The pristine woodlands east of Petoskey and northeast of Gaylord are ripe with lesser-known fall foliage displays. Wherever the road takes you, Northern Michigan fall colors branch out in every direction. This day trip itinerary rambles through country roads from Petoskey to Pellston, borders Lake Huron’s expansive shores and explores unspoiled state forest lands north of Gaylord. Pack a picnic and a paper map and lose yourself “off the grid” to take in the sights of one of Northern Michigan’s loveliest seasons.

Take Country Roads from Petoskey to Cheboygan

Fall color road trip from Petoskey to Cheboygan, Michigan

Related Read: Searching for Fall activities Up North? View our Northern Michigan Fall page.

Start your morning with fuel from one of Petoskey’s delightful cafes. (We opted for bagels and heartwarming lattés from Petoskey’s Populace Coffee.) Before embarking on your autumnal cruise, stretch your legs at downtown Petoskey’s Quarry Park overlooking Little Traverse Bay. Then, hop in your vehicle and head north. Rather than following the stream of color tourers on M-119, take Pleasantview Road northeast toward Pellston. The road less traveled offers more opportunities to take your time soaking in the region’s brilliant fall forests and rich golden meadows. The rolling hills along the route are lined by birch and maple forests, drenched in glowing crimson, marmalade and lemon curd hues. When you reach Pellston, take M-64 or M-66 northeast toward Cheboygan’s Lake Huron shores. If you’re a fudge lover, tack on a pit stop in Mackinaw City (northwest of Cheboygan) for a side of Mackinac Island fudge to go with your color tour.
Fall color road trip from Petoskey to Cheboygan, Michigan

Enjoy Breathtaking Views of Lake Huron on the Road to Presque Isle

As you head south from Cheboygan toward Rogers City, this charming lakeshore stretch is loaded with picturesque lookouts and prime picnic spots. What this waterfront route lacks in fall foliage (it’s mostly lined by pines) it more than makes up for in views of Lake Huron. Stop at each scenic turnout marked along the way to take in the panoramic scenes. We suggest packing a cooler full of refreshments and a paper map for navigation. This rustic corridor has sparse, sometimes non-existent, phone service and dining options. Plan a stop at Cheboygan State Park, Huron Dunes Roadside Park, Hoeft State Park or Thompson’s Harbor State Park to picnic and explore. Along the way, you’ll pass through Rogers City’s quaint downtown, located on the Lake Huron shoreline. Your next stop is Presque Isle’s peninsula, home to two historic lighthouses, including the tallest lighthouse tower accessible on the Great Lakes, the New Presque Isle Lighthouse. Take time to hike through the park’s cedar groves and sweeping rocky beaches. As you leave, it’s worth the detour to drive around Presque Isle’s Grand Lake to see the golden fall colors on its southwest and east sides.

Fall color road trip from Petoskey to Cheboygan, Michigan
Fall color road trip from Petoskey to Cheboygan, Michigan
Fall color road trip from Petoskey to Cheboygan, Michigan

Related Read: See when peak color is coming near you! 2021 Northern Michigan Fall Color Map.

Head Inland to Ocqueoc Falls & Pigeon River Country State Forest

Head northeast from Presque Isle on US-23 and then M-68 to Ocqueoc Falls, the largest waterfall in Michigan’s Lower Peninsula. From the parking lot, a short pathway leads to a universally accessible viewing area surrounded by six miles of wooded hiking and biking trails. After experiencing the falls, head southwest through Onaway toward Pigeon River Country State Forest, a wild woodland just a few miles northeast of Gaylord. The state forest spans more than 100,000 acres of completely undeveloped forestland. Occasionally referred to as the “Big Wild,” Pigeon River Country State Forest contains seemingly endless webs of wooded dirt roads, sprawling meadows and inland lakes. (For smoother navigation, we suggest a vehicle with four-wheel drive and a detailed map of the area.) The untamed woods offer virtually limitless opportunities for hiking, horseback riding, camping, fishing and elk viewing (see below for elk viewing tips!). Brave the wilderness to enjoy a truly stunning yellow canopy of fall foliage.
Fall color road trip from Petoskey to Cheboygan, Michigan

Savor a Relaxing Evening in Gaylord

Recharge after a full day of epic adventures at one of Gaylord’s marvelous breweries and eateries. Snowbelt Brewing Company and Big Buck Brewery are ideal venues for unwinding with a cold craft beer. Gaylord’s lovable downtown decorated in an alpine motif offers many warm and welcoming havens after a long day on the road. We had a cozy meal at The Bearded Dogg Lounge, which offers a menu utilizing local ingredients, (including bison!), an extensive beverage list and a fireplace that is perfect on autumn days.

Fall color road trip from Petoskey to Cheboygan, Michigan

Have More Time on Your Northern Michigan Fall Color Tour? Try These!

This region offers so much more than a one-day car tour can contain. We suggest expanding your itinerary to include some not-by-car color tour options in the Petoskey and Gaylord areas.
Fall color road trip from Petoskey to Cheboygan, Michigan

Hike to a Stunning View
Dead Man’s Hill Overlook features breathtaking views of the Jordan River Valley that stun in every season, but especially in Fall. The maple-covered hill earned its name from a fatal incident with a lumber cart in 1910. It’s one of the area’s most extraordinary fall lookouts, easily accessible via a short uphill walk from a parking area. Soak in more of the view by trekking the area’s 3.1-mile hiking loop.

Enjoy the Display from a Waterway
Kayak or canoe any of the region’s rivers to see Fall foliage from a different vantage point. The area’s Au Sable River is popular among paddlers in the north. Bring your own boat or rent from Carlisle Canoe Livery, Borchers Canoe & Kayak or Penrod’s Au Sable Canoe & Kayak, for a day floating under the fiery Fall display. Note: water temperatures will be cold in the fall.

Get a Bird’s Eye View From
The slopes and greens Gaylord’s Treetops Resort offers fun fall events, including the opportunity to take the chairlift up the slopes for panoramic views of the region’s colorful hills. Otsego Resort offers similar options, including taking a golf cart tour of their hilly resort featuring many colorful vistas. Check out treetops.com and otsegoclub.com for this season’s schedule.

Take in the View on Two Wheels
Several dirt and paved bike paths in the area welcome bikers to hit the trails and soak up fall colors. Mountain bikers love Louis M. Groen Nature Preserve’s 20 miles of two-track trails for hikers and cyclists. For a more leisurely ride, check out Hoeft State Park just north of Rogers City in Presque Isle County to ride its 4.5-mile paved path that winds through mixed hardwood forests along the Lake Huron shoreline. Check out trailscouncil.org for a detailed map of more than 300 miles of non-motorized trails in the region.

Drink in Fall Foliage from a Tasting Room

Each of the Petoskey Wine Region’s 14 wineries have beautiful tasting rooms. These are just a handful; find more at petoskey.wine.

Pond Hill Farm | Harbor springs
An iconic place to stop in the fall, complete with a winery, brewery, cafe, biergarten, market, livestock barn, playground and pumpkin patch.

Maple Moon Sugarbush & Winery | Petoskey
Taste tap-to-table maple wines for a sweet pit stop at America’s first maple winery.

Boyne Valley Vineyards | Petoskey
A welcoming patio, lawn and tasting room with tall, vaulted ceilings and live music set the scene for a laid-back wine tasting experience.

Petoskey Farms Vineyard & Winery | Petoskey
Grab a seat on the covered patio overlooking 22 acres of remarkable rolling hills and scenic countryside laden with a rainbow of fall color hues.

Catch a Glimpse of Michigan’s Elk

Pigeon River Country State Forest is home to one of the largest free-roaming elk herds east of the Mississippi, and September and October (their breeding season) are the best times to spot the mighty animals. These are our top tips for seeing them in the wild: Best locations to view elk • Fontinalis Road, about three miles north of Sturgeon Calley road near the Cheboygan County Line. • The DNR elk viewing area on east Sturgeon Valley Road, eight miles east of Vanderbilt. • Less than one mile north of the Osmun Road and Clark Bridge road intersection in the Pigeon River Country State Forest. Elk-Viewing Do’s and Don’ts • Avoid large crowds with a mid-week trip. • Pack your binoculars or spotting scopes. • View elk from your car and do not approach the animals. • For best results, view at dawn and dusk. Elk are most often visible when feeding in open, grassy areas. Visit michigan.gov/dnr for more elk viewing tips from the department of natural resources.

Fall color road trip from Petoskey to Cheboygan, Michigan

Photo(s) by Taylor Brown

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