Enjoy a day with the family in Suttons Bay

Check out the Swamp Angel in the Leo Creek Preserve, just off the Leelanau Trail south of Suttons Bay. Photo by Mark Smith

By Chris Loud

Sun contributor

Suttons Bay is a 20-minute trip up M22 from Traverse City, a 15-minute ride across the peninsula from Leland, or just a half-hour from Glen Arbor. With young kids in the car, quick trips are key. The accessible location on the peninsula is one of the many aspects of this bustling little town that makes it great for young families. But there’s so much more. Even for those who have been coming to Suttons Bay for years, you might be surprised by a few things.

You may not think a “sense of place” exists in your little rambunctious ramblers, but allowing for a chance to understand where they are, in a super fun way, can launch their curiosity to new heights. When visiting Suttons Bay, find a spot to park the car or bike near the marina— a great central spot to aim for—and walk over to the Inland Seas Education Association center, right there on Dame Street near Boone’s Prime Time Pub. Inside you’ll find fun interactive exhibits, showcasing the wonders of the great lakes. Also, they have a gorgeous tall ship docked nearby that is definitely worth a visit. If you’re lucky, you can get a quick tour of the ship. Suttons Bay, as with most towns in Leelanau, is connected to the lake and its watershed in ways beyond beauty, and starting the kids early on Great Lakes appreciation and stewardship is a can’t-lose activity.

Getting active and outdoors in Suttons Bay is easy, even for families. The Leelanau bike trail rolls right through town, and there’s a perfect, short-distance destination for those who want to hit the trail without committing to a long ride. It’s even short enough for those little balance bikers. If you head south on the trail from downtown Suttons Bay for about a half mile, you’ll arrive at Leo Creek Preserve. Here you’ll find amazingly accessible hiking trails for kids, and a beautiful garden. There are even a couple great picnic spots. So, if you want to do a super-manageable bike and hike to give the family a quick taste of one of the area’s best outdoor recreation combo concepts, this is the way.

You can’t talk about outdoor fun in Suttons Bay without mentioning the incredible beach playground options. Many who pass through don’t realize that Suttons Bay actually has TWO beach playgrounds. Adjacent to the marina, and right near downtown, is certainly one of the best sandy beaches in the county, appropriately named Suttons Bay Beach. Plus, there’s a great playset area and swings. There are a lot of advantages to this location, and you really can’t go wrong. If you want something a bit more low-key, and often with less people, just south of downtown, maybe a quarter mile, is another beach and playground called Sutton Park. It’s kind of easy to miss, as it’s right across the road from Hop Lot, one of the most popular destination breweries in the entire region. But try to fight the urge to turn into Hop Lot, at least for now, and turn into Sutton Park. Swimmable protected waters meet with a nice little beach and a playground right on the sand. Plus, there’s plenty of grassy area for picnics and tossing a ball.

Insider Tip: Sutton Park is actually the perfect spot to meet families and friends coming in from out of town who want to go to Hop Lot, but might be coming from a long way. You can hang out on the playground while you wait for them. When they arrive, let the kids run around after being cooped up in the car for a bit; they can get warmed up with your kids while you catch up with the adults. Then, just roll on over to Hop Lot for some of the best beers and vibes in the county. As far as breweries go, it’s a decent spot for families because there is A LOT of space. They also have cornhole/bags, smart on-the-go kid food options like apple sauce and goldfish, PB&Js, and the soft pretzels are usually a full-table pleaser. Plus, plenty of that signature Hop Lot space to explore for the kids while you sip and chill.

Suttons Bay has a lot of great open spaces, including the area around the marina, and the previously mentioned parks. If you’ve found yourself short on outdoor toys for the kids, or just want to check out one of the best toy shops in the region, head over to Enerdyne. They specialize in science and nature related toys, crafts, and accessories that promote curiosity, creativity, and activity. It’s truly an amazing collection, and it would be a fun spot to stop and find a unique toy to bring to the park, or on your hike in the woods. Think bug-catching tools, kid-friendly bird-watching accessories, rock-collecting and polishing kits, and lots of unique forms of frisbees, balls, and other fun flying objects.

Of course, you have to know where the ice cream is. At the corner of St. Joseph and Adams streets, Scoops 22 is a popular destination for ice cream eaters. They serve local ice cream from Buchan’s with plenty of options. It’s order through the window only, and while they have some outdoor tables on site, your best bet is heading down to the marina or the park with your cones. Sometimes Scoops 22 can be a bit busy, so if you see a short line, jump on it! You also have the classic Roman Wheel down the road to the south towards Boone’s. They serve up great ice cream, as well as pizzas, subs, and their well-known broasted chicken dinners.

If the weather isn’t ideal, there are a few fun indoor options for the kids. First, there’s an excellent little library just down the road from the marina, and right on the Leelanau Trail. It would also make a great destination on the bikes. They often have events and programs that are good for children, and plenty of cozy reading space for the kids to take in some stories on a rainy day. If it’s not bad weather, they even have outdoor reading days geared towards families with younger kids, between pre-k and second grade. Put a blanket down and listen to stories by the beach. What could be better?

Suttons Bay also boasts the only movie house in all of Leelanau County: the Bay Theatre. It’s a beautiful, classic vintage space. They do a Family Film Fun series every Tuesday through the summer. All films are only $1. Check their website for what they’ll be showing. The program runs through Aug. 2. Also, keep an eye out on their regular programming for kid-friendly features.

Overall, you really can’t go wrong with a trip to Suttons Bay—with so many things to do, and it really is easy to get to. It can get busy, so plan accordingly, and don’t be afraid to park a block or two off the main road. I find it easier anyway when loading and unloading ALL THE STUFF. Get the kids active, shop, sit, sip, and repeat. And it’s worth repeating: please be courteous and understanding to the summer service workers. It’s a tough job, so please be kind and tip well, and enjoy this great little bayside town.