Michigan’s Historic Lighthouses
During the 19th and early 20th centuries, the Great Lakes served as the principal transportation routes for the industries in this region. Consequently, lights were needed to alert vessels of their proximity to shore. More than 100 lighthouses were erected along Michigan’s coastline and its surrounding islands. Although a few structures have since eroded to time, most remain intact and many are still operational. Some of the preserved lighthouses have become inns, museums, or private homes. Others are closed to the public, but nearly all can be viewed—and photographed.
Check out the Michigan Lighthouse Conservancy’s website for detailed information on the lighthouses recommended here, as well as others.
Detroit to the Thumb
Though not the most popular area for lighthouse viewing, it contains several lights, such as the still-active Detroit River Light in Lake Erie, that are situated offshore and can be seen via boat or plane. Two worth a look are the Grosse Ile North Channel Range Front Light, a 50-foot-tall tower lit in 1906, and opened to the public once a year, and the Livingstone Memorial Lighthouse, a unique 65-foot-tall marble structure on Belle Isle.
From the Detroit area, head north on I-94 to Port Huron, where you can tour the Huron Lightship, which retired in 1970 as the last lightship in service on the Great Lakes and is now a National Historic Landmark. Visitors are welcome to explore this vessel, which is docked on the St. Clair River, as well as the nearby Fort Gratiot Light, the oldest light in Michigan. Established in 1829, this 86-foot-tall brick structure is still active today. After touring Port Huron’s lighthouses, grab some dinner at one of the city’s many fine eateries and stay the night, perhaps even at the lovely Thomas Edison Inn.
The next day, drive north on M-25, skirting the Thumb’s coast. The first lighthouse you’ll spy is the active Port Sanilac Light, established in 1886 and now a private residence. Farther north, the 1885 Harbor Beach Lighthouse, while still active, is only accessible by boat. Near Port Hope, the operational 89-foot-tall Pointe aux Barques Lighthouse, lit in 1857, is now a museum. If you have time, head up to Port Austin and charter a boat to view the 1878 Port Austin Reef Light, situated offshore and still active today. Stay over in Port Austin, where the historic Garfield Inn provides comfortable accommodations and The Bank 1884 offers fine dining in a casual setting.
On the third day, venture west on M-25 to Bay City, hop onto I-75, and continue along U.S. 23, which traces the Lake Huron shore. There are several historic lighthouses in this area, some of which are inactive and can only be viewed by boat. In Tawas Point State Park, about three hours from Port Austin, you’ll spy the operational Tawas Point Lighthouse, one of the state’s most well-kept lights. Farther along U.S. 23, you’ll find the Sturgeon Point Lighthouse, built in 1869 and still active today—as both a lighthouse and a maritime museum. You can either camp for the night in Harrisville State Park or head to Alpena, which has hotels, eateries, and a lighthouse of its own: the 1914 Alpena Light, a skeletal red structure near the Thunder Bay River.
Spend the next day exploring the rest of the Lake Huron shore, where you’ll find the 1832 Thunder Bay Island Light and the 1905 Middle Island Lighthouse, both accessible via boat. Some of the mainland-based lights worth exploring include the 1840 Old Presque Isle Lighthouse, now a museum; the 1871 New Presque Isle Lighthouse, also open to the public; and the 1897 Forty Mile Point Light, a 52-foot-tall lighthouse with attached keeper’s quarters. En route to the Mackinac Bridge, you’ll encounter the octagonal 1884 Cheboygan Crib Light, which was relocated from the Cheboygan River, and the castle-like Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse, erected in 1892 and now a fascinating museum.
From here, you can reach several island and offshore reef lights via boat—though you should take care in these potentially dangerous waters. Two of the most interesting are the 1874 Spectacle Reef Light, an impressive example of a monolithic stone lighthouse, and the 1895 Round Island Light in the Straits of Mackinac. There’s no shortage of hotels and restaurants along this coast, from Rogers City to Mackinaw City.
Northwest Michigan and the Southwest Coast
From Mackinaw City, head south on I-75 and U.S. 31. Continue driving until you reach Charlevoix, where you can view the Charlevoix South Pierhead Lighthouse, then take a ferry to Beaver Island, home to the 1858 Beaver Head Lighthouse and the 1870 St. James Harbor Light. Back on the mainland, head toward Traverse City, where you’ll find the 1870 Old Mission Point Lighthouse and the 1858 Grand Traverse Lighthouse, a well-preserved structure in Leelanau State Park. Here, visitors can climb the lighthouse tower, stroll through the museum, and enjoy sandwiches and pastries in the gift shop. Spend the night in Traverse City, which offers a wide array of accommodations.
Spend the last two days of your lighthouse tour exploring the Lake Michigan coastline, an area rife with museums, hotels, campgrounds, restaurants, and, of course, lighthouses. In Leland, board a passenger ferry and head to South Manitou Island, where you can tour the 100-foot-tall South Manitou Island Lighthouse, erected in 1872.
Back on the mainland, take M-22 south to Empire, to find the newest light, the cylindrical Robert Manning Memorial Lighthouse, erected in 1991 to honor a longtime resident. Farther down M-22, you’ll find the operational 1858 Point Betsie Lighthouse, a lovely brick structure with attached keeper’s quarters, and the 1932 Frankfort North Breakwater Light, an offshore light that can be viewed from the mainland. Via U.S. 31, visit the active 1927 Manistee North Pierhead Light; the 112-foot-tall 1867 Big Sable Point Lighthouse in Ludington State Park; the 1924 Ludington North Pierhead Light, a white pyramidal structure at the end of the breakwater; and the 1874 Little Sable Point Light in Silver Lake State Park.
Continuing south on U.S. 31, you’ll see the 1875 White River Light Station, now a maritime museum; visitors can climb the spiral staircase for an incredible view of Lake Michigan. Farther south, you’ll encounter four vivid red, operational structures: the 1903 Muskegon South Pierhead Lighthouse, the Grand Haven South Pier Lighthouses, a range-light system linked by a catwalk, the 1872 Holland Harbor Light, and the 1903 South Haven South Pierhead Light. The last stop on your whirlwind lighthouse tour is the St. Joseph North Pierhead Lights, the second range-light system still in existence in the Great Lakes region.
by Laura Martone from Moon Michigan, 3rd Edition, © Avalon Travel