Discover the Northern Lake Michigan Circle Tour

The Northern Lake Michigan Circle Tour is considered by many to be the most beautiful half of the trip around the big lake. Perhaps the popularity of the northern region is due to that “Up North” feeling and the escape from larger cities. Here, you will experience expansive, unspoiled vistas of the lakeshore, as well as hilly terrain and curves in the road which offer many unexpected and breathtaking views around the bend.

For the purpose of this article, we are starting the Northern Lake Michigan Circle Tour in Ludington, Michigan, and continuing north (counter-clockwise) around Lake Michigan, eventually ending in Manitowoc, Wisconsin, where you can ride the S.S. Badger carferry back to Michigan.

Northwest Michigan

  • Ludington is home port to the S.S. Badger carferry, and a popular destination for travelers seeking beautiful beaches, lighthouses, and a very walkable community rich with maritime history. Ludington is also home to the #1 state park in the Midwest–Ludington State Park.
  • As the Lake Michigan Circle Tour aims north along the Northwest Michigan shoreline, you will first take US-10/31 heading east out of Ludington, where you will pass through Scottville. Scottville is a rural farming community best known as being home to the Scottville Clown Band and the Scottville Riverside Park along the Pere Marquette River.
  • Leaving Scottville, continue north on US-31 to the Victorian port city of Manistee, a great place to stretch your legs on the beautiful 1.5 mile Riverwalk along the Manistee River which runs through Manistee’s historic district filled with unique shopping and dining options .
  • North of Manistee you will leave US-31 and begin following M-22–a breathtaking drive in the fall–or any time of year! While on M-22, you will pass through Onekama, ArcadiaFrankfort, and Empire.
  • Past Empire, a designated loop route is M-109, which soon rejoins M-22 at Glen Arbor. Alternatively, you may skip M-109 and stay on M-22 between Empire and Glen Arbor. M-109 is worth the diversion though, as this is where you will find the scenic Pierce Stocking Drive which takes you into the Sleeping Bears Dunes National Lakeshore.
  • Continue along the lakeshore on M-22 into the Leelanau Peninsula, where you will  pass through Leland and arrive at Northport. From Northport, M-22 turns south again along the east side of the Leelanau Peninsula along the West Bay, passing through the town of Suttons Bay and continuing toward Traverse City.  At Traverse City, known as the “Cherry Capital” of the United States, M-22 connects you back to US-31, which will bring you to the Northern Michigan portion of the Lake Michigan Circle Tour.

Northern Michigan

  • After passing through Traverse City, you will continue on US-31 North along the scenic Traverse Bay shoreline and on to Charlevoix.
  • You will pass through Charlevoix, and cross over the drawbridge which connects Lake Michigan to Lake Charlevoix.
  • Next stop is Petoskey, one of the most beautiful regions in the state. Petoskey’s downtown overlooks Lake Michigan and offers terrific shopping. Take the Little Traverse Wheelway, which connects Petoskey to Charlevoix and Harbor Springs.
  • Continue up to the “Tip of the Mitt” to Mackinaw City. Here the Lake Michigan and Lake Huron Circle Tours combine at I-75 and cross the Mackinac Bridge into the Upper Peninsula.
  • Don’t forget to make a stop at the famous Mackinac Island, where no cars are allowed. Taste some fudge, bike around the island, and shop in the charming downtown area.

Michigan’s Upper Peninsula

  • After crossing the Mackinac Bridge, often referred to as the “Mighty Mac”, follow US-2 west along the northern Lake Michigan shoreline.
  • First stop in the UP will be St. Ignace, then Manistique, followed by Gladstone, and Escanaba.
  • South of Escanaba, you will follow M-35 to Menominee where US-41 carries you into Wisconsin.

Northeast Wisconsin

  • After leaving Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, still on US-41, you will enter Wisconsin, and your first stop will be just across the Menominee River, in a quaint town called Marinette.
  • Continue south on I-41 and enter I-43 as you enter into Green Bay, home of the Green Bay Packers.
  • After passing through Green Bay, you will leave I-43 and follow STH-57 north until it joins with STH-42, taking you into Sturgeon Bay. After crossing the bridge over the bay, you will continue on STH-42 up into the very scenic and interesting Door County Peninsula. The Door County Peninsula is a popular tourist destination often described as “The Cape Cod of the Midwest.” Discover numerous lighthouses as you travel. Don’t miss one of the famous fish boils, a Door County specialty! You will pass through Carlsville, Egg Harbor, Fish Creek and Ephraim.
  • In the northern part of Door County, at Sister Bay, you will turn south on STH-57 and pass through Bailey’s Harbor and Jacksonport. Then, you will return back to STH-42 and travel again through Sturgeon Bay, as you leave the Door County Peninsula.
  • Continue south on STH-42 through the towns of Algoma, Kewaunee, and Two Rivers.
  • Continue south on I-42, until you reach Manitowoc. This is the Wisconsin port of call for the S.S. Badger carferry as it crosses over to Ludington, Michigan. During May-October, the S.S. Badger carferry is a “shortcut” on the Circle Tour.
  • Bring the S.S. Badger back to Michigan, and you have completed the Northern Lake Michigan Circle Tour.