One fall day cruising the 40-mile west coast of Leelanau County serves up seasons of lush memories. Start your tour at the peninsula’s tip in Northport, near Traverse City, then let your whimsy lead you—or let our suggested stops steer you to fantastic food, wine, woods and water.
Stop 1: Barb’s Bakery
112 N. Mill St. | Northport | 231.386.5851
Leave the tiny tables and solo stools to urban coffee shops. Barb’s Bakery is all about cozying up, elbow to elbow, in old-fashioned neighborly style. To that end, owner Barb Holcomb has filled her warmly lit bakery with family-sized dinner tables and clusters of bottom worn chairs. The 122-year-old space has been home to Leelanau County’s first butcher shop, a dentist and doctor’s office, a shoe store and a clothing store. But since Peter Eiken first transformed it into a bakery in the 1920’s, the alluring scent of rising dough has wafted from the kitchen and drawn in customers across its old maple floors.
Barb rolls out dough each morning long before dawn on the bakery’s original oak tables and serves customers over timeworn oak countertops that previously lined the town’s old drugstore. Bear claws, donuts, sweet rolls and other carb fixes are available, but follow the lead of the locals and go for Barb’s golden pairing: one of her famous, always-fresh cinnamon twists and a hot mug of Bakery Blend coffee. Barb and local bean maestro Steve Arens of Leelanau Coffee Roasting Company developed the blend—a full-bodied, rich-tasting Sumatra mellowed with a little Colombian. It is available elsewhere, says Barb, “but it always tastes best here.”
Aptly fueled up, pop into Barb’s backroom for a whirlwind international shopping excursion. You’ll find Pashmina scarves, ornate Kilim pillows, Hereke carpets—hand-tied carpets once made only for Turkish palaces—and more for sale.
Stop 2: Leland’s Fishtown
Take a break to wander the picturesque coastal village of Leland and historic Fishtown, a collection of shops in the original commercial fishing shanties. Hungry? Grab a sandwich at the Cheese Shop or some smoked Chub at Carlson’s, both in Fishtown, and take your picnic to the marina to watch the boats or to Van’s Beach to sit on the shores of Lake Michigan. Another way to eat outside on a pretty fall day? Check out The Bluebird Restaurant’s new outdoor dining on the river.
Stop 3: Hike Alligator Hill
Of all the trails on the 70,000-acre Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Alligator Hill—with its hilly terrain and spectacular vistas—proves itself again and again a local favorite. But never are its accolades more deserved than when fall forces it into full-blown Crayola color. Alligator Hill’s forested trail is thick with beech trees and maples, making for a wildly colored excursion among its looping trails, especially when the foliage breaks open to reveal wide swaths of blue from Lake Michigan and Big Glen Lake below.
The trail is divided into three interconnected loops. All trails lead to the Islands Lookout, a big-water vista that stretches over Sleeping Bear Bay out to South and North Manitou Islands and, on clear days, all the way to South Fox Island. Squint and set your gaze just offshore of South Manitou Island’s southern end—the black dot is what is left of the Francisco Morazan, a freighter that ran aground in a snowstorm in December of 1960. Look to the north, between the northern tip of North Manitou Island and the mainland. The white dot is the North Manitou Shoal Light, more commonly known as the Crib.
Get there: From M-22 in Glen Arbor, follow M-109 East to Stocking Road. The trailhead is 3/4 mile down on your left.
Stop 4: Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive
The pinnacle of a Leelanau fall color tour is Pierce Stocking Drive, a winding scenic drive along the top of the Sleeping Bear Dunes. Named for the nature-loving lumberman who envisioned it, the 7.4-mile long road kicks off by slipping beneath a covered bridge and leading to several stunning overlooks.
Get out at the Glen Lake overlook, and look near Little Glen Lake (in the foreground) at the alligator-shaped hill to its left. That’s the site of your recent hike, and that’s how it got its name. Cruise on to the dune overlook, where the seemingly sky-high golden dunes are crowded along the shoreline, and North and South Manitou Islands float in the distance. If the scenery inspires you to park and stroll, the Cottonwood Trail will take you 1.5 miles across the dune landscape.
Back on the road, cruise under vibrantly colored clusters of sugar maples, American beech, hemlock, basswood and even a few black cherry trees. The final flourish? There are two: the Lake Michigan overlook, which lets you look down from 450 feet above the water, and the Sleeping Bear Dune overlook. Although erosion has made its once-unmistakable bear shape difficult to see, the Native American legend behind it lives on. As the story goes, the Sleeping Bear Dune is a mother bear watching over her two cubs that fled into Lake Michigan with her to escape a forest fire on the Wisconsin shore. The cubs drowned on the way to the Michigan mainland, but rose to become North and South Manitou Islands.
Get there: Entrance on the west side of M-109, just south of Welch Road in Empire. There is an entrance fee.
Stop 5: La Bécasse
9001 South Dunns Farm Rd. | Maply City | 231.334.3944
The perfect end to a perfect day is an evening at La Bécasse in Burdickville. There’s just one rule: Don’t be intimidated by the red velvet curtain you enter through or the fact that your meal is masterminded by Paris-born Chef Guillaume Hazaël-Massieux, who declares: “We are not fancy, but we aren’t Applebees either. We have a charming, cozy dining room. We are fairly priced, we are mom and pop, and we do everything very simply. It’s simple food, and we do it