Driving the Sunrise Side

Wonderful water activities, tasty treats, and mom-and-pop resorts await along the Standish-to-Harrisville stretch of the U.S. 23 Heritage Route
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The 23.5-mile River Road National Scenic Byway heads westward from the U.S. 23 Heritage Route in Oscoda and follows the Au Sable River, which flows into Lake Huron. The byway travels through the Huron National Forest.
The 23.5-mile River Road National Scenic Byway heads westward from the U.S. 23 Heritage Route in Oscoda and follows the Au Sable River, which flows into Lake Huron. The byway travels through the Huron National Forest. – Photo courtesy of Northeast Michigan Council of Governments/U.S. 23 Heritage Route

With all the attention Michigan’s west coast receives, it’s no wonder some call the stretch along east Michigan’s U.S. 23 the  “Quiet Side.”  For obvious reasons, it’s also known as the “Sunrise Side” of the Lower Peninsula. As a lifelong adventurer around these treasured lands, I’m here to tell you it’s one part of the state you need to visit.

The pace is slower in the towns that run from where U.S. 23 north leaves I-75 and begins its journey along the Lake Huron shore. Miles of beaches, great shopping, small town summer fun, and lots of water activities await on the 68-mile stretch from Standish to Harrisville.

The Tawas Point Lighthouse, built in 1853 and open for summer tours, shines as one of the top attractions at Tawas Point State Park. The park’s sand-spit point is a major flyway and a favorite of bird watchers during the spring and fall migrations.
The Tawas Point Lighthouse, built in 1853 and open for summer tours, shines as one of the top attractions at Tawas Point State Park. The park’s sand-spit point is a major flyway and a favorite of bird watchers during the spring and fall migrations. – Photo courtesy of Northeast Michigan Council of Governments/U.S. 23 Heritage Route

Gateway to the Sunrise Side

In the winter issue of Michigan BLUE, my story about the route focused on things to do along M-13, which used to be U.S. 23 before I-75 was built. This story starts just south of our first town, Standish, which rightly calls itself the Gateway to the Sunrise Side and, since 2009, has been the start of the official Huron Shores Heritage Route.

In downtown Standish, stop for visitor information on Arenac County and the five other counties on the heritage route at the 1889 fieldstone railway depot, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Hopefully while you’re there you’ll meet Brenda Matt, a lifelong Standish resident who can share local and regional brochures with you.

In Standish, U.S. 23 bends toward the Lake Huron shore. Highway M-76, which once brought travelers toward West Branch and Houghton Lake, starts in Standish. Eventually I-75 replaced it, but the old highway remains.

“We’re the divider for the routes north,”  Matt says. “You’d take 23 up the coast or 76 toward Roscommon and West Branch. It was the only way into northeast Michigan from the state’s east side.”  Travelers would stop at landmarks such as Wheelers Restaurant, a town fixture since 1935. It’s also an outlet for baked goods from Clare’s Cops and Doughnuts, delivered daily.

Matt notes that Arenac County is home to at least eight campgrounds, as well as Saganing Eagles Landing Casino and Hotel, so there’s plenty to keep you busy.

Lake Huron’s Cape Cod-style Sturgeon Point Lighthouse, built in 1870 near Harrisville, is open for summer tours. Visitors also can picnic near the beach and tour an old schoolhouse on the grounds.
Lake Huron’s Cape Cod-style Sturgeon Point Lighthouse, built in 1870 near Harrisville, is open for summer tours. Visitors also can picnic near the beach and tour an old schoolhouse on the grounds. – Photos courtesy of Northeast Michigan Council of Governments/U.S. 23 Heritage Route

Omer

One of Michigan’s least populous cities is located on the Rifle River — which, farther upstream, is a trout stream. Omer is famous for its springtime Suckerfest, when fish by the thousands are caught using special hand-lifted nets at the U.S. 23 bridge. It’s also home to one of three Rifle River canoe liveries: Riverbend Campground and
Canoe Rental.

Boaters, kayakers, and canoeists will discover plenty of solitude on Au Sable River beaches.
Boaters, kayakers, and canoeists will discover plenty of solitude on Au Sable River beaches. Businesses such as Sunnybunns Marina in Greenbush Township offer pontoon rentals for use on the river, and local liveries provide canoes and kayaks for leisurely floats down the waterway. – Photos courtesy of Northeast Michigan Council of Governments/U.S. 23 Heritage Route

Au Gres

This small community on the Au Gres River is one of the major ports for anglers going after Saginaw Bay’s most popular gamefish, walleye. But Au Gres has more going than that.

The Au Gres city campground, located along the river, has a reputation among many RVers as one of the best municipal-run stay places in the state. And it’s only a mile or so from the walleye waiting off the DNR boating access on the bay. Pick up a license and night crawlers (another option is to stop at a branch of the M-65 Bait Shop on the way to the DNR access) at Wright’s Sports Store on U.S. 23. You’ll recognize it by the old sign that says “Hamburgs.”  Yup, Hamburgs.

Wright’s is down the street from Zanner’s Ice Cream Shoppe, now in its 51st year — a short walk from the campground across the pedestrian bridge over the river. Edmonds Au Gres Inn is near the river and marina, as is a new splash park. The city also hosts a variety of musical entertainment in the summer.

Then there’s the Pickle Palace, aka the home of Freakin’ Pickles, now sold across the state in nearly 100 stores. Owner Cheri Leppek-Harpham says you can choose from a dozen varieties.

The H & H bakery and restaurant, open since 1983, is one of several local eateries. Heading north, stop next at the tiny and seasonal Pointe Market, just south of where a string of great regional golf courses begins with the William Newcomb-designed Huron Breeze Golf Club.

You’ll then pass Alabaster, home of a huge gypsum deposit that provided the white covering for the main buildings at Chicago’s 1893 Columbian Exposition. Wallboard for homes originated here. It’s since been reclaimed and is also where The Sunrise Side Pathway, which will take you into our next destination and beyond, begins. The path into Tawas eventually will be part of the state’s Iron Belle Trail, linking Detroit to Ironwood in the Upper Peninsula.

Visitors can enjoy the many steep dunes along the Au Sable River.
Visitors can enjoy the many steep dunes along the Au Sable River.

Tawas City/East Tawas

Named for a local Native American chief, the twin cities hugging Tawas Bay are favorite year-round destinations. The Corsair cross-country ski trails beckon in winter, while in the summer, the beach is the thing at the city park next to the new dock boardwalk.

Each Tuesday from mid-June to mid-August, Newman Street in East Tawas is closed to cars for a
few hours so it can host a street dance and music. Mondays, a band performs at the city park. Pleasure boat dockage at both towns has recently been renovated.

Lodging includes the Tawas Bay Beach Resort, the only full-service hotel on Lake Huron. For a quiet stay, try two B&Bs: East Tawas Junction or Always A Holiday.

Take in a movie at the small Family Theater in East Tawas, grab some hand-dipped treats at the Village Chocolatier, and shop for dinner at Klenow’s, part of downtown since 1900. Top it off with a visit to Marion’s Dairy Bar, part of the scene since 1945.

Tawas Point State Park is a birder’s favorite for watching the large spring and fall migrations that use the terrain as a rest area. The point also has an endangered Piping Plover nesting area. The bike trail that began in Alabaster takes you into the park and to its 19th century lighthouse, where you can become a volunteer lightkeeper. By fall, the trail should connect with Oscoda.

Mornings are showtime at the Huron House B&B, located between East Tawas and Au Sable Township, as guests are treated to amazing Lake Huron sunrises.
Mornings are showtime at the Huron House B&B, located between East Tawas and Au Sable Township, as guests are treated to amazing Lake Huron sunrises. – Photo courtesy of Christian Giannelli Photography

Oscoda

From Tawas north, 23 has long been lined by lakefront mom-and-pop vacation resorts. Located at the Au Sable River’s mouth, Oscoda is a former lumbering town like the Tawases. There’s a fabulous Lake Huron beach (one of the best in the state), great restaurants, and more — such as the Wurtsmith Air Museum at the former Air
Force base.

Oscoda also is the gateway to the River Road National Scenic Byway, which leads you along the Au Sable. Reference this magazine’s fall 2021 issue for stops on the route.

Places to stay in the area include the soon-to-open Holiday Inn Express and B&Bs like the lakefront Huron House. Like barbecue ribs? You’ll want to head to the friendly Tait’s Bill of Fare in downtown Oscoda for some of the best barbecue sauce around. Owner Bill Tait says he’s won a few awards for the sweet-and-subtly-spicy condiment.

This eagle-eye view looking north highlights the 1,025 feet of Oscoda Beach Park, regarded as one of the state’s top beaches. There’s also the alluring pier and boardwalk along the shoreline.
This eagle-eye view looking north highlights the 1,025 feet of Oscoda Beach Park, regarded as one of the state’s top beaches. There’s also the alluring pier and boardwalk along the shoreline. – Photo courtesy of Northeast
Michigan Council of Governments/U.S. 23 Heritage Route

North to Harrisville

Just north of Oscoda, if you haven’t done so in town at Shoreline Park, dip your toes into the big lake at the gorgeous Three Mile Park Rest Area on U.S. 23. You’ll also travel past several more mom-and-pop beachfront resorts where you can stay.

At the mapdot town of Greenbush, add another resort to your list. Blue Haven Beach Resort has been there since the end of World War II and is now owned by four families, including that of Kyle DuBuc.

“We bought it because we loved the idea of having this place to bring our families and others to in this beautiful area,” DuBuc says. With 200 feet of beach and 14 cottages, they’re on a mission to restore the place to its former self, when late Detroit radio/TV personality Ron Gamble owned it.

A few miles farther up the road and you’re at Harrisville State Park on the lake, with great waterfront campsites and a paved bike route into town for shopping or a bite. North of the park grab something to eat and enjoy a local brew at the Alcona Brewhaus, where 14 haus-made beers are always available, and many of the menu’s items can be made food-allergy-free. Other stops include Shot Maker Sports Bar & Grill or The Red Fork in Greenbush to the south.

Check out Harrisville’s restored harbor, where you can charter a boat and fish for Atlantic salmon, steelhead, and walleye, or fish from shore. Coming by boat? Bikes are available at the harbor, and there’s a local shuttle. The historic Sturgeon Point Lighthouse, north of Harrisville, is run by the Alcona Historical Society  and is definitely worth a stop. There’s even a rustic old schoolhouse on the property, and it’s open for tours.

I’ll stop here and save the remainder of U.S. 23’s long journey from Florida to Mackinaw City — the stretch from Harrisville to the Mackinac Bridge — for another time. But you don’t need to; you can continue north to enjoy the rest of the state’s Sunrise Side.


Plan It!

U.S. 23 Heritage Route
us23heritageroute.org

Discover Northeast Michigan
discovernortheastmichigan.org



By Bill Semion

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