Disclaimer: Any travel during a global pandemic can certainly be considered controversial. My family chose this destination for our ability to remain almost entirely outdoors and limit contact with other people. We wore masks during all of our activities, and only took them off when we were totally distant from others. I wanted to share our experience because we visited the Traverse City area both in the summer & fall of 2020 , and had what we felt was a very safe & comfortable trip. Please be sure to verify the status of all businesses below before visiting! The easiest way to do this is via social media. We had a few hiccups with closures that could have been prevented simply by checking a Facebook page.
When our typical family vacation plans were derailed due to Covid this summer, my husband suggested that we do a little trip to the Traverse City area. I had never been, and I jumped at the opportunity to visit someplace new while also maintaining our “bubble”! Considering I spent half the trip saying “Imagine what this would look like in the fall!!!”, it was not surprising that I spent the whole drive back finding us an Airbnb to come back for an October visit.
Even without the swimming and beach time that helped fill our days there in the summer, we had a jam packed weekend with so much still left unseen! When I am planning a trip, I love reading other people’s detailed agendas to get an idea of where I need to go and how much fun I can fit into one day. The most helpful website I used to plan both of our trips was the Fresh Exchange blog. You can read more about her on her website, but Megan lives in the area and has tons of articles FULL of advice on how to spend your days in Traverse City.
If you are debating a trip to the Traverse City area (DO IT!), here is a rundown of our perfect fall weekend as well as some helpful tips & tricks we’ve gathered from our two trips:
Things we packed for the fall trip (Family of 4 with 2 kids ages 4 & 2):
* Adult Bikes
* Bike trailer for the kids (we have the Burley honeybee, and although it’s small it does the trick!) Added bonus to the bike trailer is that it doubles as a stroller!
* Hiking carrier for my little guy (well, actually we realized we left this at home about an hour into the drive – so we rented through Tiny Toes Travel on the Mission Peninsula. Contactless pickup from the owner’s front porch!)
* Rain gear (just in case)
* LOTS of clothing layers (we used winter coats and short sleeved shirts in the same day – very variable temperatures depending on where you are on the peninsulas and time of Day)
* Cash (some of our favorite businesses are cash only, with no ATMs in sight)
* 2 cheap amazon kites (one was lost in a tree, but we don’t regret bringing them!)
One of our biggest concerns traveling with small children during Covid was the availability of public restrooms, and we learned during our first trip that there are a TON and most were open. We never ran into an issue finding a restroom when we needed one! They varied from port-a-potty to nice public restroom, but we were always able to do a quick masked run in & out which made things pretty easy!
We woke up bright and early to drive from Chicago to Traverse City, and decided to spend the day on the Mission peninsula! Traverse City is at the base of two peninsulas: the Mission Peninsula which divides the East & West bays and the larger Leelenau Peninsula to the west. The Mission Peninsula is smaller, but there is no shortage of things to do, and the scenery is breathtaking. We chose to stay in an Airbnb outside of Traverse City (near Moomers ice cream) in order to have a centralized location to spend time on both peninsulas.
Haserot beach – We stopped at this beach to stretch our legs once we arrived! We had such a nice time running around and flying some kites. There is even a little swing set!
Old Mission General Store – After the beach, stop for a snack at the Old Mission General Store (it’s been open for 163 years)! It definitely feels like stepping back in time walking into this place.
We grabbed some penny candy and donuts and sat on the front porch to enjoy along with some coke in glass bottles.
Mission Point Lighthouse – A bit more time in the car and you’re at the end of the peninsula! There are some hiking trails in this area, but we chose to just spend some time exploring the lighthouse and the grounds, as well as the little beach in front of the lighthouse. It’s so picturesque!
Jolly Pumpkin – The patio here has a lakefront view, which made it a great place to stop for dinner & drinks at the end of the day. There is a huge lawn (and you can order drinks at the bar and bring them out to the lawn), so it made the wait for a table super easy – even with kids.
Moomers Ice Cream – I was literally dreaming about coming back here to try the fall seasonal flavors! Your kids will love watching the cows graze in the field while you enjoy your ice cream. This is some of the best ice cream I’ve ever had in my life, and I definitely don’t just throw that phrase around lightly!
Our plan for the second day was to spend the day exploring Sleeping Bear! We woke up and headed right to the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore Visitors Center to pick up our pass for the day – $25 per car for a week pass. We didn’t have cell service here, so make sure you download a map on your phone or get one at the visitors center.
Empire Bluff Trail – Our first stop was the Empire Bluff trail, which truly cannot be missed. With the fall colors, it was my favorite view of the whole trip. We did this hike (1.5 miles round trip) without the hiking carrier for my 2 year old. Both my 4 year old and 2 year old were able to do the hike with limited help (we carried my 2 year old a few times in spots where the footing was a little tricky). The view at the top is truly unbelievable!
Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive -This is a scenic drive with several overlook points, and it was fun to check out in both the summer & fall. We stopped at both the “dune overlook” and “Lake Michigan overlook” points, and both had breathtaking views that photos cannot do justice. Again, the fall colors – just mesmerizing.
Dune Climb – Since it’s not safe to climb on most of the dunes and they are off-limits to hikers, there is a designated “Dune Climb” area where you can climb and explore the dunes! When I first saw this, I have to admit it sounded kind of pointless (you want me to trudge up a huge hill of sand??), but it ended up being SO FUN! The kids loved climbing, and you actually can catch some really gorgeous views. Every time we thought we were at the top, there were more dunes to climb – so let me know if you get to the ACTUAL top (what is up there!?)!
Glen Haven – After the Dune Climb, we drove a few minutes down the road to Glen Haven. This is a nice little historic down where you can see preserved historic buildings (my kids loved the blacksmith)! There are lovely little signs scattered throughout that walk you through the history of the town and the use for each building. There are also really nice restrooms here if that is important to you!
Glen Arbor – This is an adorable town with lots of shops and places to grab a meal, including a whole Cherry Republic complex (a restaurant, bar, store, etc!). There was live music while we were there! If you’ve made it this far you’ve had a busy day, so treat yourself to a cup of coffee 🙂
Pyramid Point trail – There is an option to do a loop, but we just did the 1 mile out and back to the lookout point! This is another breathtaking view that can’t be missed. We did use the hiking carrier for my little guy as it’s a little steep, but my 4 year old was totally fine!
Charles & Reid Detroit Pizza – After a full day we picked up pizza from here to bring back to our Airbnb to enjoy with a bonfire. Right now they are operating as takeout only – and they are making 50 pizzas per night only. I love Detroit style pizza, so this was definitely a must-do!
A little note about morning coffee: My absolute favorite place to grab coffee or tea is BLK MRKT , but it is not open every day. After some research on a day that it was closed, we ended up at Aroma’s Coffee & Tea. I was definitely skeptical of the location – in a standard office building – but the coffee & chai tea did not disappoint!
Barb’s Bakery – Our plan was to head up to the Grand Traverse Lighthouse in Leelenau State Park, so we definitely had to stop in Northport on the way. Barb’s Bakery is a step back in time (cash only!), and we had been dreaming about going back here. Definitely check the hours, and don’t miss out on the donuts!!
After you get your donuts, walk out to the water and take a stroll along the harbor and the little beach. There’s even a little playground on the beach for your kids to burn off some energy!
Grand Traverse Lighthouse (Leelenau State Park) – There are lots of trails in this park, but we just came to visit the lighthouse and play on the playground (traveling with kids….). The inside of this lighthouse is a small museum that is definitely worth checking out! The grounds and exterior of the lighthouse are gorgeous. It’s also fun to be on the tip of the peninsula!
Leland/Fishtown/Village Cheese Shanty – The biggest let down of the trip was that we only made it to the Village Cheese Shanty once! They make the BEST sandwiches on homemade pretzel bread, which are made even better if eaten while sitting by the water. My number one tip is to call first thing in the morning to order your sandwich for pickup later in the day (menu is on the website and the daily special is on Instagram). Cash only! Call in the morning because you might lose service during the day, and you don’t want to stress about your lunch. The first time that we went there I called at 12 to order ahead and was given a 2 hour wait time. Learn from my mistake! The shop is located in Historic Fishtown which is definitely worth browsing.
Hop Lot Brewing co. – We visited Hop Lot in Suttons Bay for some pre-dinner drinks and were absolutely
in love with their outdoor setup. My daughter ran around gathering leaves while we enjoyed our beers – it felt downright idyllic. It’s the perfect place to go with kids!
The Little Fleet – After our drinks, we headed to The Little Fleet for dinner. It’s a huge outdoor patio with food trucks (and a great bar), so you can find a little something for everyone. Again, the perfect place to eat with tired kids while not missing out on a great meal!
Since we planned to drive home over nap time, we wanted to do a few more things before heading back to Chicago!
Gallagher’s Farm Market – We came for the donuts, but left with bags & bags of apples and pumpkins too! We ended up spending over an hour here because of the gorgeous scenery and a little hay bale maze that was PERFECT for smaller children. Lots of animals to see too!
Bike ride around Boardman Lake – We broke out the bikes for the first time to do a ride around Boardman Lake (very gorgeous and serene) and check out the TART trail.
The Dish Cafe – we stopped here for a quick lunch before driving back, and they had so many great salad, soup, & sandwich options. Definitely recommend!
If you have any questions, feel free to send me a message! Happy travels 🙂