Traverse City, Mich., has many free things to do

Bicyclists cruise along the Leelanau Trail near Traverse City, Mich., a converted railroad corridor that winds past open fields, cherry orchards and woodlands.


Residents of this picturesque Lake Michigan community are known to quip, “The view of the bay is half your pay.” It’s a sardonic commentary on the local wage scale but also a tribute to the stunning scenery and small-town quality of life that have lured many a newcomer from the big city and make the area one of the Midwest’s top tourist draws.

Perched at the southern end of Grand Traverse Bay some 250 miles northwest of Detroit, Traverse City is prized for its trails, beaches, cherry orchards, a burgeoning arts scene and nearby Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. In recent years, the area has developed a nationwide reputation as a foodie haven for farm-to-table restaurants featuring local fruits, veggies, cheeses and wines.

You’ll need money for all those meals and a comfy room in a hotel or B&B, of course. But there are plenty of ways to have fun without dropping a dime. Here are a few:

Hit the beach: The Grand Traverse region has more than 180 miles of shoreline, much of which is privately owned, but there are many public parks with wide, sandy beaches. In the heart of downtown is Clinch Park, a nice family spot, with restrooms, picnic tables and lifeguards on duty from mid-June through August. Nearby is West End Beach, with a volleyball court.

For something more isolated, drive up Old Mission Peninsula, which divides the east and west arms of Grand Traverse Bay. This narrow, rolling spit of land some 20 miles long offers some of the region’s best views: orchards, vineyards, sparkling waters. You can stop at a winery for a tasting on your way to Haserot Beach, which has a children’s play area and boat launch. Or head to Lighthouse Park near the tip of the peninsula, where there’s a mile-long stretch of sand that never feels crowded.

Hit the trail: Urban pathways and countryside trails of varying lengths await the hiker and biker. The TART (Traverse Area Recreational Trail) and the connected Leelanau Trail offer a 26-mile journey from Acme Township east of Traverse City north to Suttons Bay. This is a paved, converted railroad corridor and the terrain is mostly flat, making it easy going for all ages and skill levels.

For a cross-country experience, try the Vasa Pathway. Winding through the Pere Marquette State Forest, it includes loop trails ranging from one to 16 miles.

Face the music: Free musical shows, poetry readings and painting displays abound in northwestern Michigan. The crown jewel is Interlochen Center for the Arts, a year-round academy and summer camp. You must buy tickets to attend star performances; this year’s lineup includes ZZ Top, Josh Groban and Harry Connick Jr. But most of the roughly 400 concerts cost nothing.

If your heart is set on a big name and tickets are too pricey, don’t despair. Those shows are held in an open-sided amphitheater, so find a grassy spot outside and spread a blanket. You won’t see what’s happening, but you’ll hear it.

Festivals: Hardly a summer week goes by without a festival somewhere in the area. Many charge admission to at least some events, but freebies aren’t hard to find.

The Suttons Bay Arts Festival and Elk Rapids’ Harbor Days are in late July and early August.

The National Cherry Festival, June 29-July 6, pays homage to the region’s signature fruit. Michigan is the nation’s top producer of tart cherries, the ones used for pie filling.

The Traverse City Film Festival, co-founded by filmmaker and Michigan native Michael Moore, runs July 30-Aug. 4.