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.
4. Presque Isle
Continuing northward, the drive skirts Grand Lake, whose limestone floor causes the water to sparkle like a translucent green jewel. Presque Isle—its harbor long a haven for ships plying Huron’s trade routes—is located on the neck of land separating Grand Lake and Lake Huron.
The Old Presque Isle Light, now a museum, began guiding mariners into the harbor in 1840. In 1870 a larger structure, the Presque Isle Light, was erected about a mile to the north, putting the older lighthouse out of commission. Bordered by a 100-acre park, the newer beacon, one of the loftiest on the Great Lakes, stands more than 110 feet tall.
5. Rogers City
Though the drive passes through forest as it leads north, the economy in these parts is fueled not by lumber but by rocks: one of the world’s largest limestone quarries has been carved into the earth at Rogers City. At Quarry View visitors can take a look at the action in the immense pit—three miles long and two miles wide.
A side trip to the west on Rte. 68 leads to Ocqueoc Falls, the largest in lower Michigan. Songbirds flit through the cedars that line the trails to the terraced falls, and hikers can top off their treks with a refreshing dip in a pool at the base of the tumbling cascade.
Continuing north again on Rte. 23, you’ll come to P. H. Hoeft State Park, a 300-acre refuge with a mile-long beach. Although winds and currents can combine to make the water chilly and the shore bottom pebbly, fine views of Lake Huron remain a constant. You can while away the hours by watching huge freighters pass on their way to and from the quarries at Rogers City—a sight that is equally impressive at night when the ships’ lights flicker and dance across the darkened water.
Several roadside overlooks, complete with picnic areas, make the sightseeing easy as you travel northward. The curving wooded shoreline and the expanse of Lake Huron form panoramic patchworks of green and blue all the way to Cheboygan. The town sits on the banks of the Cheboygan River, which is part of Michigan’s Inland Waterway. Meandering between willow-shaded banks, the passageway has two locks and passes through three rivers and three lakes on its way across northeastern Michigan. In addition to boating and fishing opportunities, Cheboygan boasts trail-laced parks and historic sites, including lighthouses and an old-time opera house—an elegantly restored music hall dating from 1877.
7. Mackinaw City
Located at the northernmost tip of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula, Mackinaw City affords visitors the rare opportunity of watching the sun rise over one Great Lake, Lake Huron, and set over another, Lake Michigan. Sightseers can also tour Colonial Michilimackinac, a reconstruction at the site of a once-thriving fur-trading post and palisaded fort. Here, too, is Mighty Mac—the Mackinac Bridge, one of the world’s longest suspension bridges. Spanning the swirling Straits of Mackinac, it provides an impressive gateway to the wooded wilds that spread across Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, a fitting end to your drive.
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