By Steve Ellis
In 2015, USA Today readers voted M-22, the best “scenic autumn drive in the nation.”
M-22 is a 116-mile stretch of road that winds through the scenic countryside of Manistee, Benzie and Leelanau counties.
The road takes you past farm markets, wineries, art galleries, and gorgeous small towns along the Lake Michigan shore.
The southernmost section of M-22 starts just north of Manistee on US-31 and heads north along the west shore through Onekama, Elberta, Frankfurt, Crystal Lake, Empire, Glen Arbor, Leland and Northport.
M-22 then heads south, winding along the eastern coast through Omena, Peshawbestown, Suttons Bay and ending in Traverse City.
The west side drive through the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lake Shore is stupendous. This 35-mile stretch of shoreline was named “The most beautiful place in America” in 2011 by the “Good Morning America” TV show. It offers 450-foot bluffs, wonderful beaches and views of North and South Manitou islands. More than a million people visit the Dunes each year.
Leland, home to the famous Fishtown, is one of the most photographed places in the state, with its views of vintage fishing boats tucked into the mouth of the Leland River. The docks are lined with weathered fishing shanties, now filled with boutiques, art galleries and specialty food shops.
Walk along the docks, smokehouses, racks of drying fishing nets, and fish tugs on the Leland River, and you can imagine what it would have been like in the early 1900s to live and work in this area.
The town of Northport is a short jaunt north from Leland and dates back to 1849. There are many stores and eateries to enjoy, including: Dog Ears Books, Porcupine Lodge and Cottage Goods, Barb’s Bakery – to name a few. We enjoyed a delicious pulled pork sandwich for lunch sitting on the outdoor patio at The Garage Bar and Grille. The Mitten Brewery (the original is in Grand Rapids) is a fun place that encourages guests to order food from neighboring eateries and dine in their backyard bier garden.
We visited the town on the day of Northport’s “Cars in the Park” – it’s the longest running car show in Leelanau County. The grassy park setting overlooking the lake is the perfect backdrop for this event.
Every Friday during the summer is Music In the Park from 7-9 p.m., with great live music at the GM Dane Marina Park. Hundreds of locals and visitors pack the park with chairs, blankets and picnic baskets to enjoy this weekly event.
The Leelanau State Park is just a few miles north and is one of the prettiest camping spots in the state and home to the Grand Traverse Lighthouse.
Just south on M-22 is the Omena Bay Country Store which opened in 1889 and has served the area ever since. Unlike many other “country stores,” this store has not been modernized and, I would imagine, looks much like it did 50 years ago.
Across the street is “Knot Just a Bar,” offering casual food and deck seating with a great view of the horseshoe bay.
The Suttons Bay area offers more great beaches, Michigan wine country tours and a historic shopping district. The Bay Theatre originally opened in 1946, has been restored to its original splendor, offering first-run moves, live music and dramatic theater.
The 17-mile Leelanau Trail provides a paved off-road connection between Traverse City and Suttons Bay. Running through the last of Leelanau County’s former railroad corridors, the Leelanau Trail features picturesque forests, farms, vineyards, lakes and ponds.
Tucked back in the woods, just off M-22, is Hop Lot Brewery, a large wooden building with dozens of tables and fire pits scattered around for relaxing under a canopy of trees. The food and live music are great. Order your food early, as most popular items tend to sell out fast.
If you are looking for an up-north getaway without traffic and crowds, head up to M-22 and experience Pure Michigan at its finest!