Lake Huron is what makes Alpena feel like home. For those who live there or visit, the lake is their companion, their friend, their comfort.
“It is so much a part of our DNA that we feel odd when we spend extensive time in communities where we can’t see water,” said Mary Beth Stutzman, an Alpena native who sometimes takes her coffee out on Blair Street Pier to watch the sun rise in streaks of pink over the lake. “It is somewhat of a meditative experience to start the day with such beauty.”
Compared to some Michigan shoreline towns, Alpena is modest about its charms.
Set in the sparsely populated northeast Lower Peninsula near the 45th parallel,
Alpena’s tourism intersects with its manufacturing heritage — logging and quarrying.
Logging is long over, but at one time up to 2,000 ships a year steamed or sailed into Alpena’s Thunder Bay — and many didn’t survive its storms and shoals. Nearly 200 shipwrecks offshore make the area’s Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary a popular place for shipwreck diving and shipwreck tours.
It’s the biggest town around for most people.
— Blake Gingrich
Quarrying continues today, and Alpena County is filled with strange karst formations, sinkholes and fossils, reflecting the ancient era when this was a saltwater sea. Those combined features attract an unusual assortment of visitors including fossil hunters, geologists, extreme triathletes and shipwreck fans. But there are more gentle experiences, too.
In town, Alpena has intriguing architecture. It has two outstanding museums, excellent birdwatching opportunities and sandy swimming beaches. Its historical downtown has a sturdy character, with ponds and walking trails just beyond the center business district.
“It’s the biggest town around for most people,” said Blake Gingrich, supervisor of two nearby state parks. Set on the shoreline-hugging U.S. 23 Heritage Route that runs from Au Gres up to Mackinaw City, Alpena is a popular summer destination. Here, the sun rises over the lake instead of sets. Thunder Bay faces south, so it also is somewhat protected from shoreline damage as the water rises in the Great Lakes. “Shipwreck Alley” may lurk just offshore, but Alpena perks along with each new day. Among the sights not to miss:
Start with a walk out on the long harbor break wall where boats sail past “Little Red,” a spindly-legged yet endearing steel lighthouse that is an Alpena icon. Later, shop downtown, ducking into Bob’s Bullpen comic bookstore and Thunder Bay Art Council and Gallery. Search for some made-in-Alpena gifts like Svede’s Lotion Bar, polished pudding stones or Alpena’s version of Monopoly, “Alpenopoly,” at The Local Basket Case gift shop, said Adrianna Gumtow, a clerk who grew up here.
One thing you’ll notice about Alpena is that nature is just beyond the downtown core. The town has three sandy beaches, including the family friendly Starlite Beach. Just a few blocks away, Duck Park and Island Park are part of a 500-acre wildlife sanctuary. Walk across a scenic covered bridge that looks old but dates from 2015, then hike trails or rent a kayak. Look for blue herons and other waterfowl on the trails or catch a glimpse of a warbler. Alpena is part of the 145-mile Sunrise Birding Trail that runs up the Lake Huron shoreline.
You can dive on Alpena’s famous shipwrecks, but most people instead take a boat, paddleboard or even swim. More than 200 wrecks exist in the watery sanctuary. In season, board the Lady Michigan, whose glass bottom lets you glimpse the well-preserved graves of the wrecks below. The most visited wrecks are in less than 20 feet of water, especially the Portland at the Bell Bay Besser Natural Area. For Alpena residents, however, their most beloved shipwreck was the Nordmeer, a German ship that partly sank in 1966 seven miles offshore, leaving the cabins and bridge portion floating. “In the ’70s, people used to have parties on it,” said Stutzman, now Alpena Area Convention & Visitors Bureau’s director. After 20 years of festivities, the Nordmeer slowly sank, disappearing under the waves by 2010.
An Amazing Maritime Museum
The Great Lakes Maritime Heritage Center has the sheen and polish of a much larger museum. Built in 2005, it includes a full-size replica of a Great Lakes schooner and artifacts from many wrecks in Alpena’s Thunder Bay, including the Nordmeer. Visitors may be surprised by the sophistication of the interactive exhibits. The museum is jointly run by NOAA and the state of Michigan as part of the National Thunder Bay Marine Sanctuary.
So much of Alpena’s soul can be traced back to rocks, shale, clay and limestone that made the raw cement. Collapsing limestone formations created strange sinkholes and mysterious underground rivers. Drive west of town to the Stevens Twin Sinks to see two huge sinkholes created when the land collapsed. Many area sinkholes are on private land or are open for tours only on certain days, so check ahead with the Alpena Visitors Bureau.
Stargazers often head north of town to the rugged Rockport State Recreation Area, where pitch-black skies prevail. At night, some people stand in the parking lot, “or over by the view of Middle Island. Some people walk away from the parking lot into the quarry. Some climb the big pile of gravel,” said Gingrich, park supervisor. From there, you can see the ribbon of the Milky Way and in season, the northern lights.
Other official state dark sky preserves in the region are Negwegon State Park and Thompson’s Harbor State Park. In downtown Alpena, the Besser Planetarium shows visitors what the skies look like if you saw them from Detroit, then in Alpena (clearer) and then if the Earth had no lights at all — spectacular. The swath of starry skies in Alpena often surprises visitors, said Johnathan Winckowski, planetarium coordinator. “We have visitors from downstate who never have seen the Big Dipper,” he said.
Streets full of large Victorian homes attest to the affluence of Alpena at the turn of the 20th century. But two homes are unique. Architectural history fans should not miss the first house in the world built of “Besser block.” Jesse Besser’s former house at 232 South First Street was built in 1938 to prove that a beautiful home could be built of concrete blocks. Today the private home is on the register of Michigan historic sites. Meanwhile, the rocky heritage of Alpena is on vivid display at the Carl Henry House at 319 South State Avenue. The stunning exterior is made entirely of large boulders taken from Lake Huron and nearby lakes. Built in 1902, it is a private home.
Besser Museum for Northeast Michigan
In the early 1900s, Alpena’s Jesse Besser perfected a clever machine to swiftly make concrete blocks. It revolutionized building around the world. Besser got rich and became a town benefactor — thus the Besser Museum (Besser’s world headquarters and manufacturing facility also remain in Alpena.) The Besser Museum was Jesse Besser’s vision, so it features his personal interests — art, history, science and engineering, including the only digital planetarium in northern Michigan.
Two standouts in the collection are especially worth the visit. The first is a cool and rare car — the only known remaining Alpena Flyer. Built in 1911, the sleek touring car is the last known remaining vehicle produced by the Alpena Motor Company in its brief existence from 1910 to 1914.
Meanwhile, arts and crafts lovers will appreciate the near-perfect “porkypine” black ash basket created by the late Edith Bondie, a northeast Michigan artist whose work also is owned by the Smithsonian Institution. It is part of a large and fascinating Native American exhibit that includes fossils, early pottery, spearpoints and baskets from northern Michigan.
In Alpena, the link between the ancient and modern seems to have happened in the blink of an eye. There’s the everyday Alpena: brisk, plain and efficient, where the courts and hospital and Walmart are located, where its work is as the busy center of northeast Lower Peninsula commerce.
Yet, Alpena also is a port stop for Great Lakes cruise ships. Many foreign tourists, often German, are fascinated by the “exotic” Michigan locale, with its layers of history and small-town American know-how. They see, perhaps, what locals and Michigan tourists do not — the weaving together of history and the present, the breathtakingly beautiful setting that Alpena residents take for granted, and quirky architecture. And then there is the space. There is a lot of space in Alpena. In town it may be busy, and out M-32 to the west are the usual shopping plazas, but drive a few miles in any direction and you get the full impact of northeast lower Michigan’s sparse population and space to breathe.
Nature in its most languid form is here. You can stretch your arms high. Ah, silence. And as always, the big lake watches.
If You Go…
Alpena is about 4 hours from both Detroit and Grand Rapids. The Alpena Regional Airport also has flights to and from Detroit.
Dining: Many choices, including the fine dining farm-to-table Fresh Palate Gourmet (www.freshpalategourmet.com) and John A. Lau’s Saloon, a famous — and supposedly haunted — steak house (www.johnalausaloon.com)
Lodging: Basic chain hotels, plus some iconic spots like the Forty Winks Motel. Camping abounds, including sites at the Alpena County Fairgrounds; also, many beachside vacation rentals. For lodging options, see www.visitalpena.com.
Ellen Creager is a travel writer and author who lives in Grosse Pointe Woods.