5 free things to do in Traverse City, Michigan

Published on NewsOK Modified: May 23, 2013 at 10:02 am •  Published: May 23, 2013
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TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. (AP) — 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 (400 kilometers) 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 over 180 miles (290 kilometers) 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. They're divided by the municipal marina and a large bayfront greenway where folks toss Frisbees, fly kites and strum guitars.

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 (32 kilometers) 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 (1.6-kilometer) stretch of sand that never feels crowded.

Nearby villages within a half-hour's drive— Acme, Suttons Bay, Elk Rapids among them — also have bayfront parks with beaches.

OR 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 (42-kilometer) 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.

The landscape ranges from swampland to historic downtown neighborhoods to woods and fields. In-town sections can be busy as joggers and bikers weave around people walking dogs and pushing strollers. If it's speed you crave, bide your time until the Leelanau portion of the trail, where the crowds thin.

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 (three to 25 kilometers). It doubles as a ski trail in winter and offers some challenging climbs.

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.

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