A Family-Friendly Guide to Traverse City, MI

Midwesterners may think of Michigan as just another lackluster Midwestern state. Perhaps I shouldn’t say most, but I certainly did. That is, until we took our family vacation there this summer. What we found was an absolutely gorgeous landscape with a ton of outdoor adventures and a culture all its own. Not only do Traverse City and Sleeping Bear National Dunes offer a wide variety of activities for adults, but we found it filled to the brim with options for the kids. At the end, none of us wanted to leave!

Here is our list of the top ___ things to do with kids in the Traverse City area. The beauty of these options is that even though they are perfect for kids, they also add a lot of quality entertainment for the adults.

Vacation home rentals

First on our list has to be the selection of vacation homes for rent. Whether you go through AirBnB or VRBO, the selection is vast, and it is easy to find one with a lake view! Why gamble getting a room with a view at a hotel when you can enjoy your morning coffee on your porch watching the still blue water of Lake Michigan? The hard part is figuring out where you want to be. You’ll want to decide if you want to be closer to Traverse City or Sleeping Bear Dunes, whether you want to be on a smaller lake (better for swimming) or on Lake Michigan. We chose a location in Williamsburg, MI, which was amazing. Right on the water with a private beach and swimming pool right outside the door, it was perfect for us. The vacation home can certainly shape the Northern Michigan vacation you want.

Grand Traverse Butterfly House and Bug Zoo

This was our first stop and one of our planned rainy-day activities. It was a hit! The butterfly room was absolutely amazing and man did they love Story and Lesley! Both had a butterfly perched somewhere on them the whole time. Story even had a blue morpho butterfly land on her. A childhood dream come true. The colors and types of butterflies that they keep in this room are just spectacular, and the staff was great about sharing all sorts of great information about them. The bug room was also very cool. Story found a rare species of some sort of underwater newt that she was fascinated by. I cannot recommend stopping here enough, rain or shine.

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is certainly one of the biggest draws to Northern Michigan and for good reason. The park is beautiful! The park is about an hour’s drive from Traverse City and only 20 minutes or so from Glen Arbor. If you are planning a day trip there, I recommend starting with the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive. This drive takes you on a tour of the various landscapes the park has to offer and includes information at each destination. Warning – this will not be something the kids will want to do. It involves a lot of sitting, getting out of the car, reading informational signs, and taking in beautiful scenery, just to get in the car and do it again. Adults will enjoy the educational value and amazing sights, but there may be a few grunts from the kids. At least this was our experience, and, I must admit, after a few stops, Lesley and I were ready to see the dunes. Still, it was good to see and a valuable part of the trip.

Next, it’s on to the dunes. Not surprisingly, this is the best part of the trip. The Sleeping Bear Dunes are 11 stories tall and set against the bluest sky you will ever see. The girls attacked the hill with a fury, all except Maddie, who was having a moment, and scrambled up. It is a giant mountain of sand to climb, and once you get to the top, there are additional hills you could climb or just enjoy where you are. Did I mention how blue the skies were? It was some of the most amazing scenery and colors I have ever seen. You can certainly spend a lot of time there exploring. Then when you’re done, the easiest and most fun way to get down is to go at a full speed run. Your stride will never be so long, and at times, you feel a little like you’re floating between steps. Even temperamental Maddie enjoyed this part.

The next place to go and last stop for us was the historic “town” of Glen Harbor. This historic village doesn’t have anyone living there anymore but showcases what life was like there once. It also includes a maritime museum and miles of beautiful Lake Michigan shoreline. This shoreline, though, is for admiring only. The water temperatures are freezing! The girls enjoyed finding and collecting different kinds of amazing rocks. The rocks really were quite beautiful and there were so many different kinds. It kept us busy and entertained for a while.

In one word, this national lakeshore is breathtaking, and it is absolutely a must-see.

Mission Point Lighthouse

Also high on our list was a visit to the Mission Point Lighthouse. This lighthouse is located at the end of Old Mission Peninsula and is about a 17-minute drive from Traverse City. The drive, though, is something else. The scenery is beautiful and filled with cherry fields. At some points, you can see the water on both sides, and the cute little houses are adorable. I’ve never driven in the Italian countryside, but I imagine this road is as close as we get to that in America.

The lighthouse itself is beautiful, and for a small amount, you can go to the very top and look out of the lantern room.  In front of the lighthouse is a sandy beach. One of the most beautiful I’ve been to. Lesley and I could have sat there for hours. Of course, the kids weren’t going to allow us to do that, so after the beach and lighthouse we went on a short hike on the grounds surrounding the lighthouse. This is where we first spotted Bigfoot’s home. Nothing delighted, or terrified, Maddie more than this on the trip.

Darling Botanical

When scanning the Northern Michigan weather report in preparation for our trip, Lesley and I were disappointed to see that it called for rain the first day. Not often kept down by bad weather, we both started researching indoor things to do in Traverse City. This was the best find.

In a cute side street of the city is located an average-looking shop, Darling Botanicals. Inside is a wonderful space full of greenery and, the best part and our attraction to it, a terrarium bar. It didn’t end up raining for us, but we had to visit this spot anyway. The girls had a great time picking out their glassware, plants, and decor for their terrariums and using the cool tools the store had to assemble them.

Rainy day or not, this is a great place to stop.

Townline Ciderworks

About five miles from Williamsburg, where our vacation rental was located, was a cider-tasting room. At first, Lesley and I thought this was a hard- and non-alcoholic cider tasting room that would be perfect for the kids and us. Unfortunately, they did not have any non-alcoholic cider for the kids. We thought the experience might be a wash, but the friendly lady behind the counter offered the girls a local cherry soda and Lesley some wine, so we stayed and ended up having a good time enjoying some great-tasting beverages outside and playing a friendly game of Uno. Okay, so Lesley and I fought over the proper way to play Uno, but still, it was a friendly enough game and a fun place to stop.

Riverside Canoe Trips

Don’t let the name fool you. Riverside Canoe Trips has much more to offer you than canoes. There is also kayaking and tubing to choose from. For us, the choice was clear, and we took a leisurely ride down the Lower Platte in a tube. Even with the kids, we were able to get some relaxation. Of course, with the kids, we were also able to get some humor. We tied the three girls’ tubes together in hopes that 1) we would’t lose them, and 2) they would entertain each other. They pingponged down the Lower Platte getting stuck almost every 10 minutes, but they laughed and laughed and so did we. Good family entertainment for all!

Cherry Republic

This was one of our favorite spots. Have I said that about many of these places yet? You can tell it was a great vacation when every spot was your favorite spot. We visited Cherry Republic after our trip to the Sleeping Bear Dunes. We thought we’d find some food, but what we found was so much more! It was a cherry-themed haven. The restaurant served only dishes made with cherries. It was delicious, but the delicious didn’t stop there. Across the way from the restaurant was the wine-tasting room. Not only was it a wine-tasting room but also a soda-pop-tasting room. Genius! While we sipped delicious cherry wine, the girls were delighted to be tasting every flavor of cherry soda imaginable. We then took our wine outside and enjoyed it in the sunshine while the girls played on the playground. Bliss.

Just as we were going to leave, we were stopped with an invitation from a Cherry Republic staff member to join a cherry-pit-spitting contest. Lesley and Riley eagerly signed up. We enjoyed a piece of cherry pie while we waited for the competition to start and then cheered on our participants. What a fun ending to our great day.

MOOmers Ice Cream

This stop was not originally on our list. The tip came from a friendly traveler who insisted on talking to me while the girls played in the pool. And it was a good thing she did. This ice cream shop was a home business project started by a retired first-grade teacher. She certainly knew what she was doing when she started this business. Her ice cream is the best in the nation! And it’s not just me saying so. It was voted the nation’s best by Good Morning America. We opted to take the tour and saw the inner workings of how the ice cream and waffle cones were made. It was delightful. The best part though was the flight of ice cream flavors Lesley and I shared at the end. I still dream about the butter rum. Yum!

Great Wolf Lodge

Oh, Great Wolf Lodge. It is a kid’s dream and was Story’s in particular. We promised the girls that if they were good on vacation we would spend one night here on the way home. It was a good ploy for good behavior. The main attraction to Great Wolf Lodge is their amazing indoor water park, but it also had some other draws. The girls all got wolf ears to wear when we checked in, and the rooms were designed for kids’ enjoyment. They had their own little “hideout” to sleep in with bunk beds and their own TV. It was certainly fun for a night, and if you are stuck with a rainy day in Traverse City, the indoor water park would be a good way to go.