The Ultimate M22 Road Trip

Trace the entire path of Michigan’s most iconic highway, M22, where there’s no shortage of big blue views and even bigger fun. 

Way up here in Michigan’s pinky, a ribbon of road defines a way of life. M22, the 116-mile state-designated scenic highway, traces the coastline. It weaves inland lakes, rivers, dunes, rolling orchards and vineyards, harbor towns, Great Lakes’ history, one stunning national lakeshore and, most significantly, epic Lake Michigan views, into one unforgettable adventure.

Run into someone wearing an M22 T-shirt in some remote spot on the planet, as people do, and you’ll recognize “your people.”

And yet, who knows it in its entirety? To find out, I set out to find what makes M22 so iconic. Roll with us on a fabled two-lane and discover true-blue happiness along the way. 

Let’s Cruise M22 … 

M22: Manistee to Frankfort

The highway that began as a series of Native American trails and that was, by 1915, “autoroute” to the tourist wonders of Northern Michigan, begins on the northern edge of the city of Manistee. A mile into it you are in forests and countryside, when quickly there comes the tiny town of Onekama, set along Portage Lake. The historic Blue Slipper Tavern, which has been around since the 1800s, serves up Friday night fish fry and other homemade specials until May. That’s when food trucks take over, on rotation in the parking lot of this classic watering hole. The Glenwood is on the other side of town. Guests come for the whitefish or perch tower, but it’s the peanut butter pie they leave with—returning the empty plates on the doorstep under cover of darkness.

Out of Onekama, M22 rises into Northern Michigan farmland, and with it comes the farmstands. You’ll want an empty trunk and a spare cooler. At mile 11, Miller’s is laden in summer with berries, cherries and peaches. Farther on another stand offers up both fruit and locally sourced treasures for rock hounds.

Turn left off M22 on 13 Mile toward Pierport, where lumber was loaded from train to ship back in the mid to late-1800s, and the road dead-ends at a pretty little Lake Michigan beachfront. Adjacent is a small park and “Old Faceful,” the first of numerous natural springs that dot this region. No more than a pipe stuck into the earth, water bubbles out of it, deliciously icy cold.

Back on M22, barreling north and west, it’s orchards that surround until at last Arcadia Bluffs looms on its perch above Lake Michigan. This impressive links-style golf course was built to resemble Irish seaside courses—a fact that hits home summer evenings when a course-employed bagpiper sends Gaelic strains across the surrounding heath.

Down from the bluffs, the sweet, cottagey town of Arcadia is framed in the windshield. Straddling Lake Michigan and Arcadia Lake, Arcadia grew up in the lumber era when a narrow gauge railway connected the local lumbering industry with the Starke mill at the end of Lake Arcadia. From here, M22 slides past peeks of Lake Michigan to the west and wildflower-studded forests on the east. Near the crest of a big winding hill, pull over at Arcadia Scenic Turnout (known locally as Inspiration Point) for the shock-blue panorama—a true memory imprinter that teaches in one horizon-sized picture the stunning vastness of Lake Michigan. Climb the 120 wooden steps to a viewing platform and soak it in.

Back in the car, it’s less than a mile to Arcadia Dunes, a tract of preserved dunes that are the geological smaller sibs to the more famous Sleeping Bear Dunes to the north. Pulling over to hike Baldy Trail to a dune-top scenic overlook is definitely worth the effort.

From the trailhead, it’s about four miles to Watervale Inn—the kind of vintage resort you wish there were more of—wedged along Lake Michigan and Lower Herring Lake. The old-timey buildings date back to a lumber-company town established here in 1892. The property, that includes a mile of shoreline on Lake Michigan and Lower Herring Lake, has been a resort since 1917 and owned by the same family all the while. Put booking a stay here on your bucket list, or at least make a reservation for their acclaimed dinners, open to the public.

Empire Bluff Trail

M22: Frankfort to Empire

Once a major port for carferries crossing Lake Michigan to Wisconsin, Frankfort has reinvented itself as one of the hippest harbor towns on Lake Michigan. The genesis of that cool is at Stormcloud Brewing Company on Main Street, one of Michigan’s premier microbreweries that sits next to The Garden Theater, a renovated small-town movie house. The town boasts a first-class Lake Michigan beach known for its breakwater, lighthouse and rolling surf that attracts surfers in all seasons.

Return to M22 from here and the byway passes Crystal Lake, Caribbean-blue and dotted with sailboats and swimmers; to the west, just beyond woodlands and sand dunes, is Lake Michigan, as well as the photogenic Point Betsie Lighthouse (a landmark since 1858) with its windswept beach.

From here, M22 skirts past Chimney Corners Resort—with its all-new neighbor, Rocks Landing Restaurant, jutting above Crystal Lake—and then into the southern gateway of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore whose 35 jaw-dropping miles hug M22’s midsection. Here, the Old Indian Trail is made for peaceful summer hikes.

Just when you think there would be nowhere to eat around here, the 40-year-old Manitou Restaurant, (famed for its lake perch and Great Lakes whitefish dinners) pops up along the forest-lined road.

Next up: Platte River, which flows under M22 in lazy, minnow-clear shallows, along grassy wetlands and between sandy dunes before emptying into the vast Lake Michigan, making for easygoing inner-tube floats and paddling excursions. Riverside Canoe Trips has been outfitting drifters with canoes and tubes—and more recently, kayaks—since 1964. Reservations are a wise choice at all of the liveries along this popular stretch of river.

If a tubing trip isn’t in the cards today, but you’d still like to dip a toe in the water…numerous other jumping off—or in—points proliferate along the way. Just north, at the end of Esch Road, Otter Creek winds into Lake Michigan at just one of many idyllic beaches in the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. If you’re driving through in spring, keep eyes peeled: This is asparagus country and it grows no better anywhere else. Watch for roadside signs that point the way to Norconk’s honor system stand that delivers up crisp, tender stalks daily.

M22: Empire to Leland

In Empire find the mega-popular Lake Michigan Beach Park, a sandy strip of shoreline wedged between South Bar Lake and Lake Michigan. This friendly downtown is also home to Sleeping Bear Surf and Kayak (surf lessons, anyone?), Grocer’s Daughter Chocolate—with its handmade truffles and bonbons—and Shipwreck Cafe, a tiny outpost with irresistible sandwiches. This town also serves up Joe’s Friendly Tavern, where no one I know has ever been nearly kicked out for dancing on the tables on, say, a snowy New Year’s Eve.

The Sleeping Bear Dunes Visitors Center just off M22 is an Empire must-stop. This is the place to learn about everything this glorious park has to offer from the nearby Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive and Dune Climb to maritime history.

Follow M22 across the Glen Lake Narrows Bridge (where jumping from the railing is as much a rite of passage to kids both local and summer, as it is illegal) and its view across Little Glen Lake of the glowing Sleeping Bear Dunes. Fronting M22 in Glen Arbor you’ll find Boonedocks, where the deck rocks with live music all summer; iconic Art’s Tavern with its equally iconic owner, Tim Barr; and the M22 Glen Arbor store where you can get that M22 T-shirt you’ll want to wear in Kathmandu. More good stuff awaits on this town’s side streets: Cherry Republic, an emporium of all things cherry, and Synchronicity Gallery, known for extreme devotion to Michigan artists.

Cross over sandy-bottomed Crystal River and past a historic mill currently being renovated/rescued by a young visionary, and the highway dog-legs right. Just past is the entrance to the four-season resort, The Homestead. Some pretty twists and bends north, the resort’s grand lawn and flowerbeds give way to the lost-in-time farmsteads of the Port Oneida Historic District. Stop in at the headquarters, a calendar-perfect red barn and white farmhouse on M22, and find out about their history and how they came to be a part of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.

At Port Oneida’s north end, turn left at the farmhouse with a mural celebrating our nation’s 1976 centennial (Bohemian Road) and you’re headed to the big sand and water of Good Harbor beach.

Hungry? Some of the best pizza in Michigan awaits up the road at Market 22 (call ahead as there can be long lines for this crave-worthy pie). Little Traverse Inn next door has a robust tavern menu and a “Cheers”-esque bar.

That’s Little Traverse Lake across the highway, but in a couple of miles, you’ll be shadowing Lake Michigan again all the way into Leland. Resist the temptation to turn on M204 to Suttons Bay—you’ll get there soon enough. And first a leg-stretch in Leland: home to the lovingly preserved fish shanties of Fishtown, the village is studded with boutique galleries, sweets shops and a Lake Michigan harbor that defines picturesque.

M22: Leland to Traverse City

Heading around the tip of the peninsula means you won’t miss Northport. Fischer’s Happy Hour Tavern, a couple miles south of town, is a straight-up roadhouse classic with memorable burgers and fried cauliflower. On the edge of the village proper, M22 becomes a conundrum as its road signs meet themselves—coming and going. Jog north on M201 and find Northport’s bustling marina and beach and Mitten Brewing Co., with its outdoor patio and food truck. Then there’s the Garage Bar & Grill, and Tucker’s—a family destination thanks to an indoor bowling alley.

Hours into this epic road trip, southward bound on M22 once again, the water is to the east at last. Now, the views aquatic are all Grand Traverse Bay, with farmland and orchards rising to the west. Cruise through Omena, a slip of a town set on crescent Omena Bay. The prim-as-grandma’s-hanky white clapboard buildings house cottages, an art gallery and an old-timey general store. Across the street, Leelanau Cellars and Knot Just a Bar rock a more modern vibe.

A stone’s throw north finds you in Peshawbestown, home of the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians. While the Leelanau Sands Casino is a draw, it’s the Eyaawing Museum and Cultural Center that captivates. Slip into the main hall for a better understanding of how the native tribes shaped the local communities.

Tear yourself away, head back on M22, and soon vineyards and wineries begin appearing, arrows pointing off M22 to cideries and tasting rooms. First up, just down a driveway behind an old barn, is Nathaniel Rose Wine, where Rose himself is sourcing grapes locally and from across the state to compose small-batch wines, with a special focus on reds. Then comes the 45th Parallel, a particular thrill in the crossing of it that never quite goes away, followed soon after by quaint Suttons Bay with its historic Bay Theatre, Bahle’s—one of the oldest retailers in Michigan, going strong for 143 years—boutiques, a marina, beach and an assortment of casual eateries.

Then, that blue, that unique up-north-water blue of Grand Traverse Bay, comes to fill your view. If it takes a moment to tear yourself away, you should do so just as it slips from sight, where Hop Lot Brewing Co. appears instead. On the inside, blondes and browns, ambers, Scotch ales and stouts line the taps; but outside its Up-North living writ large: multiple fire pits line a casual beer garden and the thump of cornhole bags keep time to the music.

Hop Lot makes a pretty darn happy ending to an M22 voyage. But maybe even more fitting would be to take the highway to trail’s end, almost to Traverse City. As M22 dips and curves, try to spy the tall ship Manitou cruising the bay. In Greilickville, there’s just one more treat: specifically, Wares Bros Frosty Treat on West Bay. Do the drive-through as the locals do, rolling up on their after-work commute, then head down M22 to West End Beach. After a day filled to the brim with scenery, curiosities and snacks—there’s still room for ice cream and a sunset.

When Julie H. Case isn’t writing about travel, wine or weird science, she can be found deep in America’s forests, foraging for mushrooms. // Grant Piering is a Traverse City-based adventure-lifestyle photographer and videographer showcasing organic experiences and memories.