Natural Color

Featured in Michigan Travel Ideas 2012, beginning on page 61.

Northeast Michigan is a kingdom of deep woods, crystal inland lakes, golden Lake Huron beaches and winding rivers. I want to explore the region in autumn, when high-season crowds vanish and nature’s best show arrives.

In addition to leaf peeping, I set my sights on a few active adventures, such as hiking and paddling through spectacular scenery, but allow time for touring in small towns and unwinding in woodsy lodges. So without room reservations or even much of a plan, I set out, ready to savor still-warm weather, blazing foliage and the feeling that nature, rather than a clock, will be my guide.

For More Information, contact:

Alpena Convention & Visitors Bureau (800/425-7362 or 989/354-4181; 

Cheboygan Area Tourist Bureau (800/968-3302 or 231/627-7183; 

Grayling Visitors Bureau (800/937-8837 or 989/348-4945; 

Indian River Area Tourist Bureau (231/238-9325; 

Oscoda Area Convention & Visitors Bureau (877/867-2632 or 989/739-0900; 

Rogers City Travelers & Visitors Bureau (989/734-2535; 

Tawas Bay Tourist & Convention Bureau (877/868-2927; 

Featured in the Article

Big Bear Adventures (231/238-8181; 

Hartwick Pines State Park (989/348-7068; 

Black Mountain Lodge (231/625-9322; 

Au Sable River Queen (989/739-7351;

Lumberman’s Monument Visitor Center (989/362-8961).

Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary (989/356-8805; 

New Presque Isle Lighthouse Park and Museum (989/595-5419; 

Old Presque Isle Lighthouse (989/595-6979; 

40 Mile Point Lighthouse (989/734-4587; 

Tawas Point Lighthouse (989/362-5658; 

Sturgeon Point Lighthouse and Museum (989/727-4703; 

The Bakery (989/826-3099).

Garland Lodge & Resort (877/442-7526; 

More Things to Do

Art in the Loft Gallery 109
The name “Art in the Loft” sounds sort of intimate, but this multi-artist gallery occupies a huge upstairs loft in downtown Alpena. Many Michigan artists are featured here, and the art on display is all for sale—and often quite affordable (989/356-4877; 

Great Lakes Maritime Heritage Center
Lightning flashes, thunder claps, and men shout orders as a Great Lakes schooner heaves in the surf at this Alpena museum. That sense of diving headfirst into history is what makes the Great Lakes Maritime Heritage Center such a great spot (989/356-8805; 

Iargo Springs
An interpretive plaque by the Iargo Springs parking lot near Oscoda reminds visitors that this site has charmed people for centuries. The water is almost mystically clear and cool, whether it’s an inch deep and racing across the woodland floor or dammed behind logs in a 2-foot-deep pool. Many paths lead to panoramic views of the Au Sable, a river that owes its cool temperature and clean water in part to these springs (989/739-0728).

Island Park and Wildlife Sanctuary
Island Park is a 17-acre triangle of land right in the middle of the Thunder Bay River near Alpena. Locals bring kayaks and canoes to paddle around the island and the surrounding 500 acres of backwaters—there’s even a canoe trail you can follow—but it’s lots of fun to explore the island on foot, too (989/354-4158 or 989/356-0353).

Rainbow Charter Service
A friendly fishing guide with more than 20 years of experience takes families and experienced anglers out on Lake Huron near Oscoda to catch lake trout, steelhead and—if Lady Luck strikes—salmon (989/739-5696; 

The Sandy Hook Nature Trail
Located within Tawas Point State Park near East Tawas, this 2-mile trek winds through a scenic sand dune ecosystem. The Sandy Hook area is a major landfall stopover for songbirds migrating along the Mississippi Flyway, and the trail always offers a splendid view of the historic lighthouse, which has been in service since 1876 (989/362-5041; 

More Places to Eat

The Cellar
Hidden in (surprise!) the cellar of a riverfront building in Alpena, this special-occasion gem serves spot-on meat and pastas. On weekends, live music and happy chatter fill the glass-walled dining room, which overlooks the Thunder Bay River (989/340-0188; 

Dawson and Stevens Classic 50’s Diner
This former Grayling pharmacy has been converted to a retro diner with an original soda fountain. A fun museum of Coca-Cola memorabilia lines one wall, and booths are upholstered in pink and seafoam green vinyl (989/348-2111; 

Fresh Palate
For foodies traveling along the Lake Huron shore, Fresh Palate is like an oasis in the desert. A huge menu of healthy, flavorful sandwiches, wraps and salads makes this tiny downtown cafe one of Alpena’s best places to eat (989/358-1400; 

The Portage
Considered one of the most popular dining spots in Presque Isle, the Portage is a fine place to get traditional steak and seafood entrees and enjoy a view of Presque Isle’s marina (989/595-6051).

Talley’s Log Cabin Bar
Talley’s Log Cabin Bar in Lewiston draws standing-room crowds, regularly, for its cheap, casual and addictive Talley Burgers, great with a side of ranch potato wedges. The vibe is wholly casual and friendly (989/786-2011).

Villager Restaurant
This classic breakfast and lunch spot in Lewiston kicks diner fare up a notch with homemade biscuits and gravy, fresh baked breads and omelettes served 14 ways (989/786-4314).

More Places to Stay
Barefoot Beach Resort
These clean and well-stocked cottages on the Lake Huron shore near Oscoda are perfect for families who want a quiet and affordable week on the beach. There's a volleyball net and playground on the beach, board games in the resort office, plus cable and WiFi in the cottages. All eight cottages have a small deck with a kettle grill and picnic table (989/739-1818; 

Fuller’s North Branch Outing Club
Folks don’t come to this inn, a registered National Historic Site, for spa services or fancy bedding. They come to fish the same trout stream—and stay in the same rooms—that once drew Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Edison and the big auto crew from Detroit up to the woods around Grayling, back when running water and electricity made the North Branch Outing Club seem positively plush (989/348-7951; 

Huron House Bed and Breakfast
Fishing cottages, 1960s-era motels and family campgrounds—these are plentiful along Michigan’s sunrise coast. But a serenely romantic beachfront retreat was difficult, if not impossible, to find. Until now. The Huron House B&B near Oscoda, a 14-room enclave catering to couples, offers luxury resort-style amenities such as huge four-poster beds with lush linens, fireplaces, Jacuzzis, private decks and gorgeous views of Lake Huron (989/739-9255; 

North Bay Bed and Breakfast
Guests are made to feel like family in this cozy, beautifully crafted B&B overlooking the New Presque Isle Lighthouse. A rustic boardwalk leads from a lower-level common room through pine trees to a private beach. An Adirondack-ringed fire pit on the beach has a pile of wood waiting to be lit (989/595-5209;

Northwoods Lodge
The 16-room Northwoods Lodge near Indian River gives guests the rustic experience without taking away the amenities. Tucked away in a wooded area, the charming lodge features rooms with an Up North vibe while still offering the standard creature comforts: Cable TV, microwave, mini fridge and a free continental breakfast (231/238-7729; 

Tee Lake Resort
Tee Lake is a classic lakefront cabin resort near Lewiston, reinvented with a fun, creative vibe reflective of its new generation owners. Guests who can pull themselves away from their waterfront decks get free access to paddleboats and kayaks (989/786-2208;