Let’s say you’re coming back across the Mackinac Bridge from the Upper Peninsula, but you don’t want to go home just yet. Taking I-75 would be too easy, too straight a path, and too fast. Take U.S. 23 and other coastal highways instead to experience Michigan’s Sunrise Side and its enchanting small towns. We’ll include tips on what else you can do nearby.
Distance: 319 miles
Time: 5 hours, 55 minutes (plus 45-minute boat ride)
Stop #1: Bois Blanc Island
This may be an island, but you don’t need to leave your RV or vehicle behind. The ferry from Cheboygan to Bois Blanc (French for “white wood”) Island runs its 45-minute trip multiple times a day weather permitting from May to November. The island, which has a view of the Mackinac Bridge and the Straits, has a trail network and six lakes as well as a general store and a tavern. Get a spectacular view of the Straits of Mackinac on the west side of the island. It’s larger and less traveled than its northerly neighbor Mackinac Island, by being 12 miles long and 6 miles wide. There are no paved roads, so get ready to do some back-country driving. If you choose to bring your motorized transportation, then make sure to make reservations in advance. Passenger fares for adults, round trip, is $19. Children above the age of five are $13. Auto fares (for instance, a vehicle pulling a towable RV) vary and motorhomes are $155 (for 2020).
If you have time… Make a stop at Historic Mill Creek Discovery Park, where you can get a close-up look at historical demonstrations related to Michigan’s logging methods. You can also go on a guided hike of the forest or explore the groomed trails yourself. Note: The Adventure Tour has been suspended for 2020.
Stop #2: Ocqueoc Falls
You have to stop at the Lower Peninsula’s largest waterfall, Ocqueoc Falls, which also is the only universally-accessible waterfall in the U.S. To get there, take a slight diversion west on M-68 from Rogers City. Choose from three loops (six miles in all) or hit all six miles of trails. Jump into the pool below the falls after your hike to cool off. It’s fantastic scenery in all seasons.
If you have time… Rockport State Recreation Area is another outdoor destination worth visiting. It’s especially stunning at night and offers some of the best stargazing in the state.
Stop #3: Sturgeon Point Lighthouse
Overlooking and keeping watch on the open waters of Lake Huron on U.S. 23 heading south between the towns of Alcona and Harrisville is one of Michigan’s most popular lighthouses. It’s appearance is everything you’d imagine for a Great Lake lighthouse: a tall white tower, a simple white keeper’s house, and red shutters and doors. Sturgeon Point Lighthouse (www.alconahistoricalsociety.com/) was completed way back in 1870, complete with a lens made in Paris, France. The French lens has been retired from service, but the lighthouse is still operational. The U.S. Coast Guard maintains the light and uses an LED light to assist recreational watercraft. Note: The lighthouse and grounds were closed for summer 2020, but the grounds remain open and you can still go on a self-guided tour.
Stop #4: Frankenmuth
Michigan’s “Little Bavaria” is most known for its world-famous fried chicken, riverboat cruises, and of course, Bronner’s Christmas Wonderland. Frankfort has plenty for the outdoor recreationist, too, including fishing the Cass River, kayaking the Cass River, or going for a bike ride. The town is very bicycle friendly. You can ride or walk the Riverwalk, a mile-long loop that goes along the waterfront and around Heritage Park. Another option is the Gunzenhausen Street walkway, which is closed to motorized traffic and has overlooks of the Cass River.
If you have time… stop in at the Frankenmuth Cheese Haus for, what else, cheese! Try the shop’s signature Chocolate Cheese, or opt for snacks, meats, or specialty foods. Visit the website, https://frankenmuthcheesehaus.com/ for a list of items, which can be picked up curbside.
Stop #5: Lexington
Now you’ll turn farther east and drive across the middle of Michigan’s thumb to the village of Lexington in Sanilac County, a charming little harbor town. Visit Lexington State Harbor, a long concrete pier flanked by rails and boulders that juts out into Lake Huron, for a walk into the blue. Just north of Lexington is Port Sanilac, which has a farmer’s market every Friday from May to October. It features produce, baked goods, eggs, meat, honey, and crafts. If you drive south, you’ll reach metro Detroit and all of its historical marvels including the Henry Ford Museum, the Detroit Zoo, and Belle Isle in just over an hour.
If you have time… go to the farmer’s market. It’s not a suggestion. Just go.
Is biking more your speed? Try these trails.
- North Eastern State Trail, which makes its way from Alpena to Cheboygan, gives you a passing glimpse of many towns along the route.
- Au Sable Cruise is 42 miles long and runs parallel to the gorgeous Au Sable River along River Road, a National Forest Scenic Byway.
- Sunrise Side Cruise is for rugged types as most of the 34-mile-long journey is along the shoreline and through the forests with few towns in between.
- Black River Route is a 24-mile loop that runs by Lake Huron and through the “ghost town” of Alcona.