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Michigan’s beaches and beacons

Photo by Ken McKeown, courtesy Southwest Michigan Tourism Council

Michigan might not be the first place people think of when they envision a day at the beach. However, the upper Midwestern state, which is two large peninsulas surrounded by four of the five Great Lakes, has more freshwater shoreline — 3,200 miles — than any other state.

Michigan’s extensive shoreline is varied, from sandy beaches along the state’s west coast with Lake Michigan to rugged cliffs and stunning rock formations along Lake Superior in the Upper Peninsula.

“I refer to the Great Lakes as an inland sea, and that truly is what they are,” said Janet Kasic, executive director of Circle Michigan. “We are loaded with beaches everywhere, and there are also beautiful scenic drives and spectacular lookouts you can climb and see for miles and miles.”

She pointed to the SS Badger, the large car ferry that transports people and vehicles from Ludington, Mich., to Manitowoc, Wis., as an indication of the lakes’ expansiveness. “It is a four-hour crossing. That gives a good realization of how big the Great Lakes are,” she said.
“You can look for miles and miles in either direction and have sand,” said Michelle Begnoche, senior communications specialist for Travel Michigan, “and for miles forward there is water with no sight of land on the other side. It is a similar experience in a lot of ways [to the sea].”

All that water and shoreline also means lots of lighthouses, 116 to be exact.

“We have more lighthouses than any other state,” said Kasic. “One of our signature tours is lighthouses.”

And all of it is nearby. “When you are in Michigan, you are within 85 miles of one of the Great Lakes,” said Begnoche.

Dunes berries?

Michigan’s West Coast comes complete with dune rides
and fresh blueberries

U.S. 31 runs nearly the entire length of Michigan’s Lake Michigan shoreline, from St. Joseph and Benton Harbor in the southwestern corner of the state to just south of Mackinaw City on the Straits of Mackinac. Known as Michigan’s West Coast, much of the long shoreline is lined with pristine sandy beaches and charming small towns.

“We have great sand,” said Michelle Begnoche, senior communications specialist for Travel Michigan. “It is the soft, typical golden sand when you think of being on the beach. It is like the ocean coast without salt.”

You encounter the sand as soon as you reach St. Joseph. “We have sugar sand beaches,” said Vicki Dunlop, group and sales marketing director for the Southwest Michigan Tourist Council. “We have several in a row in St. Joseph.”

One of the most popular is Silver Beach, which also has a two-year-old carousel.

“It not only is nostalgic, but rounding boards around the premier have beautiful scenes that represent our heritage,” said Dunlop.

The 48 hand-carved animals include six replicas of the original carousel horses that were at the Silver Beach Amusement Park, which operated from 1892 to 1971.

A small museum at the site contains memorabilia from the amusement park and a detailed model of the park with attractions, sounds and aromas.

“Across the street is a new fountain — the Whirlpool Compass Fountain — with a 180-foot splash pad set against the background of the beach,” said Dunlop.

“And you are just steps away from shopping in St. Joseph, a cute little beach town where there is always public art on display in downtown from Memorial Day to Oct. 1.”

The public art, which features sculptures painted by local artists, was meant to be a one-time event, like in many other cities; but it was so popular with merchants and residents that it has become an annual project.

“This year it is called Barnyard at the Beach,” said Dunlop. “It is a combination of horses, cows, chickens, ducks and sheep.”

After browsing the shops in St. Joseph, groups can stop by Kilwin’s Chocolate-Ice Cream-Fudge Shoppe for Fudge 101, a class in fudge making. “They take you through the steps in making fudge; and afterward, everyone on the coach gets a piece of fudge,” said Dunlop.

Dunlop said she encourages groups to stop at the lighthouse on Tiscornia Beach and “get out and at least have a photo op.”

“It is very serene and peaceful, and it gives a taste of the lake and the breeze. It is a different perspective as you look back at the shore,” she said.

In South Haven, groups can get out on the lake aboard the Friends Good Will, a 28-passenger replica of an 1810 sailing vessel that does hour-and-a-half tours. “What groups do is flip-flop,” said Dunlop. “Half go out on the ship, and the other half tours the maritime museum campus. Some can walk down to the lighthouse.”

The Michigan Maritime Museum, which operates the tall ship, has exhibits about the U.S. Coast Guard, among them the only complete collection of the last three wooden rescue craft used by the Coast Guard; an exhibit of small boats native to Michigan; and a restored 1939 commercial fishing tug that interprets the history of the Great Lakes commercial fishing industry.

Outside of South Haven, the Grand Champs Blueberry Farm gives tours of its packaging facility.

“They have an indoor farm market, and you can pick your own blueberries if you wish,” said Dunlop. “If a group is just looking for a rest stop, they will do blueberry muffins and coffee for motorcoaches.”

A different and exciting way to experience the beach sand is on a dune buggy ride over the Silver Lakes Sand Dunes south of Ludington.

“Mac Wood’s Dune Rides are in their 81st year of operation,” said Linda Foster, executive director of the Silver Lakes Sand Dunes Chamber of Commerce. “It is one of the oldest concessions in the state.”

Specially made 16-passenger vehicles take passengers up and down the ever-shifting sand dunes and stop by Lake Michigan during the 40-minute, seven-mile trip while the drivers tell about the dunes and the area’s history.

“They are the world’s largest shifting sand dunes,” said Foster. “The wind keeps changing the landscape.

“In the area that Mac Wood’s goes on, it looks like driftwood, but it is not. When Chicago had its big fire and they were rebuilding, the dunes were logged off. Some of those dead stumps are reminders of the trees that were once there.”

About six miles from the dunes, the small town of Hart has a historic district with a collection of restored buildings: a church, a one-room school, a feed mill, a cabin of an Indian chief and a heritage hall with a large collection of animated dolls, tools and a restored pipe organ.

“It also has a very, very good collection of Native American artifacts,” said Foster. “They have guided tours of the district.”

Also on display in the Silver Lake area is the region’s agriculture.

“In the spring, we raise asparagus in this area, and we have a couple of farmers who will give tours,” said Foster. “The Lewis Farm Market and Petting Farm has a huge farm market and a petting farm with wallabies, peacocks, a camel, goats, horses and bunnies. You name it, they have got it there.

“Right around the corner from there is a place called Country Dairy. It is a working dairy farm and restaurant. You get a guided tour of the farm and then all the chocolate milk you want.”

Janet Kasic, executive director of Circle Michigan, noted that there are many charming harbor towns along the West Coast.

“Manistee is one of my favorites,” she said.

“Lots of people, if they are going down the highway, skirt it. But if they turn downtown, they will find a street with more than 90 historic buildings, all along the water. They are all Victorian buildings.

“It winds and curves and takes you right to Lake Michigan. There are restaurants with patios all along the lake where you can see cruise ships coming in.

“There are boutiques and art galleries; it is a beautiful setting.”

Speaking of beautiful settings, the West Coast is famous for its spectacular sunsets, which can be viewed from any of the beaches and towns.

Charity for all
An unusual dining option is available for groups on Michigan’s Sunrise Coast, its eastern shoreline with Lake Huron: dinner at a 154-year-old lighthouse on an island in Saginaw Bay.

Charity Island is approximately 10 miles offshore in the middle of the bay between the port cities of Caseville to the east and Au Gres to the west, and takes about 45 minutes to reach on the ferryboat Shirley Ann.

Once there, groups are treated to a history presentation by lighthouse owners Robert and Karen Wiltse, and a dinner of Great Lakes perch or sauteed tenderloin beef tips.

After the meal, Karen Wiltse leads guests on a tour of the two-story clapboard lighthouse, which was built in 1857. The return trip, announced by the ship’s bell, is timed to catch the sunset halfway back to port.

“They serve cherry pie on the way back,” said Janet Kasic, executive director of Circle Michigan.

Where maritime and timber collide

Michigan’s Upper Peninsula is an outdoor icon
Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, separated from the rest of the state by the Straits of Mackinac, where Lake Michigan and Lake Huron come together, is a distinctive area of rugged natural beauty with a strong maritime, logging and mining heritage.

A journey along state Route 28 from Marquette through Munising to Sault Ste. Marie, with detours to the Lake Superior shore, provides a good sample of the Upper Peninsula, whose marketing theme is “Five-Star Wilderness.”

Start in Marquette, a quaint harbor town on the south shore of Lake Superior, the largest and deepest freshwater lake in the world.

“Its marketing theme fits it well: Elegance on the Edge of Wilderness,” said Fred Huffman, group travel coordinator for the Upper Peninsula Travel and Recreation Association. “Marquette has the amenities of a big city, but within a five-minute ride from downtown, you can be on your own secluded beach sitting beneath a 20-foot waterfall or have your own little rock outcropping.”

Huffman said two museums in Marquette do a good job of interpreting the area’s iron ore mining and maritime history.

“The Michigan Iron Industry Museum, which is state-run, captures the history of the three iron ranges in the Upper Peninsula,” he said. “We have been mining iron since the year after it was discovered in 1844.”

More than 20 percent of the iron mined in North America still comes from the Marquette Iron Range.

The Marquette Maritime Museum, housed in the stone Richardsonian Romanesque-style former city waterworks building, deals primarily with the Great Lakes, particularly Lake Superior. It has a large collection of lighthouse lenses, and maintains and provides guided tours of the 1866 Marquette Harbor Lighthouse.

Pictured Rocks gateway
Munising is the gateway to the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore.

“It was the country’s first national lakeshore,” said Huffman. “It was created in 1966 by President Lyndon B. Johnson. It is the place setting for Longfellow’s ‘[Song of] Hiawatha.’ In my opinion, it is one of the wonders of the world.”

The national lakeshore extends for about 40 miles along the lake, with the Pictured Rocks area of towering limestone and sandstone cliffs and unusual formations carved by the winds and waves of Lake Superior encompassing about 15 miles.

The cliffs, which tower up to 200 feet above the lake, are streaked with layered mineral stains of ochre, tan, brown, white, green, orange and black. The formations have names such as Lovers Leap, Grand Portal, Miners Castle and Indian Head.

“The best way to see them is to take the traditional two-and-a-half to three-hour boat cruise that goes for about 15 to 20 miles along the shore,” said Huffman.

The national lakeshore also features 12 miles of sand beaches, waterfalls and, at its eastern end, the glacier-created Grand Sable Dunes, five square miles of sand dunes that sit atop the 300-foot-high Grand Sable Banks.

Huffman said, after 50 years, a paved road through the lakeshore has been completed. “I think it [the lakeshore] will become an even bigger attraction,” he said.

“A boat tour that is brand-new is Riptide Ride,” said Huffman. “You go out in a Navy Seal boat; you are strapped in, and it does turns and 360s, and you ride the waves. You can also see Grand Island that way.”

A glass-bottom-boat tour from Munising allows you to see many of the numerous shipwrecks preserved in the icy waters along Lake Superior’s “Graveyard Coast,” along with views of the Pictured Rocks and rugged, isolated Grand Island.

Shipwreck history
Although you can’t see shipwrecks there, the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum at Whitefish Point provides a fascinating look at the fates of several of the more than 500 wrecks that have occurred along an 80-mile stretch of the coast, including more than 200 in the Whitefish Point area.

Exhibits include a scale model of the ships and artifacts recovered from most of them. The most famous is the Edmund Fitzgerald, a 729-foot ore carrier that was lost with its crew of 29 in a November 1975 storm 15 miles from Whitefish Point.

The ship’s recovered bell is displayed at the museum as a memorial to the lost crew.

The museum is at the site of the Whitefish Point Light Station, the oldest continuously operating lighthouse on Lake Superior; the lighthouse marked its 150th anniversary in August.

On the way to or from Whitefish Point, groups should stop at Tahquamenon Falls State Park.

“The park interpreter meets groups and takes them on a paved interpretative pathway,” said Huffman.

The falls has two parts. The Upper Falls is generally the more popular and is considered one of the largest waterfalls east of the Mississippi River. The Tahquamenon River drops nearly 50 feet at the Upper Falls, which are more than 200 feet across.

Four miles downstream is the Lower Falls, a series of five smaller falls cascading around an island.

The Tahquamenon Falls Brewery and Pub at Camp 33 at the Upper Falls makes a convenient lunch or dinner stop.

“Camp 33 is on land kept by the family that donated 65,000 acres to the state that the falls are in,” said Huffman. “It was a former logging camp. They still have the fireplace from the camp and big rockers on the front porch.”

A must-do experience in Sault Ste. Marie is the Soo Locks. The Soo Locks Park and Visitors Center provides a good overview of the system of four locks along the St. Mary’s River that take ships between Lake Superior and the other Great Lakes. The 210-foot-tall Tower of History has an observation platform that gives a great view of the huge shipping channel and the rest of Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan’s oldest town.

Locking through
However, the best way to experience the locks is to take a boat ride through them.

“You go into these locks, which are about 20 feet down, and a freighter pulls up right beside you, or there might be one right behind you,” said Janet Kasic, executive director of Circle Michigan. “You can wave to the deck hands.

“You see the big iron doors shut; then the water rises, and in 15 minutes or so, the gates open and you are into Lake Superior. You are not just seeing the locks, you are experiencing them, right in with the freighters.”

More tons of cargo pass through the Soo Locks annually than passes through the Panama and Suez canals combined.

“It is one of the greatest industrial waterways in the world,” said Huffman. “It is where all the iron and grain goes, and they also ship a lot of coal and limestone upbound to Duluth and Marquette.
“However, Sault Ste. Marie has a lot more than the world-famous locks.”

The two-hour boat cruise provides a view of some of Sault Ste. Marie’s other attractions, such as the International Bridge to Canada and the Edison Sault Hydro-Electric Plant.

After leaving the cruise, groups can have lunch at the Lockview Restaurant, with views of the Soo Locks Park, and stroll down Portage Avenue with its gift shops, ice cream parlors and fudge shops.

The River of History Museum, in the 1909 former Federal Building, has eight interactive galleries that interpret 8,000 years of local history.

The Museum Ship Valley Camp has a 20,000-square-foot museum in the cargo hold of a former Great Lakes freighter. Visitors there can see the preserved crews’ quarters, more than 100 exhibits, four 1,200-gallon aquariums with various fish from the Great Lakes region and two lifeboats from the Edmund Fitzgerald.

Researching your trip

Travel Michigan/MEDC

Circle Michigan

Upper Peninsula Travel and Recreation Association

Southwest Michigan Tourist Council