There are so many beautiful beaches, wineries and local foodie spots in Leelanau County, it can be hard to choose how to spend your vacation in Northern Michigan! We have you covered with the best beaches for photography, local organic wineries and unique award-winning distilleries in Leelanau County. In between your time on the water, satisfy your hunger with roadside tacos in Cedar, or while you’re in Leland, grab a gourmet sandwich in Fishtown. Whether you’re looking for a fun group outing in Leelanau, a day trip, or want to go sightseeing on a trail off of M22, we have a list of our best recommendations for exploring Leelanau County below. Welcome to the North!
1. Empire’s Lake Michigan Beach
A Hidden Gem on the Lake Leelanau Peninsula
It’s one of our favorite, most picturesque beaches, one of the best in Michigan. The beach is heart-achingly beautiful, with views of the towering dunes and white sand coastline. Families will love the kid’s play area and it’s proximity close to town. Not only that, but you also get a bonus with little South Bar lake across the parking lot from the big lake. A must-see stop and hidden gem on the Leelanau Peninsula, we think it’s one of the Leelanau Peninsula’s best-kept secrets. The sand dunes and waves are incredible while on a jet ski on Lake Michigan or LED SUP board rental from PlayNorth Watersports. We deliver right to boat ramps all over Leelanau and Grand Traverse County! . Looking for Petoskey Stones? Check out these rock hunting tips for spotting Petoskey Stones, a unique fossil and also Michigan’s official state stone.
2. Cedar Sol Taco Stand – A Roadside Market with Farm-Fresh Eats
Roadside food with farm-fresh produce in Leelanau County
Who doesn’t love a roadside taco stand? After you’ve been out on the lake all day on a PlayNorth jet ski or SUP board rental, pull off and grab one of Cedar Sol’s fresh tacos, or two, or three! Cedar Sol’s roadside taco stand in Leelanau County serves up farm-fresh tacos and is one of Michigan’s largest outdoor hydroponic farms. Don’t forget to pick up their beautiful produce while you’re there – you can find them open Memorial Weekend through Labor Day Weekend, Thursday-Sunday 11 a.m. – 7 p.m.
Need a pick me up before you hit the trails? Their market also serves kombucha and cold brew coffee, WIN! Cedar Sol’s Roadside Market features all the best local goods. One of our favorites is a hand-picked lavender bouquet from Leelanau Lavender Breeze’s Farm in Northport. Learn more about Cedar Sol Hydro farm here, and add their roadside taco stand to your summer bucket list!
3. Whaleback Natural Area, Carved from A Glacier 11,000 years ago
An iconic landmark that shapes the Northern Michigan coastline
Grab an espresso from Pedaling Beans in Lake Leelanau (Coffee snobs will pledge their loyalty to this unassuming, bicycle-themed coffee shop), then head to Whaleback. The whale shaped point was formed over 11,000 years ago by a glacier and the bluff sits 300 feet above Lake Michigan in Leelanau County.
Take a hike up the gradual ascent of the canopied trail through the hardwoods where Michigan Bald Eagles nest, or better yet, get a good sweat in with a moderately challenging uphill jog. You’ll be rewarded at the end when you reach the viewing platform perched on the edge of the 40-acre natural area, offering amazing views of the Manitou Passage. Whaleback is protected by the Leelanau Conservancy. Learn more about the Whaleback Natural Area at the Leelanau Conservancy Website and the amazing history behind this unique piece of Michigan’s coastline.
You can combine the trails at Whaleback for a 1.6 mile hike from the trailhead that is just off M-22. The distance may be short, but the steady ascent to the top of the bluff makes the Whaleback Natural Area a moderately challenging trip.
4. Cheese Shanty in Fishtown
Gourmet Sandwiches with fresh-baked bread
One of our favorite foodie spots in Leelanau County, Cheese Shanty is a sandwich shop with other delicious goodies located in Fishtown, cash only! Hand them a credit card and you might catch some side-eye. Just kidding, they’re always friendly and it’s one of our favorite spots. Check out Cheese Shanty and see why locals and vacationers love Cheese Shanty.
Our favorite is the Orchard sandwich, with slabs of brie and dried cherries. Tip – Ask for pretzel bread on your sandwich and you’ve hit Leelanau perfection. But don’t wait to order, the fresh-baked bread can run out early! Call ahead to order and you won’t have to wait when you arrive.
5. Day trip – Float Platte River, ending at Lake Michigan
Float and take in the scenery
Bring a tube or your paddlesport equipment of choice and float the Platte River. The Platte River empties into Lake Michigan, where you can enjoy the beautiful sandbar and gorgeous views of Empire Bluff and the Sleeping Bear Dunes. If you float the Platte River, it can take from 2-3 hours depending on the wind. We suggest you bring:
- A floating cooler – Don’t want to buy one? We’re not fancy either. Floating Cooler DIY
- Sunglasses and hat for relaxing without the sun in your eyes
- A buddy or group! This is a fun group trip for large and small groups that everyone can enjoy while observing the beautiful scenery.
Don’t want to float the river? The beach where it empties out to Lake Michigan is worth the trip alone. The views are stunning! Learn more about the Platte River and how to plan your trip with your friends and family.
6. Idyll Farms in Suttons Bay
A pasture-fed goat farm and creamery in Northport
Kids just want to have fun. When you see a cute one running around on Idyll Farms with a little bell around its neck, stuffing grass in its mouth and yelling at their friends, you can’t help but smile. That’s right, we’re talking about baby goats. Learn more about their Great Lakes pastures and great goat cheese at their website, we promise you will want to come back for more!
Idyll Farms is a goat farm and creamery located in Northport, Michigan at the tip of the Leelanau Peninsula. They are a Certified Human Farm and they do everything in-house, their goats are pasture-fed on 200 acres of Leelanau Peninsula lush grass, their cheese is Award-Winning.
A visitor wrote about their experience and admitted, “Never knew I liked goat cheese until this past weekend.” Give it a try, you won’t be disappointed. We recommend Idyll Pastures Garlic and Herbs, and Fennel Pollen.
7. Day trip – Catch a Ferry to the Manitou Islands
Personally, we love taking our jet skis out to Manitou Islands (rent a PlayNorth jet ski here!) – it’s a long trip, but so worthwhile. The water is crystal clear and it’s an epic view from the surface of Lake Michigan, where you can see large boulders crowding the sandy bottom.
Another easier option is the Manitou Island Transit, a ferry in Leland that will take you to the South or North Manitou Islands. Many people bring their kayaks, canoes or SUPs and you can call ahead to reserve a spot for your equipment. This is a great place to bring one of our iSUPs – don’t forget our LED SUP lights! Our SUP rentals are light and extremely portable for hauling all over Leelanau and Grand Traverse County.
Never attempt to kayak or paddleboard to the Manitou Islands. The distance is far longer than it looks to the eye, and although Lake Michigan is not an ocean, the water can be just as unpredictable. Always think of your safety first.
8. The Best Bar in Leelanau with Award-Winning Jack Pine Gin
Northern Latitudes Distillery
You will quickly become a fan of this cozy Lake Leelanau distillery. Tastings are free and their offerings are nothing short of unique and impressive. Their bottles make the coolest gifts and you might as well get two…because you’ll want to keep one for yourself. Visit Northern Latitudes and see how awesome this local bar and distillery is for yourself, you’ll be happy you did!
Their Horseradish Vodka makes the perfect Bloody Mary. We also love the Whaleback Spiced Rum, and the Northern Roots Ginger Liqueur makes a mean Moscow Mule. Latitudes Straight Bourbon Whiskey on the rocks. Pina Colada anyone? This is the place.
9. An Organic Winery Nestled in Leelanau County’s Suttons Bay
Green Bird Cellars & Organic Farms
Green Bird is the only organic Vineyard in Michigan, located in a beautiful setting in Suttons Bay. Turn down the quiet dirt road and you will find this winery set within a farm and vineyard among the hills. Relax and enjoy Green Bird Cellars’ beautiful tasting room while sipping and watching the goats. The organic wines and ciders are delicious. Cozy and intimate, this is a must-see stop along the Leelanau Peninsula. Learn more about this unique Leelanau Vineyard before you visit.