7 Stops for a One Tank Road Trip in East Central Michigan

Follow I-75 for a closer look at Michigan’s thumb. This trip explores the small towns and rivers near Lake Huron and all the highlights of East Central Michigan.

aerial view of frankenmuth, canal and bridge over it
Frankenmuth | Photo Courtesy of Pure Michigan

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1. Flint

Few realize the cultural gems hidden in Flint, the “Vehicle City.” Park your car at the Flint Cultural Center just north of downtown, home to eight cultural institutions, and you’ll see them all. Choose from the Flint Institute of Arts, the second largest art museum in Michigan; the Sloan Museum, focused on regional history, hands-on science and historic automobiles; Longway Planetarium, Michigan’s largest; and the Flint Institute of Music, home of the Flint Symphony Orchestra; The Whiting performing arts center; the Flint Youth Theatre; Applewood, the historic 34-acre farm of Charles Stewart Mott, the cofounder of General Motors; and the Buick Automotive Gallery.

2. Frankenmuth 

Go North on I-75 to Michigan’s “Little Bavaria” celebrates its heritage in its alpine-inspired architecture. Wander past German-inspired shops displaying Bavarian hats, German music, European baked goods and beer steins. A German glockenspiel adorns the tower of the Bavarian Inn Lodge where little figures perform before crowds of fascinated visitors, just as they do in Munich. Shoppers enjoy browsing the shelves of the world’s largest holiday store, Bronner’s CHRISTmas Wonderland, about 1.5 miles south of town. Known for its authentic German décor, Bronner’s sells ornaments, nutcrackers and a wide variety of Christmas gifts.

3. Saginaw

Continue north on I-75 to Saginaw. More than 200 artworks affiliated with the famous sculptor occupy the Marshall M. Fredericks Sculpture Museum at Saginaw Valley State University, on the north side of town. The Mid-Michigan Children’s Museum or the Saginaw Children’s Zoo are popular with traveling families, while outdoor enthusiasts head south of town to the 18,000-acre Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge.

4. Bay City 

Harbor in Bay City during fall
Bay City | Photo Courtesy of Pure Michigan

Follow I-75 north to Bay City. Sitting at the crook of Michigan’s thumb, where Lake Huron’s Saginaw Bay stretches inland, Bay City might best be appreciated from the water. View the Michigan shoreline from beneath the billowing sails of the Appledore Tall Ships, aboard a public cruise or a dinner sail. A sense of Bay City’s maritime heritage becomes palpable on strolls along the Saginaw River, on the Bay City Riverwalk/Railtrail. The trail takes in the best of downtown and its shops and restaurants before joining the Bay County Railtrail for longer walks, a morning ride or a bike ride.

5. Midland 

Follow US-10 west to Midland. The Dow family, affiliated with Dow Chemical and architectural innovation, left several cultural gems in Midland, all of them concentrated north of town. The Dow Gardens, a 110-acre oasis of flower beds and ponds, were the hobby of father Herbert Dow. The Alden B. Dow Home and Studio showcases his son’s 1930s-1960s workspace. Nearby is the 14,000 square-foot Alden B. Dow Museum of Science & Art.

6. Mt. Pleasant

Follow M-20 west to Mt. Pleasant, at the heart of the Lower Peninsula. It is best known as the home of Central Michigan University. The university’s Museum of Cultural and Natural History, Central Michigan University recreates Michigan’s geological past through dioramas, fossils and taxidermied animals. Native American history is the focus 5 miles east of town at the Ziibiwing Center of Anishinabe Culture & Lifeways. The museum honors the heritage of the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe of Michigan and sits adjacent to the Soaring Eagle Casino & Resort.

7. Side Trip: Port Huron 

Port Huron lightship at a dock in Port Huron
Port Huron | Photo Courtesy of Pure Michigan

Take I-69 east from Flint to Port Huron. It’s an easy drive from Flint to Port Huron for a day exploring Michigan’s eastern shore. A climb up Fort Gratiot Lighthouse, the oldest surviving light in Michigan, provides a sweeping overview of the St. Clair River, Lake Huron and Ontario on the other side of the Blue Water Bridge. Visitors can learn about the freighters that pass through these waters at the Great Lakes Maritime Center. The comings and goings of area ships can be seen live and on displays, and an underwater camera even reveals activity under the surface of the St. Clair River. If you’re up to leaving the car for a while, you can further explore Port Huron’s waterways along the Blue Water River Walk (less than one mile from downtown) or catch a ride aboard the Blue Water Trolley for a one-hour tour of the area. The fare is still only 10 cents, the same price charged by Thomas Edison’s brother William when he launched Port Huron’s trolley service in 1866!