Sturgeon River in Michigan's Upper Peninsula


My EV Road Trip Around Lake Michigan

As far as the road trip experience goes – this was a success. Our next car will be an EV, and as the infrastructure expands our road trips will only improve in the future.

I grew up visiting Pentwater, Michigan, and I had long wanted to go back. So, a couple of years ago my husband, Howard, and I planned a road trip that would satisfy my interest in visiting Pentwater and our shared interest in visiting Sleeping Bear Dunes and Pictured Rocks. We planned to drive from DC in our car, but then COVID hit, so trip #1 didn’t happen.

Re-planning the road trip started again in the fall of 2021 and evolved into a loop around Lake Michigan out of Chicago. At that point, we realized this would be great opportunity to try an electric vehicle (EV).

Google map shows multicolored pins all around Lake Michigan, indicating the author's stops along the journey

EV journey around Lake Michigan. Green = overnights, yellow = charging spots, red = additional visits

A lot more Americans are going to start trying out their own electric road trips in the coming years, especially now that President Biden and Congress have passed the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA). The IRA includes funding for electrifying transportation and the IIJA will support a national charging network, both important pieces of the clean transportation puzzle. Here’s what it was like for us to experience an EV and get a glimpse into the future of transportation.

Kicking off from Chicago

With a little googling, we landed on Windy City EV and booked a Tesla Model S with a 180-mile range. We noted that Tesla’s network of chargers would support our trip (for the most part). To our surprise, when we went to pick up the car, they upgraded us to a model 3 with closer to 300 miles in range – a big difference! After a little time figuring out the basics, we were on our way to Michigan. With the added range, we were able to bypass the supercharger stations in St. Joes (where we originally planned to stop) and headed straight for lunch in Muskegon.

Electric vehicle with rear brake lights illuminated in a Chicago parking garage

Pulling out of the Windy City EV garage

Range truly matters on a road trip, especially for new EV drivers. A regular EV owner’s day-to-day driving, charging, and use patterns are (mostly) set, but a road trip has a lot more variables at play. The added range gave us more flexibility, but we still had to build charging time into our thinking – we anticipated 45 to an hour per charge. That’s a bit different than filling up at the pump!

Northwest Michigan Dunes

At our first stop in Muskegon, we learned that Tesla superchargers are pretty much located in Meijer parking lots. Since we didn’t need to grocery shop yet, we had lunch at restaurant nearby – so charge #1 was a lunch break. This charge easily carried us through the drive to Pentwater, and the rest of our stay there.

Looking out over a dock in a lake between pine trees

Bass Lake, Michigan

Charge #2 was in Ludington, MI – another Meijer parking lot – and this time we did a little grocery shopping. We stopped for a lovely hike to the Au Sable Light House, had lunch in Manistee, and took a fabulous hike in the southern end of Sleeping Bear Dunes before arriving in Traverse City. We spent the next day exploring the dunes some more and drove up to the Mission Point Lighthouse for a picnic dinner in the rain. Heading back to Traverse City, at our next charge we discovered the difference between a destination charger and a supercharger.

Maybe the distinction between chargers would seem clear, but to a new Tesla driver on a road trip it wasn’t. A destination charger is a level 2 (slow’ish charger) at a hotel where you’d park overnight, not that 45 minute or so fill up. I had accidentally programed a destination charger into the GPS and realized we weren’t headed to a Meijer. We corrected our course and headed to the supercharger.

Up to the UP

On our way north, we stopped in Mackinaw City, where the chargers were by the ferry to Mackinac Island and across from a brew pub (so another charge and lunch stop). Then we were off over the bridge and on our way to Munising and Pictured Rocks.

One thing that occurred to me while hiking in Picture Rocks – incredible place – is how an EV has a stated range, but those miles are split between your miles and the car’s. In short, the car itself needs some of those miles, or the battery power equivalent, for its own uses. We had read in the FAQ that the car loses 10% of its range (or so) overnight. We weren’t looking that closely at overnight losses, but each day we’d assess our plans and range, especially since we were not close to super charger.

Sand dune plants

Sand dune plants

We had a choice for our next charge: drive 40 miles to supercharge in Marquette (and back) or try the only public charger in Munising, a slow charger at a campground. To fill up, we’d have to plug in for 8hrs at a rate of 1.5 mi per min, but we decided 60 mi in 1.5 hrs was sufficient. We grabbed the adaptor kit from the “frunk,” spent some time sitting on the campground beach researching battery efficiency and figured out how to turn off the car’s sensor system to reduce overnight battery loss. We paid the campground $15 for that 60 mi worth of charge, and it was so worth it. We were able to spend our day exploring, not doing unnecessary driving.

A trip to the UP would be incomplete without exploring the Ottawa National Forest, where ELPC and the Keep the UP Wild campaign are working to establish new National Wilderness areas. This movement would extend the strongest protections to thousands of acres of forest for generations to come. We found an Airbnb in Pelkie that seemed central to various hikes, but the charging question became more complicated out there. L’Anse has a level 2 charger at the city park, and Bruce Crossing has another at a Ford dealership, but we couldn’t find fast chargers for miles around. With 2 days to spend trying to hike in disparate areas, did we want to spend hours at a Ford dealership waiting for miles to trickle in?

Because our original Tesla’s range was 180 miles, we had already planned on renting (gasp) a regular car in Marquette. This would allow us to explore without worrying especially when no amount of GPS availability will prevent me from getting lost or getting misdirected finding trail heads! Although the 290-mile range of our new car would have made it more feasible, we decided to stick with the original plan anyway. We charged up the Tesla in Marquette, picked up a Mitsubishi Mirage, and went to explore the Sturgeon River Gorge, Trap Hills, and Norwich Bluffs.

Closing the Loop

After 2 long days of hiking, we headed back to Marquette to drop off the Mirage and pick up our Tesla for the drive to Chicago over 2 days. We tried a destination charger in Green Bay, but that hotel was full, so we took a walk along the riverfront before heading to the supercharger at a Meijer. We chatted with another Tesla owner who was also charging up. He had rented one in Florida and said, “there was no going back.”

Woman holding a cord charges an electric vehicle at a Tesla supercharging station

Topping up at a Tesla Supercharger

The next morning, we thought we could make it all the way to Chicago, but the car indicated it would like to stop for a charge in Kenosha, so we found ourselves at a Woodman’s. After a stop at Woodlawn cemetery (to visit grandparents and great grandparents), we dropped the car back at its home base in Chicago (a little sandy) and plugged it in.

As far as the road trip experience in an EV goes – this was a success. The added range made a huge difference, eliminating any range anxiety moments we might have had and a lot of charging time. We ended up spending $125 at the superchargers (plus the $15 flat fee at the Munising campground); not bad given the miles we put on the car. This trip certainly helped us decide that our next car will be an EV (or maybe we will go car-less and rent EVs as needed). We aren’t in a rush; we don’t drive much, live near transit, and bike a lot. For most of our long-distance trips, charging is available. We’d probably be fine with a level 2 charger at home or not having one at all and relying on various public charging options, which will only increase over time.

We had a lot of fun experiencing an EV and hitting our Michigan bucket list. But it’s also cool to think that an EV road trip won’t be so uncommon in the near future. As the energy grid becomes cleaner, the charging network grows, and manufacturing technology advances, EVs will be an easy choice. Clean air and a healthy planet are worth the work it’ll take to get there.