Traverse City Fall Colors: The Most Beautiful Drive through Northern Michigan

Updated: October 11, 2023

Today, I’m bringing you one of my biggest joys: fall foliage! I believe October is the prettiest and best month of the year. While planning my annual fall road trip, I knew I had to see the Traverse City fall colors in Northern Michigan.

*Update: Since writing this post in 2018, I have visited Traverse City for almost every season and have only loved it more. I’ve also explored more nearby areas that I’ll recommend below.

The abundance of color that takes over Traverse City and the surrounding counties is breathtaking. I forever want to take it all in. That’s why I plan these life-giving getaways. It allows us to relax, enjoy nature at its best, and explore a new city.

Traverse City Fall Colors

Traverse City (and the surrounding areas) is my favorite place in Michigan thus far. The city is a good base if you want to explore the nearby parks and towns or do wine tastings in Old Mission or Leelanau Peninsulas.

Traverse also has one of my favorite cafes in the world, Mundos Coffee. And this says a lot, considering I’ve gone to many, many cafes. I’ll list more of my favorite wineries and eateries below.

Traverse has much to offer, but the colors are worth visiting alone. The peak fall colors in Northern Michigan are around mid to end of October. The Upper Peninsula of Michigan hits its peak sooner than that.

In this post, I share how I track all fall foliage for my trips. I also follow this page on Facebook that shares daily posts of all the foliage updates happening in Northern and the UP.

Here are other Michigan cities not too far from Grand Traverse County, Traverse City, worth visiting for fall foliage. Granted, we drive in from Chicago, so none of these seem too far compared to the distance to Traverse from home. I’ll share more on these later:

  • Suttons Bay
  • Historic Fishtown in Leland
  • Mackinac Island
  • Petoskey
  • Harbor Springs
  • Grand Rapids

photo taken in Petoskey

Lodging Near Traverse City, Michigan

Book ahead if you plan to visit Michigan during the fall because those are popular dates.

Tamarack Lodge– My favorite stay so far. Tamarack is near everything, including the road that leads to the Old Mission Peninsula. We didn’t stay here during our fall trip, but we did visit to take advantage of their in-room fireplaces in the wintertime. Tamarack is situated right along the lake.

Each room is a condo with a full kitchen, fireplace, and balcony. The condos look like mini cabins, the staff is friendly, and free parking is available.

The only thing I didn’t like about the Tamarack is their checkout “checklist,” where you must take out your trash or load the dishwasher-type stuff. Similar to how some Airbnb’s handle checkouts. Not a fan, but the balcony views and fireplace make up for it. Check availability here.

Alexandra Inn– A brand new boutique hotel that opened in August 2023! We just booked this place for our upcoming fall trip back to Traverse, so I cannot comment on the stay yet, but I wanted to share it because it looks beautiful and has excellent reviews.

It’s located along the same waterfront as Tamarack and has a rooftop terrace. They also offer rooms with private balconies.

We’ve also stayed in several Airbnb’s, and I’ll link the worthwhile ones below. They all have great reviews and superhosts and pass the Lily & Jorge clean test. Trust me, it’s a hard test to pass.

*The Lakeside Lookout Airbnb is located in Harbor Springs, MI, about 1.5 hours north of Traverse City. But it’s near Petoskey, a gorgeous town for foliage, and the famous Tunnel of Trees road.

It’s a large condo on the lake and one of the quietest stays we’ve ever had. It’s worth noting on this post because we’ve enjoyed staying in other towns and still making our way to Traverse for wine tastings and, of course, a Mundos Coffee stop.

One thing I’ve always wanted to do but have been too cheap to book has been a winery guesthouse with views of the vineyards like Brys Estate. There are more winery guesthouses to choose from further north on the Old Mission Peninsula or the Leelanau area.

Places to Eat (& Coffee) in Traverse City 

Spanglish– when we first tried Spanglish, we only went because they had good reviews, but we didn’t expect the tacos to be as good as they were. We returned the same day for more and have returned every time we’re near Traverse.

Sugar 2 Salt– Sugar 2 Salt is a “locally focused and seasonally driven breakfast restaurant.” Everything we’ve had has been fresh and full of flavor.

Mama Lu’s It’s a modern-day taco shop. I’m usually not into these places, but the reviews were excellent, so we gave it a shot. All the food we had was delicious! So much so that we returned the next day (for takeout) and revisited when we returned to Traverse in the winter. Their tacos change often, but don’t miss the street corn; it’s some kind of wonderful.

Morsels Espresso + Edibles Get their biscuit sandwiches. And don’t leave without getting some of their morsels. They’re bite-sized pieces of goodness (think tiny cupcakes).

Slabtown Burgers– Recommended by one of our Airbnb hosts, and we really enjoyed the burgers and fries.

Trattoria Stella It’s a well-rated Italian restaurant inside a former insane asylum. Interesting right? We’ve only had the chance to do takeout at Stella’s, but I hope to dine in soon.

The Little Fleet– If you’re visiting before mid-October, you might still catch all the food trucks at The Little Fleet. It’s a bar that hosts eight food trucks in its parking lot.

Low Bar– A “quintessential hideout for those seeking the perfect beverage.” This cocktail bar serves high-quality craft cocktails that are beautifully balanced and perfectly garnished–just how we like ’em.

Mundos Coffee– Mundos is hands down our favorite coffee shop in Traverse City. We’ve tried a few others, but none compare to Mundos. They also have delicious breakfast sandwiches and avocado toast.

Higher Grounds Coffee Another good cafe if you want to try something other than Mundos.

Don’t forget to Google Map “apple cider donuts”! One of my favorite things has been stopping at different farm markets and trying their hot cider and cider donuts. You’ll find them on any of the routes below.

Northern Michigan Road Trip (Scenic Fall Foliage Routes)

I’ll list several Northern Michigan road trip routes we’ve followed from Chicago.

From Traverse City up to Old Mission Peninsula

If your time is short, but you want to get some foliage and wine tastings in, make your way up the Old Mission Peninsula. It’s just a straight shot up M-37 from Traverse City’s main Front Street.

You can likely drive the entire way in 20 minutes, but with all the great stops, it will take a lot longer than that. It took us hours to drive the road. I couldn’t stop taking photos, and that’s a good problem to have.

In the spring, the peninsula fills with beautiful cherry blossom trees. The town has a cool festival (sometime in May, depending on the bloom) to celebrate the arrival of nicer weather, and you can book a wine tour making stops along the road.

In the winter, you can join the locals on the frozen lake, do some ice fishing, or go sledding, snow tubing, and possibly even winter hiking.

From Traverse City through Leelanau County

It’s a slightly longer yet equally beautiful route. Start at Traverse City up to Sutton’s Bay Ciders, where you’ll find the most gorgeous foliage corner. Then, keep driving up to the cute town of Sutton Bay.

If you’ve got a designated driver, check out Boathouse Vineyards and 45 North Vineyard & Winery (one of my favorites). And, if you don’t have one, you can book one HERE. From there, head to Lake Leelanau and finish at the Historic Fishtown in Leland.

View from Sutton’s Bay Ciders

Sutton Bay

45 North Vineyard & Winery

Lake Leelanau 

Historic Fishtown in Leland

From Traverse City to Tunnel of Trees, M119

Start in Traverse City, heading up to Petoskey, MI*, where you’ll find gorgeous Victorian homes with a backdrop of stunning foliage. Check out Petoskey Farms Vineyard and Winery.

Head toward Harbor Springs to start the scenic drive through the famous Tunnel of Trees, M119. North of Harbor Springs, you’ll find a scenic overlook. Just put ” Scenic Outlook – Tunnel of Trees” into Google Maps.

Make a quick stop at the popular Good Hart General Store in Good Hart, MI. The Tunnel of Trees continues through Cross Village, MI. Then, head back down to Traverse City.

If you have time and guts, visit the SkyBridge in Boyne Mountain Resort. It’s on my list when foliage is at its peak!

*On the way to Petoskey, you’ll drive through Charlevoix, MI. I haven’t visited this town, but I might stop this year. It looks just as cute as the others and has the iconic Earl Young Mushroom houses.

Petoskey, Michigan

Tunnel of Trees, M119 

Good Hart, Michigan

SkyBridge, Boyne Mountain Resort

bridge photo source: facebook.com/BoyneMountain

From Grand Rapids, MI, to Traverse City

This is the route I’m following this year (2023). Last spring, I visited Grand Rapids, MI, and fell in love with their historic district, Heritage Hill. It has gorgeous architecture and giant, mature trees.

I also quickly stopped by in the fall of 2021 for coffee and got a glimpse of their foliage. I knew I had to properly visit for more photos and delicious coffee during the fall. From Grand Rapids, make your way up to Traverse City. It’s only 2 hours away.

While in Grand Rapids, don’t miss Madcap Coffee or Morning Ritual Coffee Bar.

From Traverse City to Mackinac Island

Add Mackinac Island to your itinerary if you have more days to work with. It’s 2 hours north of Traverse City, plus a 19-minute ferry ride to the island. I was too early for peak foliage during my visit, but it’ll be a stunning trip if you plan it well.

Best Winery in Traverse City

As mentioned, Old Mission Peninsula is lined with fantastic wineries. You can also find some great wines on the Leelanau Peninsula or near Petoskey. Honestly, you can find wineries all over Michigan. But Traverse is where it’s at if you’re a Riesling fan.

Bowers Harbor VineyardsTheir Late Harvest Riesling is one of my favorites year after year. Bowers is one of the first wineries we visited, and we keep going back. It’s a dog-inspired winery, and we are major dog people. They have different wines named after their dogs and tons of dog-loving stuff in their shop.

The lovely lady serving our wine at Bowers also told us about the views at Brys Estate Vineyards, so we had to head over there, too. Keep in mind most wineries close at 5-6 p.m.

Brys Estate Vineyard & Winery– She wasn’t lying about these views. We found great seats, ordered some drinks and a cheese platter, and sat back to take it all in. It was the perfect end to our foliage-filled weekend.

*We also keep returning to this beautiful winery.

Other Traverse Wineries worth noting:

  • Rove Estates
  • Chateau Grand Traverse

I will add more as I try them and love them. Please stay tuned…

If you want to do several tastings, it may be best to check out the wine tours available. There are tours or shuttles that will drive you from Traverse City up and down the peninsula. You can check out more of those options HERE. Viator offers a full refund up to 24 hours in advance on most experiences.

Love fall drives as much as me? Check out these guides next:

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15 Comments

  • Reply jackiebrowngately September 12, 2020 at 1:00 pm

    It’s funny, I think we in New England are the only ones with foliage—clearly, northern Michigan is just as vibrant and picturesque! (Plus, I’d love to stay at The Tamarack.)

    • Reply Lily September 12, 2020 at 1:41 pm

      New England is the capital of fall foliage for sure! I was trying to visit this year but we’re not really allowed in lol. It’s still high on my fall list, it looks absolutely gorgeous!

  • Reply josypheen August 10, 2019 at 12:52 pm

    I loooooove autumn leaves too. The fall does seem like the best possible time to visit Michigan! Brys Vineyard looks like a great place to stop too. Pretty views +cheese = joy.

    Lovely relaxing post.

    • Reply Lily August 10, 2019 at 7:15 pm

      Just something about autumn, right?! And yeah Michigan offers a lot during that season, it’s beautiful!

      • Reply josypheen August 10, 2019 at 8:31 pm

        I think its the light, the colours aaaand there are so many veggies and mushrooms in season – it’s probably the food too! I love it anyway…

  • Reply nclaesen August 10, 2019 at 11:18 am

    Such a great post! I love Michigan and Fall is my favorite season. Brys Vineyard looks beautiful.

    • Reply Lily August 10, 2019 at 7:14 pm

      Fall is my fave too <3 Great taste!

  • Reply thattexascouple2015 November 18, 2017 at 4:34 pm

    I love the fall colors as well and you captured them beautifully. Those wineries look great. I could just spend all day at one!

    • Reply This Darling World November 20, 2017 at 11:00 pm

      Thanks so much 🙂 I can’t wait to head back there in the spring for more wining!

  • Reply gettheregetlost November 18, 2017 at 10:37 am

    Yes October is the best month! And yes, can’t stop taking pictures too if see those classic VW bugs!

  • Reply Sarah November 18, 2017 at 10:32 am

    What beautiful fall pictures!

  • Reply Hanan Van Dril November 18, 2017 at 9:53 am

    Lovely post!

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