Saginaw Surprises

When planning a visit to this mid-Michigan community, be prepared to discover numerous fun elements
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Admission is free at the fabulous Marshall M. Fredericks Sculpture Museum on the campus of Saginaw Valley State University.
Admission is free at the fabulous Marshall M. Fredericks Sculpture Museum on the campus of Saginaw Valley State University.
Photo courtesy of Geoffe Haney

Want to experience entertainment ranging from plays to national theater acts, concerts, sports, world-class museums, or exceptional restaurants serving everything from BBQ to fine dining on your next getaway? Then check out Saginaw and the surrounding Saginaw County for a surprising weekend escape destination that will leave you wondering why you haven’t been there before.

“It’s an amazing place to wind down and relax. Walk through the Castle Museum, see a show at the Temple Theater, and more,” says Michael Hensley, marketing director for the Great Lakes Bay Regional Convention & Visitors Bureau, which is based in town.

“It’s also a great place to up the throttle,” Hensley adds. Indoor and outdoor fun awaits, including adventures you’d never expect this close to a city. 

The Saginaw Children’s Zoo features more than 150 different animals, including these penguins.
The Saginaw Children’s Zoo features more than 150 different animals, including these penguins.
Photo courtesy of Great Lakes Bay Regional Convention & Visitors Bureau

Stay the Night

Your best major hotel chains close to town are near the I-675 exit to Tittabawassee Road. For a special experience in the city, check out the Montague Inn B&B. This former mansion is located near the Saginaw River, south of downtown. Or you can make camp in nearby Frankenmuth, with all the draws that Michigan’s Bavarian-themed town offers. If you’re in an RV, there’s also a campground.

Good Eats

Saginaw has some great dining choices. For casual fare, head to Baldwin’s Smokehouse BBQ, owned by Pastor Roy Baldwin and his wife, Evelyn. “My wife and I have been cooking for a long time. I come from a family of 14 (and was raised) near Altheimer, Ark., and cooking was always something we did on weekends,” Baldwin says. The couple married after both moved to work in Saginaw’s auto plants, and when they founded the Bethlehem Temple Church, they always held open houses after services. Everyone was welcome, including people who just dropped in unannounced.

The Saginaw Art Museum is housed in a former lumber baron’s mansion.
The Saginaw Art Museum is housed in a former lumber baron’s mansion.
Photo courtesy of Great Lakes Bay Regional Convention & Visitors Bureau

“We were always cooking for different functions. People were always saying, well, if you opened a restaurant, we wouldn’t always be at your house,” he laughs. So, they opened a restaurant in 2019, four months before COVID hit. They managed to hang on through all the ups and downs and, in Baldwin’s words, “We’re still rolling.”

Baldwin’s specializes in St. Louis-style ribs, rib tips — those small rib end pieces with crunchy cartilage, smoked brisket, and chicken, and “a ton of pulled pork.”

Want to go large? Head to the city’s Old Town and Jake’s Old City Grill, at the corner of South Hamilton and Court. Since 2006, Jake’s has been serving steaks and seafood.

A paddler takes in the awesome autumn color along one of the local rivers.
A paddler takes in the awesome autumn color along one of the local rivers.
Photo courtesy of Great Lakes Bay Regional Convention & Visitors Bureau

In the morning, treat the kids to a visit to the Saginaw Children’s Zoo. It’s a surprising find that features more than 150 different animals kids of any age can check out, from the penguin enclosure to peacocks that roam the grounds.

Make It Wild

Here’s another surprising way to experience the wild side of Saginaw. Tag along with Wil Hufton, a.k.a. Johnny Panther — he’ll tell you how he got that nickname — as he takes groups from one to 10 into what he calls the “Everglades of Michigan.” Be prepared to be wowed.

“I’ll get you lost for three hours in part of the largest watershed in the state. It’s my passion. Most of those who get off my boat are pleasantly surprised. I’m just blessed,” Hufton says. He’s taken guests on journeys up the Saginaw River and into parts of the 10,000-acre Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge and its connected neighbor, the Shiawassee River State Game Area, for the last 29 years.

“People thought I was out of my mind to do this. Thankfully, I didn’t listen. People pay me to do what I love. This is 18,090 acres of river, marshes, and bays, 32 square miles,” Hufton explains. 

Guests on a Johnny Panther tour get to explore the Saginaw River and parts of the 10,000-acre Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge.
Guests on a Johnny Panther tour get to explore the Saginaw River and parts of the 10,000-acre Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge.
Photo courtesy of Wil Hufton

“We see lots of eagles. We usually stop counting at 30. If we don’t see that many, I’ll blame it on you not living right,” he laughs. “I get people who are super birders, and a few years ago we found a wood stork out there. There are more than 180 species of birds including herons, great egrets, and, once in a while, an American white pelican.”

On a recent trip, my companions and I saw beaver and deer only a few miles from downtown. In the afterglow of a spectacular early fall sunset, we headed back to the dock as thousands of migrating waterfowl noisily settling in for the night filled the air with a cacophony of natural music. It was a truly amazing experience.

“The worst part, for me, is having to come back to the dock,” Hufton quips. “Bring a cooler full of whatever you want. The most dangerous part of the trip is getting in or out of the boat.”

Hopefully you brought your bike to explore the Saginaw Valley Rail Trail, which runs 11 miles between the city and St. Charles to the south. The 12-foot-wide paved and well-maintained converted rail trail runs through lots
of natural areas and features seven restored railroad bridges over creeks, rivers, and wetlands.

The historic city makes for a unique backdrop for boaters along the Saginaw River, which provides access to Saginaw Bay.
The historic city makes for a unique backdrop for boaters along the Saginaw River, which provides access to Saginaw Bay.
Photo courtesy of Great Lakes Bay Regional Convention & Visitors Bureau

Cultural Saginaw

You’ll be wowed here, too. The restored historic 1927 Temple Theatre was saved from the wrecking ball, and now hosts national headline acts from comedians
to concerts.

Drive 11 minutes north of downtown to see the next “wow,” at the Marshall M. Fredericks Sculpture Museum on the campus of Saginaw Valley State University. Admission is free. Geoffe Haney is the recently retired collection manager of the facility that pays tribute to the sculptor who worked and taught at southeast Michigan’s Cranbrook Academy of Art.

Fredericks, considered one of the most prolific sculptors of the 20th century, was the genius behind Indian River’s Cross in the Woods, the Spirit of Detroit in downtown Detroit, and exhibits in Grand Rapids’ Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park.

“The main gallery contains more than 200 of the artist’s plaster models that went to the foundry to create the brass castings,” Haney says. “There are more than 20 bronzes casts of his works in a sculpture garden adjacent to the museum. The museum is one of only eight single-artist-designated museums in the country.

“We always have three to five temporary exhibitions in two galleries. People can immerse themselves with sculptures of various sizes, some reaching heights of around 28 feet. There are Marshall Fredericks sculptures in 23 states, and in Asia and Europe, so wherever people are headed there’s probably a work close by,” he adds.

Back downtown, The Castle Museum of Saginaw County History explores the area’s First Peoples, the city’s wealth created by lumber when the region was a vast white pine forest, and its auto industry, past and present.

Created by renowned sculptor Marshall M. Fredericks, this charming Boy and Bear piece graces the grounds of the Marshall M. Fredericks Sculpture Museum.
Created by renowned sculptor Marshall M. Fredericks, this charming Boy and Bear piece graces the grounds of the Marshall M. Fredericks Sculpture Museum.
Photo courtesy of Geoffe Haney

County Extras

How about some pre-holiday shopping at Birch Run’s Premium Outlets? Board the Bavarian Belle Riverboat for a mini-cruise on the Cass River at Frankenmuth, then enjoy a traditional family-style chicken dinner at Zehnder’s, or go German at the Bavarian Inn restaurant. Enjoy a taste of Saginaw’s Mexican heritage at any of several restaurants like El Rancho Grande, a local favorite for more than 23 years.

Future Planning: Return next spring (2024) for the Canadian Hockey League Memorial Cup tournament at the home of the Saginaw Spirit hockey team, which plays at the Dow Event Center downtown.

One weekend simply isn’t enough to pack it all in, but you can get a great start. 

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