A fall trip to Northern Michigan: 5 fun recommendations from a recent trip

Bring your kids!

Presque Isle Park, in Marquette (Michelle Ganley/Graham Media Group photo)

You always hear that Northern Michigan is gorgeous this time of year, so we’ll ask: Have you ever ventured up north to see the leaves changing color as the air turns a bit more brisk?

And if you have made the trek, how far north have you gone, anyway?

As the author of this story, and someone who grew up in the Detroit area, I had only been deep into Michigan’s Upper Peninsula a small handful of times.

But fall seems to be the time to make the trip. So if you’re up for a little adventure -- or hey, maybe you’ve always had this item on your bucket list -- perhaps you could bookmark this story for a future date and check it again once you’re a bit more comfortable traveling, considering COVID-19 and all.

For what it’s worth, my family chose to do the trip as safely as we could: With masks, of course, outdoor dining, and plenty of social distance. Up north, that’s a lot easier to do than in the city or the suburbs.

When I started Googling and asking around about where to go in Northern Michigan in mid-September, I wasn’t sure whether I was overwhelmed or underwhelmed with the recommendations I found and received. Traverse City? Mackinac Island? They’re lovely places, truly, but I wanted something farther. Something fresh and new, or at least, new to me. And as for the Upper Peninsula, it’s like a whole new world up there. How far did I want to go? Could I do it, with kids who are 2 and 4?

We ended up venturing as far west as Marquette, so yes, there’s even more state that we didn’t tackle. Next time!

But until then, I thought I’d share some recommendations for anyone else who might be heading that way -- now, ever or in the future. Don’t be scared; traveling with children seems daunting at first, but we found some really great gems and the kids did just fine. Oh, and even if you DON’T have children, you’ll still love these places.

1.) Pond Hill Farm in Harbor Springs

OK OK, this was a stop we made en route to the U.P. But I cannot tell you how much I adored it.

For the adults, there’s hiking, wine, a good-looking food menu, a beer garden, a little market-type shop where you can buy jams, produce and other knick-knacks, and plenty of room to explore the vast grounds.

For the kids, they can scope a variety of animals, pick out a pumpkin, run around the huge playground, check out the sandbox, have a little picnic or play a killer game of hide-and-seek.

The farm (Michelle Ganley/GMG photo)

We had the place to ourselves on a weekday afternoon.

I thought we’d stop by for just a few minutes, and we ended up spending an hour or two. This is going on my list for all future up-north trips. It’s like a cider mill when it comes to vibes, and it appears they even offer cider and doughnuts on select days.

The welcoming farm provided such a good way for the kids to burn off their energy, while giving the adults plenty of options and space to enjoy the festive fall atmosphere, as well.

Foodie tip: If you’re in the area for breakfast, stop by Barrel Back in Walloon Lake. There are really pretty views, and the staff was ridiculously nice about my son, who ate pancakes off the floor and ran around like a maniac (luckily, the place was empty. We were the first diners of the day!)

2.) Pictured Rocks in Munising

This is one of the places on my list that is NOT exactly a secret by any means, but it absolutely lives up to the hype. It’s one of the most gorgeous places the state has to offer, and I’ll fill you in on some hidden gems in the area (hopefully).

My crew on the boat ride (Michelle Ganley/GMG photo)

First of all, I hope you paid for the car behind you while crossing the Mackinac Bridge, because we’ve been trying to make that a Michigan thing for awhile now, right? (That’s what my parents taught me, at least).

It’ll take you about two hours from the bridge, but once you arrive in Munising, you’ll be taken aback by the overwhelming beauty of Lake Superior.

If you’re childless, you win. Strap on a backpack and some comfortable shoes and hit the hiking trails. If you’d rather explore the area by kayak, that looks pretty incredible, too. As mentioned, my kids are 2 and 4, so not exactly ideal ages for these outdoor adventures.

We booked a ferry ride, instead, because I was dying to see the pictured rocks. We selected a boat that operated through Pictured Rock Cruises, and the trip was about 2 1/2 hours in length, which is the longest I’d go (with kids or without, really). But it was really enjoyable: We were able to see a lot, learn a lot, there were bathrooms on board, it was all enclosed (well, it was for us -- we didn’t want to sit on top with the kids), and tickets were very affordable. I did have to stalk the website for openings, so book that in advance, if you’re feeling nautical.

Final note, there are a few options if you suspect your crew isn’t up for a long hike, but you’d still like to take in some outdoorsy sights and scenes. Wagner Falls, for example, is just a short walk from where you’ll park, and it boasts a really clean and beautiful paved walkway and waterfall.

Wagner Falls (Michelle Ganley/GMG photo)

Foodie tip: Duck Pond Eatery and Beer Garden is right on the border between Christmas and Munising, and it’s great. It looks small inside, but the large patio out back offers heat lamps, and it’s even closed off from the bugs and wind.

The chicken wings are decent and the drink lists are long. Give them a look if you’re hungry or thirsty! (And there’s even a private apartment upstairs available to rent, similar to an Airbnb. We stayed here and it was so spacious and lovely).

3.) Marquette: The great outdoors

Full disclosure, I’d heard incredible things about Marquette, but I wasn’t sure where to start.

It’s only about a 40-minute drive from Munising, so we headed over one morning, found a park downtown and I started chatting with another mom who happened to be local.

The playground (Michelle Ganley/GMG photo)

First of all, this park was excellent. It’s called the Mattson Lower Harbor Park, Google tells me, and it’s 22 acres. The part that my kids enjoyed so thoroughly was Kids Cove Playground, a very large wooden play structure built through community donations and volunteers, according to the internet and signage I spotted posted along the perimeter.

We went there twice actually, and both times, there were other kids, the weather was nice, and it was just the most gorgeous backdrop: A sparky Lake Superior glistening nearby, a marina, a boat ramp, a large nearby breakwater -- even a bustling shoreline bike path.

The fellow mom I met recommended Presque Isle Park, which was just a short drive from the downtown playground, and that’s where you can explore the black rocks, which apparently are evidence of ancient volcanic activity.

Presque Isle (Michelle Ganley/GMG photo)

Again, it just made for a really lovely scene. We didn’t tackle the trip with much of a game plan, so I was really happy to fall into this recommendation.

Oh, and you don’t feel like your kids are going to fall in the water, as long as they’re fairly well-behaved -- so hold hands and keep them close. The rocks are quite sturdy, and there were tons of families milling around (socially distanced, of course), with people of all ages. I wondered if I’d be stressed about losing my hyper 4-year-old to the waves, but it just wasn’t a thing.

I wish we had planned more time to walk around downtown.

We’ll get to this in a second, but it’s worth mentioning: If the sun is shining and it’s a nice enough day, the downtown is popping. It probably helps that Marquette is, after all, a college town. But there are seemingly a million little coffee shops and boutiques to pop into and enjoy.

OK, one last shot of the black rocks:

Presque Isle (Michelle Ganley/GMG photo)

4.) Marquette: The food and drinks

Marquette was truly a highlight of the trip, which you’ve probably realized by now, considering you’re still reading about the city and I’m not done rambling yet.

We didn’t get to experience as many breweries as I’d hoped (again, kids; that’s to be expected), but we did love Ore Dock Brewing, and Barrel + Beam.

Barrel + Beam provides the best space -- they’re a little farther removed from the downtown area, but it’s worth the five-minute drive. I’d host an event there, if I had something big coming up! It’s a cool setup, and our children had a blast throwing pebbles at each other in the enclosed outdoor seating area. We kept them busy with the (brewery-provided!) lollipops and juice boxes.

Two tiny people (Michelle Ganley/GMG photo)

More foodie specifics: Breakfast at Bodega, brunch at Lagniappe (get the Ya Ka Mein, which is like morning ramen), treats from Donckers.

5.) It’s the journey AND the destination.

So take in the drive!

Go your own pace.

Sometimes on those two-lane U.P. highways, you just have to enjoy the open road and the fresh air all around you. Appreciate the changing leaves that frame the road so nicely. Stop at a scenic overlook. Get out and see the water. Let your kids' energy become contagious. Experience the trip through fresh, excited eyes. Michigan is insanely beautiful this time of year. And if it’s dark out, look up. Even in Petoskey, before we arrived in the U.P., I was blown away by the number of stars and constellations visible just overhead.

So tell us: Where did I miss? Or more importantly, if we were to do another Upper Peninsula trip, where to next?