Every fall, my husband and I take the requisite trip Up North to catch Michigan’s autumn splendor. And for 13 years, we battled traffic in Oakland County to follow the string of cars up I-75 for the four-hour drive to the north country. Inevitably, we’d get in too late to see any colors, other than what we saw whirring by our window at 70 mph.

This year was different. We started from our home base of Ludington, putting us in a position of strength for getting to our destination quickly. We awoke last weekend to a rainy Saturday, but with a closer vantage point to the north, we spontaneously decided to gun it upstate Sunday morning, stay the night, and drive home the next day—which was predicted to be clear. All in all, about a 30-hour tour. I had my doubts.

After assessing our road trip options, we decided to follow one of Michigan’s iconic scenic routes, M-22. But not the M-22 we all think of that winds its way through bucolic towns on the Leelanau Peninsula. The other end—the southern terminus. And lucky for us, it starts only about 30 miles north of Ludington in Manistee.

Fueled by a hearty breakfast at the Manistee location of Ludington-headquartered House of Flavors, we started north. First town, Onekama (Oh-neck-AH-ma), a charming hamlet on Portage Lake that likes to poke fun at its confusing-to-pronounce name, with locals sporting oval car stickers showing a numeral 1 and a comma (1,). Get the joke? One-comma. I didn’t stop since my husband’s not a shopper, but on another occasion, I discovered the charming shop of Macbeth & Co. full of unique, cottage decor.

Next stop: Arcadia. Its claims to fame are not actually in the city center. First is Arcadia Bluffs Golf Club, an 18-hole public course perched 180 feet above sea level and along 3,100 feet of Lake Michigan frontage. You don’t have to be a golfer to appreciate this place. Park your car in one of the 10-minute parking spaces around the loop drive and just walk into the lodge. See the expansive view. I guarantee you’ll want to come back for a meal or have a drink on one of 30 or so Adirondack chairs facing Lake Michigan. The second feature of Arcadia is a scenic overlook north of town. I don’t think it’s even named on the sign, but I’ve heard it called simply “Arcadia Overlook.” You MUST stop—and yes, you must climb the 210 steps to the top. You will be afforded a stunning view of Lake Michigan. Even with the drizzling rain, we still saw rich, vivid colors south of us for miles, bordered by the stunning blue of Lake Michigan.

Third stop, Frankfort, an incredibly charming town, reminding me of Suttons Bay with fewer tourists. Nestled between Betsie Lake, Crystal Lake and Lake Michigan, the town literally is surrounded by water. First stop, Port City Smokehouse, aren’t road trips all about snacks? We bought one of their tasty fish pâtés. And not to choose favorites, we also patronized Monte’s Original Smokehouse a few doors down, picking up some smoked lake trout. (This was my husband’s kind of shopping!) We checked out the handful of other shops in town before heading on.

At this point, we took a brief M-22 diversion. We headed east on 115, dipping down to River Road to Gwen Frostic in Benzonia. It was just as I remembered in my childhood, a magical art studio whose setting is reminiscent of something from the Hobbit. I picked up a beautiful 2013 letterpress calendar for all of $6.50, complete with its trademark paper wrapping and sprig of greenery. Then we went to a new place for us, Northern Natural Organics, where we sampled a flight of hard ciders. Nothing like bottled-up autumn!

From there, we circled Crystal Lake counter-clockwise along County Hwy 704/Crystal Drive until it rejoined M-22. With no reservations, we pulled into Chimney Corners, a charming, circa-1910 rustic resort. Imagine our pleasant surprise to snag a lake view room in the lodge for $55 since it’s the shoulder season! If you don’t mind sharing a bathroom with other lodgers, I can’t think of a better place to stay in the fall. After checking in, we drove out to the Point Betsie Lighthouse for some quick views and photos, and then to The Manitou on M-22 for dinner—another huge score on the budget since we caught the tail-end of the Early Bird menu (4–6 p.m. daily). We split two entrees of fresh lake trout and walleye, which came with savory carrot bisque or salad, plus a vegetable and bread. Incredible! With our remaining minutes of daylight, we rushed out to Platte River Point just as the sun was setting.

On our second day of our journey, we awoke to blazing sunshine and a clear blue sky. THIS was the color tour day we’d been hoping for, and yet we’d already had so much fun. We headed into downtown Frankfort for breakfast at the Bayview Grille, a place that would be fun in the summer with its large, screened-in porch. Then we drove up M-22 for Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. We pulled into the first hiking area on the south end, Old Indian Trail, and did the 2.5-mile loop through beautiful forest. We were one of only four cars in the parking lot. Next up, Empire Bluffs, the ever-popular 1.5-mile hike that affords stunning views of Lake Michigan. As many times as I have hiked this trail, it never fails to please, and it didn’t today. While the parking lot was full, we found ourselves hiking alone much of the way as people spread out along the path. Then onto the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive, a gorgeous 7.4-mile, one-way loop that is a splendor of color on an autumn day.

We needed to start heading home, so we made our way back through Empire (not before checking out the views of Inspiration Point on the southern shore of Little Glen Lake) to M-22 South. To my delight, I discovered Grocer’s Daughter Chocolates just south of Empire! This cheery, lime-green building houses a local enterprise like no other. They make chocolate, but exotic creations like Bergamot Caramel truffle and chocolate chili rub, with organic, Michigan ingredients. We got a cup of their hot chocolate (best EVER) along with some other sweets for the road.

Our route home was spectacular now that the sun was out. We took our time, jumping out to take photos of pumpkin patches or fun scarecrows along the way. We closed out the weekend with dinner at the Blue Slipper Bistro in Onekama.

As we pulled into our driveway, we marveled at the magic of the last 30 hours of our impromptu fall color tour. So within reach, and yet so spectacular. Guess that’s Michigan for you.

Find more travel ideas in the Ludington/Manistee Vacation Guide!

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More Fall Color Travel Ideas

5 Places to Catch Fall Color

Your Guide to the Best Fall Color Tours in Northern Michigan

Where to See Peak Foliage: Check the Northern Michigan Fall Color Map

Photo(s) by Kim Skeltis