Michigan’s state motto says it all: ”If you seek a pleasant peninsula, look about you.” That’s no empty boast, as the spectacular scenery along the state’s shorelines illustrates. This drive, with the vast expanse of Lake Huron never far from view, hugs Michigan’s northeastern coast—an ever-changing lakefront complete with pleasant Victorian villages, century-old lighthouses, mixed forests, sugary sand beaches, and windswept limestone ledges.
1. Bay City State Park
In the late 1800s the fortunes of Bay City, like those of many other towns in Michigan, were closely tied to the timber industry. The Victorian mansions of the lumber barons who settled here remain as a testimonial to their once-opulent prosperity. Other architectural gems from that era can been seen in the Midland Street Business District, including a château-style Sage Library.
Climb the stairs at the City Hall Bell Tower for views of the area. Then hurry off for a swim at Bay City State Park, which lies but five miles up the coast. Nestled on the curving shore of Saginaw Bay, the park not only has lovely beaches but also contains Tobico Marsh, a 1,700-acre wetland where two observation towers provide opportunities for spying on mink, deer, waterfowl, and other wildlife.
2. Tawas Point State Park
Heading north on Rte. 13 and then eastward on Rte. 23, the drive seldom veers far from the coast, passing stands of cedars, pines, and scrub oaks that grow along the golden beaches. Just past the town of East Tawas, a side road down the small peninsula that shelters Tawas Bay leads to Tawas Point State Park. Soft beaches invite leisurely exploration, as does the Sandy Hook Nature Trail, a pleasant stroll that begins at the Tawas Point Lighthouse, an 1876 structure that is still in use. 3. River Road National Forest Scenic Byway
Once so dense with white pines that only the slimmest of sunbeams penetrated to the forest floor, the woodlands of eastern Michigan were severely depleted by the late 1800s—the trees felled to supply the lumber that built the West. Part of an effort to replant and protect the woods, Huron National Forest was created in 1909. Today its landscape is once again lush, with majestic pines, maples, cedars, and birches fanning away from the banks of the Au Sable River. To sample the legacy of this early conservation effort, take a drive on the River Road National Forest Scenic Byway, a 22-mile sylvan odyssey that accompanies the river westward from Oscoda. Supplying fine views at nearly every turn, the road leads to campgrounds, historic sites, and trails atop riverside bluffs.
Back on Rte. 23 the drive meanders for miles along Lake Huron’s shore. The water—pale green in fair weather, steely gray on stormy days—laps gently against the coast, and small tufted dunes rumple the tawny beach. For a relaxing escape along the way, stop at Three-Mile Beach, an undeveloped expanse that is ideal for swimming, wading, or simply for beachcombing for pieces of driftwood.
Farther along, four miles north of Harrisville, the Sturgeon Point Lighthouse rises above Lake Huron. The lone beacon, a white brick structure built in 1869, has been converted into a museum furnished with antiques and exhibiting remnants of ships that were wrecked in the area.
For yet another opportunity to walk the water’s edge, pause at Negwegon State Park. A short path leads to seven miles of remote, unspoiled beach, where birds soar overhead and small, smooth stones cover parts of the shore.
According to Indian lore, two rival braves, each courting the same maiden, were out on Thunder Bay in canoes when they fought a duel. One fired an arrow that accidentally struck the girl, who fell from her boat and drowned. Outraged, the gods churned up turbulent currents and frothy waves that roil unpredictably to this day.
No matter how one explains the treacherous conditions on Thunder Bay, its waters have long been a hazard for sailors. About 80 shipwrecks lie on its murky floor, all of them protected in the Thunder Bay Underwater Preserve. One ill-fated steamer, the wooden Shamrock, went down in a storm in 1905. Its skeletal remains rest in 12 feet of water offshore from the Alpena City Marina; divers often visit the site in the summer to peer into the submerged hull.
Alpena itself, known as The Town That Wouldn’t Die, has had its share of ups and downs. Fires destroyed its downtown twice, and the city’s economy has followed the seesaw fortunes of the lumber industry. True to its nickname, though, Alpena has endured each setback and is once again on the upswing as an industrial and recreational center.
For a look at the region’s logging past, visit the Jesse Besser Museum and take note of the early timber tycoons’ stately homes, which line the waterfront. North of town a one-mile trail at the Besser Natural Area winds past an abandoned village, an azure lagoon, and a virgin forest of white pines.