People once found adventure by thumbing rides around Michigan; now they find it by riding around Michigan’s Thumb.
The Mitten’s peninsular appendage juts into Lake Huron and is visible from space. It’s thumbs-up on travel treasures and pleasures with sites including Grindstone City, Turnip Rock, a “mother-in-law” bridge and prehistoric rock carvings.
Along its 150-mile coastline, the Thumb has fishing, festivals and lighthouses, music, beaches and beer. Inland, the Thumb is largely agricultural with a number of food festivals and an octagon barn at the heart of a rural life museum compound.
One way to plan a Michigan Thumb tour is to start at the knuckle city of Port Huron and drive north, to the tip of the thumbnail at Port Austin, and then west and southwest to Bay City.
WHERE TO BEGIN
We’ll start in Port Huron, gateway to the Thumb by way of the Blue Water Bridge to Canada. (If you want to visit Sarnia, Ontario, bring your passport.) The bridge looms over the Thomas Edison Depot Museum, where you can learn about the future inventor who sold newspapers on trains that ran between Port Huron and Detroit.
Under the bridge, waters from lakes Superior, Michigan and Huron spill into the lower lakes of Erie and Ontario.The St.Clair River hosts an eclectic parade of vessels. You can see 1,000-foot freighters any time the water is open, and each July, hundreds of boats in Bayview Yacht Club’s Port Huron to Mackinac sailboat race. On the third Sunday of August, a ragtag navy of inflatables pushes off into the river for the annual “float down.”
A good vantage point for freighter watching is the Huron Lightship at Pine Grove Park. The ship, known to some as “Old B.O.” for the sound of its foghorn, is a National Historic Landmark. It retired in 1970 as the last operating lightship on the Great Lakes. There are half a dozen traditional lighthouses around the Thumb of Michigan, which has more lighthouses than any other state.
Just north of Port Huron, is the Fort Gratiot Light, the second oldest lighthouse on the Great Lakes, and the starting point of the 2019 Michigan Lighthouse Festival that runs August 2-4.
Follow M-25 north, skirting the shoreline with Lake Huron flashing through the trees on your right. This is the Blue Water area, part of Michigan’s sunrise coast. There are no watery sunsets here, but you’ll get them on the Thumb’s other coast.
Lexington makes a good next destination with its harbor, snug spots for food and drink and an active calendar for music and stage shows. A highlight is Thumbfest, a Labor Day weekend acoustical extravaganza when the streets are alive with traditional folk, blues, Celtic and New Orleans brass.
A five-mile jaunt west on M-90 will get you to Croswell’s bridge, a swinging place for selfies. Built of cables and planks, the pedestrian bridge really does swing and bears the sign “Be Good to Your Mother-in-Law.” The original suspension bridge was built by the Michigan Sugar Company in 1905 to help workers cross the river to their jobs turning sugar beets into Pioneer sugar.
Back on M-25, watch out for long lines of motorcycles. They are likely rumbling north for the next stop, Port Sanilac. At right around 100 miles from Detroit, its Stone Lodge makes an ideal turnaround point for a day of riding.
Non-motorized bikes are recognized along the way at the Horatio S. Earle roadside park. The bicyclist was a pioneer in the good roads movement. The park has a good view of Lake Huron and a marker for the Great Storm of 1913, which sank a dozen big vessels and killed more than 200 men.
Port Sanilac, another lighthouse city, is a harbor of refuge, with twin walls reaching out into Huron, protectively embracing the harbor. They are accessible, walkable and, for the lucky, a comfortable place to catch salmon or perch. Strolling the docks with an ice cream cone from First Mate and surveying the boats is another nice way to enjoy the day. There are weekend festivals for wooden boats and campers, summer concerts at the park’s bandstand, events on the lawn at the Sanilac County Historic Village and Museum, and plays at The Barn Theatre.
Take a straight shot west on M-46 and in not quite 15 miles you will be in Sandusky, named after the one in Ohio. There, you will have a tough decision. Will it be Elk Street Brewery and Taproom, or The Vault Steakhouse and Saloon across the street? I’ve tried both, as well as several others in Sandusky.
On M-25, you will soon drive by the tiny cemetery at Forester with the grave of Minnie Quay. Some say she still searches for the sailor she lost on the lakes. As the legend goes:
Minnie Quay is not at rest,
Or so the people say.
Her ghost still walks the lonely shore. Some see her to this day.
END OF THE TRAIL
Our next lighthouse is at Harbor Beach, birthplace of Frank Murphy (1890- 1949). He was an Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, Mayor of Detroit, Governor of Michigan and High Commissioner of the Philippines. His home, the lighthouse and the Grice House Museum offer tours, but check the hours.
Inland near the top of the Thumb is Sanilac Petroglyphs Historic State Park. The sandstone carvings, the only ones in Michigan, were made 300 to 1,000 years ago by Native people. They portray animals, birds and a human with a bow and arrow. The carvings were revealed when fire rolled across the Thumb in 1881, killing many and driving others into Lake Huron.
Grindstone City near the tip of the Thumb is not much of a city anymore, but you can find evidence of its days as the Grindstone Capital of the World. The high-quality abrasive wheels were quarried here from Marshall sandstone. Stones were shipped around the world for grinding and sharpening. They ranged from six inches to six feet. Some of the larger ones are still around. Try the public lake access and boat launch.
From here, M-25 also becomes the 150- mile Antique Yard Sale Trail on the second full weekend of August. Watch for bargain hunters and treasure seekers.
The U.S. Coast Guard maintains Pointe aux Barques Lighthouse at the tip of the Thumb. It is one of the 10 oldest lighthouses in Michigan, and is still active. Nearby, a ghost town is preserved as the Huron City Museums. Offshore, Turnip Rock sea stack is a special geological destination for adventurous kayakers.
Parrotheads will think they have lost either their bearings or their minds at Cheeseburger in Caseville August 9-18. Each year the town features various cheeseburger interpretations, daily music celebrating Jimmy Buffett, and styles tending toward flip-flops and grass skirts. Beach volleyball, Caribbean dancing and sand sculptures? Of course.
If you prefer fish to burgers, nine miles southwest on M-25, the Bay Port Fish Sandwich Festival serves cod squares, perch and walleye, August 2-4. The locally developed sandwich is a two-hander. And, yes, there is a fish-eating contest.
Near the end of the drive is Bay City, which is slightly larger than Port Huron. Attractions include a river walk, a naval museum and the Dobson Antique Toy and Firehouse Museum. This year from July 18-21 the Tall Ships Celebration returns to the home port of the schooners Appledore IV and Appledore V, which offer public sails from spring through fall.
Photo by Craig Sterken Photography
This article originally appeared in the 2019 spring/summer issue of Experience Michigan magazine. The contents of this article were checked for accuracy when it was published; however, it’s possible some of the information has changed. We recommend you call first if you have specific questions for the destinations, attractions or restaurants mentioned in this article.
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