The Best Fall Foliage Drives and Train Rides in Michigan

Fall Colors at McClumpha Park in Plymouth Township

Laura Sternberg / Getty Images

Even though the Northeast of the U.S. is where most people think of for autumn colors, Midwesterners can see the most striking reds, oranges, and yellows right in their own backyard. The vast forests of Michigan experience some of the best fall colors in the country—and without the crowds who flock to New England. The most worthwhile viewing spots are in the expansive and rugged northern part of the state, especially in the Upper Peninsula. But even visitors to Detroit can revel in the season by seeing the trees in local parks or on nearby day trips.

Self-Guided Driving Tours

The most popular option for touring Michigan's fall foliage is simply driving yourself along a route, allowing for the most flexibility in terms of the length of your drive and which stops you want to take.

  • Michigan's Gold Coast: This fan-favorite route starts in Traverse City, then meanders 100 miles through Northport, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, and finally Inspiration Point, following the coast along the M-22 highway.
  • Lake Superior Circle Tour: This 1,300-mile route includes not only Michigan's Upper Peninsula but also Wisconsin; Minnesota; and Ontario, Canada. The goal is to make a complete circle around Lake Superior. While it's possible to do this all in one go, many people do it in different segments over the years. The Michigan portion of the route is particularly spectacular—drive along Route 28 from Sault Ste. Marie through Marquette, then continue the tour up to the Keweenaw Peninsula for bright autumn colors.
  • Tunnel of Trees: For those short on time, this 20-mile drive down M-119 in Emmet County—the northernmost county in the mitten-shaped Lower Peninsula—is perfect for a relaxing afternoon. The old trees have formed a sort of tunnel over the road, providing a beautiful sight throughout the entire 20 miles. You can stop at local farms, restaurants, and even some sand dunes along the way for more fun.
Rural road in Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Michigan.
Ed Reschke / Getty Images

Train Tours

Driving is, of course, a good way to see Michigan's fall colors, but taking a train gives you time for observation and is an experience in and of itself. Plus, it's great for people who don't have a car.

  • Michigan Steam Train: This operator schedules train trips to catch peak color change. Routes vary throughout the season and can cover Kalkaska, Petoskey, Boyne, Cadillac, Clair, Lake George, Mt. Pleasant, Owosso, and Yuma.
  • Southern Michigan Railroad: Each October, this train line operates special fall foliage tours out of Tecumseh. Make sure you book in advance, as they often sell out by August.
  • Coopersville and Marne Railway: For a family-friendly train ride, take this railway's Famous Pumpkin Train, which operates from the end of September through October. Characters like the Grand Pumpkin and the Scarecrow tell stories to the kids, who then get to pick out their very own pumpkin from a patch.

Fall Colors Near Detroit

Getting out of the city and into the rich natural parks that make up the Great Lake State is the most thrilling way to experience the changing trees, but that isn't always possible. Even if you're limited to staying around Detroit, you still have options. A handful of park options are within and near the city, but the best local one is Belle Isle Park, which sits on the Detroit River. In the nearby suburb of Brighton, the Brighton Recreation Area is nearly 5,000 acres of woodlands that turn the colors of fall beginning in October.

If you can afford to take a day or weekend trip but can't get all the way to northern Michigan, try visiting a nearby town outside of the metropolitan area of Detroit. South Haven on the shores of Lake Michigan is especially celebrated for its fall festivals, or head up to Stony Creek Metropark for something even closer.

When Fall Foliage Peaks in Michigan

Generally speaking, peak fall foliage in Michigan can range from mid-September through the end of October. As with other locations, the peak time for the most vibrant colors starts further north and works its way south. The forests of the Upper Peninsula usually start to change color at the end of September, while the southern part of the state, including Detroit, may not reach peak colors until the middle or end of October.

Several resources make predictions, much like a daily weather or allergy forecast, about when leaves will change color in Michigan. They also keep track of the color-changing progress at various locations throughout the state.

  • The Weather Channel posts a map of current fall-foliage conditions in the region.
  • Pure Michigan (Michigan's official travel and tourism site) posts a map with a prediction of color-change peaks across the state, and you can even sign up for email updates to stay on top of the game as the season changes.
  • The Foliage Network provides reports for the Midwest that keep track of color and leaf drop, including regular updates of the current season as well as historical reports of years past.
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