It used to be that Northern Michigan — the term used to describe the northernmost section of the Great Lakes State’s Lower Peninsula as well as all of its Upper Peninsula — was a summertime escape known only to Midwesterners. At the turn of the last century, city folk from Cincinnati, Fort Wayne, Chicago, or Detroit would travel by steamer, train, or Model T to seasonal cabins perched alongside small inland lakes and vast Great Lakes alike. For generations, these “resorters,” as they were called, had this gorgeous stretch of country all to themselves. Unless one had a college roommate who was from this special part of the world or a coworker who got married here, this remote region has been a relatively low-traffic summertime playground for those in the know, and the locals and Natives who came long before them.
But just as parts of Northern Michigan have slowly and quietly evolved into world-class destinations in more recent years, so too have the times of year to visit expanded — with the region’s “peak season” deservingly extending into fall. While it might be time to trade in those swimsuits and sand toys for turtle necks and fingerless mitts, from late September to mid-October there is no more scenic place in the Midwest to enjoy a fall color tour than the Mitten itself. With a backdrop of endless vistas of either Lake Michigan or Lake Superior, we’ve outlined five routes with options for eating and drinking that are every bit as worthy as those yellow, orange, and crimson leaves themselves.
What is Northern Michigan cuisine?
“What is Northern Michigan cuisine,” you wonder? Well that’s a damn good question — and it depends on who you ask. For too long, Northern Michigan didn’t have an independently defined culinary canon. It was hearty steak-and-potatoes Midwestern fare, with maybe a pasty (the handheld miner’s lunch), a few fried perch sandwiches, and all-things-cherry thrown in the mix. This is, after all, cherry country — with more than two-thirds of the nation’s tart cherries coming from the orchards surrounding Traverse City. That means that most menus have traditionally included a cherry chicken salad, a pork chop with some kind of cherry reduction drizzled on top, or cherry pie — so much cherry pie.
But Northern Michigan is more than just cherry country. It’s also apple country and grape country — and home to the Midwest’s two most respected winemaking American Viticultural Areas (AVA). The waters of Lake Michigan, Lake Huron, and Lake Superior make Northern Michigan whitefish country as well, with plenty of walleye, perch, lake trout, pike, and smelt on offer too. There are the roadside farm stands — picturesque, bucolic stalls advertising the eggs of one backyard farmer, the tomatoes of another, the pumpkins of a third. With hearty Midwestern soil, a somewhat cooler climate, and easy access to so much fresh water, a noteworthy number of farmers and winemakers have relocated to Northern Michigan in recent years, and wise chefs are taking note. The region’s best restaurants are paying attention to their sourcing, and redefining what Northern Michigan cuisine means along the way.
Key terms for fall color cruisers
In order to avoid being outed as “a fudgie,” you need to know what this and a few other regional terms mean.
45th parallel: the latitude line that circles the globe halfway between the equator and the north pole, and crosses through Michigan’s wine region as well as the Champagne region of France
Big Lake vs. Little Lake: the terms used to clarify whether one is going to fish, swim, or otherwise recreate on the closest Great Lake or the closest inland lake
Gitche Gumee: an Ojibwe term meaning “big sea” or “huge water,” and a name for Lake Superior still in use today.
Fudgie: Northern Michigan nomenclature for a tourist, drawing upon the vast number of fudge shops that said visitors seem to frequent
Mackinac vs. Mackinaw: Mackinac is the spelling of the bridge and the island. Mackinaw is the spelling of the city. All are pronounced the same way, Mackinaw. We didn’t make the rules.
Mama Lake or Big Blue: beloved nicknames for Lake Michigan
The Mighty Mac: This is not a fast food order, but the longest suspension bridge in the Western hemisphere, connecting Michigan’s Lower and Upper peninsulas since 1957.
The Straights: Nope, locals are not referring to a garage rock revival band. The Straights is the stretch of water that connects Lake Michigan to Lake Huron, under the Mighty Mac.
Up North: A destination any place north of, say, Cadillac, counts as having gone “Up North” for the weekend.
Yooper: Rooted in the U.P. acronym, a yooper is anyone from or otherwise local to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
Five routes for eating, drinking, and leaf peeping
You know those black and white stickers you see on the backs of so many Detroit and Chicago cars? M-22. M-26. M-119. Those are roads in Northern Michigan, home not only to some of the most beautiful fall colors in the Midwest, but each with exciting options for eating and drinking as well. Here are five fall color routes we’ve built specifically for food lovers.
Route 1: Copper Country in all of its copper-colored splendor
The Keweenaw Peninsula, which juts straight up into Lake Superior at the top of the U.P., was home to the nation’s copper mining boom in the mid 1800s. Today, it’s tourism that rightly dominates this gorgeous stretch of the state. Hop on U.S. Route 41 out of Calumet and make your way northeast through Phoenix to Copper Harbor, a stretch of road that was Michigan’s first national scenic byway. From Copper Harbor head west to Brockway Mountain Drive, a mountain biker’s paradise that is the highest point above sea level between the Allegheny and Rocky mountains. After climbing down out of the clouds, continue southwest on M-26 to the hamlet of Eagle River, home to an exceptional Copper Country restaurant.
Located at the far end of town a few blocks up from the harbor, this wee brewery optimizes the original notion of a small neighborhood microbrewery. Equal parts brewer, bartender, tablemaker, and labelmaker, owner Jason Robinson has been writing available beers on the chalkboard above his taps since 2012. Order a pint of the Fine Day pale ale and play a round of Jenga, signing your name with a sharpie onto a wooden block.
With sunset views overlooking Lake Superior, barbecue, and a solid whiskey program, “the Fitz,” as it is known, is everybody’s favorite. Nab a reservation — not only for dinner but for the night. While the building is an unassuming 1950s-era motor lodge, owner Mike LaMotte spent the pandemic remodeling the interior to house six gorgeous, one-bedroom king suites, each with patios or balconies overlooking the water.
At the 90-degree bend in the road next to Jacob’s Falls is one of the Keweenaw’s most visited, and photogenic, culinary destinations — a jam and preserves shop that supports the Byzantine Catholic Monastery. Grab a few baked goods for breakfast, but don’t miss the monk-made thimbleberry jam, which celebrates the raspberry-like berry that grows wild this far north. At $72 for three jars, this is one edible souvenir you will want to keep for yourself.
The sign that hangs over the door at Jamsen’s simply says “fish market,” but locals know to visit Jamsen’s for its baked goods. Grab a picnic table overlooking Copper Harbor, and order the bilberry turnover; the cheddar, bacon, and chive scone; or a vanilla thimbleberry donut.
Keweenaw Coffee Works is a pillar of Calumet, with coffee that is every bit as good as its commitment to community. Roaster Nate Shuttleworth was born in England and raised in Australia before moving stateside. A classically trained chef, he left restaurants in Chicago and California to begin his chapter in coffee. Shuttleworth roasts single-origin beans from Guatemala, Ethiopia, and beyond, giving them names that celebrate life right here at home. Think: Borealis, North Woods, and the Straights.
Route 2: The bluffs and bridges of Marquette’s Huron Mountains
With impressive mining-era architecture and a burgeoning food scene, Marquette is easily one of Michigan’s favorite cities up north. Using this architecturally rich port town and its photogenic Ore Dock as a jumping-off point, visitors can create a fall color circle tour by traveling north and then south again. Hop on County Road 550 towards Big Bay (one-time retreat for Henry Ford) and then loop back to Marquette by way of County Road 510. On the return trip, you will cross the Dead River next to a historic steel bridge, where you — and seemingly everyone else who is out for a Sunday drive — can snap that family photo you’ve been wanting.
Awake before the rest of your group? Make a beeline to 231 West, a patisserie and coffee shop with gorgeous laminated pastries. Order a coffee from Ishpeming’s Velodrome, a pain au chocolat, spinach artichoke danish, or croissant with ham and gruyere, and settle into this modern cafe’s reliable Wi-Fi to solve the day’s Wordle. Bonus: While you are there, be sure to check the schedule for the cafe’s food truck, Dia de los Tacos.
Beloved by beer aficionados for its complex, Belgian-style farmhouse ales, Barrel + Beam is a Michigan treasure. Together with his wife Marina Dupler, Nick VanCourt — an Upper Peninsula native — purchased a dilapidated roadside supper club in 2016. After an extensive remodel it is one of the hippest log cabins around for sipping suds. Don’t miss the kriek, brewed with Michigan cherries, and the duo’s recently added menu of snacks and soups.
While many visitors frequent the restaurants in Marquette’s historic downtown near the intersections of Front and Washington and the historic Landmark Inn, locals know to also hit the Third Street neighborhood, home to Bodega. It’s open all day, and the breakfast, lunch, and dinner menus start by thanking local farmers and fisheries, including Marquette’s own Thill’s & Sons Fish House. Breakfast is available all day, so this is the place for brunch.
There is perhaps no more suitable fare for a fall tour than food that is reminiscent of Oktoberfest. Make a reservation at this petite, modern Bavarian restaurant and order the jägerschnitzel with spaetzle and braised red cabbage or the wurst platter with bratwurst, käsewurst, sauerkraut, and caramelized onions. Either way, be sure to splurge on that bierstein souvenir.
Dinner and a movie? Yes, please. Housed in Marquette’s historic movie theater, the Delft is just plain fun, with a solid seasonal menu to boot. This fall, order the salad with blue cheese crumbles, Granny Smith apples, and maple-glazed walnuts, alongside a cocktail made using Ann Arbor Distilling’s fall gin and acorn squash simple syrup, while taking in a scene or two from whatever childhood flick that’s on display on the big screen.
Operated by the same folks who own Marquette’s Everyday Wines — one of the most well-curated wine and (now) cheese shops in Northern Michigan — Zephyr Wine Bar is a gem.
Whether you’ve been wanting to try a Greek Agiorgitiko or a tannat from Uruguay, the spot’s encyclopedic list of wines by the glass is rare this far north, where distribution is challenging. Zephyr wisely gives ink to the growing category of nonalcoholic wines as well.
Route 3: Cliffside color along the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore
Most people only blow through the very modest town of Munising on their way to Pictured Rocks, but a few long-standing locals are working hard to change that. From downtown Munising, protected from ferocious Lake Superior by Grand Island, take Highway 58 east out of town. With cliffside vistas of Lake Superior’s southern shoreline, the stretch of road that meanders through the National Lakeshore near Grand Marais is especially scenic in the fall. Stop for a picnic lunch before doubling back for as much whitefish as you can eat.
George Shultz, the George for whom this local brewery is named, was born and raised in Munising and was, for many years, the town pharmacist. Today he’s putting the scientific method to good use brewing suds such as the Walking With Giants Apricot Blonde or, the fall Schultzbier — a malty, Märzen Oktoberfest.
There are a couple of different food trucks on the north end of town for (white)fish and chips, but Cap’n Ron’s is the OG — made famous when the late Ronald “Captain Ron” Matson, Jr. appeared on an episode of Gordon Ramsey’s Uncharted. Connected with Matson’s Fisheries, a tribal fishery since 1898, there is no more storied place than Munising to try the fresh coast take on this British pub classic.
Located at East Channel Brewing and run by three Carberry sisters and their families, the individual, thin-crust pizzas coming out of this wood-fired oven are legit. Adventurous types need to at least be able to say they’ve tried the pizzeria’s beloved blueberry pizza, which comes with blue cheese, ham, bacon, onions, yes — blueberries, and late-night bragging rights.
You can’t visit the U.P. without trying a pasty. In Munising, most tourists go to Muldoons, but locals know to frequent Miners. Stop in right when the doors are unlocked and order a Yooper to go. It’s a classic pasty, made with beef and rutabaga, that chef John Flanders (of the late Johnny Dogs) is making using a recipe from the owner’s grandmother. Pull off of Highway 58 for a picnic at Twelvemile Beach and eat your pasty as intended.
Need a pick-me-up in Grand Marais before journeying back through the National Lakeshore to Munising? Grab a jolt of caffeine from this adorable, restored red and white Volkswagen van, which will be parked across the street from the Woodland Park Campground until the second Sunday in October.
We know what you’re thinking — you’d rather support a Mexican-owned taco joint instead of one that is run by Munising’s best (albeit decidedly not Mexican) chef, Jason Biega of Tracey’s fame. The thing is, you can’t be this close to Lake Superior and not have a whitefish taco. Served on a white corn tortilla with poblano crema, a generous pinch of cilantro, and a squeeze of lime, this is fresh, beer-battered whitefish from VanLandschoots and Sons fishery.
For years, ingredients such as birch syrup and local bison sausage made Tracey’s restaurant the only Munising establishment that food lovers needed to know about. Thanks to the team behind the Roam Inn, where this dining destination is housed, that may be on the brink of shifting. This group recently invested in a handful of area eateries, including the iconic Brownstone Inn west of town beyond Au Train. Book a room at the Roam Inn and make a dinner reservation at chef Biega’s Tracey’s. Served in a bright, wood-paneled dining room that feels like you are in a good friend’s home, this is some of the most seasonal and thoughtful fine dining in the Upper Peninsula, and a restaurant that Detroit chef James Rigato frequents on his way to his U.P. cabin.
Route 4: M-119 and the Tunnel of Trees
Seemingly every leaf-peeping route in the Midwest includes a tunnel of trees, but the stretch of M-119 between Harbor Springs and Cross Village is affectionately known as the Tunnel of Trees — a marked heritage route by the same name. The title and related signage is justified. This curvy, sometimes-one-lane drive hugging Lake Michigan just north of Little Traverse Bay is as good as it gets for fall color. And while fall foliage tours along this route are nothing new, there are a handful of new food and beverage entrants along the way that (together with generations-old faves) make this destination worth revisiting. Book a rental from Great Lakes Modern and settle in for a while.
For decades, American Spoon has been the preserves prince of Michigan. While most people frequent the company’s flagship Petoskey location, its outpost in Harbor Springs — conveniently located at the foot of the Tunnel of Trees — might be the most adorable of its shops. This fall, stop in for anything from the Harvest Collection, which includes Bartlett pear preserves, pumpkin butter, and roasted tomatillo salsa. Don’t forget to grab an extra jar to thank whoever’s feeding that goldfish back home.
Located halfway between Harbor Springs and Cross Village in the town of Good Hart is a 1934 general store that has not changed a thing in decades. When you’re this cute, that’s a good thing. Part post office, part grocery store, part bakery, and part real estate office, this vintage gem is also notable for its chicken pot pies, which can be purchased fresh or frozen.
Still owned and operated by the original family, this impressive log cabin built by Odawa Indians in the 1930s and accompanying Polish restaurant in Cross Village is a Northern Michigan institution. Wait your turn (no reservations allowed) for some pierogi, gołąbki, or a warming bowl of bigos — a hunter’s stew made with sauerkraut, cabbage, Polish sausage, and mushrooms.
Opened in 2022, this coffee and juice bar is a welcome addition to an already charming Harbor Springs lineup. Before setting out for M-119, grab an acai bowl, cold-pressed juice, or smoothie. Named for a local music festival up in Cross Village, the Bliss Fest is a mixture of almond butter, kale, coconut, spinach, banana, dates, nut milk, and all kinds of other goodness.
Is the wait at the Legs Inn longer than you’d like? Put your name in, and head across the street to Petoskey Brewing’s brand new satellite campus, which just opened this summer. There is an Oktoberfest on tap this fall, as well as the low-alcohol 1898 Lager, which is reminiscent of that bygone era of the resorters who came by train.
If owner Jimmy Spencer could only grow one crop, it might just be pumpkins, American Spoon’s Noah Rashid recently shared with Eater. Wanna test the hypothesis? Hit Pond Hill Farm during an autumn Saturday or Sunday. Every weekend in late September and early October, this beloved destination hosts a Fall Fest that includes hay rides, brick-oven pizza, cider donuts, and a wine-tasting tent. As if that wasn’t enough, Pond Hill has the volume nob turned up this year with a new live music stage and the debut of cannons that shoot apples into the woods.
Longtime readers don’t need to be told that Stafford’s Pier is a great waterfront option, but those who have set up camp in Harbor Springs for the weekend should also check out the New York. If “Harbor Springs chic” was a nationally recognized design style, this dining room would define it. Served amidst emerald green walls, Tiffany lamp pendants, and white tablecloths, this is where you go to see and be seen eating that perfectly executed wagyu strip.
Those who prefer to sleep under the leaves can thank Trillium Woods Coffee for bringing a charming little espresso stop to the northern woods. Housed in a wee log cabin just south of the general store, vistors craving their pumpkin spice latte will never find a more charming place to sip one.
Route 5: Autumn in the Land of Delight
Food-loving travelers already know about Leelanau County’s Farm Club, Wren, and Riverside Inn from Eater’s roundups of Essential Traverse City Restaurants and favorite Waterfront Restaurants, but these three very worthy stops are just a few of the many places to visit when fall color viewing in the Land of Delight, a beloved nickname for this peninsula that is rooted in the region’s Native history. Leelanau means “delight of life” in Ojibwe. As if being home to the beaches and bluffs of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore wasn’t enough, Leelanau County is wine country, cherry country, and farm country. An autumnal circle tour of M-22 and the bucolic towns it meanders through needs to be on any globetrotter’s bucket list.
With its vintage neon sign and college pennants from around the country, this decades-old watering hole on the corner of M-22 and Lake Street is a Glen Arbor institution. Tuck into a booth and order the fried smelt, the burger with tots, or, if it’s a Wednesday, a bowl of chicken jalapeno soup and a pint of suds. Just don’t forget to bring a little green. Art’s is cash-only.
Picture-perfect Leland sits in an isthmus between Lake Michigan and north Lake Leelanau. There is a charming main drag with a handful of noteworthy shops, but historic Fishtown is where it all began. Housed in a vintage fishing shanty, there is no better place to get a taste of Leland’s commercial fishing roots than Carlson’s, which smokes lake trout and whitefish on site, and now boasts a wall of tinned fish and other snacks to round out your picnic.
Together with Old Mission Peninsula, Leelanau County is the most respected wine region in the Midwest. Boasting grape vines first planted more than half a century ago, winemakers from Napa, Oregon, South Africa, and beyond have moved to Northern Michigan in recent years to begin bottling riesling, gewurztraminer, blaufrankisch, and other cold weather grapes. Leaf peepers circumnavigating the county on M-22 should at least pull into Dune Bird. The modern, Scandinavian-style tasting room is a great place to while away an afternoon. Don’t miss: There is an espresso machine for the designated driver.
Also new on the scene is Gilcrest Farm Winery, which just opened a well-appointed Suttons Bay tasting room in August 2023. Oenophiles could take a page from the bachelorette types and build an entire trip around visiting Leelanau County’s best tasting rooms, but those sticking closest to M-22 should at least be sure to add this new entrant to their list of stops. Order the chardonnay flight, where you can taste one of “the big six” three different ways — oaked, unoaked, and sparkling.
Most visitors hungry for a sandwich hit the Village Cheese Shanty in Leland, but don’t forget about New Bohemian Cafe in Northport, a family stop on the route’s northernmost point. The LBC, which stands for Leelanau Beef and Cheddar, is everything you’ve ever wanted between two pieces of ciabatta — sliced beef, spicy habanero cheddar, sweet caramelized onion jam, and napa cabbage slaw. The best. Full stop.
Perched on the highest bluff along aptly named Hilltop Road, Suttons Bay Ciders offers one of the best views in Leelanau County. And what better thing to drink during an autumn visit than crisp, hard cider? Order the Cherry Fest, also known as the Don Cherrya blend of local apples and a not-too-sweet smidge of cherry juice. It screams Michigan Fruit Belt.
The hospitality and design team behind the Riverside Inn and Millie’s Pizza and Ice Cream debuted their most exciting project yet in 2023 — the Mill, a stunning and fully refurbished grain mill set along the Crystal River. Order a cortado and the spot’s seasonal selection of savory hand pie and keep your eye out for forthcoming pop-up dinners at the astounding property’s underground Supper Club, which will debut as a restaurant very soon. Travelers tip: The Mill also rents out a few guest rooms.
While visitors to Northport may know Yard & Lake as a place to buy kitschy lawn chairs, locally made jewelry, and other tasteful Fresh Coast souvenirs, the evolving multifaceted business located inside the old Lieb’s Service Station location added well-crafted tacos and cocktails to its lineup in 2023. Owners Shawn Santo and Kevin Borsay (who also operate Detroit’s Stella Good Coffee) wisely hired Traverse City’s Roman Albaugh to design the cocktail program for this covered yet open-air space. Don’t resist Albaugh’s Y&L margarita. You’re welcome.
Stacey Brugeman is a 20-year food, beverage, and travel writer. She was raised in the agriculture industry, which brought her to the tiny towns and tables of more than 35 countries before settling in New York City, Denver, and–most recently–right back at home in Northern Michigan. Her work has appeared in Food & Wine, Saveur, Travel + Leisure, Midwest Living, and Traverse magazine—for whom she pens two regular columns.