Automated technology and modern navigational aids may have minimized the need for Michigan’s beacons, but diminished duty hasn’t tapered their charm. From stately Fort Gratiot’s conical stone tower on Lake Huron and Round Island’s ferry-familiar station in the Straits to photogenic “Big Red” in Holland and New Presque Isle’s eagle-eye post near Alpena, intriguing lights punctuate every region.
“When I started working at the West Michigan Tourist Association in 1997, my first project was researching the lights along the 1,100-mile Lake Michigan Circle Tour route,” shares Dianna Stampfler, now president of Promote Michigan, who catalogued construction dates, tower heights, tours, on-site museums and claims of ghosts. “I was instantly hooked.”
While 58 lights from the state’s southwest corner up through Mackinac and the Upper Peninsula are spotlighted along with 47 more in Wisconsin, Illinois and Indiana on the Lake Michigan Circle Tour & Lighthouse Map (wmta.org), lighthouses are part and parcel of a ride across Lake Michigan aboard the S.S. Badger, which has plied the waters between Ludington and Manitowoc, Wis. since the 1950s. Both vacation destinations feature multiple beacons that can be seen during the four-hour, 60-mile cruise.
Relax on the deck, in lounges, in a private stateroom or at one of the snack bars as the Big Sable Point Lighthouse and the Ludington North Breakwater Light glide by (ssbadger.com).
Michigan’s West Coast Lighthouse Festival June 7-8 — hosted by the Sable Points Lightkeepers Association (splka.org) — showcases six beacons from Muskegon to Manistee: White River Light Station in Whitehall, Little Sable Point Lighthouse at the Silver Lake Sand Dunes, Ludington North Breakwater Light, Big Sable Point Lighthouse in Ludington State Park, Muskegon South Pierhead Light and Manistee Pierhead Light.
Tower climbs, grounds tours, history talks and special “Nights at the Lights” with live music at the first four sites are planned to engage visitors of all ages.
All things lighthouse — vendors, entertainment and info — can also be found at the 19th Annual Great Lakes Lighthouse Festival along Lake Huron Oct. 9-12 (michiganlighthousefestival.org). “There is no other festival like it in the United States,” states Tim Harrison, publisher of Lighthouse Digest Magazine, “with the beautiful fall colors, close proximity to Mackinaw City and Mackinac Island and lots of lighthouses.”
Combined with maritime events based at the APlex in Alpena and related events up from Tawas to the Bridge, aerial views and offshore tours of New and Old Presque Isle, Middle Island Light Tower, Thunder Bay’s beacon and other lights grow appreciation for their Great Lakes legacy.
Gulls swoop and shrill, the breeze shifts, white-capped waves cast spray.
But those in the boat seeking out shoreline towers aren’t in peril on the sea. Instead, they’re taking pictures and video with their smartphones from the decks of modern vessels packed with snacks and comfortable amenities as they gain historic insights during guided tours.
Built in 1870, the New Presque Isle Light — at 113 feet, 80 feet higher than the original beacon — is the tallest tower accessible by the public on the Great Lakes.
“We feel we offer something really unique to our participants: getting close to remote lights they couldn’t see any other way,” says Terry Pepper, executive director of the Great Lakes Lighthouse Keepers Association in Mackinaw City (GLLKA; gllka.com). With members spread across the U.S., Canada and Europe, the non-profit group’s many preservation endeavors include hosting Great Lakes trips to beacons not easily reached.
This July, GLLKA’s chartered four-day excursion to Isle Royale in Lake Superior includes closer views of Isle Royale Light on Menagerie Island and the isolated Rock of Ages; in September, participants embark on a four-day Manitoulin tour of Canadian lights.
Charlevoix marks the start of one-, two-, three- and four-day lighthouse cruises offered this year in June and August by formerly Houghton-based Keweenaw Excursions. While one trip highlights Sault Ste. Marie, the Soo Locks, the Ile Parisienne Lighthouse and the famed “Rock Cut” in the St. Mary’s River, another works in North Channel beacons, too.
“We get a mix of people who love lighthouses, love the ships and the locks, and who love the casinos,” says owner Jason Funkey.
Aboard the 110-foot U.S. Coast Guard vessel Keweenaw Star, passengers enjoy capturing prime shots from an open-air top deck along with continental breakfast, hot lunches, appetizers, controlled air and a full bar, but head for dry land each night.
More multiple-day adventure can be found on and around Beaver Island, where seven seldom-seen archipelago lights are part of a three-night stay and tour package through Island Hopper Charters (email@example.com; beaverisland.org).
Intriguing Day Trips
The Straits of Mackinac offer the state’s largest concentration of lighthouses in one area: Treacherous shoals, dangerous currents and numerous islands made this array of beacons a must for ships en route to Chicago, Detroit and beyond.
Experienced GLLKA narrators regale guests with plenty of lighthouse lore aboard Shepler’s Lighthouse Cruises. Featured beacons on the Eastbound trip include Round Island, Round Island Passage, Bois Blanc, Poe Reef (named after designer Gen. Orlando Poe, who also designed the Poe Lock at Sault Ste. Marie), Fourteen Foot Shoal and the Cheboygan Range lights. Westbound cruisers will catch sight and stories of White Shoal, Gray’s Reef, Waugoshance and the St. Helena Island Light.
The company also provides extended trips that incorporate Skillagalee and Spectacle Reef lights, a Les Cheneaux experience and — new for 2014 — a special Westbound Nighttime Cruise, narrated by a volunteer GLLKA expert who shares how unique light characteristics aided mariners to safety in the dark.
Treacherous shoals, dangerous currents and numerous islands made an array of beacons
in the Straits a must.
“I guarantee you’ll leave learning something new,” says Pepper of Shepler’s excursions, “regardless of your lighthouse knowledge.”
While driving from the Mackinac Bridge to Sault Ste. Marie takes just about an hour, the water route is longer and more perilous for vessels navigating edges and islands of the Upper Peninsula.
Offered by Soo Locks Boat Tours (soolocks.com), the St. Mary’s River Lighthouse Cruise features both the waterway’s American and Canadian sides for sights of picturesque guiding lights like Cedar Point and Point Iroquois, while further northwest, the history and rugged scenery of restored Copper Harbor Lighthouse seen from a boat much like a 20th-century beacon launch is enlivened by narration and the keel of Lake Superior’s first shipwreck (copperharborlighthouse.com).
A few other unique tours you can do in a day:
- Embark from either Tawas City or Caseville on a one-hour ride across Saginaw Bay to unspoiled Charity Island, where a memorable wooded walk up to the lighthouse and meal of yellow perch or steak awaits (charityisland.net).
- Journey out from Leland to South Manitou Island and climb to the top of its iconic 104-foot tower, relit not long ago at its Manitou Passage post after standing dark for 50 years (manitoutransit.com).
- View half a dozen shipwrecks in the outlying Munising Harbor area and glide up for a closer view of historic wooden East Channel Lighthouse aboard a glass-bottom boat (shipwrecktours.com).
- Meander into the sand dunes at Ludington State Park, follow a scenic trail to Big Sable Point’s iconic black and white tower and explore the original Keeper’s Quarters (splka.org).
- Take a small-group tour of DeTour Reef Light, an offshore beacon rising from a crib in the St. Mary’s River system amid vast shipping traffic (drlps.com). “The restoration undertaken (here) is nothing short of astounding,” Pepper says. “It’s an opportunity that deserves adding to everyone’s lighthouse bucket list.”
More than a few lights in the Great Lakes State invite spending the night with no duties obligated beyond kicking back and taking in serene shoreline sounds and memorable bygone charms. Below are a few regional bed and breakfast-style stations to check out, and check into:
Big Bay Point Lighthouse Bed and Breakfast
High atop a rocky cliff jutting into the clear, deep waters of Lake Superior halfway between Marquette and Keweenaw Portage Entry, this remote, romantic inn — built in 1896 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places — offers seven guest rooms with private baths and is one of the few surviving resident lighthouses in the country (bigbaylighthouse.com).
Lighthouses are part and parcel of a ride across Lake Michigan aboard the S. S. Badger, which has plied the waters between Ludington and Manitowoc, Wis. since the 1950s.
Charity Island Lighthouse & Bed & Breakfast
Situated midway between the city of Au Gres and Michigan’s Thumb at the entrance of Saginaw Bay, Big Charity Island consists of almost 300 acres of forest and three miles of Lake Huron shoreline. Beyond offering a signature “1857 Island Lighthouse Dining Adventure Cruise,” the lightkeepers’ home offers four bedrooms for overnight guests (charityisland.net).
Sand Hills Lighthouse Inn
Built in 1917 on the Keweenaw Peninsula to house three lightkeepers and their families, the largest and last manned lighthouse built on the Great Lakes (also listed on the National Register of Historic Places) exudes Victorian charm and offers eight rooms each featuring a king- or queen-sized bed with private bathroom (sandhillslighthouseinn.com).
Whitefish Point Coast Guard Station
Adjacent to the Whitefish Point Lighthouse in Sault Ste. Marie, the restored 1923 U.S. Coast Guard Lifeboat Station Crews Quarters offers five themed rooms with queen-sized beds, private baths and TVs/VCRs plus shared kitchen/living area and is right near the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum (shipwreckmuseum.com).
Discover other places that extend overnight stays and keeper programs as well at gllka.com.
Learn about Michigan beacons in every region and uncover other tours, programs, resources and events at gllka.com. Freelance writer Ann Byle resides in Grand Rapids. Lisa M. Jensen is the editor of Michigan BLUE Magazine.