Motorcycle Touring Around Lake Michigan

Exploring Lake Michigan's scenic shoreline by motorcycle

Sherwood Point lighthouse
The Sherwood Point lighthouse is one of 10 beacons in Door County.Jamie Elvidge

Lake Michigan was an unlikely destination for me, but after listening to a group of motorcycle riders straight from the Upper Peninsula chatting up the region's virtues during last year's Hoot, I found I wanted to see it for myself. Most of the scenic rides I've been on in the last couple of years have blossomed from the seeds sown by readers' accounts of their favorite motorcycle roads. I was in Tennessee on a bike at the time, and headed back west. Although I told the braggarts, "This better be good," before I rolled north out of town, I knew darn well that adding a couple of thousand miles to a road trip is never a bad thing. And if Lake Michigan were anything near as grandiose as it appeared on the map, it would suit me just fine.

I'd heard that on the eastern side of Lake Michigan, the real fun begins at Grand Haven, so that is where I breached the shoreline. The Great Lakes always remind me of flat, gray oceans -- no waves, but the same infinite feel when your eyes hunt across the horizon. I perused the smaller lettered roads on the lakeside of Highway 31 to get a feel for real life in this area until I reached Manistee, where the truly scenic roads begin, sweeping through very un-Midwest-like hills to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. This is Lake Michigan's eastern peninsula, which shelters Traverse Bay. Directly across the water is Green Bay on the Wisconsin side. Both of these great bays and the diverse terrain surrounding them are the result of glacial dragging. When ancient glaciers melted to the north, water and unfathomably large masses of ice fell away to the south, and the debris generated massive scars on this region as it moved down the natural draw we know as the Mississippi River.

map of lake michigan
Our route around the great lake.Jamie Elvidge

Once I was into Leelanau County I knew what those readers were talking about. Certainly these northern forests, farmlands and dunes were picture perfect, and the roads that traversed the unlikely land arm were ideal for motorcycle fun. There is even a ski resort here, just to give you an idea of how un-Midwestern this area is. I loved it. Riding down around the Bay through Traverse City, I could tell that plenty of other people loved it, too. The roads were packed with tourists making me wish I could spend more time in the Bay's remote edges. Some of the highlights of my northerly motion were Petoskey and its historic Gas Light District, and Harbor Springs, a posh getaway with a quaint, New England atmosphere.

Mackinac Bridge
The Mackinac Bridge is the longest suspension bridge in America, and boy does it sway in the near-constant lake wind.Jamie Elvidge

Not long after you leave those nooks you're back out in the flats more typical of these parts. I took time to explore historic Mackinaw City, where Lake Huron meets Lake Michigan, before braving the famous, swaying Mackinac Bridge, the longest suspension bridge in America. I'm not exactly clear why the Mackinac (pronounced Mackinaw) Bridge and its anchor city, Mackinaw, can't share the same spelling, and when I asked, the locals, in their endearing Upper Peninsula accents, couldn't explain either. I'd heard a trip by ferry to the wildlife sanctuary of Mackinac Island was a worthy way to spend a day, but I had too many miles in front of me. I would have also liked very much to explore Sault Saint Marie just to the north, and the southern shore of Lake Superior, which I've heard is a fantastic extension of this loop for those bent on shopping for memorable scenery.

boats on Lake Michigan
Lake Michigan is a boater's paradise.Jamie Elvidge

I continued on Highway 2, however, over the crown of Lake Michigan, stopping several times just to relish the Fargo-speak and partake in local treats like smoked fish and stuffed pasties served warm on the roadside to hungry motorists. Otherwise, this portion of the ride was pretty bland -- the wide flat roads good for nothing more than making time. Epoufette, Naubinway, Manistique, Escanaba, Menominee -- the place names were the most interesting things I could find.

To get to Lake Michigan's other famously beautiful peninsula, a destination commonly referred to as Door County, you and your motorcycle must first fight your ways through the city and traffic of Green Bay. And when one makes it through that slate gray city after crossing the scenically barren Upper Peninsula of Michigan, it's difficult not to turn tail and run from Wisconsin whether you have bagged your quota of cheese curds or not. I didn't give in, though. My enthusiastic readers had promised me that if I persevered, this would be the icing -- the highlight of a ride around Lake Michigan.

lighthouse on Lake Michigan
An east shore lighthouse.Jamie Elvidge

Seeing seagulls and silos in one scene is the first thing that tickled my fancy as I wandered up Highway 57 toward Sturgeon Bay. A boater's paradise, Green Bay makes a smaller, more personal lake out of the big lake's western shore, and it offers a more intimate feel to the shoreline even when you're viewing it from the road. Sturgeon Bay is the Peninsula's only major dig, and I found the area above that -- the little harbor towns on the Bay side and the rugged shores to the east -- an absolute motorcyclist's paradise. Egg Harbor, Fish Creek, Sister Bay and on up to Gills Rock at the very tip, these little towns are little pockets of heaven. The roads are sweeping and graceful, and thankfully not so twisty you'd miss the scenery...or the signs for fresh cherry turnovers, which seem a form of currency here.

Lake Michigan
Plenty of picturesque scenes like this can be found on your journey.Jamie Elvidge

The only way to do Door County is to go up one side and down the other, via Highways 57 and 42. If you have time, crisscrossing back and forth over the smaller, lettered roads is an ideal diversion for a motorcycle rider. Oh, and staying a night, a week or maybe the rest of your life is also in order.

Leaving Door County and jumping on Interstate 43 was like sitting on my bare butt on a hot metal slide. Pushing off was more than painful, since all I had ahead was a long, hot ride across the Plains states.

Local art by Lake Michigan
A little taste of some of the local art.Jamie Elvidge

I did hit one more wonder just above Milwaukee, however, and that was the little town of Kohler, just east of Sheboygan. Founded by plumbing magnet John Michael Kohler, whose horse-trough-turned-bathtub (really) seeded his family's vast empire, the village is laid out around the foot of the still-working factory like a scattering of presents around a Christmas tree. If you have the time, it's worth a wander...and if you have the dough, a night's stay at The American Club is worth its weight in goose-down splendor. After all, this is the only four-star, five-diamond hotel in the Midwest. The resort now resides in a rambling chalet-style building once used to house the immigrants Kohler brought from Europe to sustain his standard of craftsmanship. The American Club was a dorm then, complete with a school where workers could master English and study to become legal citizens.

Lake Michigan
Lake Michigan is the largest freshwater lake in the U.S., and the sixth largest in the world.Jamie Elvidge

After my date with decadence, I headed west into the corn and grasses, the feel of the cool lake breeze still on my skin. I felt thankful for the chance to be gratified by a ride that I might have otherwise turned my nose up at. On a deeper level, I felt lucky to be a motorcyclist, since part of the pact is to share great riding destinations with one another.

So...where are we going next?