Travel the Lake Michigan Circle Tour
The Lake Michigan Circle Tour spans four states over a thousand miles, and connects over a hundred lighthouses. It’s one of the most scenic routes in the United States. As the name implies, the tour follows state highways around Lake Michigan, through Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin, and Michigan.
The Lake Michigan Circle Tour is just one of the designated scenic road systems around the Great Lakes. The other four Great Lakes–Superior, Huron, Erie, and Ontario–each have their own Circle Tour as well. All of the tours combined comprise the Great Lakes Circle Tour.
The Lake Michigan Circle Tour is a real adventure! Its roads–ranging from bustling to serene–are a plotted route which showcases the grandeur of Lake Michigan’s blue-green waters, often hugging the long circumference of the lakeshore. It holds the distinction of being the only one of the Great Lakes Circle Tours navigable entirely inside of the United States. On its route, coastal communities welcome travelers with a smile while the surrounding wilderness inspires a perpetual sense of awe.
The Lake Michigan Circle Tour is roughly 1,100 miles long and would take around 17 hours (averaging 65 mph) with no stops.
The entire tour is an ambitious undertaking, so for planning purposes, and ease of travel, we are dividing the Lake Michigan Circle Tour into nine regions, which we are presenting below. We are further simplifying and organizing the tour into two main trips: the Northern and Southern Lake Michigan Circle Tours. These half-the-lake trips can be accomplished by taking a car ferry across Lake Michigan, which is a wonderful experience where a big ship does the driving and allows you to relax and enjoy the cruise!
The Northern Lake Michigan Circle Tour Regions
For the purpose of this article, we are starting the Northern Lake Michigan Circle Tour in Ludington, Michigan, and continuing north (counter-clockwise) around Lake Michigan, eventually ending in Manitowoc, Wisconsin, where you can ride the S.S. Badger carferry back to Michigan.
- Ludington is home port to the S.S. Badger carferry, and a popular destination for travelers seeking beautiful beaches, lighthouses, and a very walkable community rich with maritime history. Ludington is also home to the #1 state park in the Midwest–Ludington State Park.
- As the Lake Michigan Circle Tour aims north along the Northwest Michigan shoreline, you will first take US-10/31 heading east out of Ludington, where you will pass through Scottville. Scottville is a rural farming community best known as being home to the Scottville Clown Band and the Scottville Riverside Park along the Pere Marquette River.
- Leaving Scottville, continue north on US-31 to the Victorian port city of Manistee, a great place to stretch your legs on the beautiful 1.5 mile Riverwalk along the Manistee River which runs through Manistee’s historic district filled with unique shopping and dining options .
- North of Manistee you will leave US-31 and begin following M-22–a breathtaking drive in the fall–or any time of year! While on M-22, you will pass through Onekama, Frankfort, and Empire.
- Past Empire, a designated loop route is M-109, which soon rejoins M-22 at Glen Arbor. Alternatively, you may skip M-109 and stay on M-22 between Empire and Glen Arbor. M-109 is worth the diversion though, as this is where you will find the scenic Pierce Stocking Drive which takes you into the Sleeping Bears Dunes National Lakeshore.
- Continue along the lakeshore on M-22 into the Leelanau Peninsula, where you will pass through Leland and arrive at Northport. From Northport, M-22 turns south again along the east side of the Leelanau Peninsula along the West Bay, passing through the town of Suttons Bay and continuing toward Traverse City. At Traverse City, known as the “Cherry Capital” of the United States, M-22 connects you back to US-31, which will bring you to the Northern Michigan portion of the Lake Michigan Circle Tour.
- After passing through Traverse City, you will continue on US-31 North along the scenic Traverse Bay shoreline and on to Charlevoix.
- You will pass through Charlevoix, and cross over the drawbridge which connects Lake Michigan to Lake Charlevoix.
- Next stop is Petoskey, one of the most beautiful regions in the state. Petoskey’s downtown overlooks Lake Michigan and offers terrific shopping. Take the Little Traverse Wheelway, which connects Petoskey to Charlevoix and Harbor Springs.
- Continue up to the “Tip of the Mitt” to Mackinaw City. Here the Lake Michigan and Lake Huron Circle Tours combine at I-75 and cross the Mackinac Bridge into the Upper Peninsula.
- Don’t forget to make a stop at the famous Mackinac Island, where no cars are allowed. Taste some fudge, bike around the island, and shop in the charming downtown area.
- After crossing the Mackinac Bridge, often referred to as the “Mighty Mac”, follow US-2 west along the northern Lake Michigan shoreline.
- First stop in the UP will be Manistique, followed by Gladstone, and Escanaba.
- South of Escanaba, you will follow M-35 to Menominee where US-41 carries you into Wisconsin.
- After leaving Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, still on US-41, you will enter Wisconsin, and your first stop will be just across the Menominee River, in a quaint town called Marinette.
- Continue south on I-41 and enter I-43 as you enter into Green Bay, home of the Green Bay Packers.
- After passing through Green Bay, you will leave I-43 and follow STH-57 north until it joins with STH-42, taking you into Sturgeon Bay. After crossing the bridge over the bay, you will continue on STH-42 up into the very scenic and interesting Door County Peninsula, a popular tourist destination called “The Cape Cod of the Midwest” and home to numerous lighthouses. Don’t miss one of the famous fish boils, a Door County specialty! You will pass through Carlsville, Egg Harbor, Fish Creek and Ephraim.
- In the northern part of Door County, at Sister Bay, you will turn south on STH-57 and pass through Bailey’s Harbor and Jacksonport before returning back to STH-42 and traveling again through Sturgeon Bay, as you leave the Door County Peninsula.
- Continue south on STH-42 through the towns of Algoma, Kewaunee, and Two Rivers.
- Continue south on I-42, until you reach Manitowoc. This is the Wisconsin port of call for the S.S. Badger carferry as it crosses over to Ludington, Michigan during May-October. It’s the “shortcut” on the Circle Tour.
- Bring the S.S. Badger back to Michigan, and you have completed the Northern Lake Michigan Circle Tour.
The Southern Lake Michigan Circle Tour Regions
For the purpose of this article, we are starting the Southern Lake Michigan Circle Tour in Manitowoc, Wisconsin, and continuing south (counter-clockwise) around Lake Michigan, eventually ending in Ludington, Michigan, where you can ride the S.S. Badger carferry back to Wisconsin.
- After leaving Manitowoc, travel on I-43 south through to Sheboygan.
- Continuing south out of Sheboygan, and into Milwaukee, the largest city in Wisconsin and famous for its breweries.
- Leaving Milwaukee, you will get on WIS-32 and travel to the Wisconsin-Illinois state border.
- The short stretch of the Lake Michigan Circle Tour through Illinois travels along Route 137 and then joins Lakeshore Drive (US-41) right at the Lake Michigan coastline through the suburbs of Chicago. You pass by famous landmarks such as Navy Pier, Soldier Field, Lincoln Park Zoo and Calumet Park. It’s a spectacular view of the City of Chicago, as well as the splendor of Lake Michigan.
- The circle re-joins US-12 south of Chicago, and takes you into Indiana.
- Indiana has the shortest amount of miles along the Lake Michigan Circle Tour. It follows both US-12 (also known as the Dunes Highway, closest to the lake) and I-94, which parallel each other and begins in Hammond on the westerly side.
- It continues through Gary, which is a major industrial area.
- After Gary, the Circle Tour follows the Dunes Highway near the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. At County Line Road, you’ll find a location for parking at the entrance to the Marquette Hike/Bike Trail.
- The Dunes Highway takes an eastern route through the towns of Burns Harbor, Porter and Chesterton.
- Before leaving Indiana, you enter Michigan City, the east end of Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore at Mount Baldy.
- You then travel northeast into Michigan.
- After leaving Indiana, the Michigan route of the Lake Michigan Circle Tour begins. The Circle Tour enters Michigan on US-12 just south of New Buffalo, and continues north on US-12, into New Buffalo.
- After traveling through New Buffalo, the tour leaves US-12 and continues north on I-94 (Exit 4) toward St. Joseph.
- At Exit 23, the route exits I-94 and continues north through downtown St. Joseph by following BL I-94.
- From St. Joseph, continue north on M-63.
- At the northern terminus of M-63, the tour continues north on I-196/US-31 toward South Haven.
- At Exit 18, the Lake Michigan Circle Tour route leaves I-196/US-31 and takes you into South Haven via BL I-196.
- Exit 20 on the east side of South Haven marks the end of BL I-196, at which point you will continue north on I-196/US-31 into Allegan County, and on toward the Saugatuck / Douglas area.
- The Lake Michigan Circle Tour remains on I-196/US-31 at Saugatuck / Douglas, and there is also a locally-designated Harbor Tour loop route which follows the A-2 Blue Star Highway between Exits 36 an 41. Blue Star Highway presents a more leisurely route as opposed to strictly following I-196/US-31.
- Continue north on I-196/US-31 toward Holland Exit 44, when I-196 splits off to the east, and brings you into the Central West Michigan segment of the Lake Michigan Circle Tour.
- Following I-196/US 31 north, you enter Holland, known for its Dutch heritage and the famous Tulip Festival in May. Downtown Holland has various shops and eateries that will keep you entertained for hours.
- Heading north, the Lake Michigan Circle Tour follows its lakeshore route on US-31 through Grand Haven, home of the Coast Guard Festival. Here you can visit the beaches, book a charter boat or dine at one of the fantastic restaurants in the area.
- Continue up to Muskegon, home to beaches and dunes, wilderness trails, and the P.J. Hoffmaster State Park.
- After heading north beyond Muskegon, you will leave the city traffic behind and enter a more scenic and leisurely stretch of US-31. Along this highway, there are many exits to visit communities of the White Lake Area (Whitehall and Montague) and the Silver Lake Area (Silver Lake Sand Dunes, Mears, and Hart).
- The Silver Lake Sand Dunes area is a great place to find adventure and fun, with both Silver Lake and Lake Michigan in close proximity.
- Further north you’ll discover Pentwater—an artsy little community along Lake Michigan and Pentwater Lake.
- Just 15 minutes north of Pentwater brings you back into Ludington, and the Southern Lake Michigan Circle Tour is complete.
Take a Circle Tour Shortcut Across the Lake – Cruise on a Car Ferry!
Between Ludington, Michigan and Manitowoc, Wisconsin:
The historic S.S. Badger provides convenient and relaxing cross-lake transportation, and is recognized as an official “spur route” which extends US-10 across the lake, connecting the two sides by the S.S. Badger carferry as it crosses Lake Michigan.
Crossing time: four hours.
S. S. Badger
Between Muskegon, Michigan and Milwaukee, Wisconsin:
The Lake Express ferry is a high speed auto passenger ferry.
Crossing time: two and one half hours.
Research and Documentation
As publisher of this Lake Michigan Destinations website, we spent countless hours researching the details of the official Lake Michigan Circle Tour route. We had the most confidence in the route as documented on the Michigan Highways and Wisconsin Highways websites. The author of those websites personally researched and verified the route in the field.
According to the author of the Michigan Highways and Wisconsin Highways websites, “Unfortunately, actual signage along the Lake Michigan Circle Tour route has deteriorated over time. While Wisconsin has generally kept the Circle Tour reasonably well posted, signage in Michigan and Illinois is lacking and long segments of the LMCT in Indiana are now completely unsigned. Indeed, when the numbered highways that the Circle Tour ran along were rerouted in Northwest Indiana in recent years, the LMCT route markers were regrettably not relocated or replaced. Furthermore, highway signing standards may have changed to the point where including Circle Tour route markers alongside the other numbered highway markers on freeway signage is no longer allowed or encouraged. While hundreds of the standard Circle Tour markers are still found alongside the roadside in Michigan, some locations where the LMCT changes directions (e.g. transitions from one highway to another) are now under-signed or completely unsigned altogether. and Wisconsin Highways, “Unfortunately, actual signage along the Lake Michigan Circle Tour route has deteriorated over time. While Wisconsin has generally kept the Circle Tour reasonably well posted, signage in Michigan and Illinois is lacking and long segments of the LMCT in Indiana are now completely unsigned. Indeed, when the numbered highways that the Circle Tour ran along were rerouted in Northwest Indiana in recent years, the LMCT route markers were regrettably not relocated or replaced. Furthermore, highway signing standards may have changed to the point where including Circle Tour route markers alongside the other numbered highway markers on freeway signage is no longer allowed or encouraged. While hundreds of the standard Circle Tour markers are still found alongside the roadside in Michigan, some locations where the LMCT changes directions (e.g. transitions from one highway to another) are now under-signed or completely unsigned altogether. “
Our presentation of the Lake Michigan Circle Tour information aims to provide you with the documented version of the “official” tour, while also suggesting optional routes worthy of your consideration. We have paraphrased the turn-by-turn tour information and re-organized the details into user-friendly, regions to help you plan your travels around Lake Michigan.
The History of the Official Lake Michigan Circle Tour
The Lake Michigan Circle Tour has so much to offer, and the frequent road signs seem like such a fixture, it’s hard to believe that the tour has only been around for a little over thirty years. Though the shores of Lake Michigan have always been popular with tourists, for too long the shoreline towns lacked a sense of connection and presence as a whole. There wasn’t a way to encourage visitors to seek out towns and cities unfamiliar to them. The formation of an official tour around the Lake Michigan coast was looked at as a chance to promote the whole of Lake Michigan as a destination, rather than using advertising to merely highlight single communities along it. Such a tour would allow tourists to find new adventures and entertainment while offering businesses a wealth of advertising opportunities that simply wouldn’t have been available without the attention garnered by the implementation of such a grand idea. Second largest lake by volume next to Lake Superior, Lake Michigan was also the second of the Great Lakes to adopt an official tour route, again outmatched only by Superior.
INSPIRATION BECOMES REALITY
The Lake Michigan Circle Tour was the brainchild of Jack Morgan, who worked for the Michigan Department of Transportation. In 1987, the governors of Michigan and Indiana struck a deal and the Lake Michigan Circle Tour was finalized in November 1988. Signage and an official route were quickly agreed upon and implemented by departments of transportation in Lake Michigan’s four coastal states. Guidebooks were provided by the West Michigan Tourist Association, and after articles run in the Chicago Tribune and Milwaukee Journal created a demand that almost outpaced supply, the tour was off and running. The West Michigan Tourist Association currently publishes a Lighthouse and Circle Tour Map which you may request on the organization’s website.
STRIVING FOR IMPROVEMENT
Though the official route has remained largely unchanged, a few additions have been introduced over the years since its adoption. The largest of these was without a doubt the addition of the Lake Michigan Carferry’s crossing as an official spur route in 1998. This new spur bisected the tour, allowing vacationers more flexibility in the way that they chose to complete the tour while adding another worthwhile experience to its many attractions. Other loops have been added over the years in order to incorporate attractions such as Sleeping Bear Dunes, or to link up with towns just off the main tour route, connecting travelers with great destinations that would otherwise be missed.
From one man’s idea, through the cooperation of many, the Lake Michigan Circle Tour has bloomed into something that brings Lake Michigan’s surrounding states together in pride. It has become something that brings people from all over the world to a greater appreciation of Lake Michigan’s natural beauty and grandeur. It’s a tour that, though relatively new, is sure to leave its lasting impression in history.