A fire truck ladder stretched out over Ludington’s channel at the end of Ferry Street was the first thing that caught our attention. Then we noticed a crowd of onlookers gathered along the waterfront walkway.
“I see a big boat,” said my companion, a boat aficionado and experienced captain who was driving us back to our motel after dinner so we could walk the city’s pier and watch a Lake Michigan sunset.
As we stopped to join the festivities, firefighters turned on the hose and shot water into the sky as locals cheered and waved. The S.S. Badger, the city’s legendary attraction, cruised by, blasting her whistle at the crowd on her maiden 2021 voyage into the Port of Ludington last May.
It was an accidental discovery for me, but sometimes those are the best kind. The S.S. Badger, a floating National Historic Landmark and the last coal-fired car ferry operating in the country, is a point of pride for Ludington.
The historic ship, with a capacity of 600 passengers and 180 vehicles, makes daily four-hour, 60-mile trips across Lake Michigan (the fall season runs through Oct. 10) between Ludington and Manitowoc, Wis. For many travelers, the massive ferry offers a relaxing shortcut that connects U.S. 10 in Michigan (departing at 9 a.m.) with U.S. 10 in Wisconsin (departing at 2 p.m. CST).
Admiring the 410-foot-long, seven-story ship, either aboard or on shore, is just the tip of the iceberg of things to see and do in this coastal community that’s rich in maritime and lumbering history.
Ludington State Park is a vacation within itself. As one of the busiest such parks in Michigan, a visitor could easily stay there for a week and do something different each day.
The 5,400-acre park features miles of inviting, sandy beachfront on both Lake Michigan and Hamlin Lake, which dominates the eastern flank of the park. It’s also a hot spot for camping, hiking, canoeing, and kayaking. Fun nearby outings include tubing on the Big Sable River or hiking to Big Sable Point Lighthouse, which is open for tours until Oct. 24.
The park is part of a former lumbering village and one-time home to Camp Ludington, where members of the Civilian Conservation Corps lived while they built roads, campsites, and other structures in the 1930s. Several original shelters still remain.
“It’s like you have all of these different ecosystems so close together in the park, and even on a busy day, you can feel like you’re the only human out there (because it’s so big),” says photographer and Ludington native Brad Reed, who runs a gallery downtown with his father, Todd. “It’s a photographer’s paradise, really.”
The options of camping at the state park or staying downtown present two vastly different worlds. There are several small motel options, plus historic B&Bs, within walking distance of Ludington’s waterfront, the city’s Stearns Park Beach, and the main shopping district.
Most of the restaurants, bars, and stores are concentrated along Ludington Avenue and James Street in the city’s new Outdoor Social District, where you can enjoy alcoholic beverages within the designated area.
I was thrilled to try my first gluten-free-crust pizza at the Ludington Bay Brewing Co., which also cans and distributes nine brews throughout Michigan. My next stop was the friendly Sportsman’s Restaurant & Bar, one of Ludington’s oldest dining establishments. This historic Irish-themed pub adjoins The Mitten Bar, which is another local treasure.
We then headed toward the beach, making an impromptu stop to watch the Badger pulling back into port on her return voyage from Wisconsin. With low wind and a bright moon rising, it was a delightful evening to walk the pier while the sun set. That’s something I recommend every traveler puts on their Ludington to-do list.
While strolling by the waterfront and passing the marinas on Pere Marquette Lake, the historical signs we encountered along the channel which connects to Lake Michigan were another interesting feature. The Maritime Heritage Trail includes 13 different markers that share the history of Ludington for those who can’t visit the Port of Ludington Maritime Museum, located in the former 1934 U.S. Coast Guard Station, which is on the National Register of Historic Places. Visitors can use a QR code or dial in (available through its website) to listen to a period-era character talk about the industry and location each sign describes.
“Ludington has a vibrant maritime history and an equally vibrant and gorgeous waterfront,” says the museum’s executive director, Rebecca Berringer. “The Maritime Heritage Trail allows people both near and far to learn that we’re a community built out of the lumbering era with a deep connection to the shores of Lake Michigan and the flowing fields of Mason County.”
Fall Tips: The Historic White Pine Village and museum is open through Oct. 23. A new Armistice Day Exhibit at the museum commemorates the Armistice Day Storm on Nov. 11, 1940, that killed 154 people on Lake Michigan.
A favorite stop was Waterfront Sculpture Park, a beautiful public park with bronze sculptures, two playgrounds, a band shell, and plenty of green space. As I enjoyed views of the marinas and the Ludington channel, I moved on to refuel with coffee from Red Rooster Coffee and tacos from The Q Smokehouse. Yum.
I’m normally drawn to the big lake, but Waterfront Park is one of those places that can lift your spirits. It’s a great model for other communities that are trying to improve public access, and it’s a relaxing place to sit and soak up your surroundings.
Because I live only an hour away, Ludington was one of those towns I usually passed on my travels up north. But this time, by venturing off my predictable route, I discovered in this four-season waterfront destination plenty of public access, a wonderful walkable city, affordable food and lodging, and lots of down-home hospitality.
Ludington Area Convention & Visitors Bureau, pureludington.com