Get outdoors with a trip to Traverse City, for beachcombing, scuba diving, kayaking and more.
Ask anyone from Michigan where in the state they’re from, and they’re likely to hold up their right hand, palm out and point to a location.
Since Michigan’s Lower Peninsula is shaped like a mitten, pinpointing a town in this manner provides an excellent point of reference.
Perhaps the most treasured spot on the mitten is the area where the pinkie and ring fingers meet: Grand Traverse Bay and its anchor, Traverse City.
Traverse City is cherry blossoms in the spring, ripening grapevines and blue-green waters in the summer, lighthouses and hiking trails surrounded by brilliant colors in the fall, and a wonderland in winter. In other words, it is an idyllic spot for a family vacation no matter the season.
The great bay, Grand Traverse—named by the earliest French fur traders in the area—is split almost in two by the Mission Peninsula, creating the East Grand Traverse Bay (East Bay) and West Grand Traverse Bay (West Bay). It is at Mission Point‘s first settlement, Old Mission, where Native Americans and settlers lived together in harmony. Down at the base of the peninsula at the Boardman River, two Chicago businessmen set up a sawmill in what eventually became the thriving town of Traverse City.
Lumber wasn’t the only natural attraction in Traverse City; the rich soil gave way to lush apple and cherry orchards. Eventually, cherries became synonymous with Traverse City, which has played host to the annual National Cherry Festival every July since 1926. [Read our article on Traverse City Festivals.]
The cool weather and pristine waters of Northern Michigan were a Siren’s song to city dwellers in the Midwest, and by the early 1920s Traverse City and the surrounding region became a favored getaway.
And what originally brought folks to the Traverse City area almost a century ago continues to attract families today—the lure of the outdoors.
The clarity of the water is perhaps the most amazing feature of Traverse’s more than 180 miles of sandy Lake Michigan frontage; equally stunning are the clear waters of the dozens of lakes dotting the area.
Public beaches are everywhere, and range from crowded to near desolate. Clinch Park, in downtown Traverse City, is a convenient spot to dip your toes, find a pick-up game of volleyball or watch elegant ships sail across the West Bay. The shallow wading beach at Old Mission Lighthouse Park at the tip of the peninsula is a perfect spot for families with toddlers and young children.
Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, about 20 miles west of Traverse City, is a treasure to explore. Huge, sweeping dunes along Lake Michigan are the main attraction; the Dune Climb, located about eight miles north of the visitor’s center, is a delight for tweens and teens, who often out climb their parents to the summit of the dunes—no easy task.
Sleeping Bear is named for a Native American legend about a mother bear and her cubs who escape from a Wisconsin fire by swimming across Lake Michigan; when she arrives on shore, the mother bear finds her cubs have perished. The dunes resemble a sleeping bear, and the cubs are the twin Manitou islands just off the coast.
The Manitou Islands are accessible by ferry, and the two offer very different experiences. North Manitou is a pure wilderness adventure, with camping, hiking and backpacking; South Manitou offers a maritime museum and lighthouse, as well as the farms, schoolhouse and graveyard of the original settlers.
The crystal waters of Grand Traverse Bay and surrounding lakes and rivers offer activities above and below surface for families with children of every age.
Kids will be thrilled with a sail on a tall ship. All of the schooners and sloops sailing the bay are replicas, some built by volunteers dedicated to preserving the grand ship tradition; others remain dockside, serving as floating classrooms.
Personal watercraft and sailboats, pontoons and fishing boats, kayaks and canoes are all available for rent at the many marinas scattered along the bay. Guided tours and sailing lessons are an excellent introduction to water sports for younger children, while parasailing and kite boarding will appeal to athletic teens.
The truly adventurous might try scuba diving among one of the many shipwrecks in Grand Traverse Bay. There are an estimated 130 sunken ships in Manitou Passage lost since the late 1800s, and only 16 or so have been found; the remains of many others are thought to be buried in the sand. Certified divers can join group trips or venture out on their own, and scuba rentals are plentiful around town.
A few of the wrecks don’t require full scuba gear—a snorkel and mask is all it takes to view the wreck of the Three Brothers, a steamer that disappeared in 1911.
From early July through October, roadside fruit stands and farmer’s markets are filled with the harvest of local crops, most notably cherries, apples and other fruits in the summer, and pumpkins, grapes and apples in the fall.
Some of the orchards allow visitors to pick their own fruit, an excellent family activity where there’s a reward for the labor. Try Gallagher’s Farm Market for cherries and pumpkin picking—or for their excellent jams. When the kids are all picked out, there are plenty of animals to pet year-round and a corn maze in the fall. Other roadside stands simply offer their produce and often, fresh pies.
Along the Mission Peninsula, the site of many farm stands and orchards, parents might be able to finagle a quick visit to one of the wineries. More than 20 wineries are clustered here, starting a few miles north of the city center, with more on the nearby Leelanau Peninsula. Riesling, chardonnay and fruit wines are produced here, as well as a few ice wines and sparkling wines in the method champenoise. Chateau Grand Traverse vineyard boasts picture perfect views down to the water; the winery features both barrel and un-wooded chardonnay, in addition to a selection of reds and fruit wines.
For true cherry lovers, a stop at Cherry Republic in Glen Arbor is a must. Kids will like the cherry-flavored candies, dried cherries and nut mixes; parents will dig the salsas, cherry barbeque sauce and other concoctions at this family-run business.
The trails around Traverse City are getting better by the day, and feature hiking and biking paths that range from a easy to difficult. Many trails, including the Leelanau Trail, are only partially paved and require a mountain bike or serious hiking boots for full exploration. In town, the Brown Bridge Natural Preserve is a quiet lake that was formed by a dam on the Boardman River, and offers a quick commune with nature.
Brick Wheels on Eighth Street in downtown Traverse City is an excellent bet for rentals, and offers great advice on trails best suited to a family’s particular abilities.
Winter, of course, is all about cross-country to downhill skiing. A number of excellent ski areas are within anywhere from a few minutes to an hour’s drive. Beginners will like the easy runs offered at the in-town Hickory Hills, while experienced skiers will head to Shanty Creek or Crystal Mountain.
For families with kids from toddlers to early teens, stay at the Great Wolf Lodge, which features a huge indoor water park and pool area, with separate splash area for little ones. A kid-friendly spa featuring ice-cream pedicures, a mini-golf range, animated animal story time and a magical scavenger hunt throughout the hotel means there’s never a cry of ‘I’m bored.’ Rooms feature lodge-like bunk beds for the kids with a separate sleep area for parents, and dining takes place in a camp-like setting complete with picnic-style seating. Adults who need a break can take advantage of the pool-side cabanas with flat-screen TVs and a modicum of privacy; adult beverages are available both in the dining room and the pool area. Rates for a family suite begin at $170 per night. www.greatwolf.com
Parents of tweens and teens might prefer a resort setting, which offers customized adventure experiences. Shanty Creek Resort provides guided hiking, kayaking or canoeing, even geocaching—a high-tech scavenger hunt that uses a handheld GPS. Following family adventures, the kids can relax by the pool or join their parents in the spa or on the golf course. In the winter, adventure options include snowshoeing and dog-sledding. Room rates begin at $95 per night.
For additional resources, visit the Traverse City Convention & Visitors Bureau, www.visittraversecity.com.
Destinations: Traverse City
Great suggestions What a wide range of activities for families with kids of all ages!