Northwest Michigan city pleases with legendary sand dunes, plentiful beaches

Michigan is ideal for families looking for a quick, affordable getaway from central Ohio.

A seven-hour drive north reveals many rewarding sights and experiences that you just won’t find here. For starters, let’s talk cherries. Thanks to Peter Dougherty, a mid-19th century Presbyterian minister, there’s an abundance of the juicy fruit in orchard after orchard in northern Michigan. Dougherty started planting the trees in the mid-1850s, and today Michigan is responsible for three of every four tart cherries grown in the United States.

Traverse City, the self-proclaimed Cherry Capital of the World, and surrounding areas are blessed with cherry orchards. The city celebrates this claim at the National Cherry Festival, an 80-year tradition that will bring half a million people to the area in early July.

During the entire month of July, when cherries are prime for picking, merchants sell the sun-ripened fruit from roadside booths. They supply perfect picnic fare for an afternoon at the beach.

Here is a look at other fun things to do in and around Traverse City:

Go on a fossil hunt

Mitten-shaped Michigan is practically surrounded by the Great Lakes, providing no shortage of beachfront bliss. Leelanau Peninsula, positioned where the pinky finger would be and just north of Traverse City, offers plenty of isolated beaches. They include Peterson Park, perfect for finding Petoskey stones. The grayish-brown fossils, which represent Michigan’s state stone, bear the trademark pattern of sunburst hexagons. Souvenir shops sell the keepsakes polished or shaped into jewelry or paperweights. The northern edges of the Old Mission Peninsula present even more opportunities for fossil findings as well as beautiful views of Grand Traverse Bay.

Bike a pretty path

Just as hiking and biking around Ohio is easy thanks to the Rails-to-Trails program, cycling the Traverse City area is a breeze thanks to the Traverse Area Recreation and Transportation Trails, or TART. The program offers four hiking and biking trails, including a 10-mile paved path that passes ice-cream parlors and miniature golf courses. There’s also a challenging dirt track that twists and turns through wooded terrain. One of the more scenic treks is the moderately challenging Leelanau Trail. The converted railroad route extends 15 miles from Traverse City to Suttons Bay and journeys through gently rolling farmland and cherry orchards, and about 7 miles of the trail is paved.

Drive off into the sunset

Driving around the Traverse City area in the summertime is enough to satisfy your visual senses. Miles and miles of shoreline provide spectacular views of Lake Michigan and Suttons Bay. Along the way are cobblestone houses, farm markets and roadside booths where fresh cherries are sold.

No trip to northern Michigan is complete without touring Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. The most worthwhile drive is the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive. This 7.4-mile self-guided auto tour offers a satisfying sampling of the 72,000-acre park, including Lake Michigan Overlook, also known as stop No. 9. Located 450 feet above Lake Michigan on a giant sand dune, the overlook provides a magnificent view of the shoreline and the frighteningly steep grade of the dune. Beware the signs warning you not to go downhill. It’s quite a ways down to the shoreline, and there’s only one way back up — the same way you came. The scenic drive is open from late April through early November, 9 a.m. to one-half hour after sunset. There is a small fee to enter, but a Lakeshore Pass for $10 entitles entry into all areas of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore for seven days. Location: From Empire, take M-22 north for 2 miles to M-109, then left on M-109 for 2 miles.

Pull into a 50s-style drive-in

Just pulling into the driveway of the Cherry Bowl Drive-In Theatre in Honor, Mich., sends nostalgic thrills up your spine. The crunching of pebbles under rubber tires signals you’re entering a simpler time when going out to the movies was an adventure. The theater, which has operated every summer since opening in 1953, has all the visual reminder of yesteryear. There’s the gargantuan white screen, parking meter-like posts that broadcast the movie’s soundtrack, a miniature golf course and a wooden shack of a diner that serves hand-tossed pizzas and popcorn from a 1953 popper. The Cherry Bowl Drive-In Theatre is located 18 miles southwest of Traverse City at 9812 Honor Hwy., Honor, Mich. Call (231) 325-3413.

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