This fall, take the road less traveled

John McCormick
Special to The Detroit News

Taking the road less traveled, literally, can be the path to unexpected pleasures. And as we transition from summer to fall, now is the perfect time to discover the charms of Michigan’s rural back roads.

Two of my recent test vehicles, a BMW X5 eDrive and a Lexus RX450h, both crossover/SUVs, fell into the exploration role well, with the added psychological benefit that as hybrids they were environmentally sensitive to roaming the countryside.

Often Michigan’s country lanes are unpaved. And while virtually any vehicle can tackle a dirt road that’s in reasonable condition, a crossover or SUV with their larger wheels and tires and extra ground clearance can make for a more reassuring ride. That’s especially true when the dirt road becomes rutted or muddy.

Tackling these back roads can expose the inadequacies of modern navigation systems, whose databases sometimes lack information on the more remote roads. These navigation systems will warn you with phrases like “You are now entering uncharted territory.” It’s as if the automakers really don’t expect their owners to venture off the beaten track. So even though both the BMW and Lexus vehicles I was driving boast some of the best presented navigation system maps in the business, I brought along a good old-fashioned paper version just in case.

From the Detroit metropolitan area, my advice is to head west, past Ann Arbor into the bucolic tangle of country roads and lanes that link towns like Dexter, Stockbridge, Chelsea and Manchester. The topography of this area is dotted with lakes and rolling hills, which means the roads often twist and turn, making them much more interesting than the grid that dominates much of lower Michigan.

One of the gems to be found in this area is White Lotus Farms on West Liberty. It’s just seven miles west of bustling Ann Arbor, but the setting is peaceful and very rural. Not only does this farm make and sell delicious cheeses and breads and other produce, but also its grounds are beautifully laid out with rose gardens, ponds and ornamental flowers.

Our Lexus RX450h tackled the roads in the area with ease. Little surprise that it’s become one of the best selling mid-size crossovers on the market. Our only beef is the styling, which is now so angular and aggressive that it looks like a car Darth Vader would drive, especially in the black paint of our test model.

Head much farther north to the shores of Lake Michigan south of Sleeping Bear Dunes and you’ll find not only some of the best driving roads anywhere in the state — M22 for example — but also numerous attractions, particularly in Benzie County.

These include unrivaled scenic views, rustic farmsteads selling produce, upscale resorts such as Crystal Mountain or my latest discovery, Michigan’s first farm-based, full-line distillery.

Just opened, the Iron Fish distillery is only two miles from M-115, a well-traveled highway. But its dirt lane location on Dzuibanek feels about as remote as you can get. You can gaze at the beautiful brass distillery equipment while sipping spirits in the bar of the modern, yet rustic-looking farm building.

Touring the area, we found the BMW X5 eDrive doesn’t take you very far on battery alone — just 14 miles — but its handling and performance are more responsive than other hybrids, including the Lexus.

Michigan is full of unique attractions, some obvious, some less so. Take the time to discover them and enjoy the drive along the way.

John McCormick is a columnist for Autos Consumer and can be reached at