During fall in Michigan, you can see some of the best autumn colors in the country. The trick to seeing them is to time your visit to hit the height of fall colors. In much of Michigan, including the southeast and metro Detroit, viewing its vibrant fall foliage may require nothing more than stepping outside; but if you want to get the most out of fall in Michigan, consider taking a tour either via car or train.
Why Leaves Change Color
Leaves change color as the result of the changing ratio of three pigments: chlorophyll, carotenoids, and anthocyanins. The production of each pigment is in turn affected by several factors. The main factor that triggers the color-changing process in the fall is diminishing daylight. Tree species, temperature, rainfall, and soil moisture can also affect pigment production and therefore leaf color and vibrancy. For example, the red tones (determined by the production of anthocyanins) are the colors most affected by weather conditions.
When Fall Foliage Peaks in Michigan
Generally speaking, peak fall foliage in Michigan can range from mid-September through the end of October. As might be expected, the Upper Peninsula reaches peak fall color before the rest of the state, although there are some exceptions. The metropolitan Detroit area tends to host a full range of colors in mid- to late 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, including the Detroit area.
- 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.
- The Foliage Network provides reports for the Midwest that keep track of color and leaf drop.
Do-It-Yourself Fall Foliage Drives
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, Inspiration Point, and Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.
- Lake Superior Circle Tour: This 1,300-mile route includes not only Michigan, but also Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Ontario, Canada. The goal is to make a complete circle around Lake Michigan. While it's possible to do this all in one go, many people do it in different segments over the years. Make sure you time the Michigan part just right to catch the beautiful fall folliage.
- Tunnel of Trees: For those short on time, this 20-mile drive down M-119 in Emmet County is perfect for a relaxing afternoon. The old trees have formed a sort of tunnel over the road, providing a beautiful sight down all 20 miles. You can stop at local farms, restaurants, and even some sand dunes along the way for more fun.
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.