Driving along the 120 miles of M-53 leading north out of metro Detroit, the transition from urban to suburban to rural added a relaxing aspect to an action-packed Port Austin getaway. As I passed through small towns and sprawling farmland where beans, corn, grain, and sugar beets grow, I shared the highway with farm vehicles and kayak-carrying SUVs en route to their Tip of The Thumb destinations.
Outdoor adventurers love the Port Austin community of about 700 residents (32,000 in Huron County) because it sits along the sparkling blue waters of Lake Huron. Plus, its unique northern tip location offers stunning views of Great Lakes sunrises and sunsets.
“We’re a hidden gem with outdoor activities, arts and culture, and great restaurants including fine dining and places to stay. It has an ‘Up North’ feel that’s an easy drive to get to,” boasts Jill Babcock, Port Austin Area Chamber of Commerce officer and local business owner.
My family favorite is the bustling downtown Port Austin Farmers Market, which comes alive on Saturdays between May and October. Tucked in among historic buildings that house restaurants and stores, retro motels, charming inns, and The Village Green Shops, the lively outdoor market has sprouted into a prized community attraction.
Just ask Lisa Pridnia, who developed the Port Austin Farmers Market nearly 20 years ago with her late husband, John Pridnia.
“After our early retirement, my husband and I traveled around the country in a motorcoach and sought out farmers markets. We came to understand that local farmers markets reflect the culture of a community — whether it be artisans, produce, flowers, or livestock,” she says.
When the couple settled in Port Austin, they had the idea of creating a farmers market that not only reflected the area’s local agricultural roots but could help re-energize the downtown area. Since John formerly served in Michigan’s Senate and House representing northern Michigan, and Lisa worked in public policy and community development, they were able to utilize their professional backgrounds to help their new community.
Today, the thriving Port Austin Farmers Market is run by the local chamber and is recognized as one of the top farmers markets in Michigan. It features more than 70 vendors each week, including many local farmers and businesses offering fresh fruits, vegetables, fish, meat, and baked goods, as well as items from local artisans, crafters, and vendors. It often features live entertainment.
“Looking back, the farmers market really was the awakening of our community. So many people embraced it. We started seeing young people staying, raising their families, buying businesses, and investing in the community,” Pridnia explains.
On the Waterfront
Port Austin’s biggest year-round draw is its scenic waterfront and the recreation associated with it. Babcock says the visionary and driving force behind the multimillion-dollar renovation of the harbor nearly a decade ago was John Pridnia. The busy harbor area includes a marina, parks, a welcome center, and other amenities. The half-mile-long breakwall is popular for walking, fishing, or just taking in the view. Further improvements to the harbor are expected this year.
The Port Austin Reef Light, first lit in 1878 and still operational today while it undergoes renovations by a nonprofit lighthouse association, shines as another local attraction. Located about 2.5 miles offshore from the Port Austin State Harbor, pontoon boat tours to this grand “Castle on the Lake” can be scheduled for Saturdays during the summer season. Those on the tour can climb to the top of the seven-story lighthouse for panoramic views.
Kayaking has emerged as a big lure to the area, especially trips to picturesque Turnip Rock, the delightful Instagram-able turnip-shaped rock formation near the Lake Huron shoreline.
In 2006, Chris Boyle started his Port Austin Kayak rental business with just a few kayaks. From that modest beginning, his operation has grown and helped transform Port Austin into a major kayaking destination. He also rents paddle boards and bikes.
Boyle recommends two kayaking trails on Lake Huron from Port Austin: The seven-mile round trip trail to scenic Turnip Rock, which takes two to four hours, depending on weather conditions, and Broken Rocks Trail, an easier and more family-friendly paddle that that takes about two hours round trip and includes rock formations and sea caves. At Table Rock, he says paddlers can pull up their kayaks, swim, and enjoy a picnic. Kayakers also can paddle the slower, winding Pinnebog River, which flows through Port Crescent State Park into Lake Huron.
Boyle continues to invest in the community through new retail businesses and restaurants. “There’s been a real transformation in Port Austin over the last 10 to 15 years. Port Austin is still small and quaint, but there’s so much to do here. We have great outdoor activities for everyone — trails, golfing, boating, and fishing.”
The most buzz worthy park, day or night, is Port Crescent State Park. Its highlights include three miles of sandy shoreline, five miles of hiking and cross-country trails, and a meandering boardwalk that features scenic views of Saginaw Bay. It’s also one of only six dark sky preserves in Michigan, and visitors enjoy awe-inspiring starlit night skies.
Babcock, who also works in her family’s real estate and motel businesses and recently launched 85ten, a boutique hotel, encourages visitors to maximize their time at the Tip of The Thumb. “Port Austin is a magical place with four seasons of beauty. Don’t limit yourself to visiting in the summer. Get out and explore year-round. Port Austin is beautiful in fall and winter, too.”