The Best Places to Experience Fall in the Great Lakes
Updated: April 19, 2023
Lake Superior–Driving Minnesota’s North Shore
I love a lighthouse, and Minnesota’s north shore has one of the best. Split Rock Lighthouse is one of the many reasons why a fall drive up historic Highway 61 is a must for leaf lovers.Start with exploring , known for its |aerial lift bridge, steep hills and stunning Lake Superior views. Pick up some beer from Bent Paddle and sandwiches from Northern Waters Smokehaus, and venture up the highway. The Glensheen Mansion (said to be haunted after a grisly murder in 1977) and its lush grounds offer both historical context and beautiful views.
Farther north, you’ll find the New Scenic Café, an unassuming spot serving up some of the most delicious, local ingredient driven food in the state. Russ Kendall’s outside Knife River does incredible smoked fish and has an old school vibe you can’t help but love. Two Harbors’ Agate Beach is a great place to stretch your legs and get up close and personal with Lake Superior. Look closely and you may find agates on this rocky outcropping near the 19th century red brick lighthouse that now houses a B&B and museums. Thirsty? Castle Danger Brewery is right up the road.
Along the route to Grand Marais, you’ll pass Betty’s Pies (beloved by many). Silver Creek Cliff Wayside Park, just north of the tunnel, offers incredible lake views and easy, walkable paths for exploring.
Less than 10 miles north, Gooseberry Falls State Park, boasts lovely hiking, loads of leafy trees and its namesake waterfall. Split Rock Lighthouse resides a 10-minute’s drive north. For $10, you’ll get a short and sweet tour.And finally, an hour north, you’ll arrive at the charming town of . This quaint town has it all— yummy food (from World’s Best Donuts and Sydney’s Frozen Custard, to Voyageur Brewing Company and Sven and Ole’s pizzeria, I hope you’re not on a low-carb diet). Book a night or two at the Mayhew, an Instagrammable inn that’s as cozy as it is stylish. For more lodging options, check out these AAA designated properties.
Lake Michigan–Northern Michigan
Few fall drives are as iconic as Northern Michigan’s scenic Tunnel of Trees. And this is just one of the show-stopping spots in this stunning fall destination.If you’re flying, makes for a great starting point. Explore the Peninsula, driving up route 37. You’ll find incredible wineries along the way (as well as Jolly Pumpkin Brewery, which also serves great food). Bonobo Winery boasts incredible views of the West Arm of Traverse Bay, and makes some delicious wine to boot.
After you’ve experienced the Peninsula, head back toward Traverse City and start driving north on 31. You’d think Lake Michigan is the big draw here, but in fact, it’s the inland lakes like Elk, Torch, and Charlevoix that really win hearts with their Caribbean blue waters. If you have time, venture off the main road to Bachmann’s Store in Central Lake—an old school candy shop with loads of charm.Farther north in Charlevoix, you’ll find great shopping, dining and one-of-a-kind architecture. Check out one—or many!—mushroom houses designed by local native Earl Young. Continuing on, you’ll bop through many charming hamlets, including . Views of Lake Michigan stun from downtown. Grab lunch and a beer at Tap 30, offering creative interpretations of bar food staples as well as loads of local brews. American Spoon makes excellent gelato, and in between your beer and ice cream, you’ll find lots of great little shops, including Dave’s Boot Shop, Cutler’s (who sell all sorts of house and kitchen gear), and the adorable Rocking Horse Toy Company. Harbor Springs, just around Little Traverse Bay, also boasts a cute downtown, with more shops, restaurants and Tom’s Mom’s Cookies, a quaint local bakery.Next, you’re on to the —a roughly 30-mile venture down one of America’s most beautiful fall drives. The narrow M119 road meanders alongside Lake Michigan, but since the leaves are so dense, you only get peeps of the blue waters from a select few overlooks. After the curvy drive, reward yourself with a meal at the Legs Inn, a 100-year-old restaurant specializing in Polish food. This cozy lodge is a Michigan icon.
Since you’re already up there, why not take advantage of low season on Mackinac Island? This car-free island, a short ferry ride from the mainland, is jam-packed in the summer. Come fall, the lines for fudge and carriage rides dwindle. You’ll get leafy bike paths mostly to yourself.
Lake Huron–Bruce Peninsula, Ontario, Canada
There are so many places to experience Lake Huron, but one of the most scenic come fall has to be Ontario’s . Just a three-hour drive northwest of Toronto, you’ll find this naturally stunning oasis. Crystal-clear blue waters, white sand beaches, rugged rock formations and lots of colorful leaves. Base your stay at Ancient Coast, a cozy B&B just outside of Tobermory with picture-perfect views of Flower Pot island. In town, you’ll find great beer and food at Tobermory Brewing.Once of the area’s biggest draws is , Canada’s first National Marine Park, with over 20 shipwrecks and 19 islands within its boundaries. Boat tours (both jet boats and glass bottom boats leave from Tobermory several times daily. Feeling a little more adventurous? Book a helicopter tour of the area.
Other ideas in the area—explore the town of Lion’s Head, home to a charming harbor, rock beach and lighthouse. Greig’s Caves— 10 natural limestone caves—are located just outside Lion’s Head and worth the visit. After, grab lunch at Rachel’s restaurant, a '50s style diner serving up classics like burgers, meatloaf and shakes.
Lake Erie–Lake Erie Shores and Islands
When I say islands, you probably imagine the Caribbean. The Great Lakes have some pretty epic ones of their own, and when fall rolls around on Lake Erie, it’s all about the shores and islands. Due to the air’s higher moisture content, the leaves change a little later here, and stay on the trees longer as well, making for a particularly dramatic show.
Outdoorsy types will love the laidback vibe of Kelleys Island, just a short ferry ride from Marblehead. You can bring a car, but doesn’t renting a golf cart or bicycle sound more fun? Golf carts are road legal on the island. Accommodations on the island tend to be on the basic side, but who cares when the outdoors is the main draw? Kelleys Island Venture Resort makes for a great base, as well as numerous private cottage and home rentals.
Nearby South Bass Island is known for its party scene. Kelleys, on the other hand, really delivers on amplifying the natural world. Be sure to check out the Glacial Grooves, formed by the movement of ice across limestone around 20,000 years ago. These are the largest, most accessible example of this geological phenomenon anywhere in the world!
Just up the road from the grooves, you’ll find the North Shore Loop Trail. This easy 1-mile hiking and biking trail that leads a rare alvar habitat, as well as past ruins from the island’s quarrying history.
No trip to Lake Erie is complete without trying a little local perch. They do a mean one at the Village Pump, a no-frills spot dating back to 1956. Sip on one of their famous brandy Alexanders while you wait for your plate of piping hot fried fish.
Courtesy of Harbour House Hotel
Lake Ontario–Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, Canada
Drop your bags at Harbour House Hotel, a cedar-shake-clad lakeside hotel that spares no creature comfort (including ones for Fido—dog-friendly rooms available!). Some packages include continental breakfast and passes for wine tasting at select vineyards.
And speaking of vineyards, does anything seem more lovely in the fall than wine tasting? Twenty-seven wineries operate in the region, with Peller Estates being one of the best. You may opt to do a wine tasting in their Estate Room, or to really experience the vineyard, sign up for a hiking tour—led daily at 12pm. You’ll sample wine and snacks along the way. For a truly spectacular dining experience, make a reservation at their winery restaurant, a AAA Four Diamond treat.
Back in town, there’s lots more excellent dining. From farm-to-table cuisine at Treadwell|, to wood-fired pizza at Bistro Six-One and gelato at di Carlotta, you’re not going to go hungry.
For a lovely stroll under vibrant, leafy trees, head to historic Queenston Heights Park. You’ll find leisure and history in one scenic location. In addition to stunning landscaping and walking trails, there’s the Brock and Laura Secord Monuments. Brock’s Monument, built between 1853-56, towers 184-feet above the park. The Landscape of Nations Memorial, erected in 2016, pays tribute to the contribution and sacrifices.
Here’s something you don’t encounter every day: Niagara on the Lake is home to a bona fide lavender field. Explore the aromatic greenhouse and lavender fields at NEOB Niagara. Tours of the fields run from 11am 3pm, every hour on the hour.And of course, Niagara-on-the-Lake is just minutes away from . Photos and videos of the place cannot do it justice—it’s a powerful, beautiful and unforgettable experience.
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