Traverse City with Kids – Michigan Family Vacation Guide

by Julie Henning

MICHIGAN, Traverse City with Kids – Deep and narrow, the cool, pristine waters of Lake Michigan stretch down like fingers into Michigan’s Lower Peninsula, forming the East and West Arms of the Grand Traverse Bay. Hugging the bay, Traverse City is one of the most popular summertime vacation destinations in the state, especially during the first week in July when nearly a half million visitors flock to Traverse City for the National Cherry Festival.

Whether your family flocks to the festival or comes to enjoy a quieter time, here are 4 great activities along with recommendations of 1 great place to stay and 1 great place to eat while visiting Traverse City with kids.

The 411 on Traverse City with Kids


Activity 1: Run Down the Sand Dunes at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore

Irresistible dunes at Sleeping Bear Lake.

Irresistible dunes at Sleeping Bear Lake.

Enveloped into the National Park System in 1970, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is a breathtaking symphony of water, sky, and sand that spans over sixty-four miles of beaches, dunes, coves, hills, and islands. For kids, it’s a mind-boggling, giant sandbox.

Start your exploration of the region on the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive. This 7.4-mile paved touring route loops through a good portion of the park and gives visitors a sense of place, as they take in the unique terrain and topography. Comprised of twelve designated stopping points-–which are also points of interest-–plan a few hours completing the entire drive. End at the nearby Dune Climb location just off South Dune Highway 109, where you’ll also find This location has modern toilets and a concession stand. Kids of all ages love climbing the multi-story dunes only to tumble down the sandy incline and start all over again. Website:

Tips: Bring towels for sandy feet and plenty of water for thirsty kids.


Activity 2: Experience History and Ecology on a Tall Ship

Set sail on a Traverse City tall ship.

Set sail on a Traverse City tall ship.

Tall ships are woven into the fabric of Traverse City’s history. And the city houses more of these stately sailing vessels than any other port on the Great Lakes. To best get a sense of this 19th century mode of transportation, consider a two-hour sail on the Manitou, a 114-foot long replica of an 1800’s “coasting” cargo schooner. Tour options include a Noon Sail, Afternoon Moomers Ice Cream Sail, or Evening Sail. Or if you want more time aboard, book a Floating Bed and Breakfast package.

Alternately, the Inland Seas Education Association in Suttons Bay runs regular science expeditions for kids and families aboard the schooner Inland Seas. Passengers on the three-hour Discovery Sail trawl for fish, collect plankton, and sample the lake bottom. This hands-on experience often translates into an increased awareness of the Great Lakes and promotes environmental and ecological stewardship. Website:


Activity 3: Canoe, Kayak or SUP on a River or Lake

Paddle to your heart's content in Traverse City's waterways.

Paddle to your heart’s content in Traverse City’s waterways.

A paradise for water-loving souls, Traverse City is a fine place to canoe, kayak, or SUP. Four rivers run through the region—the Boardman, Betsie, Crystal and Platte—all of which are suitable for beginners (with just enough current to keep things interesting). Bring your own equipment, or rent from one of the many outfitters in and around town.

The Leelanau Peninsula is also home to some of the most crystal-clear, glacially formed, lakes in the Midwest—many of which are perfect for fishing and rock hunting.  (Do keep an eye out for the illusive Petoskey stone.)  And, on a calm day, the sheltered waters of the Grand Traverse Bay make for an adventure the kids may never forget. WEBSITE URL:

Tip: If you are on the water as the sun rises, sit still and listen for the haunting call of the male loon as he sings to his mate.


Activity 4: Step Back in Time at the Drive In Theater

Traverse City's Cherry Bowl Drive- In movie theater.

Roll back the clock as you roll into Traverse City’s Cherry Bowl Drive- In movie theater.

Families have enjoyed the double feature at the Cherry Bowl Drive-In Theater for over sixty years. It’s one of the few remaining outdoor drive-in theaters in the country. Not to mention, it’s one where the Fabulous 50’s live on with original equipment including a nostalgic 1953 popcorn popper and a sound system powered by original vacuum tube motiograph amplifiers.

What’s more, kids love the miniature golf course and running between playground equipment, the sandbox, and inflatable bounce house. Inside Cherry Bowl Gifts & Goodies, they can build a souvenir stuffed animal. More than a concession stand, the food served at Cherry Bowl Drive-In is always fresh and homemade. What’s more, the movies shown here are family friendly–rated G and PG, with the occasional PG-13. Website:


1 Great Place to Stay in Traverse City with Kids: Cherry Tree Inn & Suites

Kid-friendly and beachfront Cherry Tree Inn & Suites at Traverse City.

Kid-friendly and beachfront Cherry Tree Inn & Suites at Traverse City.

Nestled into the bend at the end of East Grand Traverse Bay, Cherry Tree Inn & Suites is at the end of the beach strip. Yet it’s near some of the more kid-friendly venues (including Pirate’s Cove Adventure Park). A bayside pool and spa is available to guests. However, kids may opt to spend the day making sand castles on the property’s sandy beach.

Ideal for large groups, many of the suites include a kitchenette, living room, and outdoor balcony with sweeping views of the bay. Families will also appreciate a complimentary, continental breakfast and free shuttle service into downtown Traverse City. Website:


1 Great Place to Eat in Traverse City with Kids: Sleder’s Family Tavern

A smooching moose, canadian smelt, and crunch dipped ice cream cones await at Sleder's family-friendly tavern.

A smooching moose, canadian smelt, and crunch dipped ice cream cones await at Sleder’s family-friendly tavern.

Sleder’s Family Tavern is the oldest continuously operated restaurant in the state of Michigan. It specializes in burgers and sandwiches with a side of “moose chips” or a basket of Canadian smelt.  Located in the city’s historic Lumbertown District, Sleder’s has kept its brass and mahogany décor, with antique lamps and ice cream parlor-style chairs.

A highlight for kids is the opportunity to kiss Randolph, the restaurant’s Lucky “Smooching” Moose. Though they may be equally intrigued by additional mounted animals, including a jackalope and deer’s rear end. In warm weather, walk across the Randolph street for a sweet ice cream treat at the Dairy Lodge. We recommend the peanut butter and jelly sundae or the Cosmo cone; soft serve covered in crisp cereal and dipped in melted chocolate. Website:

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