6 Stops for a One Tank Road Trip in Northeast Michigan

Follow M-23 for a one-tank road trip along Michigan’s “Sunrise Side.” It’s a scenic drive past lighthouses, along pebbly beaches and within view of glimmering Lake Huron, all highlights of Northeast Michigan.

Brick lighthouse on the shoreline
Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse | Photo Courtesy of Pure Michigan

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 1. Mackinaw City 

The “Sunrise Side” of Michigan starts on the northeastern shore of Lake Huron at Mackinaw City. At the “Tip of the Mitt” Redcoats fire muskets and costumed interpreters explain life in 18th-century northern Michigan at Colonial Michilimackinac. Shooting images of the mighty Mackinac Bridge is a photographer’s dream come true, especially with the elegant Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse in the foreground. The sandy-colored lighthouse with its brilliant red roofs offers the perfect contrast to the brilliant blue waters of the Straits of Mackinac. Mackinaw City’s multi-block downtown district lies just a short drive from the bridge and offers a variety of retail shops and restaurants.

2. Mackinac Island

Carriage Ride on Mackinac Island
Carriage Ride on Mackinac Island | Photo Courtesy of Pure Michigan 

Leave your car behind for a quick ferry ride from Mackinaw City to Mackinac Island. Motorized transportation is strictly prohibited on Michigan’s famed island. Instead, explore the 70 miles of natural and paved trails in Mackinac Island State Park, Michigan’s first, from the seat of a horse-drawn carriage. Or rent a bicycle and ride the easy 8-mile circuit around the island, stopping for photos at Arch Rock. The rocking chairs on the front porch of the Grand Hotel may be the perfect spot for watching the sun rise over one Great Lake (Huron) and set over another (Michigan). And the historic hotel promises to be an unforgettable place to spend the night. Don’t forget to buy a box of homemade fudge to take home!

3. Cheboygan 

Cheboygan is the “Gateway to the Waterways.” In addition to beautiful Lake Huron, the charming small town serves as a boater’s access point to the Inland Waterway, a series of inland lakes, bayous, locks and canals that lead all the way to Petoskey in west Michigan. The Black Mountain Recreational Area some 15 miles south of town ranks as one of only three sanctioned ATV areas in Michigan. After a day of adventures, raise a pint at Cheboygan Brewing Company overlooking the Cheboygan River. 

4. Alpena  

Follow M-23 south to Alpena. The tarmac wends its way south, beneath a canopy of white pines and sugar maples and along the sparkling shore of Lake Huron. Just try to keep your eyes on the road! Take a break at the halfway point to visit Forty Mile Point Lighthouse. Located near Rogers City, the lighthouse stands watch over the wave-washed remains of a shipwreck, half-buried in the sand and just to the north of the light. Shipwrecks are a major attraction at the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary in Alpena. More than 200 shipwrecks lie submerged beneath the waves, accessible by scuba divers, snorkelers and kayakers. Don’t care to get wet? The Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary’s Great Lakes Maritime Heritage Center explores the wrecks’ history through museum exhibits.

5. Tawas City

Route M-23 skirts the edge of Lake Huron, passing through tiny lakeside towns along the edges of the million-acre Huron-Manistee National Forest. The beaches of Tawas Point State Park are simply perfect for swimming and building sand castles thanks to the shallow (and warm) waters of Lake Huron at this location. At the tip of the point is the Tawas Point Lighthouse. The light’s brilliant white tower and red brick keeper’s house stand in stunning contrast to the sandy shoreline and blue waters of Lake Huron.

6. Side Trip: Gaylord

Man golfing at Tree Tops Resort
Treetops Resort | Photo Courtesy of Pure Michigan

Take M-32 west from Alpena to Gaylord. Seventeen premier golf courses call the Gaylord area their home. Created by America’s top course designers, including Robert Trent Jones and Tom Fazio, the region from Gaylord to Grayling includes golf resorts like Treetops Resort, the Otsego Club, The Natural at Beaver Creek Resort and The Loon Golf Club, among many others. For golf lovers, the journey to Gaylord is well worth the detour.