In episode 86 of Off the Beaten Path but Not Lost, we show you places to visit in Michigan with our detailed guide. Instead of tourist hotspots, we’re heading straight into Michigan’s best small towns—each with its own unique charm, deeply-rooted history, and local cuisines.
We’ll also reveal some of the state’s most spectacular hidden gems, from scenic vistas to offbeat attractions that aren’t to be missed. Whether you’re a long-time resident or planning your first visit, join us as we uncover Michigan’s best-kept secrets. Experience the adventure, the mystery, and the beauty that await in Michigan’s small towns and hidden corners.
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Facts about Michigan
Michigan is known as the Mitten State due to the Lower Peninsula’s resemblance to a glove. Despite claims from Wisconsin, Michigan’s mitten-shaped geography is unique.
Its rich industrial legacy is a testament to the enduring spirit of America’s heartland. Further cementing its cultural influence is Detroit, the birthplace of the revolutionary Motown sound that changed American music. Aretha Franklin started singing at the New Bethel Baptist Church, and Smokey Robinson and Diana Ross lived on the same street—Belmont.
Michigan’s appeal extends beyond its automotive and music history. Notably, Michigan is the only U.S. state that touches four of the five Great Lakes—Superior, Huron, Michigan, and Erie—providing it with the longest freshwater coastline in the country, stretching more than 3,000 miles. In addition to the Great Lakes, Michigan has about 11,000 smaller inland lakes. This geographical characteristic ensures that you’re never more than six miles away from a natural body of water anywhere in the state, offering countless opportunities for recreation and exploration.
While Michigan certainly takes pride in its impressive water features, it must be noted that the state is somewhat modest when it comes to its elevation. The highest point in the state, Mt. Arvon, stands at a relatively humble 1,979 feet tall. It is situated in the Huron Mountains of the Upper Peninsula.
With its rich history, natural wonders, and impressive geographical features, Michigan is desirable for individuals and families who enjoy RV travel and outdoor activities. We will guide you through Michigan’s best small towns, uncovering hidden gems and offering practical advice for your visit.
Best small towns in Michigan
When it comes to RV travel, Michigan is a treasure trove of small-town charm, stunning landscapes, and cultural richness. One can’t talk about Michigan without mentioning Frankenmuth. It’s similar to another town we have visited called Leavenworth in Washington. Both towns have a Germanic feel. Frankenmuth has Bavarian architecture and the world’s largest Christmas shop—Bronner’s Christmas Store.
Nestled along the shores of Lake Michigan, the beach towns of South Haven and Grand Haven offer lighthouses, sandy beaches, and vibrant downtown areas.
Ludington and Pentwater are Lake Michigan beach towns in the northern part of the state. Also in this area is Petoskey, famous for its fossil hunting opportunities, a dream come true for young and old science enthusiasts alike.
Manistee, a lakeside town with a rich maritime history, offers scenic beauty. The Manistee River, ideal for fishing and boating, weaves its way through the city, creating a serene backdrop. A short drive away, you’ll find the small village of Mesick, a gem nestled amidst the lush greenery of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula. Mesick is known for its annual Mushroom Festival, celebrating the abundant morels in the surrounding forests. Mesick is a must-visit for nature enthusiasts and foragers. Whether you are paddling along the Manistee River or hunting for mushrooms in the dense forests of Mesick, these towns offer unique experiences that showcase the variety of Michigan’s natural wonders.
The downtown feel of Frankfort and Empire are must-visits—especially in the summer. Empire is the gateway to the breathtaking Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. This nature lover’s paradise stretches along the Lake Michigan coastline, massive dunes, and clear blue water. For any RV traveler who appreciates Michigan’s natural beauty, a journey through Frankfort, Empire, and Sleeping Bear Dunes promises an unforgettable adventure.
By the pinky of the hand is Traverse City, known for its cherry blossoms and wine tours. A pit stop in Bellaire provides an appealing detour for craft beer enthusiasts, as the town is home to Short’s Brewing Company, one of Michigan’s top craft breweries.
Mackinac Island offers a unique and refreshing experience of swapping cars for horse-drawn carriages. The island’s historic site transports you back in time and is a hit with families.
Drummond Island is one of the few remaining off-the-beaten-path destinations in Michigan. The island’s rugged landscape offers some of the best Jeep trails in the state. These trails wind through hardwood forests and rocky terrain, making them a perfect challenge for off-roading enthusiasts. Besides, Drummond Island hosts several Jeep events annually, turning the island into a thrilling playground for the off-roading community. We also love that the campground is on the water with easy access to launch your kayaks.
Some of the best places to visit in Michigan’s upper peninsula is Copper Harbor in the Keweenaw Peninsula. Iron Mountain presents a peek into the area’s mining legacy at the Iron Mountain Iron Mine. Ironwood also is on the border of Wisconsin.
Marquette and Munising are must-visits for outdoor enthusiasts, offering hiking trails, waterfront views, and the beautiful Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. Whitefish Point houses the historic lighthouse and the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum. Located at the northeastern end of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Sault Ste Marie offers a rich history and stunning natural beauty. The city is best known for the Soo Locks, a world-class engineering marvel where you can witness giant freighters navigate between Lake Superior and Lake Huron.
St. Helen, Michigan, is located in northern Michigan’s Lower Peninsula. This fun town is another spot that’s worth a visit. Known for its year-round outdoor recreational opportunities, St. Helen is a paradise for those who enjoy activities like hiking, fishing, and off-road vehicle riding.
Fenton, a small town in the southeastern part of Michigan, approximately halfway between Flint and Ann Arbor, is where we lived before selling and moving into an RV to travel the country. Located near the Shiawassee River, Fenton offers a charming historic downtown ideal for an afternoon stroll. Here, you’ll find a collection of boutique shops, cozy cafes, and inviting restaurants, all set against a backdrop of classic Michigan architecture. You can also kayak and canoe on the Shiawassee River.
A short drive away, you’ll find a place with a name that will catch your attention. In Hell, Michigan, a playful spirit invites visitors to snap a few unforgettable photos. Caseville is another fun stop, but you must visit during the famous Cheeseburger Festival. This lively event is a must-visit for food lovers.
Kalamazoo is a vibrant city that’s sure to make beer enthusiasts happy. The city is home to Bell’s Brewery, one of Michigan’s premier craft breweries. Known for its fantastic selection of year-round and seasonal beers, Bell’s Brewery offers guided tours where you can gain insights into their brewing process and enjoy a tasting of their expertly crafted brews. Oberon is a popular wheat ale brewed by Bell’s Brewery and is released annually on a day known as Oberon Day, which usually falls at the end of March. It remains available through the end of September.
Places to visit in Michigan
If you’re searching for exciting adventures and unforgettable bucket-list experiences, here are a few special highlights that warrant a place on your itinerary.
The only Michigan National Park, Isle Royale National Park, should be on your list of places to visit in Michigan
Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore will leave you in awe with its multi-colored sandstone cliffs. At the same time, the Porcupine Mountains and Tahquamenon Falls, surrounded by vast forests, embody the untamed spirit of Michigan’s wilderness. The Upper Peninsula boasts over 300 waterfalls, perfect for exploration and picturesque photo ops. You might even catch a glimpse of the mesmerizing Northern Lights! The Eben Ice Caves in the Upper Peninsula present a breathtaking winter spectacle with cascading icicles and icy interiors.
Michigan’s natural beauty is in a league of its own, featuring sites like Kitch-Iti-Kipi, also known as “The Big Spring,” which astonishes visitors with its crystal-clear waters. The Mackinac Bridge, one of the world’s longest suspension bridges, offers incredible views as it connects Michigan’s two peninsulas.
Don’t miss out on the thrill of hunting for Leland Blue stones, a byproduct of the iron industry, along the shores of Lake Michigan. The giant dunes at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore are a must-visit. The Silver Lake Sand Dunes provide thrilling adventure opportunities for sand dune off-roaders.
Enjoy a family-style meal at Zehnder’s Restaurant, visit the vibrant Flint Farmers Market, or take a dip at Ocqueoc Falls, the Lower Peninsula’s only significant waterfall.
The Henry Ford Museum – Greenfield Village in Dearborn is where you can drive into America’s rich industrial and cultural history. You’ll see impressive artifacts, such as the bus where Rosa Parks made her courageous stand, and explore historic structures in Greenfield Village, including Thomas Edison’s laboratory and the Wright brothers’ home.
Food in Michigan
Start your day with a good breakfast in Battle Creek, dubbed the “Cereal Capital of the World,” home to Kellogg’s headquarters.
In Traverse City, the aroma of cherries sweetens the summer air during the annual National Cherry Festival. As the world’s cherry capital, this vibrant city is the perfect place to savor the cherry experience. Whether indulging in freshly baked cherry pies or sampling artisan cherry jams at local markets, a trip to Traverse City in July promises to be a sensory delight.
A culinary tour of Michigan would only be complete with tasting the classic Coney Dogs. These flavorful hot dogs served with Koegel’s Viennas and buns, come in two distinct styles. The Flint-style Coney is topped with loose beef, mustard, and onions, while the Detroit-style Coney leans towards a chili dog, similarly garnished with mustard and onion. It’s an iconic Michigan fast-food dish that showcases the state’s unique culinary flair.
Equally iconic is the Detroit-Style Pizza, a blend of crispy, thick crusts generously laden with toppings, encapsulating the heartiness and warmth of Michigan’s spirit. For seafood lovers, the fresh catch from the Great Lakes, particularly whitefish and perch, offers a taste of Michigan’s abundant waterways.
Savor a sip of history with Vernors Ginger Ale, a Michigan-born soda recognized (by at least them) as America’s first soda pop. Crafted in Detroit in 1866, this unique beverage presents a robust ginger flavor that stands out from other ginger ales. It’s a must-try accompaniment to any meal in Michigan.
Michigan has a thriving craft beer scene, with over 350 breweries across its peninsulas. From the urban hubs to the smaller town breweries, each establishment pours its heart and soul into every pint, offering various flavors and styles to cater to every palate.
The craft beer scene is highlighted by the state’s legendary Bell’s Brewery, which began as a homebrew supply shop in Kalamazoo. Their famous Oberon Beer, a wheat ale that signals the arrival of summer, is eagerly anticipated by locals and visitors alike, typically available from March to September.
But Oberon is just the beginning. Short’s Brewing Company is another noteworthy player in Michigan’s craft beer scene. Known for their innovative, complex, and flavorful brews, Short’s has earned a reputation for pushing the boundaries of beer recipes. Their lineup includes traditional styles, experimental concoctions, and everything in between. From the grains to the hops and even the water, the ingredients are sourced within the state, allowing the flavors of Michigan to shine through in every pint. This deep connection to their locality gives their brews a unique character that sets them apart.
Don’t forget to snack on Better Made Potato Chips, a crunchy Detroit staple since 1930.
Continue your food journey to the Upper Peninsula to try Michigan Pasties, hearty, meat-filled hand pies introduced by Cornish miners. A trip to Mackinac Island should include visiting the many fudge shops offering melt-in-your-mouth sweetness.
With its rich history, vibrant culture, unique geological features, and delectable food scene, the Mitten State has extended its hand in a warm invitation to explore the road less traveled. Whether you are an RV enthusiast, an adventurous traveler seeking a memorable trip, or a long-time resident rediscovering your home state, Michigan’s small towns, and hidden gems offer a richness and diversity that cater to all tastes and interests. As you chart your journey, we hope our detailed guide helps you navigate Michigan’s beauty, mystery, and offbeat charm.