A swath of autumn color parallels M-25, the lakeside route that leads from Bay City to Port Huron, tracing the edges of Michigan’s Thumb. The vibrant red and yellow sugar maples and beeches would brighten any stretch of pavement, but here along Michigan’s Thumb Coast, the foliage appears all the more brilliant, contrasted by eastern Michigan’s golden beaches and the turquoise waters of Lake Huron.
The region ranks among the state’s lesser-traveled destinations, but it promises a quiet, scenic getaway that’s especially lovely in the fall.
Some 160 miles of Lake Huron beachfront embrace the Thumb area, making its natural attractions a highlight. Three state parks preserve the Lake Huron shore; the southernmost, Lakeport State Park, is located just north of Port Huron, while the others — Port Crescent and Sleeper State Park — are nestled on the tip of the Thumb.
Hiking trails at the three parks wind through unspoiled dunes and beneath a coastal forest that’s ablaze with color above and pleasantly crunchy underfoot. Shore birds dive into the Lake Huron surf, whitetail deer hide anxiously among the trees, and it’s not unusual to spy a Great Lakes freighter passing by.
Port Crescent State Park’s designation as a dark sky preserve (see related story in the Waterways section) gives visitors a reason to stay up past sunset. Wrap yourself in a fleece jacket and head to the park’s stargazing platform, where the rural surroundings and the broad surface of Lake Huron ensure you’ll be able to see the twinkle of a million stars on cloudless evenings.
Albert Sleeper State Park, seven miles to the west and named for the Michigan governor who created Michigan’s state park system, benefits from its location on a slight bend in the shoreline. The beach curves just enough to allow views of a vibrant Lake Huron sunrise in the morning and a similarly colorful sunset in the evening.
Five Lake Huron lighthouses dot the route. Climb a tower, visit a lighthouse museum, or spend a morning admiring these historic and gracious beacons.
The Great Lakes’ oldest lighthouse is Fort Gratiot. Constructed in Port Huron in 1829, a climb up the 82-foot white brick tower offers sweeping views of Lake Huron where it funnels into the St. Clair River below the International Blue Water Bridge to Canada. A visit to the lighthouse museum includes the restored keeper’s quarters.
The Pointe aux Barques Lighthouse was built in 1857 in Port Austin. The stately white tower was meant to guide ships as they made their way past the tricky tip of the Thumb, and is open for tours and museum visits through September.
The area’s most interesting lighthouse may be the Huron Lightship. Constructed in 1921 as a floating beacon, the ship was the last such vessel in service when it was decommissioned in 1970; it’s now designated as a National Historic Landmark. The ship and its museum in Port Huron are open through October, with free admission.
Steeped in Great Lakes history, the small towns of Michigan’s Thumb charm visitors with dozens of independent boutiques, restaurants, and coffee shops all along the coastline.
Tucked deep within the curve of Saginaw Bay, Bay City anchors the west end of M-25 (see related travel story). Its downtown waterfront is busy with coffee shops, restaurants, and boutiques. A favorite is the Bay City Antiques Center. With two stories and 60,000 square feet of furniture, architectural salvage, and maritime collectibles, it’s the largest antiques shop in the state.
The coastal town of Port Austin serves as a good hub for exploring the Thumb’s northernmost state parks and lighthouses. Downtown, independent vendors sell jewelry, clothing, and wine from small storefronts on the Village Green. Port Austin’s farmers market, one of the state’s largest and open through mid-October, showcases the season’s harvest: locally grown apples, pears, pumpkins, and cut flowers.
Harbor Beach, to the south, revolves around the water. Established as a harbor of refuge — a safe zone where ships could wait out Lake Huron storms — Harbor Beach’s white cast iron lighthouse was erected in 1885. If the weather’s warm enough, paddle a kayak out to see the vessels that didn’t make it, as their wrecks are still visible in the shallow waters offshore.
M-25’s southern terminus lies in Port Huron. The Great Lakes Maritime Center observation deck, along the Blue Water River Walk, is a great place to watch heavily laden freighters pass during the shipping season. Alternately, you could head to Freighters restaurant, where the restaurant’s plate glass windows look onto the ships passing just a few feet away. By year’s end, snow and ice will arrive and the shipping lanes will have much less traffic. All the more reason to savor autumn while it lasts.
Blue Water Area Convention & Visitors Bureau
Great Lakes Bay Regional Convention & Visitors Bureau
By Amy S. Eckert