Fall Color in Michigan: Scenic Byways
Part of the fun of a fall color tour is the drive, as each mile showcases different changes of color in the leaves of the trees. Michigan is blessed with more than 20 scenic byways, and most of them are ideal drives for fall color tours. The list below will take you through forests, past waterfalls, through tunnels of trees, past iconic Michigan lighthouses, and more. Fall Color in Michigan: Scenic Byways is our guide to 13 routes guaranteed to be memorable in October each year! (Be sure to check out Fall Color in Michigan: State Parks and Fall Color in Michigan: Covered Bridges as well)
Copper Country National Scenic Byway – We start things off way up in the Keweenaw Peninsula, Following US-41 from Houghton to Copper Harbor, this 47 mile route passes by many abandoned relics of the area’s mining past. Fall highlights of this route include Covered Road (the Keweenaw’s own “tunnel of trees”), Brockway Mountain, Eagle Harbor Lighthouse, Quincy Mine, Copper Harbor Lighthouse, Fort Wilkins Historic State Park, and many roadside waterfalls.
River Road National Scenic Byway – Fall color views tend to be the best near water, which makes this route paralleling the Au Sable River a great spot to see bright-colored trees along the riverbank. Popular spots include the Westgate Overlook, Highbanks Trail, Lumberman’s Monument, Foote Pond Overlook, and the Forest Discovery Trail.
Whitefish Bay National Forest Scenic Byway – Look no further than our Photo Gallery Friday: Fall Color on the Whitefish Bay Scenic Byway for proof that his is a prime spot. The Mission Hill Overlook is a top ten fall color destination for the entire U.P., the white paint of the Point Iroquois Lighthouse perfectly contrasts with the colorful woods that surround it, and miles of Lake Superior shoreline get shown off at a handful of overlooks.
Black River National Forest Scenic Byway – One of the shortest routes on this list (15 miles), the Black River Scenic Byway packs a big punch into a short drive. Fall color at five large waterfalls (Great Conglomerate Falls, Potawatomi Falls, Gorge Falls, Sandstone Falls, and Rainbow Falls) is spectacular, and you’ll also want to check out the suspension bridge at the harbor and the North Country Trail segment that crosses the byway.
M-22 State Scenic Byway – Known for being one of the state’s most popular summer destinations, M-22 is also worth experiencing in the fall once the crowds have thinned out. Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore offers amazing fall views on Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive, in historic Glen Haven, at the Dune Climb, and on miles of hiking and biking trails. This route can also show off its fall color in small towns like Arcadia, Leland, Suttons Bay, an more.
Old Mission Peninsula State Scenic Byway – Not far from the M-22 Scenic Byway is another great spot that gets more hype in the summer than the fall. Know for its wineries, this peninsula also offers stunning hilltop views, a quilt barn trail, the historic Old Mission Point Lighthouse, the Pelizzari Natural Area, and the Pyatt Lake Nature Preserve.
Tunnel of Trees State Scenic Byway – This is the crown jewel of Michigan scenic byways for fall color. M-119 makes a 20 mile journey from Harbor Springs to Cross Village, paralleling the Lake Michigan shoreline while running under a tree-filled canopy that bursts with color each October. You’ll want to take your time on this tight, curvy route while passing Devils Elbow, the Area of the Old Council Tree, and Good Hart.
Tahquamenon State Scenic Byway -Exploring 63 miles of the eastern Upper Peninsula between Newberry and Eckerman, the Tahquamenon Scenic Byway takes drivers through an all-seasons paradise. One of the main draws here is Tahquamenon Falls State Park and its large waterfalls, but other spots to check out for fall color are Whitefish Point, the Two Hearted River, Crisp Point Lighthouse, and the Hamilton Lake Nature Area.
US-2 Top of the Lake State Scenic Byway – One of the newest byways to get the “Pure Michigan Byway” designation is this stunning route that follows the Lake Michigan coastline from St. Ignace to Manistique. The top fall highlight here is the Cut River Bridge, which offers views from above a gorge that fills up with color each October. Other good spots to check out include Castle Rock in St. Ignace, the Seul Choix Lighthouse, Fayette Historic State Park, and the Big Spring Kitch-iti-kipi at Palms Book State Park. A handful of state forest and Hiawatha National Forest campgrounds along the route also gain some extra appeal in the fall.
Sunrise Coast State Recreation Byway – This list has covered a lot of the Upper Peninsula and the Northwest Lower Peninsula, but now we turn our attention to the eastern side of the Lower Peninsula and the Lake Huron Coast. Known as the “Sunrise Coast,” this region boasts more than just summer splendor. Once fall hits, places like Tawas Point State Park, Alpena, Sturgeon Point Lighthouse, Oscoda, Presque Isle, and Rogers City offer some great backdrops for fall color photography. At 200 miles long, this byway is perfect for a weekend getaway!
Chief Noonday State Recreation Byway – Named after 1800s Ottawa chief Noahquageshik (Chief Noonday), this scenic byway has plenty for those that love outdoor recreation. Check out fall color while hunting the Barry State Game Area or exploring the hiking and mountain biking trails at Yankee Springs Recreation Area, or dive into history at Charlton Park or Bowens Mills. The hardwood canopy overhead will be full of color each fall on this 17 mile route follows M-179 through Barry County, less than an hour’s drive from Grand Rapids or Kalamazoo.
North Huron State Recreation Byway – We head back to the Upper Peninsula for another lakeshore byway, this time following M-134 across the northern shore of Lake Huron. The small communities of Hessel and Cedarville are a gateway to the beautiful Les Cheneaux Islands, and you’ll find no shotage of forested nature trails on the islands and on the mainland (Birge Nature Preserve, Aldo Leopold Preserve). This 50 mile route continues on Drummond Island, an outdoor recreation paradise reached by a short ferry ride. On the island you can explore miles of ORV trails and visit landmarks like Marblehead and the Fossil Ledges.
West Michigan Pike State Recreation Byway – Showcasing 184 miles of Lake Michigan coastline, the West Michigan Pike follows one of the state’s early tourist roads. Starting on I-94 at the border (and then continuing north on US-131), you can find fall color on this route in New Buffalo, St. Joseph, South Haven, Saugatuck, Holland, Grand Haven, Muskegon, Pentwater, and Ludington. Along the way there are some of the jewels of the state park system, a handful of historic lighthouses, hundreds of miles of trails, and a healthy amount of breweries for a post fall color tour drink.
Iron County Heritage Trail Byway – The 14th and final byway we chose to focus on for fall color is located in the Western Upper Peninsula and follows US-2 through iron mining heritage sites. Top fall color spots include Fortune Pond, Bewabic State Park, Pentoga Park, and Larson Park (believed to be the first roadside park in the country). In Crystal Falls you can get a great view of the area from the top of the hill at the Iron County Courthouse, or by heading a bit south of town to Horserace Rapids.