By Mike Norton

Autumn is often the best season in northern Michigan for outdoor recreation in this place of dunes, lakes and forests. The summer crowds have vanished with the heat, the hills are ablaze with crimson, gold and orange, and there’s a gentle, romantic feel in the air.

While the area’s fall landscape can certainly be sampled by driving about, there’s no better way to experience the full sensory richness of autumn than by getting out to listen to the crunch of leaves, breathe the crisp autumn air and smell the spicy aroma of apples and wood smoke.

Hiking or cycling one of the region’s many non-motorized trails or paddling a canoe or kayak down one of its gentle rivers are great ways to have an intimate encounter with Traverse City’s fall beauty.

Hikers, cyclists, runners and kayakers all find themselves performing better in this season of crisp clear mornings, golden afternoons and cool evenings. (Thanks to the warming effect of nearby Lake Michigan, autumn in Traverse City is often a sort of “extended summer” with plenty of balmy September days for sunbathing and even swimming.) And as visitors become more interested in fall recreation, local outfitters and rental shops are responding with extended schedules and increased hours.

Set at the edge of America’s loveliest inland sea, Traverse City’s characteristic landscape of rolling ridges, lush forests and wide expanses of open water is the perfect canvas for Mother Nature’s annual fall masterpiece. In this glacier-sculpted setting of wide panoramas, autumn color is simply the finishing touch to a dramatic vista of water, sand and sky.

At the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, for instance, an amazing transformation takes place each fall, as the towering bluffs and islands burst into sheets of flaming scarlet, orange and gold — made even more dramatic because they’re set against the deep indigo blue of Lake Michigan. Some of the other places to enjoy fall color in Traverse City are along the narrow Old Mission Peninsula or in Antrim County’s glacier-scoured Chain of Lakes region.

Sleeping Bear offers hikers a wide range of scenic trails to choose from – including the new Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail, a paved pathway that’s also open to cyclists. Another excellent trail system for both hikers and cyclists is Lighthouse Park, at the tip of the Old Mission Peninsula, while the new Glacial Hills Pathway near Bellaire offers a breathtaking hiking/cycling experience. Another advantage of fall is that there’s less motorized traffic on the area’s lovely rural roads, so cyclists can enjoy some of the best road-biking in the country.

Kayaking and canoeing really come into their own in the fall, too. Paddlers can choose among such favorite streams as the Platte, Betsie, Crystal and Boardman rivers, a multitude of jewel-like forest lakes, or the coves and islands of hill-girded Grand Traverse Bay, whose sheltered waters offer some protection against the boisterous fall winds. Anglers, meanwhile, know that fall is one of the sweetest times to fish the teeming lakes and trout streams of the Traverse City area, as well as the salmon-packed waters of the bay.

Of course, after a day of adventuring it’s great to be able to relax in what is now one of America’s great “foodie towns.” Traverse City’s restaurants enjoy a national reputation for their fresh, innovative regional cuisine. The nearly 40 wineries and tasting rooms of the Leelanau and Old Mission peninsulas are known for the clean, elegant taste and bouquet of their wines, and the area is considered a craft beer mecca, with 17 microbreweries and brewpubs.