Think Traverse City when looking for a fall color getaway

Instead of following bumper to bumper crowds in the usual leaf-peeper destinations (you know what they are), drive over to the Traverse City area in lower northern Michigan, this year.

TC, the area’s popular reference for Traverse City, is ground zero. The town, with restaurants that specialize in farm-to-table dishes and shops that specialize in cherry products, is a fun starting point. Then, head out into the countryside.

Sleeping Bear Dunes was recently voted most beautiful spot in America by Good Morning America viewers

Sleeping Bear Dunes was recently voted most beautiful spot in America by Good Morning America viewers

West is Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lake Shore Park, recently voted “Most beautiful place America on ABC’s Good Morning America show.

Between Sleeping Bear and downtown TC is the hilly Leelanau Peninsula, sticking out into Lake Michigan like a bony hinged finger. Sometimes stormy, but usually gentle, the waves of Grand Traverse Bay lap upon the peninsula’s eastern shore. Jutting out from downtown TC into the center of the bay is the rolling, grape-vine covered Mission Peninsula.

In the spring, the entire TC area is about cherries. Indeed, planes fly into TC’s Cherry Airport. But with Lake Michigan on one side and on top, the bay in the center and smaller lakes dotting the area, summer is about beaches and water activities.

Fall is all about color. Hillsides of scarlet, gold and tangerine stand out against a pine background of dark green. Bright blue water and skies set the background as in a carefully planned painting.

Inns and wineries welcome visitors after the summer rush. Hikers and bikers have cell-phones and cameras ready because down the road and around the next stand of trees is yet another photo to post on Facebook.

Near Traverse City snapshot ready fall landscapes lie around every hill and bend in the road

Near Traverse City snapshot ready fall landscapes lie around every hill and bend in the road

Fall Color Drives:

Sleeping Bear Dunes – Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive

Do the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive, a one-way, 7.4 mile stretch that winds by high dunes and a forest of sugar maples and American Beech. Stop to take some of the trails leading to spectacular overlooks of Glen Lake and Lake Michigan. On Sept. 24, 2011 (National Public Lands Day) entrance is free.

Stop at the Park Headquarters at Empire or at beginning of the scenic drive for a park pass $10 per vehicle or $5 per hiker and biker.

Leelanau Peninsula

Much of the Sleeping Bear Dunes is in Leelanau County on a peninsula that extends 30 miles into Lake Michigan. The national park covers part of Leelanau’s west coast and also extends south into Benzie County.

However, the best plan is to do Sleeping Bear one day and drive the M 22 which circles Leelanau Peninsula’s coastline another day. Dotted by interesting small villages and about a dozen wineries on its west and east coasts and along roads across its interior, the peninsula easily takes a full weekend to explore.

The Grand Traverse Lighthouse with its 1800s furnishings and docents' stories is the reward for driving  to the north tip of Leelanau Peninsula

The Grand Traverse Lighthouse with its 1800s furnishings and docents' stories is the reward for driving to the north tip of Leelanau Peninsula

The entire peninsula is ablaze with color in October. But leave time from snapping photos to visit the 1850s Grand Traverse Lighthouse at the peninsula’s far northern tip past Northport. October Ghost Walks are every Friday and Saturday during the Halloween month.  Space is limited so advance tickets required by calling 231-386-7195.

On the way there stop at Kilcherman’s on County Road 640 off County Road 201 for apples and Christmas items. The farm has about 240 apple varieties. Leave time to stop at the boutiques and do lunch at Sutton Bay on the peninsula’s east coast or the village of Leeland and its neighboring Fishtown on the west coast.

Traverse City and Old Mission Peninsula

Traverse City is the area’s hub. Stop at the Visitors Center at 101 W. Grandview Parkway (M72) and Union Street, across from Grand Traverse Bay’s West Arm to pick up maps, brochures and more suggestions on color drivers, wineries and restaurants.

Then go east on M72 to Peninsula Drive. Follow it as it hugs Old Mission Peninsula’s west coast along Grand Traverse Bay’s West Arm.

If you picked up a map of Old Mission wineries at the Visitors Center you will see roads going into the interior that lead to about seven wine tasting destinations.

By following them to M37 (Center Road) and continuing north you will be greeted at nearly every hilltop by vistas of grapevines and fall’s spectacular spectrum.

The mid-1800s Old Mission General Store has a new coat of paint outside but still has its pot belly stove inside

The mid-1800s Old Mission General Store has a new coat of paint outside but still has its pot belly stove inside

For a trip back in time, stop at the Old Mission General Store, in business since the mid-1800s. Pick up some provisions at the store, 18250 Old Mission Road, then continue north to the Old Mission Lighthouse at the end of M37 on the 45th parallel.

Places to stay:

The Traverse City Convention and Visitors Bureau has a list of accommodations  However here are a few suggestions to check out when planning your trip:

Sleeping Bear Dunes area – The Homestead Resort in Glen Arbor Mich. lies between the middle and north sections of the national park.  It is a full-service resort that really is a small village with dining and accommodation choices, deli and general store, spa, beaches, hiking paths and golf.

Leelanau Peninsula – Black Star Farms near the south end of Sutton Bay has an inn, equestrian facility and wine and cheese tasting room. The property is a farm but the inn is upscale with a Napa Valley style room where a gourmet breakfast is served and a comfy, men’s club style lounge and library for complimentary wine reception or afternoon refreshments.  Spa treatments are available.

Black Star Farms' Inn is not your ordinary farm building

Black Star Farm's Inn is not your ordinary farm building

Traverse City

If looking for something casual with an indoor pool and a beach, the twin Grand Beach and Sugar Beach resorts on the East Arm of Grand Traverse Bay are popular choices. They are east of the M37 road onto Old Mission Peninsula.  Accommodations include breakfast.

No matter where you unpack your suitcase in the Traverse City area, you will fall photo ops five minutes from your door.

Photos by Jodie Jacobs

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