Grand Traverse Bay is composed of two main arms: the West Arm and the East Arm. The West Arm stretches about 20 miles from its entrance at the Manitou Islands to its junction with the East Arm. The East Arm is slightly shorter, extending around 15 miles from its entrance near Elk Rapids to its confluence with the West Arm.

The bay has a rich history that dates back thousands of years and encompasses various periods, including Native American settlements, European exploration and colonization.

The Anishinaabe (Ojibwe) and Odawa (Ottawa) tribes were among the first known inhabitants of the area, establishing villages along the bay and utilizing its resources for sustenance.

European exploration of the region began in the 17th century when French fur traders arrived in the Great Lakes area. They established trade networks with the indigenous peoples, including those residing near Grand Traverse Bay. The bay is named after the French phrase “La Grande Traverse,” which means “the long crossing,” referring to the Native American canoe route that crossed the bay.

Aerial West Grand Traverse Bay, Traverse City in Northern MichiganHowever, the French lost control of the region to the British after the French and Indian War in 1763.


With the establishment of British control, the region became part of the vast fur trade network that connected the Great Lakes region with Montreal and other European markets. British traders and Native American tribes continued to utilize West Grand Traverse Bay as a crucial hub for fur trading and transportation.

In the early 19th century, the United States gained control of the Northwest Territory, which included Michigan. The Treaty of Washington in 1836 opened up the Grand Traverse Bay area to white settlement. One of the first Euro-American settlers in the region was Reverend Peter Dougherty. He was sent to the Grand Traverse Region in 1839 by the Presbyterian Board of Foreign Mission to establish a church and school for the Native Americans who inhabited the area.

As more settlers arrived, the lumber industry gained prominence in the region. The abundant forests surrounding West Grand Traverse Bay provided ample resources for logging, and numerous sawmills were established along its shores. The lumber industry played a vital role in the development of the region’s economy and attracted a significant number of settlers.

Aerial view of boat launch and beach at Clinch Park on West Grand Traverse Bay, Traverse City MichiganIn the late 19th century, the Grand Traverse region began transitioning from logging to agriculture, particularly fruit farming. The bay’s favorable climate, fertile soil, and proximity to water transportation made it an ideal location for growing cherries, apples, and other fruits. The region became known as the “Cherry Capital of the World,” with Traverse City hosting an annual Cherry Festival since 1926.

With the rise of fruit farming, tourism also began to flourish in the Grand Traverse Bay area. The bay’s scenic beauty, sandy beaches, and recreational opportunities attracted visitors from across the country. Today, the region is renowned for its wineries, breweries, outdoor activities, and vibrant tourism industry.

Efforts have been made to protect and preserve the natural and cultural heritage of Grand Traverse Bay. Organizations such as the Grand Traverse Bay Watershed Center and local communities work towards environmental stewardship, water quality improvement, and conservation initiatives.

Grand Traverse Bay remains an integral part of the Traverse City area’s identity, providing residents and visitors with a picturesque setting and access to a variety of recreational activities. It continues to be cherished for its natural beauty and the historical significance it holds for the region.

Learn more about the rich history of the Northwest Lower Peninsula.