As I have stated before, many, many times, fall is by far my favorite season of the year. Especially during peak colors, it is when I look forward to spending time with my family outdoors. Whether it be hiking wooded trails, camping for one of the last times before the bitterness of winter succumbs our Midwest region, or just taking a leisurely drive through the many natural areas that the wonderful state of Michigan has to offer.
This past weekend, we had the amazing opportunity to load up the kiddos in the Flex and head up to the northern Lower Peninsula for our family Fall Color Tour. I had booked a room for us in Gaylord for Saturday night. The plan was to hit the road Saturday morning and drive three hours to Gaylord, check in, have lunch, then begin our drive.
I’m sure that most of you with families and youngins understand that it’s not always easy to get everything together and everyone out the door on time as planned. Well, this weekend was definitely one of those times. We left the house a bit later than I wanted to, but my usual plan of telling my wife the time we needed to leave by being earlier than what I really wanted kind of fell through by fault of my own. Shhh. Don’t tell her.
The expected three-hour drive turned into four hours with multiple extra stops that I had not planned for. We arrived at the Downtown Motel in Gaylord and I was able to check in and get the key since I knew that we wouldn’t arrive back at the motel from our tour until much later that night. After that, we filled up the gas tank and decided on Panera for lunch. I have never really purchased food from Panera myself before, so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. It was a little pricey for my liking, but we ordered our food as well as a couple of kids meals, which are really just half portions of their regular menu items.
My seven-year-old agreed on a salad with a baguette and we ordered the mac and cheese with a Gogurt for our soon-to-be two-year-old. My wife and I split a full Cuban sandwich and bowl of broccoli cheddar soup. When the food arrived at our table, the salad came with a vinaigrette dressing. I just have to ask; what seven-year-old really enjoys a spicy vinaigrette dressing? This is what Panera believes a kids meal salad should have? We also didn’t think about the very loose front tooth Abby has when we requested the baguette, which was very tough to bite through. So, we traded the broccoli cheddar soup for the salad so she didn’t go hungry.
The mac and cheese was not your typical Kraft brand either. It was made with Vermont Cheddar and White American cheese with a Dijon mustard base that Allie wasn’t too fond of. So, she ended up just having the Gogurt and some crackers that we happened to have in her diaper bag. What a mess that $40 lunch turned out to be.
After that whole debacle, we schluffed it off and packed ourselves in the car and began our tour. The plan was to begin in Gaylord, head northwest toward Charlevoix, drive along the Lake Michigan Coast and Little Traverse Bay to Petoskey, up and around the bend to Harbor Springs so we could experience the Tunnel of Trees to Cross Village, then begin to make our way southwest through the towns of Pellston, Wolverine, and back down to Gaylord. Not far out of Gaylord, we finally came to a point where the electrical wires ended, and the road seemed to disappear ahead of us into a sea of bright orange, yellow, and red leaved woods. It was such a magnificent sight. I do have to say that I am quite perturbed with the quality of my photos, as I do not yet have a good camera for times such as this. I am at the mercy of using my phone to take photos, which does not even come close to providing justice for the spectacular views we encountered.
It was at this point that the road took on a mind of its own, as it curved tightly this way and that, soaring and dipping sharply with no rhyme or reason to its methods. It had turned into a roller-coaster ride, and I chose not to waver or slow and just settle in and enjoy the ride. Little Allie could feel every hump and divot we encountered, as her screeches of joy could be heard throughout the vehicle. We were enclosed in the natural splendor of the forest that was bursting with color this time of year.
The trees seemed to be engulfed in flames with how bright and bold the yellows, reds, oranges, and golds were. And the trees were still almost completely full, like a crowd of overweight giants leaving just one path to barely make it through, and that path was narrow and not just a straight line. We were having a blast cruising along these winding and twisted roads.
Once we made it out, the land opened up to beautiful rolling farmlands. It was a glorious change of scenery compared to the city views of what I am used to on a daily basis. Not long after, we came upon the southeastern edge of Lake Charlevoix. From the direction we came, it seemed like a river, but as we continued, the lake opened up more and more. Some of the homes we passed here were absolutely gorgeous with some amazing views overlooking the lake. My wife and I began dreaming of one day owning a place like this. One day. One day.
As we got closer and closer to downtown Charlevoix, traffic began to pile up. We didn’t know what was up ahead, but something was causing a major backup. With Lake Charlevoix on one side of us and Lake Michigan on the other, we didn’t have any other option but to sit in this traffic in order to cross the Round Lake Channel through the heart of downtown to head toward Petoskey. As we finally arrived in the heart of the city, we noticed a street festival with vendors lining the streets selling all kinds of things, including pumpkins, gourds, caramel, and candied apples, apple pies, apple strudel, apple cider, and even more apple items that can’t continue to list. There were tents with local artwork and craft items. It was the Apple Fest Art & Craft Show. I wished we had the time available to stop, but I was really looking forward to at least experiencing the Tunnel of Trees, and traffic had already set us back almost an hour.
We finally made it through traffic and were driving toward the beautiful town of Petoskey and up and around Little Traverse Bay to Harbor Springs. At this point, it was starting to get late in the day, but I knew that Tunnel of Trees began just beyond the city limits. We were on the well-known M-119, and the trees began to creep closer and closer to the sides of the road as we continued on. Finally, the road narrowed and the road’s center line disappeared. We had arrived, and I was not prepared for what we were about to encounter.
Even though the speed limit signs said 45 mph, myself and the other drivers refused to continue at any speed greater than 30. There was too much beauty to miss. There were very few spots without a canopy over the road. The only times the trees opened up were to reveal breathtaking views looking out over Lake Michigan. Not far up the road, we noticed a sign pointing toward Thorne Swift Nature Preserve, which I couldn’t ponder passing up. There was still plenty of daylight left for us to take a detour to visit this preserve and enjoy a short hike with my wife and kids.
As we pulled into the parking lot of the preserve, we were greeted with ear-to-ear grins of the two women who were manning the park and small nature center. One of them was tossing apples over the parking lot railing, calling to the deer that they had named, who inhabited the area. They were extremely friendly and happy to show us a map of the hiking trails within the preserve that would take us through the wetlands and to the bluffs overlooking the great lake and down to the no-footprint beach area. This was such an amazing opportunity to spend some quality time outside of the car, stretch our legs, and take in some amazing views.
We started our hike and the kids took to it with the brightest smiles on their faces that I had seen in quite some time. They were so excited that I had to tell them to calm and quiet down just a bit or they were going to scare away all of the wildlife before we had a chance to see them. The trail was very well managed and kept up. There was a small wooden bridge that we had to cross to get over a stream that I am sure would fill with much more water once the season continued with more rain or just after the snowmelt of the winters in this upper-Michigan location. It was quaint and cute, though. Not far after, there was a spot to rest, with a wooden bench that the kids immediately ran toward to sit and snuggle with each other for just long enough for me to capture a quick photo.
Further along the winding trail, you could begin to hear what sounded like a low growl that grew louder as we traversed further along. Then, the trees opened up and we could see that it was the waves crashing on the beach of Lake Michigan. What a beautiful sight it was. Then, just around the bend was a wooden staircase that took us down to the beach to a small, tree-covered patio type structure that gave an amazing view and allowed for some spectacular photo ops. We had to keep ahold of the girls so they didn’t go traipsing on the beach, as it was a footprintless beach as we were told to keep the natural beauty intact.
The cold winds were beginning to set in and the sun was close to beginning to set, so we decided to forego the remaining long trail and take the shortcut back to the nature center and parking lot so we could continue on our journey to complete the Tunnel of Trees drive before dark set in. With handshakes and thanks to the preserve keepers, we began loading back into the Flex but were able to catch a quick glimpse of the local deer that finally found the apples that were left for them from before we began the hike.
As we continued back on the drive along the gorgeous M-119 route, we had a few opportunities to park along the edges of the road and step out to catch some photos of the bluffs overlooking Lake Michigan and the breathtaking sunset over the water as well as some amazing views of the bright, colorful trees that created the tunnel over the road for the remainder of the drive. My favorite part about the 16-mile drive was that we were able to take the drive slowly in order to take in the true beauty of it. I love that the road was just barely narrow enough for two vehicles side-by-side and they decided to not paint a center line, which would have taken away from the natural splendor all around.
It was unlike any other drive that I am aware of in the state, and I’m glad that we had the opportunity to experience it. As we came to the end of M-119 in the small town of Cross Village, the sun had just completely set. Perfect timing. We were hungry and were hoping to get a table for dinner at the famous landmark Legs Inn, but when I asked how long the wait would be, two hours was just a bit longer than we wanted to wait for a meal. So, we agreed to head back to the freeway and get back to Gaylord. We all came to an agreement on dinner at Applebee’s and get back to the motel room for a good night’s sleep before heading back home.
Almost as quickly as we unpacked the car into the room and lay down on the beds to relax after being in the car the entire day, we all fell asleep. I fell asleep soundly, but the next morning I was made aware that it wasn’t exactly the same for the rest of the crew due to how loudly I was snoring. Whoops!
We were all packed up and out of the room sooner than I had planned and drove the three hours toward home, but I wasn’t quite done with our Color Tour yet. I had heard about the drive along the Huron River from the town of Dexter to Ann Arbor, so we took a little detour to check it out before heading back home.
I have to say that it was definitely worth it, even though we were all ready to be done with our time in the car. It wasn’t a very long drive, but the trees and the colors were spectacular. It is a well-known road to take a bike ride, and it curved along with the Huron River for the entirety of the ride between the two cities. The trees were tall and hung over from one side of the road, leaning over, reaching toward the river. We had an opportunity to stop at Dexter-Huron Metro Park to check out the river and let the kids release some pent-up stuck-in-the-car energy on the swings and slide as the sun was out, which warmed up the temperature outside just enough to make it comfortable for this time of year.
After about an hour of playing in the park, we got back on the road, finished our drive to Ann Arbor, still in awe of the beautiful fall colors, then made our way back home so we could unload the car and relax together, discussing our fun-filled weekend and Klann Family Fall Color Tour of 2018, which I’m sure we will never forget.