(Above: Arcadia Bluffs Golf Club, photo by Nile Young Jr.)
Don’t miss the fall colors, fabulous sights and fun golf along Michigan’s M-22 highway
On the northwest side of Michigan’s lower peninsula, two miles up from the town of Manistee and just above the intersection of the east-west running Highway 55 and the north-south running Highway 31, another two-lane road juts out to the left. Also running north and south but much, much closer to the Lake Michigan shoreline, it’s a portion of the original Michigan trunkline that dates to 1919. Designated back then as the M-22 Highway, it winds its way along the third-largest of the Great Lakes for 116 glorious miles, up and over the tip of the Leelanau Peninsula before turning right at the Village of Northport and heading south along the west arm of Grand Traverse Bay. Twenty-nine miles later, the road formally ends in the popular resort town of Traverse City. In 2015, the readers of USA Today voted the M-22 Highway the “best scenic autumn drive” in America. And it’s hard to argue against it. From start to finish, M-22 features charming towns, delicious food and tasty wine and brews. There are activities galore, lighthouses to explore, and colors to adore. Plus, there are more than 20 attractive and challenging golf courses to test your game.
Among the many enjoyable tracts in the Manistee area is Manistee Golf & Country Club. Established in 1901, the original nine holes here were laid out by Scotsman Tom Bendelow, often referred to as the “Johnny Appleseed of golf in America.” In 1931 the course was expanded by W.B. “Bruce” Matthews, an early proponent of the game (and prolific architect) who is often referred to as the “Johnny Appleseed of golf in Michigan.” Flattish for the most part but fun to play, Manistee G&CC offers three sets of tees, measurements between 4,327 and 5,651 yards and a par of 70. There are only two par 5s here, both on the back. Six of the holes (3, 4, 12, 13, 14 and 15) sit on a bluff and each offers gorgeous views of Lake Michigan and Manistee Harbor.
Twenty-some miles north of Manistee, as the road weaves its way through colorful forests of white pine, birch and maple, M-22 goes through the towns of Arcadia and Frankfort. Arcadia is where you’ll find the highly-regarded, very challenging and open-to-the-public 36 holes at Arcadia Bluffs Golf Club, with the famous Bluffs Course and the newer South Course both ranked in the Top 100 in America. Frankfort has a highly-regarded golf course, as well. It’s home to the world-famous but super-private Alister MacKenzie-designed Crystal Downs Country Club. Two good places to drown your sorrows about not playing Crystal are Frankfort’s Coho Cafe and the Stormcloud Brewing Company (known for its Belgian Ale). Legend has it, by the way, that Father Jacques Marquette, one of the first Jesuit missionaries to the area, died and was buried in Frankfort in 1675.
For a fun and enlightening side trip near Frankfort, head east around the beautiful blue waters of Crystal Lake to the town of Interlochen. Once there you can take a whack at the very nice Interlochen Golf Course, a Hubert Morris designed that opened in 1965. Heavily treed, frequently narrow and always in excellent condition, Interlochen GC offers four sets of tees with measurements between 4,868 and 6,470 yards. Besides hitting it straight, a good short game is required around the rather small greens. Afterwards, following a bite at Bradley’s Pub & Grille in the clubhouse, be sure to visit the internationally-admired and very beautiful Interlochen Center for the Arts a bit to the south of the course and right between Green Lake and Duck Lake. Established in the 1920s as a small high school music camp (composer and conductor John Philip Sousa first visited here in 1930), the center is now a bustling campus for arts and music students spanning more than 1,200 acres. Back on M-22 and heading north again, the next town on the journey is Empire, right on Lake Michigan and headquarters for the breathtakingly-beautiful Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore a few miles fur- ther on. Before you take in those sights, however, Joe’s Friendly Tavern downtown is a great place to relax and reboot. Need more golf? A couple of miles northeast of Empire you’ll find Dunes Golf Club, a fun little layout (only 5,730 yards from the back tees) that was designed by Dean and Tonya Wall. Even though many of the holes at the Dunes are hillier and wider than at Interlochen, the trees lining most of them are much thicker and taller. A happy result is a ton of really pretty greensites.
A few miles north of Empire is an area that needs to be seen to fully appreciate – and it could easily take a whole day to do it. Created over millions of years when the glaciers from Canada gradually receded, the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore (established in 1970) stretches for 35 miles along the east side of Lake Michigan. Beautiful? Oh, yeah. In fact, in 2011, Good Morning, America named it “The Most Beautiful Place” in the country. There are numerous overlooks throughout the park with stunning views of Lake Michigan and nearby Glen Lake. There are hiking trails and canoeing areas. Depending on the weather, there are opportunities for swimming, boating and/or fishing (the fall is especially good for pacific salmon). And if you’re up to it, there’s also a spot in the park where you can climb one of the highest sand dunes you’ve ever seen – resulting in a Great Lakes view you’ll never forget.
North of the park, M-22 winds through Glen Arbor on the way to the Leelanau Peninsula. Kind of small but big on things to see and do, Glen Arbor is known for fun shopping and tasty meals. Included here is an M-22 store featuring T-shirts, sweatshirts, hats and other items displaying the road’s now-famous logo. When it’s time to eat, Art’s Tavern is one of many good choices right in town. If fine dining is what you’re after, an eatery named Blu is located on the nearby shore of Lake Michigan and offers lovely views of Sleeping Bear Bay and both Manitou islands.
On the road again, heading for the Village of Northport and a really great choice for golf, you’ll pass through the town of Leland, perfectly located between Lake Michigan and the equally beautiful Lake Leelanau. To many visitors, Leland is start of wine country along M-22, and no wonder. From here to Traverse City there are more than 20 vineyards to sample and savor.
Once arriving in Northport, your GPS will show you the way through town and past the lovely marina to Northport Creek Golf Course. Only just opened in 2014, this very enjoyable nine-holer is one of the last layouts designed by the late, great Michigan course designer Jerry Matthews (son of Bruce). A word to the wise: don’t be put off by the fact that there’s only nine holes here and it only measures just over 3,000 yards from the tips. It’s lots of fun, more challenging than you might expect, and absolutely gorgeous. Based on my first go-around, if there had been enough of the previous farm land to lengthen and expand it to 18 holes, Northport Creek would have become a “must play” in the state of Michigan. Even at nine holes, it’s worth the trip – especially in the fall. The course is strategically bunkered, several of the holes are bordered by beautiful trees, and there’s plenty of water to avoid. In addition, because it’s so close to Lake Michigan, wind is always a factor – sometimes a friend, sometimes a foe. There are three other appealing facts about Northport Creek. For one, it’s only six or seven miles south of Grand Traverse Lighthouse at the very tip of the Leelanau Peninsula, and two, the facility uses the sun to power the golf carts and irrigation system, making it the only solar-powered course in the country. Lastly, just like at famous Lahinch Golf Club in Ireland, there’s a cemetery right next to the first tee.
For another great place to play golf along M-22, drive south out of Northport and head for Suttons Bay. After a few miles you’ll come to Peshawbestown, a community of the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians. Since you’ve been lucky so far, you might want to stop at the Leelanau Sands Casino. If not, then keep going until you see the sign directing you toward Bahle Farms Golf Course to the west of Grand Traverse Bay. Designed by Gary Pulsipher and opened in 1999, the course was originally built by the Bahle family (pronounced “bay- lee”), owners of the Bahle Department Store in Suttons Bay since 1876. Pardon the cliché, but this layout is both beauty and beast. Set on an extremely pretty and massive piece of property with thousands of trees running around and through it, you’ll be shocked when you look at the scorecard – five sets of tees and a back tee measurement of only 6,651 yards. Honestly, this course looks and plays much longer than that. What makes it a brute are the elevation changes here. (I kept wondering where they stored the ski lifts once winter was over.) On many of the holes, the drive is from an elevated tee way down to a valley and then way back up to the well- sloped putting surfaces. Also on many of the holes – if not most – an extra club or two (or more) is needed to get to the green. Trust me.
After your fun day at Bahle Farms, head south again on M-22. The views of Grand Traverse Bay become bigger and better and before you know it you’ll arrive in Traverse City, one of the prettiest spots in all of the Great Lakes. There’s plenty of comfortable lodging, lots more golf, tons of things to see and do, and excellent food and drinks all over town. Two suggestions for dinner: the pizza and cold beer at The Parlor on Lake Avenue and the Cherry chicken salad with a glass or two of CK Mondavi chardonnay at the Blue Tractor on South Union Street. Both are outstanding and its a great way to celebrate your fun, fall journey along one of Michigan’s most scenic highways.