M-22 isn’t just a road; it’s a way of life. You’ve seen the logo on windshields, T-shirts and water bottles. The black and white highway emblem became an icon when kiteboarding brothers Matt and Keegan Myers founded M22 in 2004, a lifestyle brand that celebrates the route and all of its freshwater adventures.
The famed highway, which hugs Lake Michigan’s shoreline, highlights the natural wonders found along its path — lakes, beaches, dunes, orchards and woodlands — while connecting all of its distinctive communities.
“Whether it’s the art community of Suttons Bay, whether it’s Fishtown in Leland or Northport, they all have different characters and they all have different things they bring to the table,” said Mike Kent, public relations manager for Traverse City Tourism.
At 116 miles in length, M-22 winds from Manistee to Traverse City along the Leelanau Peninsula, boasting some of the most colorful fall views in the country. The route is more of a destination itself — with picturesque vineyards, overflowing farm stands and countless outdoor adventures, driving M-22 is a bucket list item for anyone exploring Northern Michigan.
“Even if you never got off M-22 and you just stayed in your car and drove it, you would have a remarkable experience,” Kent said. “Whether it’s overlooking Grand Traverse Bay or overlooking Lake Michigan, the views are just stunning in all four seasons. If all you wanted to do was get in your car and drive, it would be well worth it.”
Manistee to Frankfort
Begin your journey in Manistee and visit the North Pierhead Lighthouse, which has been a guiding light since 1927. M-22 starts just north of town, passing through Arcadia and the resort town of Frankfort. In Frankfort, visit Stormcloud Brewing Company and pair their Belgian-inspired ales with some lawn games. On your way out of town, stop by Point Bestie Lighthouse, another historic gem just off M-22. The lighthouse has been operating continuously since 1858, and the original lighthouse, keeper’s residence, fog signal building and Boathouse Museum are open to the public.
Frankfort to Glen Arbor
After weaving through Frankfort, M-22 makes its way to Empire, which offers some of the best views of Lake Michigan. Empire Beach, located just a few blocks from downtown, is a section of beach that was named one of the top 21 beaches in the world by National Geographic in 2017.
After hitting the beach, stop by Grocer’s Daughter Chocolate to satisfy your sweet tooth. The shop offers handmade truffles, caramels, bars and bark inspired by Northern Michigan.
M-22 passes through Empire right before reaching Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, one of the state’s biggest attractions. The national lakeshore, which turned 50 last year, is famous for its massive Dune Climb and spectacular Lake Michigan views.
“Really, the gem of the whole area is Sleeping Bear Dunes,” Kent said. “You’ve got to plan on driving Pierce Stocking Drive. There are huge bluffs overlooking Lake Michigan and sandy trails all around you.
“You can see the contrast between the tan of the sand and the blue of Lake Michigan — it’s majestic. It truly is one of the most-visited areas in Northern Michigan.”
Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive, located within Sleeping Bear, is a 7.4-mile loop that meanders through beech-maple forest and sand dunes with breathtaking overlooks of the Sleeping Bear Dunes, Big and Little Glen lakes and Lake Michigan.
Sleeping Bear features about 100 miles of designated trails. There are 13 trails on the mainland for hiking; most are maintained during the winter for snowshoeing and cross-country skiing as well.
The Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail is a popular choice among cyclists; it runs almost 22 miles from Empire through Glen Arbor, connecting to park attractions along the way.
In Glen Arbor, you’ll find plenty of shopping and dining options for everyone on your trip. There, you can browse all things cherry at Cherry Republic’s headquarters and pick up some M-22 souvenirs at the official M22 store. And for dinner, Art’s Tavern is a must.
Open since 1934, Art’s is a Glen Arbor institution, known for its big burgers and even bigger personality. After a long day of exploring, its killer bar food hits the spot — don’t forget to order the tater tots.
Glen Arbor to Traverse City
M-22 winds through the charming village of Leland, located right between Lake Michigan and Lake Leelanau. Leland is home to Fishtown, a historic district that honors Northern Michigan’s commercial fishing heritage. You can walk along the docks and see this history preserved in the fish tugs, smokehouses and weathered fishing shanties, which now house art galleries, gift and clothing boutiques, and specialty food shops.
Grab some smoked whitefish at Carlson’s, the family that started it all. The Carlson family has operated its fishery for over a century, handing down the fishing tradition five times. Before leaving Fishtown, stop by the Village Cheese Shanty for lunch. Browse over 60 varieties of cheese and try the shanty’s famous pretzel bread — there will probably be people lined up waiting to order, but it’s worth the wait.
Following Fishtown, M-22 heads around the tip of the Leelanau Peninsula and lands in Northport. Fischer’s Happy Hour Tavern is local favorite there — it’s a roadhouse classic where steak and chicken top the menu, and it’s famous for its martinis and Manhattans.
And of course, you can’t forget about the wine. Because of its temperate climate, Leelanau and Old Missions peninsulas are home to some of the country’s best wine growing regions.
“The wine industry in this area really got established in the mid-70s, and since then, we have seen a crop of vintners that have just absolutely excelled,” Kent said. “We’ve got over 40 wineries in this region producing outstanding wines that are being critically acclaimed.”
Leelanau Cellars, sitting right on Grand Traverse Bay in Omena just south of Northport, welcomes over 40,000 visitors to its tasting room every year. Its Witches Brew, a red blend mulled with traditional autumn spices, is a wildly popular (and cozy) choice for fall and winter.
Head further down M-22 and you’ll find the art-driven community of Suttons Bay. The Blue Light District, an area of local artists and businesses in Suttons Bay, is worth a stroll.
If you’re feeling thirsty, stop by Hop Lot Brewing Co. Hop Lot’s beer garden will give you another taste of Northern Michigan’s outdoor beauty with its bonfire pits and games of cornhole. If cider is more your style, head over to Suttons Bay Ciders and unwind in its hilltop tasting room.
Tucked in the rolling hills of the Leelanau Peninsula just a bit south, Black Star Farms pairs stunning vistas with internationally award-winning wines and spirits. The views are absolutely breathtaking in the fall; it’s a must-visit on any wine tour.
Black Star Farms is a happy ending to any road trip; but if you’re eager for more, head southwest about 10 miles into Traverse City and you’ll end up at Farm Club, a one-stop shop for everything fresh.
A farm, restaurant, brewery, bakery and marketplace, Farm Club highlights the region’s rich agriculture and food scene and is located right off the Traverse Area Recreation Trail (TART). “It is literally farm-to-table because you can see the crops growing right next to your table,” Kent said. “Our restaurant scene is just so diverse and we have some remarkable food.”
Article written by Kelsey Smith
Featured image courtesy of Leelanau Cellars