Ultimate Michigan Lighthouse Road Trip, Part 1: Lower Peninsula
Michigan is home to more lighthouses than any other state in the U.S., with more than 120 beacons still standing today. We have more freshwater coastline than anywhere else in the world, and these Great Lakes beacons have been incredibly important guides for shipping, fishing and recreational vehicles. While a good handful of Michigan’s remaining lighthouses are on islands, reefs and shoals, most are on the mainland and remain easily accessible. We’re going to show you how to visit 42 Lower Peninsula lighthouses on our Ultimate Michigan Lighthouse Road Trip, with a set of maps included at the bottom of the post. A paragraph about the history of each lighthouse is included as well as information and links about each one that is a museum or has the tower open for climbing. Our trip begins in Detroit and ends in St. Joseph, but it could be run in either direction. Since everyone has their own pace, this trip could be done in as little as three days or in a week or two. Stay tuned for an Ultimate Michigan Lighthouse Road Trip: Upper Peninsula post coming soon!
Totals for the trip: roughly 1,020 miles and 24 hours of drive time.
Some items you’ll want for this trip: Michigan Recreation Passport (many lighthouses are in state parks), an update Michigan map or GPS unit, sturdy shoes for tower climbs, and proper gear for rain or other inclement weather. A copy of Penrose’s A Traveler’s Guide to 116 Michigan Lighthouses is also a handy thing to have along, as it has directions to each lighthouse and much more historical information than we have included in this post. Enjoy your trip, and feel free to email any questions to email@example.com – we will do our best to get back to you and help in any way we can.
1. William Livingstone Memorial Light – We start our trip on beautiful Belle Isle, where you can find the country’s only lighthouse made of marble. The William Livingstone Memorial Light was built to honor the former president of the Lake Carriers Association and was designed by Albert Kahn. It stands 58 feet tall and is reached after a short walk from a parking area on the east end of the island. A Michigan Recreation Passport is required for entry to Belle Isle. Check out our list of 12 Things to See and Do on Belle Isle for more attractions on this historic island.
2. Windmill Point Light – From the Livingstone Memorial Light, we head north on Jefferson Ave. to the Windmill Point Light in Mariner Park. There was once a traditional lighthouse here, but it was torn down in the 1930s and replaced with the current white steel structure. Mariner Park is a popular fishing spot for local residents, and a great place to watch for passing freighters in the Detroit River.
3. Peche Island Rear Range Light – Our tour continues to head north to Marine City, which is now home to the Peche Island Rear Range Light. While we prefer to follow Jefferson Ave./Lakeshore Dr. and so on as it follows the river, it is quickest to head to I-94 and take it to exit 248. Peche Island is a Canadian-owned island located where the Detroit River meets Lake St. Clair, and after the light was deactivated in the 1980s it was moved to the park in Marine City. The 66 foot tall tower is painted white with green trim and “Marine City” painted on just below the lantern room.
4. HURON Lightship – The drive from Marine City to Port Huron features excellent scenery on M-29 while driving parallel to the St. Clair River. In Pine Grove Park we will stop at the Lightship Huron, one of the few surviving vessels of its kind and a working museum. Huron served at Grays Reef, North Manitou Shoal, Corsica Shoals and the Port Huron/St. Clair River area. This 96-foot long vessel is now full of maritime artifacts, find out more at http://www.phmuseum.org/huron-lightship/. This is the first of many museums and chances to enter a lighthouse on this trip.
5. Fort Gratiot Lighthouse – A short drive across town brings us to Michigan’s oldest surviving lighthouse at Fort Gratiot. Like the Huron, this lighthouse is operated as a museum, with more details available at http://www.phmuseum.org/fort-gratiot-lighthouse/. This lighthouse marks the point where the St. Clair River meets Lake Huron, and it was constructed in 1829 to replace an earlier tower that did not survive. The white tower is capped with a red lantern room and it stands 82 feet tall.
6. Port Sanilac Lighthouse – We now head north on M-25 into Michigan’s “thumb” and the village of Port Sanilac, once a lumberjack settlement on the Lake Huron shoreline. The lighthouse here is privately owned, but can be seen easily from the local marina or a small parking area at the end of Cherry Street. Restoration work has been going on during our last two visits, and the tower is freshly painted white with a black lantern room (which was red before). The tower is 59 feet tall and stands next to a two-story brick keeper’s dwelling.
7. Harbor Beach Lighthouse – A short drive north on M-25 brings us to Harbor Beach, home to the world’s largest man-made freshwater harbor. The 45 foot tall sparkplug light sits at the end of the north breakwall, and it can be seen easily from Bathing Beach Park and its boardwalk at the end of Trescott St. We took kayaks out to the lighthouse in the summer of 2016, and you can also catch a tour that runs out of the local marina on Saturdays from June to September. Find out more at https://harborbeachlighthouse.org/.
8. Pointe Aux Barques Lighthouse – We’re back on the road and working our way around the Thumb, with the next stop coming 15 miles to the north at Lighthouse County Park and the historic Pointe Aux Barques Lighthouse. Constructed in 1857, this tower is 89 feet tall and still provides a light today to warn of the dangerous and shallow reef in the area. The attached keeper’s dwelling is now open as a museum, find out more at http://www.pointeauxbarqueslighthouse.org/.
9. Port Austin Reef Light – A 15 minute drive on M-25 brings us to Port Austin, where you can’t get super close to the castle-like Port Austin Reef Light – but you can get decent views of it from Veterans Waterfront Park. A walk to the end of the breakwater provides great views of this 60 foot tall tower that was built in the 1870s. Restoration efforts are ongoing, and on a clear day a 2.5 trip out to the light with a kayak or small boat is possible, though the reef makes getting close a dangerous and challenging proposition.
We now enter the longest stretch of the trip without a lighthouse: 140 miles and 2.5-3 hours of drive time. When we made this trip in 2016 we had kayaks along and were able to visit the Saginaw River Rear Range Lighthouse, but there are no lighthouses with public access on this stretch.
10. Tawas Point Lighthouse – Our next stop is at one of the most beautiful lighthouses on Michigan’s Lake Huron shoreline. The Tawas Point Lighthouse was built in 1853 to warn of a sandy point that juts out into the lake, presenting a significant hazard for navigation. The tower stands 67 feet tall and is painted white, and it is attached to a brick two-story keeper’s dwelling. This lighthouse is part of Tawas Point State Park and not only can you tour the lighthouse, there are also opportunities for you to stay in it and lead tours during the summer months. More information can be found at: http://www.michigan.gov/mhc.
11. Sturgeon Point Lighthouse – We continue north on US-23 on the “Sunrise Side” to Harrisville, home to the Sturgeon Point Lighthouse. The 71 foot tall tower is painted white with red trim, and an attached dwelling bears the same paint scheme. The Alcona Historical Society operates this as a museum in the summer, and the grounds include many maritime artifacts as well as the 1907 one-room Bailey Schoolhouse. Find out more: http://www.alconahistoricalsociety.com/.
12. Alpena Light – A unique skeletal tower that stands out due to its red paint, the 34 foot tall Alpena Light was built in 1914 when the local harbor was busy due to lumbering. While you can’t get up close to this light since it sits on the Lafarge North America property, you can get a great view by parking next to Bay View Park and walking to the end of the breakwall. Consider a stop at the NOAA Great Lakes Maritime Heritage Center while you’re in the area, as it houses an amazing collection of maritime artifacts and historical displays relating to Thunder Bay’s numerous shipwrecks.
13. Presque Isle Front Range Light – This will be one of the busier stretches of the trip, as we now stop at not one, not two, but THREE lights within a two-mile stretch. Presque Isle harbor was the only natural harbor of refuge for vessels traveling between Mackinaw City and Detroit, which led to the construction of two lighthouses and two range lights. The front range light was constructed in 1870. It was restored and moved closer to its original location in 2002, and it is now the centerpiece of a local park that has picnic tables, a beach, and a statue honoring Anna Garrity – one of the few female lighthouse keepers. Parking is available across the street and the rear range light can be seen through the trees there – it is a private residence so we did not include it on this list.
14. Old Presque Isle Lighthouse – The first lighthouse constructed at Presque Isle was also the one that served for the least amount of time. The Old Presque Isle Lighthouse was constructed in 1840 and taken out of service by 1870, as weather had taken a toll on its structure. The tower, which is painted white with a black lantern room, is white brick and sits close to a two-story keeper’s dwelling. This lighthouse is now operated as a museum, and you can climb the lighthouse tower for a small fee. Find out more at http://www.presqueislelighthouses.org/home.html.
15. New Presque Isle Lighthouse – This is one of the tallest lighthouses on the Great Lakes at 109 feet, and like the lighthouse it replaced the New Presque Isle Lighthouse is now open as a museum with the opportunity to climb its tower. This lighthouse was constructed in 1870 to replace the much shorter, weathered Old Presque Isle Lighthouse. Its tower is painted white with green and red trim, a paint scheme that carries over to the other buildings in the complex. Find out more about hours of operation at http://www.presqueislelighthouses.org/home.html.
16. Forty Mile Point Lighthouse – Seven miles north of Rogers City we find the Forty Mile Point Lighthouse, which was constructed to provide a light in the dangerous stretch between Presque Isle and Cheboygan. A short walk to the beach here shows how dangerous the area was for ships, as part of the hull of the wooden steamer Joseph S. Fay permanently rests here. The tower stands 52 feet tall and is painted white and capped with a black lantern room. The attached dwelling is red brick with a red roof. The 40 Mile Point Lighthouse Society has done a great job preserving this light and the surrounding area; visitors can tour the lighthouse and climb the tower, check out the former wheelhouse of the freighter Calcite, and check out numerous other nautical artifacts. Find out more at http://www.40milepointlighthouse.org/. Other attractions in the area include P.H. Hoeft State Park, Ocqueoc Falls, and the World’s Largest Limestone Quarry.
17. Cheboygan River Front Range Lighthouse – This lighthouse was constructed in 1880, when Cheboygan was busy town thanks to a booming lumber industry. It sits alongside the Cheboygan River, and restoration efforts over the course of the last decade have it looking great. Volunteer keepers offer tours on weekends in the summer, more info: http://www.gllka.com/cheboygan.html.
18. Cheboygan Crib Light – From the river range light we drive about a mile down the road to Turner Park. Here you will find a playground and an excellent swimming beach, as well as access to the Cheboygan Crib Light. This light used to sit out in Lake Huron, but was moved to its current location in the 1980s after modern technology made it obsolete. It is an octagonal structure painted white with red trim, and it stands 25 feet tall. From the end of the pier here you can also take in distant views of the Poe Reef Light and Fourteen Foot Shoal Light for two bonus lighthouses on this trip!
If you’re looking to add a few bonus lighthouses to your trip and the timing works out, consider taking one of the lighthouse cruises offered by Shepler’s. Find out more at http://sheplersferry.com/cruises/, some of the additional lighthouses are the Bois Blanc Island Lighthouse, White Shoal Light, Waugoshance Light and St. Helena Island Lighthouse.
19. Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse – One of the state’s most visited lighthouses is the castle-like Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse in Mackinaw City. Due to its location in a park that also features great views of the Mackinac Bridge it is a frequent stop for tourists and photographers. This lighthouse served from 1892 through 1957, when the bridge made it obsolete. Its tower is 50 feet tall and its detailed brick construction makes it one of the state’s most picturesque lighthouse. Mackinac State Historic Parks operates the lighthouse complex as a museum, with tours and tower climbs available. Find out more at http://www.mackinacparks.com/parks-and-attractions/old-mackinac-point-lighthouse/. From the park here, you can also get distant views of the Round Island Lighthouse and Mackinac Island Crib Light, for two more bonus lights! Check out our posts on 19 Things to See and Do in Mackinaw City for more fun ideas.
Be sure to stop into the Great Lakes Lighthouse Keepers Association headquarters at 707 N. Huron while you’re in Mackinaw City. It’s across the street from the parking for the Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse, and it’s a great stop for information, lighthouse gifts and clothing, and the Lighthouse Passport stamps for many of the area lights.
20. McGulpin Point Lighthouse – Three miles west of downtown we find one of the oldest surviving lighthouses in Michigan, the 1869 McGulpin Point Lighthouse. This lighthouse made of Cream City brick served until the early 1900s when the Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse made it unnecessary. It was privately owned for years and at one point the lantern room was removed, but extensive restoration by Emmet County it has been returned to its former glory and is open as a museum. Find out more at http://www.mcgulpinpoint.org/. A hiking trail runs from the lighthouse to the Lake Michigan shoreline with several interpretive signs depicting the area’s history. The same design would later be used at the White River Lighthouse which we will see near the end of the trip.
21. Petoskey Pierhead Light – Since the Little Traverse Lighthouse in Harbor Springs can only be seen from the water due to its location in an exclusive gated housing community, our next stop is at the simple but functional Petoskey Pierhead Light. This 40 foot tall beacon went into service in the 1930s, replacing an earlier lighthouse that was much more unique in design. This light is painted white with a red band on the middle, and it can be reached by walking the breakwater when weather conditions permit. If you need a beer while you’re in town, we recommend Petoskey Brewing, Beards Brewery, or Mackinaw Trail Winery and Brewery.
22. Charlevoix South Pier Light – The light at the end of the pier in Charlevoix is a point of pride for local residents, and you will find it featured on much of the city’s tourism material as well as the logo for Lake Charlevoix Brewing. This skeletal tower is painted red, made of steel, and it stands 44 feet tall. Built in 1948, it was originally painted red then changed to white for years before being returned to its original color in 2009. You can park at Michigan Beach Park and make the short walk right up to the light, where you’ll also be able to watch ships passing as they make their way between Lake Charlevoix and Lake Michigan. The beach here is also a good place to hunt for Petoskey stones.
23. Old Mission Point Lighthouse – Just as we start to approach Traverse City, we head north on M-37 and follow it about 20 miles to its end at a county park and the Old Mission Point Lighthouse. This picturesque, schoolhouse-style lighthouse sits just south of the 45th Parallel (halfway between the Equator and the North Pole) and is painted white. This lighthouse was constructed in 1870 and its 36 foot tall tower served through the 1930s. It is now open as a museum and you can even climb the tower for amazing views of the Grand Traverse Bay. This is a popular spot for kayaking, find out more at http://www.missionpointlighthouse.com/. Be sure to check out the quilt barns in the area too!
24. Grand Traverse Lighthouse – After the trip up and down the Old Mission Peninsula, we pass through Traverse City and then head north once again – this time to the tip of the Leelanau Peninsula. It is roughly an hour’s drive each way, but the Grand Traverse Lighthouse is one that shouldn’t be missed. This is one of the more unique beacons on this tip, as the two story dwelling has many windows and is painted white with red and green accents and trim. The tower is 41 feet tall and capped with a black lantern room that rises above the gabled roof. This is yet another lighthouse that you can tour, climb the tower, and explore the fog signal building and other parts of the grounds that have been restored. Find out more at https://www.grandtraverselighthouse.com/.
25. Robert H. Manning Memorial Light – Our next lighthouse is found near one of the state’s most beautiful attractions: the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. Built in 1990, the Robert H. Manning Memorial Light is one of the newest working lighthouses on the Great Lakes. It stands 38 feet tall and is constructed of wood with a light-colored stucco exterior. The lantern room is painted green, and the side of the tower that faces the parking lot has a door and two windows. You’ll find it in Empire’s Village Park, and just a mile away you’ll find the headquarters for Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore. If you have the time, check out some of our favorite hikes at Empire Bluffs and Pyramid Point, as well as our full list of 22 Things To See at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.
26. Point Betsie Lighthouse – Southwest of the national lakeshore we find the incredibly picturesque Point Betsie Lighthouse, which sits on a sand dune overlooking Lake Michigan and the souther end of the Manitou Passage. This lighthouse was built in the 1850s and it was manned until the 1980s, making it the last light on Lake Michigan and the last light in Michigan to lose its keeper. The cylindrical tower is 37 feet tall and it is attached to a keepers house that is painted white with green trim and a gambrel roof with red shingles. The Point Betsie Lighthouse is open for tours on a limited summer schedule, and you can even rent the lighthouse out for an event or stay there for a week. Find out more at http://www.pointbetsie.org/visit/tours-rates.html.
27. Frankfort North Breakwater Light – Our next stop is at a unique breakwater light in a city that has become a summer vacation hotspot on M-22. The Frankfort North Breakwater Light you will see is actually the 44 foot tall pier light from 1912 placed on top of a 25 foot tall steel base. There is parking at the west end of Main St., and from there a sidewalk leads to the breakwater so you can walk out and see this light up close when conditions allow – this is a popular swimming and fishing spot.
28. Manistee North Pierhead Lighthouse – It may be a simple, white, cast iron cylindrical tower, but the 39 foot tall Manistee North Pierhead Lighthouse is also one of only four places in Michigan where a catwalk remains in place (get excited, because all four will be visited on this trip!). The route to this lighthouse passes through a subdivision, so be sure to keep a close eye on directions that will get you to 5th Avenue Beach and a parking area.
29. Big Sable Point Lighthouse – We now come to the famed Big Sable Point Lighthouse, and the longest walk of this trip. Located in Ludington State Park, this lighthouse is reached by wither following the Lake Michigan beach or a hiking trail (between 1.5 and 2 miles) that can be reached from inside the campground or from the day-use beach parking area. Check out our Photo Gallery: Ludington State Park for more great views of this lighthouse as well as other favorite sights and sites within the park. At 112 feet tall this is one of the state’s tallest mainland light towers, and thanks to volunteer “keepers” you can climb the tower and tour the lighthouse during the summer season. The Big Sable Point Lighthouse is easily identified by its white and black striped tower, which is brick covered with boiler plate to help it withstand the elements. It is definitely worth the walk to get back to this lighthouse, and there are some days when bus transportation is offered. Find out more at the Sable Points Lighthouse Keepers Association page, http://www.splka.org/lights.html. Be sure to check out a Trail Map online or at the visitor center before heading out.
30. Ludington North Breakwater Light – From Ludington State Park we head into town for a stop at the Ludington North Breakwater Light, a unique “square pyramidal” beacon that stands 57 feet tall. Dating back to 1871, this tower is white with a black lantern base and black lantern room. The breakwater is open to the public and in summer months is a popular place – you might even catch the S.S. Badger passing by! The Sable Points Lighthouse Keepers Association keeps this light open for tower climbs during summer months, find out more at http://www.splka.org/lights.html.
31. Pentwater North Pier Light – This simple light is white and cylindrical, with a green band in the middle. It went into service in 1987 and is best viewed from Charles Mears State Park. The roughly 30 foot tall tower helps guide mariners into the harbor from Lake Michigan.
32. Pentwater South Pier Light – Like its neighbor across the channel, the south pier light is simple yet functional. Dating back to the late 1930s, this red skeletal tower is roughly 30 feet tall. It can be viewed easily from Charles Mears State Park.
33. Little Sable Point Light – From Pentwater we travel about 10 miles to Silver Lake State Park’s day-use beach and the Little Sable Point (or Petite Point Au Sable) Light. At one time there was a house attached to this tower, and the tower was white. Now it is an extremely picturesque light with a brick tower that rises more than 100 feet above the dunes. The Sable Point Light Keepers Association offers tower climbs in the summer, more info at http://www.splka.org/lights.html.
34. White River Light Station – Lumbering led to a channel being dredged to connect White Lake to Lake Michigan, and the construction of the White River Lighthouse in 1875. This is the same style lighthouse as the McGulpin Point Lighthouse we visited earlier in Mackinac City, constructed with Cream City brick and featuring an octagonal tower rising above a two-story attached dwelling. The tower is nearly 40 feet tall and this lighthouse is open for tours and tower climbs. Find out more at http://www.splka.org/whiteriver.html.
35. Muskegon South Pierhead Lighthouse – We next head to the channel that connects Lake Michigan and Muskegon Lake, where two bright red lights help guide boats in and out. The South Pierhead Lighthouse is a conical tower that is 48 feet tall. It is open for tower climbs during the summer, find out more at http://www.muskegonlights.org/. From the top of the tower you have great views of Muskegon State Park across the channel as well as passing boats like the Lake Express ferry that travels between Muskegon and Milwaukee, Wisconsin. There is a parking area for this lighthouse next to Margaret Drake Elliott Park.
36. Muskegon South Breakwater Light – The Michigan Lighthouse Conservancy maintains the South Pierhead Light as well as the 53 foot tall South Breakwater Light. Built on a square base, it is a square pyramidal tower that ends up being a skinnier version of the Ludington North Breakwater Light we visited earlier. It dates back to the 1850s and it can be reached by walking out on the breakwater from Pere Marquette Park when weather conditions allow. At this point tours are “closed to the public until further restoration can be financed.” Check out our list of 16 Things to See and Do in Muskegon for more fun stops while you’re in the area.
37. Grand Haven South Pierhead Inner Light – Grand Haven is one of the most popular spots on Lake Michigan during the summer months, and walking the pier to the lighthouse is a must-do activity when you visit. A current construction project will limit access to this structure for the 2016-17 season (and the catwalk has been removed), but the lights can still be viewed from Grand Haven State Park or the public boardwalk that follows the Grand River. This bright red conical tower stands more than 50 feet tall and it has been in service for more than 100 years.
38. Grand Haven South Pierhead Outer Light – We once again get two lights at the same location, as the Grand Haven Inner Light is complimented by the Outer Light that sits at the end of the pier just a few feet from Lake Michigan. This lighthouse sits on top of a concrete base, and is a fog signal building with a lantern room on top.
39. Holland Harbor Lighthouse – “Big Red” is one of Michigan’s most easily recognizable lighthouses, and a source of pride for Holland residents. The Holland Harbor Lighthouse square building with gabled roofs and a square tower that reaches 32 feet. This structure was constructed in 1907 on the south side of the channel connecting Lake Michigan and Lake Macatawa; replacing several earlier structures at or near this site. While it is easy and possible to view Big Red any time from Holland State Park, there is also limited access to it. Head to http://bigredlighthouse.com/ for more information and directions as well as information on the very limited tour schedule.
If you’d like to add a bonus lighthouse, there is a replica of the Kalamazoo River Lighthouse in Douglas near the marina (219 Union St.).
40. South Haven Light – We are now in the home stretch, with only two stops to go and three more lighthouses to visit. The third Michigan light with a remaining catwalk is the South Haven Light, a structure that dates back to the early 1900s. Like many of its neighbors to the north it is painted red, and it stands 35 feet tall. You can walk out to the lighthouse when weather conditions allow, with parking available at South Beach Public Park at the end of Water St.
41. St. Joseph North Pier Inner Lighthouse – Our final stop is in St. Joseph, a Lake Michigan beach town that is just a half hour’s drive away from the Indiana border. This 57 foot tall light has a white square steel base with a red pyramidal roof. It has a white octagonal tower rising out of that roof, capped with a black lantern room. This lighthouse was featured in a 1995 set of United States postage stamps as the Lake Michigan selection for the “Great Lakes Lighthouses” collection. You can walk out to this light by parking at Tiscornia Park and following the pier. A similar light can be found on the end of the pier in Michigan City, Indiana.
42. St. Joseph North Pier Outer Light – Our final light is a simple white cylindrical tower with a black lantern room. It is covered with white metal sheeting and both of these lights trace their history back to the early 1900s.