Ask a Local About Michigan's Lower Penninsula
Welcome to Traverse City, Michigan
There are a few places around the world that are especially notable for their connection with the land. Leelanau County, Michigan, otherwise known as “the Lower Peninsula”, is such a place. Here, in the “Little Finger” of what locals lovingly refer to as the Michigan Mitt (because the shape of Michigan resembles that of a mitten), native peoples have fished and foraged since long before today’s crops of farmers and hunters, brewers and winemakers. The people here “appreciate nature and the earth’s bounty,” they tell us. “It’s always been that way.” And there’s no better way to experience Michigan’s Lower Peninsula than to get outdoors alongside with the locals. To give you an insider’s look at the region, we asked Michiganders what to do when you visit. Here are a few favorites:
All Along the Lakeshore
Towering 120 meters above the shimmering blue expanse of Lake Michigan, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Park is a spectacularly beautiful 105-kilometer stretch of sand and meadows, hardwood and conifer forests, bogs and wetlands. For a “less strenuous hike” popular with locals, Pyramid Point Trail is a 4.3-kilometer loop through maple and beech trees that delivers you to a high bluff with sweeping views. But the Lower Peninsula isn’t just for summertime fun. Locals say there’s “always something to do up here.” In the fall, you can navigate corn mazes, take part in a foot-stomping wine grape crush, or drive along country roads reveling in the “amazing bursts of colors from the trees.” In the winter, watch—or compete in!—the area’s world-famous cross-country skiing Vasa Race or do some “mild” downhill skiing at Crystal Mountain.
Catch It While You Can
Michigan is a land of seasons—and seasonal foods. From berry-picking in the summer to ice-fishing for walleye and perch in the winter to mushroom-hunting and maple syrup-harvesting in the spring, the Little Finger of the Michigan Mitt is a wild forager’s dream. Ahead of the annual National Morel Mushroom Festival each May, people from around the region come and camp. (“They’re very secretive about where they pick.”) These fungi enthusiasts then sell haul to local restaurants, which whip up decadent morel-centric menus.
To really experience the Lower Peninsula, locals say you have to go to one of the local tribes’ annual powwows—festive gatherings where outsiders are invited to learn about native history and traditions and feast on fish and wild game, berries and fry bread—a delicious fried dough that’s served sweet or savory and is the base of the ubiquitous “Indian Taco.” (To find a powwow, feast or fair, local’s recommend contacting the tribes—Little River Band of Ottowa Indians, the Grand Traverse Bay Band of Odowa Indians and Chippewa Indians, and the Little Traverse Bay Band of Odawa—directly.) Outside of summer powwow season, you can attend a wintertime Round Dance or support the tribal economy by buying fish at Peshabestown’s Arthur Duhamel Marina or picking up some local art and crafts, like porcupine quill boxes and beadwork. And, if gaming’s your thing, you can always test your luck at one of the three tribal casinos near Traverse City.
Home to the descendants of German, British, Irish, Polish and Belgian immigrants, Michigan has a long, proud, and thriving beer culture. The Traverse City area has some especially exotic and delightful brews. Decade-old Right Brain is loved by locals for its “super experimental” beer and “Keep Beer Curious” motto. For a brewpub that carries “almost every local beer” as well as brewing their own and serving tasty pub snacks sourced from regional purveyors, like smoked Michigan rainbow trout dip, locals recommend Rare Bird. In Northport, Green Bird is an organic vineyard, orchard, and farm that makes its own wine, beer and potent, unusual ciders like a smooth 17% alcohol cider aged for two years in rye barrels and served in a brandy glass. Or, for a wine-centric road trip, wind your way up the Old Michigan Highway 37 on The Leelanau Peninsula Wine Trail. Don’t forget your designated driver!
Fishtown’s Village Cheese Shanty is so popular that most folks know it as simply the “Cheese Shop.” It gets rave reviews for its house-made pretzel bread, which is so good it sells out. Locals recommend the “North Shore,” which is a BLT heaped with turkey, Swiss cheese, cucumber, and herb mayo. Insider’s tip: call ahead. For elegant French fare—and what locals say is the “best breakfast and lunch in the area”—Patisserie Amie in Traverse City serves flawless French classics, including savory crepes, like the ham, apple, blue cheese, and walnut-stuffed “Normande,” and a traditional Niçoise salad. Or, for some old school Great Lakes flavor, head to Art's Tavern, which is famous its fish dinners, like “Crusty Whitefish” that’s coated in corn flakes and parmesan and pan-fried until golden. Art’s is a Glen Arbor institution since 1934, and “it's always packed.” Join the crowd!