to Leelanau
The Leelanau Peninsula is in northwest lower Michigan. Major access interstates are US 31 from south and west, and US 131 toward Traverse City from other points across the state (some 30 miles from Traverse City, the interstate will be replaced by 2-lane state highways).
The closest commercial flight hub is Traverse City's Cherry Capital Airport. Flights to Cherry Capital can be expensive and oddly timed. Prevailing winds sometimes make flights in and out of Traverse City subject to cancellation, especially during winter months. Distance travelers may find it less expensive to fly into Grand Rapids or Detroit, and rent a car for the remainder of the trip.
The chart below shows driving between Suttons Bay (mid-Leelanau Peninsula) some Midwestern cities.
Driving Distances to Leelanau
To Suttons Bay
(mid-point of Leelanau Peninsula)
Traverse City, MI
Grand Rapids, MI
Flavor of Leelanau
Leelanau Peninsula is an area of nature, natural beauty, small towns (the larger reaching "village" status and most being "unincorporated towns." Businesses are privately owned--at present the only "chain" businesses are a Subway sandwich shop and Murdock Fudge, both in Suttons Bay. Towns are small (the largest population is that of Suttons Bay--618 residents according to the 2010 census) and geared toward tourist trade, with a plethora of brightly colored and unique shops.
The Leelanau Peninsula is an artist's mecca, with galleries and showrooms in the towns and along the roadside. Also known as a "foodie" area, Leelanau is home to several restaurants offering foods prepared with local produce, free-range chickens or freshly caught fish. The 45th Parallel runs through the peninsula, same as for the Bordeaux wine-growing region in France. Wine grapes, tart cherries, apples and peaches are among the many fruits grown in the region, seemingly designed for just that. The peninsula boasts over 25 wineries, many with tasting rooms open to the public.
The Leelanau Peninsula is worthy of a visit allowing plenty of time to be immersed in the array of offerings--too many to cover in one hub. However, I'd like to take you on a brief tour, beginning in Traverse City and traveling north on M22 (along Grand Traverse Bay), and discussing a few high points along the way.
Heading north on M22, we'll go through a little town called Greilickville--location of some wonderful restaurants right along the water. After leaving Greilickville, the businesses start to thin as the highway hugs Grand Traverse Bay for another 15 miles to the village of Suttons Bay.
Suttons Bay is home to several unique (and some rather pricey!) shops offering everything from designer clothing, housewares,pet items, art galleries, jewelry, gardening doo-dads, fudge and candy. The lovingly refurbished Bay Theatre shows first-run movies and offers free popcorn on Tuesday nights. There is a clean public beach, offering swimming water a few degrees warmer than in Lake Michigan, and often with smaller crowds than found at Traverse City Beaches. There is free public parking along the streets and in areas next to the beach and beach park.
Some of the more unique offerings of Suttons Bay include:
- Black Star Farm: a complex south of the village boasting the area's premier winery, a bed & breakfast, riding stables and cheese factory.
- Plantmasters (on the south edge of town, right before the village limits): one of the largest greenhouses in Michigan, offering beautiful healthy plants.
- Enerdyne: a children's science-based shop downtown.
- Candy World: local home-made fudge-dredged apples and penny candies you may not have seen since childhood.
- The Korner Kottage: Trip Advisor's most highly-rated Bed and Breakfast in the area.
- Martha's Table: one of many wonderful restaurants in the area (offering fresh, local, organic fare).
- On the way out of town, I recommend stopping on the main drag at The Ice Cream Factory, featuring Traverse City's world-famous Moomer's ice cream.
Shortly after leaving Suttons Bay, we'll be entering Peshawbestown (the first syllable and second 's' are silent, so if you hear locals talking about "SHAW-bee-town", this is the one), a 12-acre reservation of the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians. The town borders Grand Traverse Bay, and In 2014, construction of a full-service Peshawbestown marina is scheduled to begin.
For now, the primary attraction on the reservation is the newly remodeled Leelanau Sands Casino. I have friends who have stayed in the lodge and were very complimentary of the facilities. The Sands also has an entertainment schedule which has included classic rock bands such as Three Dog Night and America.
Continuing north from Suttons Bay, the little burg of Omena lies on a 90-degree bend in the road hugging Omena Bay. There is not much to the town...an art gallery, post office and quaint general store still sporting wooden floors.
Omena's claims to fame are primarily Knot, Just a Bar--a restaurant and bar featuring fresh local foods and spirits, and the tasting room for Leelanau Cellars wines. Both are on the bay side of the road, with parking below near the water. I must recommend "The Knot" as locals call it (although you won't see many of them there during 'season'...they wait till the seasonal crowd thins). Outside dining is available, overlooking the bay and boats that drop anchor for owners to dine and buy wine.
Just south of Omena, an interesting stop is Omena's U-Pick Flowers. For $5, you can cut a beautiful bouquet for your own container of bulb and wildflowers (cultivated in rows for ease of cutting).
On the north end of town, Omena Presbyterian Church unshutters for the season, bringing in guest pastors to fill the pulpit for locals and tourists alike. Shortly after the church on the right side of the road, is an apple farm offering fruit and fresh baked pies on a roadside stand.
I was taking a friend from Finland on this tour a few years ago, and she was very excited by the town name, letting me know "Omena" is the Finnish word for 'apple.' Perhaps by design!
About three miles from Omena, we'll enter the sleepy little village of Northport. Leelanau County's original county seat, Northport was a busy port and commerce center in the late 1800's and early 1900s. Just 30 or so residents shy of Suttons Bay's population, it's the 2nd largest community on the Leelanau Peninsula.
Northport has an active marina (free wifi in the marina), with docks open to the public for walking, and a lovely city beach and park (changing area available). Although Northport does have a nice collection of shops (and a new bowling alley complex is being built), as a whole it's less touristy than Suttons Bay or Glen Arbor.
A full-service grocery store, gas station, library (free cards given to anyone) and hardware store make the village seem more affordably livable than some of its neighbors.
While in Northport, we shouldn't miss a stop at Barb's Bakery (closed Sundays) for fresh-made-daily donuts, muffins and other pastries. There are three tables in the bakery, usually taken by locals. Across the street, The Garage Bar & Grill offers pulled pork BBQ, burgers, and fish specials. One block away, North End Pizzaria bakes their own bread for subs, and has a daily homemade soup special. A mile or so out of town, we can make a left turn to visit an antique apple orchard, that also happens to house a collection of 10,000 pop bottles!
Even though M22 ends (or begins?) in Northport, we are going to continue north for another 10 miles via M201 and then Leelanau 640. These roads (well-marked, with signs for attractions) will eventually take us to the Grand Traverse LIghthouse in Leelanau State Park. That will be the end of the line, folks, as there's nothing except water past that point!
On the way to the lighthouse on Leelanau 640, we will pass the Woolsey Airport. Like many of the period homes and buildings in the area, it's constructed from glacial stones. The runways are grass, and often pilots must contend with the resident geese who venture onto the airstrip at will. The "terminal" is often open during season, and offers umbrella-ed picnic tables and a pay phone. Public restrooms are to the side of the air strip (pit toilets, but very clean!). The airport is unique and a photographer's dream. My own kids call the airport "Hobbit Field" for its Middle Earth look.
Leelanau State Park/Grand Traverse Lighthouse
Leelanau State Park covers many acres at the Peninsula's tip. The hiking area trail head is accessed right past Woolsey Airport off Leelanau 640. The rest of the park, which houses a rustic campground with 50 sites, picnic areas, and the lighthouse, is four miles north.
Entrance to the State Park is the same fee as any Michigan State Park. Many Michigan residents already have paid park entrance when renewing their automobile license plates. Out of State Residents pay $8.40 for park entrance.
Grand Traverse Lighthouse Museum is open to the public from May through October, usually noon till 5 p.m. each day. Located in the state park, the lighthouse is a tenant of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR). Parking for the lighthouse as well as rules for the grounds are regulated by the DNR.
There is a separate fee to tour the lighthouse ($4 for adults, $2 for children, students and seniors), which is an actual museum housing artifacts collected from lighthouse keepers from 1857 through 1972. The main floor of the museum is a replica of historical keeper's quarters using these artifacts, and an archive library of former keeper information. Upstairs there is a US Coast Guard displays, as well as fog-signal steam whistles and a Fresnel lens similar to one used at the lighthouse in years past. Grand Traverse is a working light today, but now the light is automated and located closer to the shore on a scaffolding tower. A radio signal transmission serves as the modern fog signal. As part of the museum entrance, visitors are encouraged to climb the original light tower, up a spiral staircase to an amazing view of water, water everywhere.
After visiting the lighthouse, we'll need to head back to Northport to take M22 down the opposite side of the peninsula. At the south edge of Northport, there is a flashing light where you have to make a choice: Do you want to head down South M22, or South M22? Perhaps the most confounding intersection ever! But you are at the tip of a triangle, and at this point the only direction M22 goes is south. You will want to make a right-hand turn toward Frankfort. Once you are headed in the right direction, you'll see a sign letting you know Leland is only 12 miles away.
This particular side of M22 is curvy and hilly, and not as quickly traversed as the side leading to Traverse City. Try to relax and enjoy the view, because it's pretty spectacular! Watch for wild turkeys, deer, porcupine, blue herons, bald eagles, fox, and the occasional black bear or cougar. If it's near dinner time, I would suggest we stop at Fischer's Happy Hour Tavern, about 7 miles from Northport on the way to Leland. What's on the menu? Friends have raved about the clam chowder, fried chicken, and fresh whitefish. Nothing fancy, just good food.
Leland is on the Lake Michigan side of the peninsula, and from here we could catch a ferry to either North or South Manitou Islands for camping, kayaking, hiking or just exploring. Where the Leland River flows into Lake Michigan, a natural fish ladder has been providing excellent fishing since the original Native American times. Still a working fishery, Leland is a thriving charter fishing destination for Lake Michigan. Shanties built along a wooden Leland River boardwalk have been converted into shops and make up Leland's historical "Fishtown". A sign off M22 directs visitors to Fishtown with an ample parking area near the shops and Leland Marina.
Leland is home of the Bluebird Restaurant, serving hearty dinner specials throughout the season (reservations recommended). Leland has an art festival each July featuring Michigan artists from all mediums, and draws thousands of visitors each year. Leland's beach area is a favorite of locals, often with enough wave action for surfing (caution, as that wave action tends to come with an undertow).
If there is a Leelanau Peninsula town that can give Suttons Bay a run for its tourist dollar, it just might be Glen Arbor. Situated along the banks of the Crystal River, Glen Arbor sports a collection of fascinating little shops.
Some highlights include: Leelanau Coffee Roasting Company (stop in for a sample, or to just breathe deeply as the coffee roasts); Cherry Republic (all things cherry, from pie to dried, to chocolate-covered, to salsa); Becky Thatcher Designs (hand-crafted precious and semi-precious stone jewelry); Blu, a phenomenal foodie restaurant destination with a water view; Bay Lavender Company, an open-air shop with soaps, lotions and more made from locally grown lavender; Petoskey Pete's, Petoskey stone jewelry and gifts; and The M22 Store, a shop full of tee shirts, mugs, stickers and other gift items with the M22 logo.
Art's Tavern is a must-stop in Glen Arbor, featuring burgers, steaks, meal salads and other specials, all well-prepared and presented. Check out the ceiling of the tavern...do you see your favorite college pennant? If not, I'd be surprised as it seems as if guests have brought them from all over the country. *Note* We must take cash to Art's, they do not take credit cards!
As we leave Glen Arbor, watch for the shoreline of Glen Lake, reputed to be one of Michigan's most beautiful inland lakes. Clear, light aqua waters and pricey shoreline homes will let us know we're there!
Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive
As we continue along M22 out of Glen Arbor, we'll have the chance to divert onto M109 for a few miles. We're going to take it, because this will take us to the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive, a 7.4-mile scenic loop along the Sleeping Bear National Lakes Shore. Since the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive is a national park, there is a $20 per car entrance fee for the day. This may annoy some folks, but the views provided by this drive are worth every penny of that $20 and more.
The photo at the beginning of this article is taken from one of the vistas on this drive. In 2011, Good Morning America named the Sleeping Bear National Lakes Shore (and views from this specific drive) as one of the "most beautiful places in America." That year local businesses struggled to keep up with the increased tourism traffic.
Along the drive, there are 2-3 places where one can park a car, get out and hike boardwalks on top of dunes. Those who are brave (and in shape!) may descend the dunes to the the lake below. But beware, the hike back up is strenuous enough to be impossible for some. Every week last summer, the local newspaper police blotter reported accounts of people who had to be rescued because they could not re-climb the dune. Some of these folks were 35-year-old men, seemingly in life's prime. So really do think this one through if you want to try it!
Pierce Stocking is a perfect spot to enjoy a stunning sunset. To that end, the park remains open till 1/2 hour after sunset each evening.
We're nearly done with the tour, ending at the village of Empire, on the southern edge of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakes Shore. This village with the epic-sounding name is home of the Philip A. Hart Visitor Center, a gas station (hey, it's a big deal...you didn't notice many gas stations on the peninsula, did you?) some art galleries, a fudge shop and a pub.
Empire has a lovely walkable beach, seeming to stretch to eternity. The national lake shore's official Dune Climb Area is located at the edge of Empire, with picnic areas, restrooms and plenty of parking. South of town, check out the Grocer's Daughter's Chocolates. The candies are made of fine milk or dark chocolate infused with area honey, nuts and dried fruits...unique and worth the stop.
Empire hosts two yearly festivals of note: The Dunegrass Festival, a three-day arts, bluegrass and folk music festival held in the summer months on the edge of town, and the National Asparagus Festival, always the 3rd weekend in May.
Ending the Road Trip
Our road trip of the Leelanau Peninsula ends in Empire. M22 south out of Empire continues to Frankfort in Benzie County--another beautiful destination, but another hub for another day. To stay in Leelanau County and make the full circuit back to Greilickville, we'll take M72 east toward Traverse City.
The M72 drive is a wonder in itself--the landscape is hilly and forested, with acres of pine and fields of interesting crops including hops. Nine miles from the intersection with our original M22 starting point, watch for the Light of Day Organics tea farm. The only tea farm in Michigan! Stop in for a tasting and lesson on the 5 levels of tea, from white to greens to black.
Thank you for coming along on this tour. There are so many other cool little things this area offers, way too many to list in one hub without it becoming an epistle. My experience living and working on theLeelanau Peninsula is one I'll never forget. Surrounded by the area's beauty and slower pace allowed me to, for an entire season, live more in the moment.
I'm not suggesting a trip to the Leelanau Peninsula will change your life, I'm just hoping to share a bit of how living there changed mine.
For More Information
- Scenic Drive - Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore (U.S. National Park Service)
Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive description and photos
- Leelanau Peninsula Wine Trail | Explore the Leelanau Peninsula Wine Trail
- The Official Website of the Sleeping Bear Dunes Visitors Bureau
Sleeping Bear Dunes Visitors Bureau proudly presents the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore Park and is your official source for Lake Michigan vacations, world class Michigan golf and ski, ideal Michigan conference and wedding locations
- Leelanau Peninsula Chamber of Commerce Promoting Tourism and Business on the Leelanau Peninsula of M
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