Planning a Circle Tour of Lake Michigan
For a great summer road trip, follow the shores of this Midwestern Riviera.
If sun, sand and water are your favorite things, the Circle Tour of Lake Michigan is the vacation for you.
The 1,100-mile drive along this Third Coast is an easygoing road trip that appeals to beach bums, lighthouse lovers, boating buffs and anyone who likes to wander in and out of wineries and fudge shops.
It's a great family trip because there's a beach every few miles, almost always with a playground. On the northwest side of the lake, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is one big sandbox.
Many of Michigan's 18 beach parks, especially Ludington State Park, are like resorts, and some families stay there an entire week. Beach-boutique towns like South Haven and Saugatuck add shopping and fine dining.
You can do it in a car or a motorcycle; you can camp or stay in motels. It's all things to all people, the perfect vacation for anyone who likes urban as well as outdoor scenery.
However, planning the 1,100-mile Circle Tour isn't easy, because you need a new place to stay every night or two.
It would be nice to be able to stop when you feel like it, but in summer, you risk being turned away or getting the worst place in town, especially on weekends.
Campsites at beach parks in Michigan are 100 percent reservable, and weekends get snapped up as soon as reservations open, six months in advance.
You also have to plan around such large festivals as the National Cherry Festival in Traverse City. It fills the area for miles around, meaning you'll either have to reserve far in advance or stay somewhere else.
So it's best to reserve a place for every night. Late winter and spring is the time to start nailing down plans.
I've gone on the Circle Tour twice, both times the third week of June, both times clockwise. Counterclockwise works, too; plan according to whatever festivals you'd like to catch.
Here are some tips to get you started.
For an overview of what you'll see on the trip, see Circling Lake Michigan.
For a nine-day sample itinerary, see Lake Michigan's greatest hits.
For more about traveling with children, see Lake Michigan with kids.
When to go: The summer season kicks into high gear on the fourth week of June and continues until mid-August.
If you want to avoid crowds but would like fine weather for hanging out on the beach, aim for the first half of June and the last half of August or early September.
I like to travel the third week of June, when the days are longest and you can swim or sightsee until nearly 10 p.m.
Many people try to be on Mackinac Island when the lilacs bloom in June, but that's hard to target. We hit them at peak the first time we went, the week after Lilac Festival. But when we were there during Lilac Festival, they had peaked a week earlier.
2023 events in Michigan: Memorial Day weekend, Fort Michilimackinac Reenactment at Colonial Michilimackinac in Mackinaw City. June, Harborfest in South Haven. June 9-18, Lilac Festival, with June 18 parade, on Mackinac Island. June 22-25, St. Ignace Car Show. July 1-2, South Haven Art Fair in South Haven. July 1-8, National Cherry Festival in Traverse City.
July 4 and every Saturday through Labor Day, Fireworks Over the Bay from St. Ignace. Consider the Fourth of July and Labor Day weekends a big festival everywhere.
July 7-8, Folk Fest in Manistique. July 7-9, Blissfest roots-music festival in Cross Village. July 15-22, Venetian Festival in Charlevoix. July 28-Aug. 6, Coast Guard Festival in Grand Haven. Aug. 10-13, National Blueberry Festival in South Haven. Aug. 25-27, Rendezvous at the Straits traditional powwow in St. Ignace. Sept. 4, Mackinac Bridge Walk across the Mackinac Straits.
2023 events in Wisconsin: June 3-4, Outta Sight Kite Flight in Kenosha. June, Spring Lighthouse Festival in Door County. July 27-29, Taste of Wisconsin in Kenosha. Fall, Fall Lighthouse Festival in Door County.
Milwaukee has non-stop festivals in its 90-acre lakefront Henry Maier Festival Park. They include Polish Fest in June, the big Summerfest music festival in June-July, German Fest in July and Irish Fest and Mexican Fiesta in August.
For more, see Party in Milwaukee and our Events Calendar.
How to plan: Remember that the shift between Central and Eastern time zones occurs between Menominee and Escanaba on the Upper Peninsula and at the Michigan-Indiana border.
Accommodations: In summer, the best lodgings in prime beach locations, including state parks, require a two- or three-day minimum on weekends. If you only want to stay in a town one night, reserve at a chain motel.
There's a variety of cabins in Michigan state parks, and they're very nice. For weekends, reserve them on the first day they're available, a year in advance.
For more, see Michigan's great lake cabins.
Campsites in the most popular Michigan beach parks are 100 percent reservable; for weekends, reserve them the first day they're available, six months in advance.
In Wisconsin, reserve campsites 11 months in advance. Some site are first-come, first-served. Wisconsin also has two rustic cabins right on Lake Michigan in Point Beach State Forest.
There also camping at Indiana Dunes State Park and Illinois Beach State Park.
For more, see Camping around Lake Michigan.
The Upper Peninsula is never very busy, and it has many town parks along the lake where camping is first-come, first-served.
It also has many mom-and-pop motels, though they're disappearing fast. For a spur-of-the-moment trip in peak summer, the U.P. is the place to go.
For places to stay on Mackinac Island, see Touring Mackinac Island.
For places to stay in Mackinaw City, see Destination: Mackinaw City.
For places to stay in Traverse City, see The good life in Traverse City.
For places to stay in Sheboygan, see Sights of Sheboygan.
For places to stay in Manitowoc and Two Rivers, see Two trails from Two Rivers.
For places to stay in Green Bay, see Packer country.
For places to stay in Door County, see Where to stay in Door County.
See our Milwaukee and Chicago sections for more about those places.
Craft breweries: Towns along Lake Michigan are blessed with many excellent breweries, including New Holland in Holland, Silver Harbor in St. Joseph and Haymarket in Bridgeman. Traverse City has so many it has an Ale Trail.
Check for others in Michigan.
Cruising: The Great Lakes Cruising Company offers several Great Lakes cruises that start in Chicago and one from Milwaukee, with stops in Holland, Beaver Island, Sault Ste. Marie, Mackinac Island, Sturgeon Bay and Milwaukee.
Beaches: For more, see America's freshwater Riviera.
Bicycling: It's worth taking a bike just for the great bicycling on Mackinac Island and the many trails.
In Chicago, the 18-mile Lakeshore Trail hugs the lake and connects the many beaches and parks.
In Wisconsin, the 30-mile Interurban Trail goes from the north edge of Milwaukee to Cedar Grove, and the 12-mile Rawleys Point-Mariners trails connects Two Rivers and Manitowoc.
In Michigan, there's the 23-mile Little Traverse Wheelway between Harbor Springs and Charlevoix and the 20-mile Lakeshore Trail from Grand Haven to Holland.
Bicyclists also like the 20-mile Tunnel of Trees road from Cross Village to Harbor Springs.
For more, see Bicycling in western Michigan.
It's possible to make the entire trip by bicycle, using one of the two ferries to avoid the freeways and industry around Chicago and Gary, Ind.
The S.S. Badger connects Manitowoc, Wis., and Ludington, Mich., and the Lake Express connects Milwaukee and Muskegon, Mich.
The one dicey part of the northern route is U.S. 2 across the Upper Peninsula, which is heavily used by trucks.
Bicyclists are not allowed to cross the Mackinac Bridge on their own. For $5, they can get a shuttle from the Mackinac Bridge Authority; there's a phone at the south end of the bridge. On the north end, ask at the administration building.
Bicyclists planning a Circle Tour might want to tag along on the League of Michigan Bicyclists' Shoreline West Bicycle Tour, which travels 386 miles from Montague to Mackinaw City over seven days in early August.
For more about Wisconsin trails, see Bicycling in Wisconsin.
For a map and directory of Michigan trails, contact the Michigan Trails & Greenways Alliance.