Northern Michigan Summer Vacation
Last summer our extended family embarked on the largest group vacation we’d ever taken. 30 people visited the location of our grandparent’s honeymoon 60 years earlier, in Beulah, Michigan. The quaint town sits on the eastern shore of Crystal Lake, an impossibly clear 23-square mile lake that probably deserves to be more popular than it is. It has almost become a sacred place to this family, as each generation has visited many times since the first voyage in 1958.
After enjoying a relaxing week at Crystal Lake, my family unit of four decided we weren’t ready to drive home yet. So we took a detour up the Leelanau Peninsula for some more exploring and discovered cute towns, great beer, and gorgeous views along the way.
These two trips left no doubt in my mind that Northern Michigan should be at the top of your list for a summer family vacation. Have fun reading the full trip review below!
WHEN WE VISITED
Late July 2019 – truly the best time of year in this part of the country. The daytime temperatures reach into the high 70’s or low 80’s, so the freshwater lake is perfectly refreshing. At night the temps drop into the 60’s creating the perfect setting for campfires and stargazing.
WHERE WE STAYED
With so many people wanting to stay together we needed two large vacation homes, which are relatively abundant on the lake. The first house was very new and situated high on a hillside on the west half of the lake. A sprawling deck faced west for spectacular sunsets! But there was no direct lake access, which is why the second house came in extra handy. It was actually one we’d stayed at 10 years before and was perched on a bluff high above Crystal Lake. This one had its own private beach (and dock) via a long, meandering driveway through the woods.
The two houses were about a 10-minute drive from one another. The folks without young children slept at the new house and were able to enjoy their peace and quiet, while everyone else enjoyed the privacy of the second house (the sounds of screaming children faded harmlessly into the Michigan woods without disturbing any neighbors). But most days everyone drove down and setup shop for a full day on the beach.
WHERE WE ATE
The Cherry Hut – a classic restaurant that will celebrate its 100th birthday in 2022! Much of their menu integrates cherry jam, cherry BBQ sauce, and cherry dressing but even if that doesn’t sound appealing they have plenty of other selections and the food is DAMN good. And obviously they excel at cherry dessert!
Ursa Major Bistro – this was a nice discovery in downtown Beulah for breakfast before we went on a nature hike. They had coffee creations that my wife and I loved and a food menu that was a perfect balance of homey and unique. The kids loved the bear cub pancakes with bacon!
The Manitou – an old favorite of ours that opened in 1979, they describe it as “Northwoods Fine Dining” and I can’t think of a better description. With a nice selection of local seafood in a cabin-style setting, this is a terrific option for upscale fare (and might be your only choice for miles around).
Hop Lot Brewing Co. – one of my favorite bars ever. Hands down. Sure, when someone says “favorite bar ever” a lot of it has to do with the circumstances. And the circumstances on the day we visited were perfect. It was a sunny Saturday afternoon and we had just finished exploring nearby Sutton’s Bay when a local recommended Hop Lot on our way out of town. Here’s a snippet from their story: “…the perfect location to embrace the local beer culture while also embracing the outdoors.” Their large taproom opens to a huge outdoor beer garden built among mature trees, which is where you can sip on a craft beer next to a campfire while your kids play in a massive fenced-in sandbox while you wait on your smoked brisket burnt ends to arrive. I seriously did not want to leave.
Chick-fil-A – I know, I know, it’s a fast food chain. But seriously we stopped here on the way up AND the way home. Their app is incredible and allowed us to find a location that had an indoor play place, which is clutch when you’re in a caravan with five toddlers who need to release their wiggles. Their free WiFi also allowed us to download some extra movies to the iPad! And the chicken is just so good.
WHAT WE EXPLORED
Crystal Lake – the lake itself is vast and beautiful and offers plenty of activities during the day. We rented a pontoon boat most days and motored around the scenic lake, sometimes anchoring at sand bars to swim and drink. We also rented a few jet skis one day which allowed the kids to go tubing – and allowed the adults to race around the lake!
Arcadia Dunes Baldy Trail – we went for an outstanding hike here in the C.S. Mott Nature Preserve that surprised me with a lot of different scenery. Beginning in a small meadow, the trail wound through dense woods before finishing near the top of a sand dune overlooking Lake Michigan a few hundred feet below. As I was taking in the view my son noticed a bald eagle flying along the dunes directly below us! It was a truly breathtaking view and one of my favorite family hikes ever.
Stars on the water – we took our pontoon boat out late one night and spent an hour staring up at the thousands of stars in the sky. Most of the people in our crew come from large cities so the lack of light pollution was a real treat, and inevitably prompted discussions of aliens and the vast universe.
Golf at Champion Hill – five of us enjoyed a wonderful round of early-morning golf at Champion Hill in Beulah. The course was beautiful – heather-lined fairways and views of Crystal Lake were frequent.
Canoe trip on Lower Platte River – this was one of the highlights of the trip for our group of about 20 people. The Lower Platte River has a gentle current and shallow, warm water that makes it perfect for a leisurely family canoe trip. The scenic trip took us about 2-hours and finishes right into Lake Michigan, where we swam and enjoyed a picnic.
Suttons Bay – We passed through this charming town on the Leelanau Peninsula 4 years ago and vowed to come back again someday. So on this trip we carved out a half day to stroll around and explore! We stopped into an art gallery, a toy store, a rock shop, and looked at boats in the marina all before we visited my new favorite bar – Hop Lot.
Dow Gardens – this 110-acre botanical garden in Midland, Michigan features treetop walking trails, impeccable flower gardens, and a nature-themed playground (among other things). It was such a wonderful pit-stop on our drive home and should not be missed if you’re in the area. Words can’t do it justice.
SEE MORE PHOTOS FROM THE TRIP
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