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M-22 Scenic Drive
It’s by far one of the most beautiful drives in America, and it’s right here in northwest Michigan. M-22 is a 116-mile stretch of road that winds through the scenic countryside of Manistee, Benzie, and Leelanau counties. Though very pretty in spring and summer, the fall season is when you really must take this drive along the Lake Michigan shoreline. Along the way you can visit wineries, art galleries, and experience small-town friendliness.
M-22 Begins in Manistee County
The southern-most section of M-22 starts in Manistee County off US-31.
Manistee is a charming Victorian port city, best known for the historic Ramsdell Theater, the 1.5 mile Riverwalk, gorgeous beaches and golf courses, and the popular Little River Casino. Two of Manistee’s biggest festivals are the Manistee Forest Festival over July 4th and Sleighbell Parade & Old Christmas Weekend in early December. The fall season is a gorgeous time to drive through the Manistee area, or walk downtown and browse the variety of stores and restaurants. During the month of October, dare to get scared in Manistee’s very own Ghost Ship, otherwise known as the S.S. City of Milwaukee the rest of the year.
After visiting the city of Manistee, follow the winding M-22 up to the village of Onekama, just 20 minutes north of Manistee. Onekama is commonly know as the “Two Lake Town,” offering the combination of Lake Michigan shoreline and peaceful Portage Lake.
Entering Benzie County, M-22 curves through the sister towns of Elberta and Frankfort. Frankfort has an exceptional downtown district with fine dining and unique shopping that makes the town feel much bigger than its small size. Just a few miles north, the M-22 highway takes travelers to the turn off for the Point Betsie Lighthouse, a don’t-miss attraction while in Benzie County. Point Betsie is a public lighthouse with historic and aesthetic value, and a public lakeshore to explore. M-22 continues along the shoreline of Crystal Lake, named accurately for its breathtaking color–with turquoise hues which are typically found in more tropical destinations.
M-22 continues up and winds around the Leelanau Peninsula, the “Little Finger” of our mitten-shaped state. Empire offers unparalleled hiking trails. Glen Arbor and Leland’s “Fishtown” are top visitor destinations with friendly locals ready to welcome you in. Rock hounds enjoy looking for the beautiful Leland Blue stones on Van’s Beach downtown. If you make it all the way to Northport at the tip, you’ll find yourself in a more secluded region, surrounded by nature and unspoiled by heavy tourism. Heading back south on the last leg of M-22, you will pass through Suttons Bay, a very nice waterfront community with specialty shops and eateries. The journey ends in Traverse City, an up-and-coming, energetic city and the cherry capital of the world. The National Cherry Festival is held there each summer. Traverse City has two bays separated by the Old Mission Peninsula, which offers a another great road trip tour- shorter, but scenic, with country farms and vineyards galore.
Experience the Seasons Along M-22
The snow melts, the ground thaws and the days grow longer: Spring is here. As flowers start popping up, bikes and golf clubs are dusted off. Boots change to walking shoes. A perfect beach day sneaks in between two chilly days.
In Michigan, spring is signified by the coming of the trilliums. The common, beautiful white flowers blanket the forest all over West Michigan. There are several other species of trilliums in Michigan ranging from pink, red, green, or yellow flowers as well as different shaped leaves. Some of these species are threatened or endangered and protected under the State Endangered Species Act.
Morel mushroom hunting is a popular spring activity for many people in West Michigan. Early spring brings people out into the woods, searching for a mushroom that resembles a wrinkly gray honeycomb. This mushroom likes wet, 50°F weather, and prefers certain trees more than others. Do your research and ask around for tips, though most people are unlikely to reveal their favorite hunting spots. Morels are delicious and a classic spring flavor here in Michigan; fry them up with a steak, throw them in an omelet, or saute them up on the side.
Summer Fun in the Sun
The most popular time for vacationers to visit West Michigan, summertime is filled warm weather, sunny days, and lots of time spent enjoying the outdoors. There are an abundant amount of things to do. Go swimming in a lake, hiking in the Sleeping Bear Dunes, kayak down a river, camp in the forest, or grill out with the family.
Farmers Markets also usually run from May-September.
The Brilliant Colors of Fall
Arguably the best time to travel M-22, fall is the time of year that brings the best and brightest colors to the leaves of the trees. Peak time for a color tour is mid to late October, though it can change from year to year. Take a leisurely drive along M-22 and immerse yourself in the reds, oranges, and yellows.
There are so many apple orchards throughout West Michigan, and they are a great place to stop and take in the fall air. Drink apple cider, have a fresh doughnut, pick apples right off the tree, and get lost in a corn maze.
Not for the faint of heart, a West Michigan winter offers many adventures. Go skiing, snowshoeing, sledding, ice fishing — and, of course, end the day curling up with a hot chocolate in front of the fireplace. Most rivers still run during the winter- creative picturesque scenery that draws photographers from all over. Sleeping Bear Dunes is sculpted daily with added winds and snow.
Even during the winter, many towns celebrate the snowy wonderland with different festivals and events. Christmas is a magical in the snow covered, quaint towns along M-22. The Victorian Sleighbell Parade & Old Christmas Weekend in Manistee is a December classic. No matter where you are, you’ll find spirited people and fun adventures even in the dead of winter.
How M-22 Became a Pure Michigan Byway
The M-22 highway is an iconic symbol of this beautiful region of Michigan and has long served as a stimulus for growth, development, and tourism in Northwest Michigan. In fact, the M-22 highway was constructed in July of 1919 and has been around for about one hundred years.
Many people do not realize that M-22 is actually split into two separately recognized byways. The northern part of M-22, from the Benzie-Leelanau County Line to M-72 in Traverse City, was designated an official byway in 2002 by the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) and named the Leelanau Scenic Heritage Route. The southern section of M-22, from US-31 to the Benzie-Leelanau County line, was designated in 2016 as the M-22 Pure Michigan Byway.
Any segment of the State Trunkline Highway System that shows scenic, historic or recreational value is eligible to be classified as a Pure Michigan Byway. Pure Michigan is used as a statewide campaign to promote tourism, travel, economic growth, education, and an overall increase in the quality of life in Michigan. Starting as the Michigan Heritage Route in 1993, the name changed to Pure Michigan Byway in 2014. The first two routes declared as official Michigan byways were the Monroe Historic Heritage Route and Copper Country Trail in 1995.
Not just any road can be become a Pure Michigan Byway. In order to be an official byway, a sponsor must submit a proposed byway for designation through the MDOT. Meeting several specific criteria, the route must be:
- Part of the state trunkline system, meaning it needs to be an “M”, “US”, or “I” highway.
- Supported by local governments along the route
- Shown to have one or more intrinsic qualities, such as scenic, historic or recreational value
Essentially, the sponsor must make a solid argument as to what is special about the highway and why it should be recognized as a Pure Michigan Byway.
While this process can take several years to complete, the benefits that come with the designation of a Pure Michigan Byway are well worth the wait. The designation of a highway brings in visitors and businesses which increases economic growth within the local regions. It also creates awareness for Michigan’s precious resources and works to preserve them. A Pure Michigan Byway also generates a sense of community that unites the area and builds strong connections through regions all over Michigan.
The Pure Michigan campaign has enhanced the image of the state of Michigan, making it a greater place to live and visit. M-22 is a proud member of this wonderful system of byways all over the state that display and maintain the cultural, historical, recreational, and beautiful parts of Michigan.
Lake Michigan Circle Tour
If you like traveling on M-22, then you will love the Lake Michigan Circle Tour! Dozens of articles for travel destinations around the Lake Michigan Circle Tour can be found in the Lake Michigan Circle Tour website. Enjoy reading and then plan your getaway!