Mileage: 108 miles
Driving Time: 3 hours, 16 minutes (plus a ferry ride)
There are five “Great Lakes,” with four of them embracing Michigan shoreline. Lake Michigan, Lake Superior, and Lake Huron encompass most of the lakeshore real estate and are the most well-known by residents and travelers. But down in the southeast “corner” of the state, Lake Erie awaits.
This often-forgotten Great Lake is the shallowest and smallest of the collection of lakes, making it especially warm for swimming early on in the season as well as the first to freeze over in the winter. Historically, “Erie” came from an Iroquoian word that means “long tail.”
Another lake, often referred to as the Sixth Great Lake, is Lake St. Clair, a body of water between Lake Huron and Lake Erie near Metro Detroit, and a connection point along the St. Clair River.
This driving tour moves parallel to these important waterways.
Stop #1: River Raisin National Battlefield
The River Raisin National Battlefield honors and describes this important battle from the War of 1812, and the cultures of the Native Americans and French Settlers who lived in this area historically. French explorers called it La Rivière aux Raisins (The River with Grapes), because of the wild grapes growing along the banks. Visiting this small national park, you can see everything in an hour or two. Highlights include the battlefield (Remember the Raisin!); Soldiers Monument, which marks the core location of the battles; and the former location of the Wayne Stockade, which modern day traffic patterns remember.
Stop #2: Sterling State Park
Our second stop on Lake Erie is Sterling State Park in Monroe, the only Michigan state park on this body of water. There are seven miles of hiking trails and it’s a great spot to go birding (wait until you hear about our next stop though), and there is also a boat launch, playgrounds, and a one-mile sandy beach with three lagoons. On clear days, you can see from Ontario, Canada, to Ohio. Lake Erie is also a favorite spot for anglers looking to hook a walleye or two.
Stop #3: International Wildlife Refuge
From the Detroit River to the western shore of Lake Erie is a favorite for bird watchers: the 6,000-acre International Wildlife Refuge. This is the only established international wildlife refuge in North America with units both in Michigan and Ontario. There are several trails, boardwalks, visitor centers, and overlooks. The John D. Dingell Jr. Visitor Center, open Thursday-Sunday 10 a.m.-4 p.m., is a launching point for hikers and has equipment rentals available if you don’t have your own, including binoculars, fishing poles, tackle boxes, and explorer packs. While exploring, you’ll encounter many types winged creatures. The refuge habitats support more than 300 species of waterfowl, 31 species of raptors, and 31 species of shorebirds. It’s a popular spot for many types of ducks during various seasons.
Stop #4: Grosse Ile North Channel Range Front Light
Within the bounds of the St. Clair River is an assortment of lighthouses that have already seen their heyday, yet they continue to prove useful. One such is the Grosse Ile North Channel Range Front Light on the east end of Grosse Ile. Standing 40 feet tall, the clapboard-sided, octagonal tower was built in 1906 and deactivated in 1963. Unlike more accessible lighthouses on public land or within the bounds of a state park, this lighthouse resides on private land and a request must be made to be escorted to the lighthouse by members of the historical society. They are more than happy to do so, and more than likely you’ll have a private experience of this beautiful historic lighthouse.
Stop #5: St. Clair Shores
This waterfront community on Lake St. Clair is ideal for getting up close and personal with the water. Here, rent a kayak or paddleboard and get out on the lake. There are a few options including: Great Lakes Surf Shop, Simple Adventures, and the Kayak Store. There are a lot of historic sites within easy driving distance as well, including the Ford mansion.
Stop #6: Algonac, Michigan
Continue driving along the river toward Port Huron (home of one of our annual RV and camping shows) and stop at the little town of Algonac. If you appreciate boats and maritime history, you’ll be happy to hear that this is the birthplace of Chris-Craft boats. It’s also known as “The Pickerel Capital of the World.” You can easily walk this little town, including the downtown boardwalk. There are shops and eateries that provide beachy diversion and satisfaction. There are also several antique shops within Algonac and in the surrounding area.
Stop #7: Harsen’s Island
If you like to boat, fish, or simply relax, you can take a 12-minute car ferry across from Algonac to charming Harsen’s Island. It costs only $12. Take your time driving around the island, explore the channel communities, and stop for something to eat. While you’re here, you will probably get a very close look at a passing Great Lakes freighter. Visit the shops and stop in at the local distillery for a pint. This is a very rural spot, full of beauty and Michigan character. It’s the perfect way to end your driving tour.