My list of the most beautiful places in the Great Lake State is loaded with spots that have been shaped by Lake Superior or Lake Michigan.
On the Lower Peninsula, the shore of Lake Michigan is trimmed with lofty dunes, generous sandy beaches, quaint lighthouses, and tourist-friendly coastal towns
To the north there’s enough raw, unfettered wilderness in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula for volumes of articles, celebrating its old-growth forest, remote peninsulas, waterfalls, mountain ridges, and crystalline springs.
Here, I’ll always be thrilled by the places where industrial power collides with imperious nature, at the epic Soo Locks in Sault Ste. Marie, or far-flung corners mined for copper or iron ore.
1. Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore
Topping my list is more than 40 miles of hilly shoreline on Lake Superior where the wind and water have sculpted dreamlike formations from the sandstone.
This striated rock, in a spectrum of tones, has been molded into caves, natural arches, overhangs and turrets.
You can appreciate this scenery from the water on a paddling trip or commercial boat tour, while there’s a world of awesome sights to discover on land along more than 100 miles of trails.
You can track down hidden lakes, waterfalls, and remote beaches. Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore is a four-season wonderland, with frozen waterfalls in winter, wildflowers in spring, water activities in summer, and exquisite foliage in fall to match the colors of the sandstone.
2. Mackinac Island
Between the Upper and Lower Peninsula there’s Mackinac Island, a vacation paradise full of history, natural wonders, and a character all of its own.
One of my favorite things about this place is that motorized vehicles were banned in 1898, and remain outlawed to this day. To get around, you can rent a bicycle, take a horse-drawn carriage, or simply walk, as nowhere is too far away.
There’s so much to see, from the Victorian architecture around the harbor to the wonderfully preserved Fort Mackinac (1782), built by the British during the Revolutionary War.
One of many places to pause for a photo is Arch Rock, a natural bridge 146 feet above the east coast, and one of several striking limestone formations on the island.
If you’re here to splurge, then the logical place to stay is the Grand Hotel (1887), with the longest porch in the world (660 feet) and a list of former guests that includes five US Presidents, Mark Twain and Thomas Edison.
3. Traverse City
At the head of the two long arms of Grand Traverse Bay, this upscale and progressive coastal city brings a lot to the table.
For scenic beauty, you can head along the finger-like Old Mission and Leelanau peninsulas, laden with more than 40 vineyards, where the winters are tempered by moderate breezes off Lake Michigan.
At the southern limits of Grand Traverse Bay are lakefront parks with sandy beaches,with plush resort hotels.at regular intervals.
There’s adventure to the west in the mountainous sands of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, while you can also retreat to Traverse City’s lovable downtown, with its 19th-century architecture, tree-shaded sidewalks and a food scene to be reckoned with.
Along with wine grapes, tart cherries are a big crop in the bucolic local countryside. So my time to come is during the harvest in the first full week in July, when the city celebrates the National Cherry Festival.
4. Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore
Traverse City is also the off-ramp for an incredible 35-mile stretch of coastline, as well as two islands on Lake Michigan.
Good Morning America has named Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore the “Most Beautiful Place in America”, and I don’t think it’s hard to see why.
The diversity of this place is awesome, with dunes rising to 450 feet, long sandy beaches, crystalline lakes, cute coastal villages, lighthouses, farms, wooded valleys, historic US Life-saving Service stations, the list goes on.
One of the great experiences here is the Dune Climb by Glen Arbor, rewarding you with a breathtaking view inland of Glen Lake, wrapped in miles of woods.
The largest freshwater spring in Michigan has an Ojibwe Native American name that means “Mirror of Heaven”.
Every minute, 10,000 gallons of water bubble up through narrow cracks in the limestone into this tree-cloaked ovular pool, measuring 300 by 175 feet and around 40 feet deep.
The water is clear as can be, with a greenish blue shade, abundant trout, and a sparkling quality if you come on a sunny day.
This is a constant 45°F all year round, and does not tend to freeze in the winter. You can gaze down into Kitch-iti-kipi from a self-guided observation raft operated by a pulley system.
6. Keweenaw Peninsula
A long protrusion on the south shore of Lake Superior, the world’s largest lake, the Keweenaw Peninsula is the place to go for profuse wildlife, remote landscapes, and compelling industrial history.
It’s all home to what are thought to be the largest deposits of native copper in the world. So as unlikely as it may seem today, this far flung nook was the site of a copper boom that attracted many thousands of workers, and accelerated the nation’s development in the 19th century.
You can visit ground zero for the boom at the Quincy Mine and the Delaware Mine, both protected along with a variety of other sites by the Keweenaw National Historical Park.
Copper Harbor is the northernmost permanent settlement in Michigan, and is a great base for outdoor adventure, hiking or riding to secluded beaches, waterfalls and old white pine forest, or making the crossing to Isle Royale.
The Brockway Mountain Drive is my candidate for the most beautiful stretch of road in Michigan, rising more than 720 feet above the Lake Superior shore.
7. Sault Ste. Marie
A titanic clash between the natural and manmade, this waterfront city on the Upper Peninsula is the site of a massive lock system, allowing large freighters to bypass a set of rapids.
I can’t really convey the true size of the Soo Locks, or the spectacle of seeing 1,000-foot ships being lifted into Lake Superior from Lake Huron—you have to see them for yourself.
Right on the shore of the St Marys River, the Soo Locks Visitor Center gives you a courtside view of the action, with freighters passing tantalizingly close.
Sault Ste. Marie nautical heritage is neatly presented along the riverfront, and you can set foot on one of those freighters, boarding the 550-foot SS Valley Camp (1915).
Related reading: 15 Best Small Towns to Visit in Michigan
8. Grand Haven
Picture a classic Michigan beachtown, and I reckon it would look a lot like Grand Haven, where the Grand River flows into Lake Michigan.
You’ve got fine sandy beaches, rolling dunescapes, a lively downtown with historic architecture, and a pair of lighthouses along a picturesque pier with a catwalk.
This is one of those places where you can get anywhere you need to go on foot or by bike, with paved paths linking the pier with downtown.
Grand Haven is in celebratory mood all summer long, with a huge musical fountain putting on a show at the foot of the dune on the opposite bank of the river from downtown.
To sample the city’s maritime character, my tip is to be here in late July/early August for the Coast Guard Festival, dating back all the way to 1924.
9. Sugarloaf Mountain
Posing for photos atop this peak, with a 360° panorama of the rocky Lake Superior shore and miles upon miles of old-growth uplands and outcroppings, you may look like a rugged adventurer.
The truth is, Sugarloaf Mountain is just a short drive from downtown Marquette, and then a moderate half-mile hike from the parking lot. The climb is mostly up stairways, and you can choose between a steeper or shallower route.
The summit is more than 1,000 feet above sea level, and you can choose between three observation decks, blessed with epic views south to Marquette, out over Lake Superior, and inland to Hogsback Mountain.
10. Tahquamenon Falls State Park
The second-largest state park in Michigan features almost 50,000 acres of mostly undeveloped Upper Peninsula wilderness.
If ever there were a place to connect with nature I’m sure this is it, in an area of immense evergreen woods, cedar swamps, 13 inland lakes and more than 30 miles of trails for hiking, cross-country skiing, snowmobiling and snowshoeing.
What brings the crowds though is the third most voluminous waterfall east of the Mississippi, measuring 200 feet across and almost 50 feet high, with a discharge of 50,000 gallons per second during the spring runoff.
That main drop can be admired at the Upper Falls where there’s a neatly positioned view platform. The Lower Falls is a series of stunning cascades around an island that you can now reach on a footbridge.
Also check out my guide on the best waterfalls in Michigan!
11. Isle Royale National Park
If the Upper Peninsula isn’t remote enough then you can continue to very north of the state to this remote 45-mile-long island in the northwest of Lake Superior.
Now, getting to Isle Royale isn’t easy, and you’ll need to catch a ferry from Copper Harbor or Houghton, or the seaplane from the latter. But what you’ll find when you get there is perfect wilderness and a rare degree of solitude.
This is the least visited of all of the United States’ national parks, discovered on a massive trail system and inhabited by moose, gray wolves, river otters, beavers, red foxes, and nesting loons, which nest on the lakefront.
There’s almost no light pollution on Isle Royale, which makes it my best place in Michigan to see the Northern Lights, which tend to be most visible in spring and fall.
12. Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park
The largest state park in Michigan is 60,000 acres of high rocky outcroppings, swamps, lakes, rivers and waterfalls by the shore of Lake Superior.
About half of this landscape is under a dense mantle of the old-growth forest, the largest to be found west of the Adirondacks. The park is named for a rugged escarpment running parallel to the shore, giving rise to inspiring mountain vistas.
The greatest of these is the view over Lake of the Clouds, which sits in a valley between two soaring ridges.
Also easily reached by car is the highest point, Summit Peak (1,958 feet), where a wooden observation tower lifts you above the forest canopy for a view of miles of untrammeled nature.
13. Ann Arbor
The quintessential university town, Ann Arbor is home to the University of Michigan (1817), the oldest and largest institution of higher education in the state.
Sprinkled with Collegiate Gothic architecture and criss-crossed by tree-lined paths, the U-M campus is often named among the prettiest in America.
There’s a lot to get through, and a few spots to check off are The Diag at the center, the Albert Kahn-designed Hill Auditorium (1913), the Michigan Union, and the magnificent Law Quadrangle (1922-23).
Directly to the west, Ann Arbor’s downtown is a bustling shopping and dining district, with a busy farmers’ market and a movie palace from the 1920s.
You can plan a paddling trip along the Huron River and wander the university’s Nichols Arboretum on the riverside. My ideal time to be in Ann Arbor is in June for the largest juried art fair in the country.
More on Michigan: 15 Best Romantic (Weekend) Getaways in Michigan
Ten minutes from Sugarloaf Mountain, I think the largest city on the Upper Peninsula warrants its own entry in this list. Marquette has a cute downtown, packed with local businesses and hopping with festivals in all seasons.
The Lower Harbor, an historic departure point for iron ore, is a wonderful place to greet the sunrise, and is dominated by a hulking ore dock, dating to 1931 and built high to transfer its cargo onto freighters.
If you’d like to delve into the UP’s iron ore heritage, the 47-mile Iron Ore Heritage Trail begins at the harbor and takes you into the Marquette Iron Range.
Presque Isle Park, on the northern edge of the city, is a magnificent piece of wilderness left untouched, on the advice of Frederick Law Olmsted who visited in 1891.
15. Warren Dunes State Park
Heading into Michigan along I-94 from Indiana, the first state park you’ll come to is one of the most popular and most beautiful in the entire state.
On almost 2,000 acres, Warren Dunes State Park harbors an undulating dunescape, on a scale that can be hard to comprehend.
These have been given suitably impressive names, like Pikes Peak, Mount Edwards, and also Tower Hill, the tallest of all at 240 feet.
Tower Hill is also the easiest to access, with marvelous scenery from the top and lots of opportunity for fun on the slopes. Where the dunes touch the lake there’s more than two miles of flawless beachfront.
Also see: Most Popular US National Parks
16. Fayette Historic State Park
As intriguing as it is pretty, Fayette is a preserved and partly reconstructed industrial community on Lake Michigan’s Big Bay de Noc. Curled into a little harbor, Fayette was active between 1867 and 1891, mining limestone from the bluffs to make charcoal pig iron.
This place was extremely remote, and even now there’s a pervading sense of seclusion on the south side of the Upper Peninsula, an hour by road from Escanaba.
You’ll have a cluster of labeled historic buildings to check out, and I love the harbor’s clear, rippling waters and the high limestone cliffs, showing signs of 19th-century quarrying.
17. Ludington State Park
There’s a real variety to this 5,300-acre property a few miles north of Ludington. On the west side is the expansive Lake Michigan, traced by sandy beaches, while to the east is Hamlin Lake, the largest manmade lake in Michigan.
Much warmer than its neighbor, this body of water is drained by the Big Sable River, curling through the state park for a mile.
More than 20 miles of trails and boardwalks lead you through dunes, forest, over wetlands and marsh, and up to the lovely Big Sable Point Lighthouse, dating back to 1867 and still active.
You can swim in both lakes, paddle Hamlin Lake, and take an easy tubing trip along that stretch of the Big Sable River.
The stately Arts & Crafts style beach house, built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1935, is the park’s beach house, hosting interactive exhibits and serving as an anchor for the events in summer.
Read also: 15 Best Beaches in Michigan
18. Holland, Michigan
With a thriving downtown, picture-perfect gardens, golden sandy beaches, and an atmospheric lighthouse, Holland was founded in the mid-19th century by Dutch Calvinist separatists.
It’s fair to say that the city is proud of its heritage, and this is obvious during Tulip Time in May when millions of bulbs are in bloom around the city.
It follows that Holland should have the oldest authentic Dutch windmill in the country: Footed by tulip beds along the Macatawa River, De Zwaan (The Swan) dates back to 1761 and was shipped over in the 1960s.
19. Belle Isle Park
I admit that Detroit is underrepresented on this list, but one of many truly special places in Motor City is this island in the Detroit River, with fabulous views of the city, and south to Windor, Ontario.
Belle Isle was landscaped at the turn of the 20th century, and 13 acres were set aside for a botanical garden and the sublime Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory (1904).
This building and accompanying greenhouses contain important collections of orchids, succulents, tropical plants and bromeliads, while the Belle Isle Aquarium, also from 1904, has a colorful cast of aquatic species, both native and exotic.
On the island’s west side is the opulent James Scott Memorial Fountain (1925), with a lower basin 510 feet in diameter.
Be sure to check out my guide on Detroit before your visit.
A small but sweet community on the shore of Lake Michigan, Manistee lets the beauty of the location do the talking.
Of course, Manistee attracts visitors but not on the scale of places like Grand Haven and Benton Harbor.
So a bonus for me is that there’s room for everyone at a long line of beaches, adding up to 25 miles on both sides of the mouth of the Manistee River.
Like all the best coastal towns on Lake Michigan, Manistee has a quaint lighthouse, at the end of a pier with a metal-framed catwalk.
You can delve into the town’s nautical heritage aboard the retired railroad car ferry, SS City of Milwaukee (1930), stroll or ride by the Manistee River, and pay a visit to the orchards and large units of the Manistee National Forest in the town’s hinterland.
21. Whitefish Point Light Station
A spot that captures all of the romance and danger of Lake Superior is this historic lighthouse at a corner of the lake known as the Graveyard of the Great Lakes.
Of the 550 major wrecks in the lake, some 200 went down not far from Whitefish Point. There has been a beacon on this headland since 1849, making it the oldest operating lighthouse on the Upper Peninsula.
The current structure was built in 1861, when Abraham Lincoln was president. There’s an observation deck at Whitefish Point where you can look north into the vast expanse of the world’s largest freshwater lake, while this piece of land is on a migratory corridor, making it an internationally recognized site for documenting birds.
To illustrate, every fall more than a third of the entire North American population of red-necked grebes passes through this place.
If, like me, you’re intrigued by Whitefish Point’s seafaring history, the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum goes into lots of detail, and has artifacts including the bell of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald, which sank with all hands in 1975.
Read also: 15 Best Places to Live in Michigan
A few factors combine to make this small-ish city in southwest Michigan so appealing. First, Kalamazoo sits in some gorgeous country, which can be surprisingly hilly to the west and features more than 80 lakes.
The Kalamazoo River, flows by just east of downtown and is lined with parks and trails, with a gentle flow ideal for launching a kayak or canoe.
The city also has a high level of preservation, with five historic districts, to go with the leafy and culturally rich campuses of Western Michigan University.
I adore Kalamazoo’s downtown, which is walkable and green, with a lot of outdoor seating for restaurants and an early example of a pedestrian mall from the 1950s.
About the same time as the Calvinists arrived in Holland, this little town in Saginaw County was settled by Lutheran immigrants from around Roßtal in what is now the north of Bavaria.
The settlers planted themselves in a hilly area that recalled their native Middle Franconia, and set about establishing the most German town in Michigan.
Main Street has several blocks of buildings in the romantic style of a traditional Franconian village, and is all the prettier for the adjoining Cass River with its covered bridge and backdrop of low hills.
Frankenmuth wastes no opportunity to celebrate its heritage, with the Frankenmuth Bavarian Festival in June, Summer Music Fest in August, and Oktoberfest in September.
I haven’t even mentioned the biggest draw, which is Bronner’s Christmas Wonderland, opened in 1945, covering more than seven acres, and touted as the largest Christmas store in the world.
24. Heritage Hill Historic District, Grand Rapids
If you have time to spare in Grand Rapids, my tip is to take a walking tour of this dainty historic district, just west of downtown.
Covering a whole square mile, and with more than 1,300 residences, this is one of the largest urban historic districts in the country.
With houses dating from 1843 to the early 20th century, Heritage Hill is a complete survey of American residential architecture in styles from Greek Revival to Prairie School, with a house designed by the great Frank Lloyd Wright in 1908-09.
Heritage Hill hasn’t made it to the 21st century by accident; its preservation was secured in the 1960s with court challenges by residents to prevent demolition work.
25. Estivant Pines Nature Sanctuary
At Copper Harbor you may get the feeling that you’re on the outer limits of civilization, but it’s a fact that humans have made their mark here.
Almost all of the old-growth pine forest on the Keweenaw Peninsula was felled during the lumber boom in the 19th and 20th century.
That makes this 508-acre just out of Copper Harbor even more important. Sprouting in the wake of a fire in the late 17th century, the white pines at Estivant Pines Nature Sanctuary form one of the last stands of its kind in Michigan, and presents the kind of scenery that greeted voyageurs and settlers on the southern shore of Lake Superior.
Some of the trees here reach more than 125 feet, and the woods provide an ecosystem for birds like red crossbills and hawks to thrive. It’s a beautiful and thought-provoking place to round off my list.
Read next: 24 Amazing Hidden Gems in Michigan