7 Must-Visit Michigan Destinations You Can Get Into for Free

The "Tunnel of Trees" is a stretch of M-119 north of Petoskey that's known for some the best views of fall colors in Michigan.

By Amber Ogden

October 6, 2022

MICHIGAN—Autumn in Michigan: the stunning fall foliage, the brisk morning air in your favorite hoodie, the corn mazes, the apple orchards, the scary movies. It’s always a vibe.

And there’s never a shortage of fun things to do—even if you’re on a tight budget after a busy summer.

Take a lighthouse tour. 

No other state in the country has as many lighthouses as Michigan—and that makes sense given the vastness of our Great Lakes shoreline. And more than 100 of them are totally free to visit, though you may be asked to pay a small fee or donation to climb the tower for the full tour.

Grand Island East Channel Lighthouse in Munising

Most of Michigan’s lighthouses are along the shore of Lake Superior. The oldest among them? Fort Gratiot Light Station in Port Huron, which was built in 1829. The New Presque Isle Lighthouse overlooking Lake Huron near Presque Isle Harbor is the tallest of the bunch.

Check out Mackinac Island. 

OK: This one isn’t all free, because you still have to pay to get to Mackinac Island—unless you want to take a cold swim. But there’s plenty of free sights to see once you arrive. You can always take a hike, visit old cemeteries, stargaze, and skip a few stones. The list goes on.

But one of the best free activities is getting up close and personal with Arch Rock, the most famous rock formation on the island. The arch towers more than 100 feet above the water and is more than 50 feet wide. Reach it by foot, taxi, carriage or bike—or view it from the water.

Visit the Detroit Riverwalk.

Taking in the crisp air of the riverwalk is a perfect way to spend a fall day, and you’ll get some scenic views of the Detroit River and Canada along the way. The riverwalk is about 3 miles long, and it runs all the way to Belle Isle—which has free admission.

For a bonus, check out the Belle Isle Nature Center and the Belle Isle Aquarium once you arrive. Both are totally free. The riverwalk also connects to the Dequindre Cut Greenway, where you can cut over to the Eastern Market—another great place for spending a cheap afternoon browsing the local goods. 

Explore the Gaslight District in Petoskey.

Named one of the Best Small Towns in America by the Smithsonian Magazine, downtown Petoskey should be a stop on every Michiganders’ next Up North adventure.

The Gaslight District has been a shopping area for more than a century—and the area is brimming with independent shops, boutiques and galleries, along with great views of Little Traverse Bay.

For the best sunset views, check out Sunset Park just off US-31 at Winter Park Lane.

Find the Frank Lloyd Wright homes.

There are more than 30 homes across Michigan that were designed by the world-renowned architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Make a list and try to find them all for fun fall road trip adventures.

(photo via meyermayhouse.steelcase.com)

One of the most interesting homes is the Meyer May House in Grand Rapids. It was built in 1908 and it’s still standing today in all its original glory—just as Wright had envisioned. Steelcase owns the building now, and tours are available (for free) all season long. 

See the elks in Gaylord.

Did you know the city of Gaylord maintains its own herd of elk? It’s one the largest free-ranging herds in the country—and it’s free to go hang out with them at the aptly named Elks View Park. 

The herd started with only three elk when a local nature preserve closed in the late 80s. Nowadays, there are 40 of them being housed and fed by the city on about 108 acres of land. And fall is the best time to see their massive horns. Some of them weigh more than 800 pounds!

Just drive north.

Pack a lunch, hop in the car, and just drive. There will be plenty to see—and fall is one of the most scenic times to take a road trip tour of Northern Michigan, especially as fall colors peak in mid-October. If you’re unsure of the route, find M-22. You won’t be disappointed with the views.

If you happen to make it all the way over the bridge, there are more than 300 waterfalls across the Upper Peninsula that are waiting to be explored before winter hits—most of them for free. 


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