Waterfront Fun in Michigan
Whether you’re looking for attractions along the shore or farther inland, these six Great Lakes State spots are worth the road trip.
Spend the Day at Oval Beach, Saugatuck
Oval Beach has a reputation for being one of the best shorelines in the country, and once you visit, there’s no mystery as to why.
“It’s because of its natural surroundings,” explains Josh Albrecht, executive director of the Saugatuck Douglas Area Convention & Visitors Bureau. “You have rolling dunes with the great dune grass behind you.”
The beach is connected to the community of Saugatuck by a scenic hiking trail. Although there is ample parking right by the beach, Albrecht says the best way to experience the area is to park downtown, take the hand-pulled chain ferry across the Kalamazoo River and hike about 25 minutes on the Mount Baldhead Trail to Oval Beach.
“You get great vistas of the town and of Lake Michigan,” he says.
The trail is just over a half-mile long and climbs Mount Baldhead in a series of stairs built into the sand dune. It’s not the easiest hike, with about 300 stairs each way, but long stretches of sandy beach wait at the bottom.
Mount Baldhead once had no trees at its summit, but many have been planted over the years. Picnic areas and an on-site concession stand make for a complete afternoon and evening on the beach, while the top of the dune is a popular place to watch the sunset. Parking $10 per day or $1 to take ferry; 698 Water St., Saugatuck, Michigan 49453, 269/857-1701, saugatuck.com
Watch the Ships at the Great Lakes Maritime Center at Vantage Point, Port Huron
If it seems like the Great Lakes Maritime Center at Vantage Point is the perfect place to take in huge freighters as they glide across the water, there’s good reason: It was built specifically for that purpose. Located near where the St. Clair and Black rivers meet, the center sees ships pass by as they make their way to and from Lake Huron. Visitors can stroll along the Blue Water River Walk to see the vessels from the elevated dock, or watch from the comfort of the Great Lakes Maritime Center’s panoramic, all-glass viewing area.
“We have volunteers here that announce the ships, what their cargo is, what their destination is, and a little history about the [vessels],” says Elizabeth Mathews, manager of the Great Lakes Maritime Center.
For avid ship watchers, one of the most anticipated freighters is the Paul R. Tregurtha. Stretching 1,013 feet long, the vessel is the largest ship currently operating on the Great Lakes. There’s a schedule of expected ships displayed inside the Maritime Center, but some visitors do their own research prior to traveling.
“A lot of people who are really into it and are waiting for that special ship will go on [the ship-tracking website] Marine Traffic,” says Mathews. “They’ll kind of guess what time the ship will be going by Vantage Point to get a good picture.”
While waiting, ship watchers can grab lunch at the center’s Waterfront Deli or find some local fare at the on-site farmers market, which operates every Tuesday and Saturday throughout the summer. Visit website for hours; free admission; 51 Water St., Port Huron, Michigan 48060, 810/985-4817, achesonventures.com/maritimecenter
Take a Kayak Brewery Tour, Traverse City
With more than a dozen local craft breweries, Traverse City’s beer scene is booming, and Kayak, Bike & Brew offers an alternative way to sip all the northern Michigan city has to offer. Beer lovers can take a pedal-and-paddle pub crawl by bike and kayak.
“Many people think of Traverse City as a destination to take a wine tour, but this is something new and different,” says Jeff Bensley, co-owner of Kayak, Bike & Brew.
Excursions offer a look at the city’s main strip from a different vantage point, as kayakers get great views of downtown’s waterfront restaurants and shops as they paddle down the Boardman River.
Tours begin by bicycle, with craft beer fans pedaling to the first two stops, Right Brain Brewery and The Filling Station. (Bensley recommends grabbing a pizza from The Filling Station’s wood-fire oven to help fuel the second half of the four-hour tour.) Kayaks are then launched from Hull Park on Boardman Lake and paddled down the river to Rare Bird Brewpub. From there, participants ditch the kayaks at Clinch Park Beach on the West Arm of Grand Traverse Bay to enjoy their last stop, The Workshop Brewing Company.
Don’t be deterred by the physical activity involved, Bensley says, adding that tandem kayaks are also available if you don’t want to paddle alone.
“It’s all paved, flat-level biking, and it’s all downstream paddling,” he explains. “Anybody can do it.” Visit website for tour times; $69 per person, 229 Garland St., Traverse City, Michigan 49684, 231/760-8828, kayakbikebrew.com
Fish the Grand River, Grand Rapids
The roaring rapids for which this Michigan city was named are no more. The rise of industy led to the installation of dams along the Grand River, and today only slightly turbulent currents interrupt the river’s otherwise calm flow.
One such patch of water can be found at the Sixth Street Dam in downtown Grand Rapids. Between the current and the height of the dam, fish need help getting over it. Fish Ladder Park aids in the process. The functional piece of artwork entrenched in the Grand River serves as a stepladder for fish migrating up- and downstream. Visitors can walk along the structure’s viewing platform, above the ladder, to get a closer look at the fish and the dam.
“It’s probably the only time you can see the fish this way,” says Marty Holtgren, a fish biologist for Grand Rapids Whitewater, a nonprofit organization spearheading a project to bring back the city’s rapids. “The fish jump each section of the ladder and then can rest in pools at each step before going on to the next. The more motivated fish make it up the entire ladder in about 10 to 15 minutes.”
Steelhead, Chinook salmon, coho salmon, suckers and even lake sturgeon can be seen jumping up the ladder or congregating around the structure, making it a popular destination for both viewing and fishing. With more than 60 species along the Grand River, Holtgren says opportunities range from fly to drift to still fishing. Fishing license required for age 17 and older and can be obtained at local bait shops or Meijer grocery stores. 560 Front Ave. NW, Grand Rapids, Michigan 49504, 616/456-3696, experiencegr.com
Explore Great Lakes History at Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary, Alpena
Named after its unpredictable weather and treacherous thunderstorms, Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary is a graveyard to more than 200 ships. Encompassing 4,300 square miles off the shores of northeast Michigan, including an area known as Shipwreck Alley, the sanctuary allows for the conservation and ongoing exploration of maritime history along the Great Lakes.
“The quality of the preservation here is really rare,” says Stephanie Gandulla, a maritime archeologist at the sanctuary. “We’ve got this cold, fresh water and what I like to call a schooner deep freeze, because these shipwrecks truly are frozen in time, especially the deeper wrecks. There are a handful of wooden schooners that are sitting there with their masts standing upright in the water.”
The Lady Michigan, a glass-bottomed tour boat, takes visitors through the sanctuary to see the shipwrecks lying along the bottom of Lake Huron. More adventurous visitors can get closer to the shipwrecks, Gandulla says, adding there are opportunities to snorkel, free dive, scuba dive and even kayak out to the sites.
“People come from all over the world to scuba dive the wrecks,” she says, adding that there are wrecks lying at depths of anywhere from 10 to 300 feet.
Thanks to weather-predicting technology, ships no longer perish in Thunder Bay, but visitors can get a feel for those once-doomed voyages at the sanctuary’s visitor center, where they board a life-size, 19th-century schooner that simulates sailing in a storm. Visit website for hours; free admission; for more information about Lady Michigan glass-bottom boat tours, see thunderbayfriends.org; 500 W. Fletcher, Alpena, Michigan 49707, 989/884-6200, thunderbay.noaa.gov
Spend a Day at Ludington State Park, Ludington
Much like Michigan itself, Ludington State Park is mostly surrounded by water. Wedged between Lake Michigan and Hamlin Lake, the park offers visitors three different shoreline experiences: one along each lake and another that traces the Sable River.
“There’s just something about Ludington,” says Maia Turek, statewide recreation programmer for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. “The beach [along Lake Michigan] is so long. You park anywhere along the road and go over the dunes — boom, you have your own private beach.”
Hamlin Lake harbors calm, warmer waters, which are better for swimming and kayaking, according to Turek. Lake Michigan is also a popular place to swim, although colder temperates and choppier waves can make for a rougher experience. Of course, you can always cast a line instead.
“Some of the best salmon fishing you’re going to find is in Lake Michigan,” Turek says.
Trails traverse the area, connecting the two lakes, three campgrounds and Big Sable Point Lighthouse. The iconic, black-and-white structure, which has become a destination for hikers along Lighthouse Trail, is tucked in the northwest corner of Ludington State Park.
One mile south is the park’s historic beach house, nestled next to Lake Michigan and the mouth of the Sable River. A concession stand and day-use areas make the beach house a popular lunch spot for park-goers not camping on the grounds. Open daily 8 a.m.–10 p.m.; Michigan State Park pass required per vehicle (non-Michigan residents can purchase daily passes for $9 or an annual pass for $32. For more information, visit michigan.gov/ludington); 8800 W. M-116, Ludington, Michigan 49431 (use GPS), 231/843-2423, visitludington.com/statepark