A roadtrip around the Great Lakes of the US

Anna Walker

We take a road trip through America’s Great Lakes, a region that confounds as much as it delights…

The passport control agent peers down from his desk, taking in my colourful t-shirt, unscuffed white trainers and my nervous, smiling expression. 

“What are you doing in Detroit?” he asks, bushy eyebrows raised in incredulity. 

I stutter something about my desire to travel through the Great Lakes region, joining international journalists from as far afield as China on a road trip that will begin in Motor City and end in Minneapolis. 

“Well, don’t stay out after 5pm. And don’t venture away from downtown,” he barks. “You’re in a big American city now. We have guns here.”

Detroit Great Lakes

I’m in the States to experience the great American road trip in a destination frequently touted as the new New England. The Great Lakes region is transformed in the autumn, with the expansive scenery (some lakes are so vast it feels more like standing on the ocean edge—Lake Superior alone is larger than the country of Switzerland) surrounded by the orange, yellow, white and cherry reds of the fall leaves. We plan to complete the tour in just one week, stopping each day to take in the diversity of this extraordinary region, where tourists flock to experience the “real America”. 

Detroit (above) is undergoing something of a renaissance after making history in 2013 as the largest US city to file for bankruptcy. At this point, the city’s population had declined from 1.8 million in the manufacturing heyday of the 1950s to just 700,000 and streets of once-magnificent buildings lay abandoned, falling into dramatic disrepair.

"The autumn hue begins in the north in early September and can last as late as November in Illinois"

Stylising itself now as the great “comeback city”, billions of dollars have been pumped into its renovation with hundreds of restaurants and hotels opening each year to tempt tourists back to the area. 

To really comprehend the riches to rags story of Detroit, it’s imperative to visit the Henry Ford Museum. Michigan’s most frequented attraction, it explains how transportation transformed America through a museum, village (the main street of which inspired Walt Disney to create Disneyland) and the Ford factory itself. 

Henry Ford Museum
One of many novelty cars on display at The Henry Ford Museum. Image via Anna Walker

There are some 26 million artefacts here, 90 per cent of which were collected by Ford himself. Amidst rows of world-changing cars (including the limousine in which JFK was shot) we see the Rosa Parks bus, the chair in which Abraham Lincoln was assassinated (complete with blood and hair oil staining) and a replica 1950s drive-thru burger joint. There’s even a 128-year-old doughnut—that’s how random and expansive this dizzying collection of Americana is.

It’s a shock to the system to be transported back to the 21st century when we visit the Ford Factory, wide-eyed as we observe a futuristic, semi-robotic production line which churns out an F150 truck every 53 seconds. 

touring the great lakes USA
The infamous Motown Museum. Image via Anna Walker

Of course, it’s impossible to visit to Motor Town without dropping in on the Motown Museum, the musical heart of Michigan. Berry Gordy dreamed of producing artists in the same way that Henry Ford produced cars: a production-line approach to grooming young teens into superstars by teaching them etiquette, style, dancing and singing. 

As we drive back through the balmy evening, I notice the final stragglers from a protest. Held limply aloft, their boards read, “One Job Should Be Enough”. As hard as Detroit tries to shake off its past, it seems unrest still remains. 

fall colours road trip great lakes usa
Roadside autumn colours. Image via Anna Walker

There are more deciduous trees in the Great Lakes region than in all of New England, and as we move further north, the colours intensify. The autumn hue begins in the north in early September and can last as late as November in Illinois. 

We’re headed to Traverse City, where farmland and vineyards have moulded the region into a verdant oasis. Some parts could be mistaken for the sunny climbs of Italy or Southern France rather than the now-freezing reaches of Michigan. When I arrived in Detroit I was met with 25°C heat and sweltering sunshine. Now the temperature has dropped to a coat-tightening -2. 

exploring the great lakes USA
One of many pretty harbour towns that line the drive. Image via Anna Walker

Our group spends the next few days touring quaint harbour towns. Though I’d eagerly anticipated a trip to the Pictured Rocks—beautiful mineral formations that look as though somebody has taken a paintbrush and streaked them with colour—the weather has turned against us and whipped the waves on the lake up to a frenzied 10ft. We drive on. 

Although the winds shake the walls of our van as though it were made of cardboard, the lakes remain a deep Mediterranean blue. A rainbow arches gently over us as we cross the five-mile Mackinac bridge and the trees on the land beyond the passage emit a faint amber glow. 

road trip round the USA
Image via Anna Walker

The Upper Peninsula represents a very different way of life to the rest of the region. There are more deer here than people and the land has a wild, unspoiled air. One local couple—who moved from urban Minneapolis to raise their young daughter in a more pastoral landscape—introduce themselves as “uppers” and raise both hands in the shape of their state to tell me they live “just above the knuckle of my ring finger.”

We awake the next morning to a thin blanket of snow and find the temperature has dropped even further. The hotels in this region are far from five star but they’re homely, and run by affable locals. I breakfast with a group of rosy-cheeked men who are here for the winter sports season. They’re dressed far more weather-appropriate than me. 

Charlevoix visit USA
The pretty town of Charlevoix. Image via Anna Walker

As we drive through Marquette, a pretty, popular overnight city stop on the waterfront of Lake Superior, the fusion of winter and autumn is disorientating.

The trees along the roads here look as though they’ve been dusted with icing sugar, evergreen pines nestled between the bursts of autumn oranges, yellows and fiery cherry reds. 

leaves in great lakes autumn fall road trip USA
A carpet of autumn leaves at Copper Falls. Image via Anna Walker

Each home that we pass, isolated and surrounded by fields, tells a story. One dark, wooden house is encircled by an eerie cemetery, while another spacious farmhouse is boxed in on all four sides by tall, neatly planted firs. 

It’s easy to imagine the history of these homes, to picture ancestors planting the trees, passing their lives in the house, then being lowered to rest in the grounds outside. 

road trip round the USA copper falls
Copper Falls State Park. Image via Anna Walker

Wisconsin's Copper Falls State Park (above) is ideal for stretching car-stiffened legs. Known for its spectacular waterfalls, autumn carpets it with a thick layer of golden leaves. A vicious waterway dubbed the “Bad River” by Native Americans courses through the park, clashing with the Tyler tributary to create spectacular, if ferocious, waterfalls.

There are wolves, deer and bear in the surrounding woods, and although the trail is carefully cultivated, the distinction between civilisation and the natural world feels hazy. It’s hard to conceal my shock when our thick-accented guide proudly boasts that her son killed a bear just that morning. 

Freezing but invigorated, we drive on to the traditional Mogasheen Resort (below), where we’re ushered into a charming log cabin which smells of sweet burning wood. 

Mogasheen resort road trip great lakes usa
Mogasheen Resort at sunset. Image via Anna Walker

Thermoses of hot cocoa with crème de menthe are thrust into our cold hands and warm brownies are stowed in our pockets as we clamber aboard a pontoon to take a bracing ride across Jackson Lake. The kindly couple who own Mogasheen (which translates as “Little Moccasin”) inherited it from their parents, who bought the land from Native Americans some 56 years ago. Their son and his wife will take over soon, marking three generations of hospitality. 

The on-the-road lifestyle is what makes this trip so special. Everyday activities like stopping for petrol become an adventure as we rummage through racks of brightly coloured candies and leaf through the colourful pages of American magazines. Each day brings a change of scene, temperature or time zone and new, welcoming faces. 

After a week on the road, we arrive in Minneapolis (below). It’s a vibrant, young city with 11 miles of sky walkways between the buildings, so the residents never have to venture outside when it’s cold. As the snow falls in fluffy flakes, the city takes on a dreamy quality and the nearby Basilica of Saint Mary rings out a peal of Sunday bells. I’m transported to Bedford Falls as we meander down the thriving theatre street and watch locals enjoying the snow. 

minneapolis great lakes trip
Minneapolis in the snow. Image via Anna Walker

For our final day we head to Paisley Park. Once the home of Prince, it’s been transformed into a site of musical pilgrimage by the team behind Graceland. Phones are banned, and the property takes on the air of a sacred space with the musician’s ashes housed in the rafters, looking down on the visitors to his former fortress. Our young tour guide narrates the musician’s life and his emphasis on the theme of universal love in hushed, reverential tones, Prince’s iconic symbol pinned to his bright purple tie. 

Prince’s message of unity follows me to the airport as I reflect on my time in this disparate region. Quiet, yet bustling. Cold but vibrant. Friendly but happy to be left alone, it’s a province of contrasts. 

Just as you try to pin the Great Lakes down to a series of words or pretty descriptions, they morph and change before your eyes. Those striking fall leaves become hidden beneath snow. That lilting open water is whipped into a frenzy. A born-again city reveals unresolved tension. Deer that pose for photographs suddenly flee into woodland. And a week on the road becomes a day on the plane, becomes an hour on the train, becomes a long, hard-earned sleep. 

 

Planning your own Great Lakes trip:

 

The Great Lakes USA is the largest expanse of freshwater in the world with a unique and diverse landscape. This region, which is the size of continental Europe, includes the US states of Illinois, Indiana Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, and Wisconsin. Visit the Great Lakes USA website for more information and suggested itineraries.

Bon Voyage can tailor make packages to the Great Lakes region. Visit the Bon Voyage website for more information.

the great lakes map
Illustration by Elly Walton