10 Traverse City Sights to Explore

Thousands of visitors will flock to Traverse City from June 29 to July 6 for the National Cherry Festival. There’s no end of things to do at the festival – but you should still take a little time to get out and see the rest of this beautiful town. Mike Norton of the Traverse City Convention & Visitors Bureau shares a few suggestions.

Hey, I LOVE the Cherry Festival! From the first window-rattling roar of the jets at the air show to the last float in the Cherry Royale Parade, I’m a big fan. But there are lots of must-see and must-do things in the Traverse City area, and you shouldn’t leave without checking out at least a few of these:

1. The Sleeping Bear Dunes
I never get tired of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, a breathtaking 64-mile curve of beaches, coves, islands and dunes – some perched as high as 400 feet above the water. Its grandeur can be viewed from overlooks along the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive. But it’s even better to walk its beaches, hike its trails or even take a ferryboat ride to the unspoiled Manitou Islands.

2. The Grand Traverse Commons
Traverse City’s most distinctive architectural treasure is the sprawling Grand Traverse Commons, our former mental asylum, whose castle-like buildings are slowly being converted into a complex of apartments, shops, galleries, offices and restaurants. Great shopping, and the 480-acre wooded campus is a beautiful place for people to walk, run and bicycle.

3. Wine Country Touring
Traverse City may be the “Cherry Capital of the World,” but the same water-cradled slopes that make this a perfect place for fruit orchards are now producing some of the best wines in the country. The Leelanau and Old Mission peninsulas are dotted with vineyards and wineries — many in awe-inspiring hilltop settings that make them attractions in their own right.

4. The Interlochen Center for the Arts
In a secluded forest setting (about 20 minutes from downtown Traverse City) Interlochen is a magnet for lovers of music, drama and dance. Over 200,000 people visit each year. Come for a show, or simply for a stroll around the campus.

5. Beaches
You can’t go to TC without spending some time at the beach! On West Grand Traverse Bay, try Clinch Park, West End, and Bryant Park (a particularly good spot to catch the 4th of July fireworks). The entire southern shore of East Bay is one long beach of fine sugar sand, and it’s shallow enough for little ones. Check out the Traverse City State Park near Three Mile Road.

6. Slabtown
In the 19th century, Bohemian immigrants came to work in Traverse City’s waterfront sawmills. They built their homes with slabs of scrap lumber from the mills, so their neighborhood came to be known as Slabtown. Many of their cottages are still standing – and so are two great bars: Sleder’s Family Tavern, and the Little Bohemia Pub & Grill. Both places still preserve the feel of an earlier, more authentic Traverse City.

7. Tall Ship Sailing
Traverse City’s has more of these stately sailing vessels than any other port on the Great Lakes. Taste the exhilaration of the Days of Sail is to take a two-hour cruise aboard the 114-foot Tall Ship Manitou, a replica of a 19th-century schooner, or on the Nauti-Cat, the largest commercial sailing catamaran on the Great Lakes.

8. Lighthouses
At the Grand Traverse Lighthouse Museum near Northport, visitors can see how lighthouse keepers and their families lived in the early 1920s. One of the oldest lighthouses on the Great Lakes, it has been in service for over 150 years. The smaller Mission Point Lighthouse at the tip of the Old Mission Peninsula, is another scenic treasure.

9. Shopping
Traverse City is a shopper’s paradise. I love our shady, pedestrian-friendly downtown, with its scores of fascinating boutiques, restaurants and galleries, and lots of places to sit and relax. Nearby are picturesque lakeport towns like Leland, Glen Arbor, Elk Rapids and Northport — filled with hidden byways, cozy cottages, quaint shops and stunning galleries.

10. Fresh Food
This time of year, fresh fruits and vegetables – including cherries! – can be found almost everywhere around Traverse City. The community has lots of farmers markets, roadside stands, and U-pick orchards where you can enjoy picking your own fruit. It tastes so much better that way!

What would you add to the list? Visit michigan.org to learn about more things to do and see in the Traverse City area.

Mike Norton spent 25 years as newspaper writer and columnist before starting a second career as media relations director at the Traverse City Convention & Visitors Bureau. He lives in the village of Old Mission.

Out On the Water in Traverse City

Maybe it was his landlubberly upbringing, but it took writer Mike Norton quite a while to stop thinking of the water as “forbidden territory” and start thinking of it as a big blue playground. Now, after 35 years as a resident of Traverse City, he loves to get out on Grand Traverse Bay in almost any way he can.

I first came to Traverse City to be near the water. That’s not surprising, I guess; so do thousands of other people.

Water, after all, is what defines this place. It’s the beautiful backdrop for our family photos, the sparkling blue boundary to our beaches, the ever-changing spectacle that mesmerizes us at sunrise and sunset and all the hours in between.

Pretty? Of course it is. But beauty is really only half the story — because I’ve learned that once you venture out on its shimmering surface, the water becomes more than part of the scenery. It becomes a highway to adventure.

With more than 150 inland lakes and hundreds of miles of Lake Michigan shoreline, Traverse City has always attracted active vacationers who enjoy interacting with water – whether that means sailing, boating, kayaking, fishing, or high-speed sports from waterskiing to kiteboarding. The reason?  Grand Traverse Bay, a two-pronged “freshwater fjord” that’s sheltered on three sides from the wind and waves that can make the open waters of Lake Michigan too intimidating for many novices.

Kayaking Lake Michigan near the Sleeping Bear Dunes

Probably the quickest way to get out on the water is in a canoe or kayak. Long a favorite canoe destination, the area has become hugely popular with kayakers in recent years. Today almost every coastal community in the Traverse City area has at least one canoe/kayak rental outlet, and there are several full-service outfitters who offer instruction and guiding services. (And take it from me, it doesn’t take long to learn!)

I love paddling effortlessly down a tree-shaded river without a care in the world, or heading out along the beach in a sturdy kayak. Most of our rivers are tame enough for novice paddlers, with just enough current to keep things interesting, and today’s kayaks are made for people of every age and aptitude. Just pack some sunscreen and a shore lunch — and don’t forget your camera!

Jet-skiing on Grand Traverse Bay

For those who are looking for something a bit different, stand-up paddleboarding is one of the recent crazes on our lakes and harbors. Instead of sitting on a board, you stand up – getting great views of your surroundings, including the watery depths beneath your feet! SUP’ing is great fun, wonderful exercise, and easy to learn, and there are plenty of places to rent a board if you don’t already own one.

As long as we’re on the subject of boards, Traverse City has long been a major destination for kiteboarding, where you harness the wind to pull you across the water on a small surfboard. This takes some instruction– which can fortunately be acquired in a few hours – but using a special kite and a control harness, you can really move, skimming across the lake and launching 30-foot jumps over the waves!

There are easier ways to speed across the water of course. Jet skis and other personal watercraft can be rented at several location around Traverse City – and although they’re faster than ever, they’re a far cry from the noisy, smelly, uncomfortable machines of the past. Today’s personal watercraft are actually more like small speedboats, a useful way to get from one place to another. (And yes, to have a lot of fun buzzing up and down the shore.)

Sailboats on Grand Traverse Bay

Of course, the proliferation of all these boards and machines doesn’t mean there aren’t still lots of regular boats on the water in Traverse City. Flocks of sailboats are always winging up and down the Bay in breezy weather, and there are plenty of powerboats, too – usually towing water-skiers or heading out to do a little fishing. If fishing is your private passion, this is the perfect place – whether it’s battling a high-powered salmon from the deck of a charter boat or outwitting the wily walleye and smallmouth bass of our inland lakes.

And for those who prefer their excitement a little more organized, how about a sunset cruise in a 19th-century “tall ship” or an exhilarating ride over the waves aboard a giant catamaran?

Undoubtedly, the most easily recognized vessel in the Traverse City fleet is the Tall Ship Manitou, a 114-foot, 62-passenger schooner that offers three two-hour cruises across the bay each day of the week, as well as a number of specialty cruises (a Microbrew & Pizza Cruise, a Wine Tasting Cruise, musical cruises and “ice cream sails”). And now the Manitou has a little brother, the cutter Scout, that’s available for small-group cruises of up to six people.

An even livelier sailing experience can be had aboard the Nauti-Cat, a 47-foot catamaran based near the mouth of the Boardman River. Measuring 29 feet from side to side, it offers up to four cruises per day during the summer months, often cruising as fast as 14 knots on a breezy day.

Can you tell how eager I am to get back out on the water?

Mike Norton, a native of Grand Rapids, spent 25 years as newspaper writer and columnist before starting a second career as media relations director at the Traverse City Convention & Visitors Bureau. An avid kayaker and an enthusiastic (if somewhat clumsy) small-boat sailor, he lives in the village of Old Mission.

The Beauty of Sleeping Bear Dunes

After 34 years as a resident of Traverse City, writer Mike Norton has come to love his adopted hometown’s natural beauty, its many opportunities for outdoor recreation and its generous array of tasty things to eat and drink. But most of all, he loves the big sprawling national park just a few miles west of town: the Sleeping Bear Dunes.

The dream is always the same. It’s evening, and I’m standing at the edge of the great dune, looking out over Lake Michigan. The sun is low in the sky, the distant water like a sheet of beaten brass, and the sand-warmed wind makes the leaves hiss in the cottonwoods behind me. Far below, a single tiny gull wheels over the beach. Everything is as it should be, nothing is out of place, and when I awaken I am always refreshed.

All too often, places and things that once impressed me with their size and power seem sadly diminished when I visit them later in life — larger in memory than they are in reality.

The Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is not one of them.

Thanks to my job, I get out to the Dunes pretty regularly (lucky me!) and if I was ever going to get tired of the place, I’m sure it would have happened by now.  But it hasn’t. Whether I’m wandering around in the pine barrens near Platte Bay or getting lost on South Manitou Island, walking the long beach by Pyramid Point or cruising the Pierce  Stocking Scenic Drive for the umpteenth time, there’s always at least one moment when I’m rocked back on my heels by the beauty of it all.

There are a lot of ways to enjoy this magnificent landscape. Visitors often get their first overview on the Scenic Drive, a 7.1-mile self-guided route that offers great views of the surrounding dunes and lakes.  But some people can’t resist the famous Dune Climb at the west shore of Little Glen Lake. (It’s a hard climb, but the view from the top is worth it!)

Others visit the nearby “ghost port” of Glen Haven, where there’s a working blacksmith shop, a boat museum and a well-preserved Lifesaving Service station that’s open for tours, and the once-thriving German settlement at Port Oneida, where 19th century farms are being rescued from the ravages of time.

Me, I like to hike – and Sleeping Bear is full of hiking trails. My personal  favorite? The 2.8-mile Dunes Trail, which takes you out along Sleeping Bear Point through a landscape of wind-scoured dunes and vegetation. One of its strangest features is a “ghost forest:” a stand of huge bleached cedars that were buried by sand and then uncovered by the winds. Walking through them, especially at dusk, is an eerie experience — like being stranded on another planet.

I think one of the best things about my job is that it gives me the opportunity to introduce other people to Sleeping Bear for the very first time. I love to watch the light come into their eyes as they step out onto one of those high overlooks above the lake, where you’re so high above the sand and sky and water that you might as well be flying.  Ninety percent of the time, the first words out of their mouths will be “I had no idea!”

That’s right, I think. But now you do.

Sometimes I wonder if we Traverse City folks get so caught up in all of our town’s great food and wine, entertainment and shopping that we start to forget what brought most of us here in the first place: the sheer beauty that surrounds us on every side.

That’s the true value of things like the recent vote by viewers of Good Morning America who named Sleeping Bear the “most beautiful place in America.” People can quibble with the results (there are lots of beautiful places, after all) and people can talk about how much good such things do for the local economy. But I think the best part of it is to serve as a reminder that we’re all — visitors and residents alike — members of a privileged group and custodians of a very special part of the world.

Some people seem to think we can best protect these wonders by keeping them a secret, known only to the privileged few. For my part, I want to do what I can to let the world know about them. I’ve come to believe that when other people see what an amazing place this is, they’ll be motivated to guard and protect it — just as I was when I first stepped out on that overlook above the lake.

Mike Norton, a native of Grand Rapids, spent 25 years as newspaper writer and columnist before starting a second career as media relations director at the Traverse City Convention & Visitors Bureau. An avid hiker, cyclist and kayaker, he lives in the village of Old Mission.