23 Beautiful Stops for a Road Trip through the Sunrise Coast
The Sunrise Coast is like visiting another world... and another time. The historic Heritage Route along US-23 features Lake Huron, mysterious shipwrecks, beautiful lighthouses, and miles of breathtaking beaches.
The Gateway to the Sunrise Side of Michigan, Standish has the small-town charm that many seek when visiting Michigan. Explore Standish and the nearby river settlement of Au Gres, with its bustling downtown district featuring local shops and restaurants and its quaint and peaceful Chapel in the Park as you travel along US-23. Au Gres is also home to Modern Craft Wine, where even the most hesitant wine drinker can find something to enjoy, from whites, reds, and many fruit-flavored blends.
Standish is also the place to pick up the Huron Shores Coastal Water Trail, which follows the Sunrise Coast for 200 beautiful miles. Natural preserves and resorts line the Michigan shores, and the views out onto the lake are unbeatable, so naturally this is a favorite for kayakers and canoe pros.
2. Termar Charters – Standish
"Catch and cook" fishing charters are a popular activity on Lake Michigan. Spend the day on the open water with an experienced captain catching walleye, trout, salmon, and steelhead. When you return with your catch, a local chef at a participating restaurant will cook it up for you, so you can enjoy a totally unforgettable meal!
3. Charity Island Lightkeepers House – Charity Island
The Charity Island Lighthouse is another scenic lighthouse along the lake. It's on Charity Island in Lake Huron, just off Au Gres. It was originally built in 1857, but it was abandoned for an easier-to-access light in the 1930s and quickly fell into disrepair. Recently, though, considerable work has been done to restore the tower and to build a new keeper's cottage, which is operated as a B&B. You can find boat tours of the island and grounds; the boat tours also pass by the unique, art deco-style Gravelly Shoal Lighthouse, which is worth a picture or two itself.
Tawas Point State Park is home to one of the best beaches in all of Michigan. Its wide expanses of sandy shore give way to sparkling clean water. You'll find big waves on the Lake Huron side of the beach, and calm waters on the bay-facing side. Explore the trails, or visit the historic lighthouse, and, if you brought gear, set up camp at the park and take a few days to fully experience everything.
The excellent Rose Valley Winery is pretty close to Tawas Point. Whether you like light fruit wines, heavy and sweet dessert wines, or spicy, dry reds, there's something at Rose Valley that you're sure to love. Valley Mist Vineyards is nearby as well; sampling their distinctive wines, which come in flavors such as strawberry rhubarb and coffee, is definitely an adventure.
6. Au Sable
On one side of the Au Sable River, you'll find the town of Au Sable. The river is a popular spot for canoeing, fly-fishing, and kayaking, so rent a a boat here and explore the water and forested landscape around this serene part of the state.
The other side of the river is home to Oscoda. Here, you'll find the Au Sable-Oscoda Historical Society & Museum, Iargo Springs Interpretive Site, and locally owned gems such as Office Lounge and Grill and Tait's Bill of Fare. Wiltse's Brew Pub & Family Restaurant is a local favorite; wash down your burgers and BBQ with one of their locally crafted brews. Plus, you're right by the shores of Lake Huron, so you're never too far away from panoramic views of the water.
The Lumberman's Monument is one of the most underrated stops along US-23. It's way more than just the monument: There's the statue, of course, but you also can climb across a massive log jam, use real logging equipment, and explore what a logger's accommodations would have looked like. The observation deck and dune trail offer stunning views as well!
9. Cooke Hydroelectric Dam – Oscoda
And just down the road from the Lumberman's Monument, you'll find the Cooke Hydroelectric Dam, which was built in 1911 and was placed on the National Register of Historic Places, commemorating the dam's record-breaking achievement of transporting power to Flint, 125 miles away.
As you keep cruising along US-23, you'll come across another gem: Harrisville State Park. It's got a beach and shady pine forests, and is within walking distance of the town of Harrisville. It's not hard to see why Michigan made this one of its first state parks... it's a serene slice of natural beauty worth preserving!
Just slightly north of the park, you'll find the Sturgeon Point Lighthouse. The light is still operated by the coast guard and features a maritime museum on site.
Harrisville also has a few sites along the Alcona County Quilt Trail. Barn quilts are simple, quilt-inspired wooden blocks that decorate historic barns and buildings, and are popular attractions across the Midwest. There are nearly 30 barn quilts located across the region. You can follow the Alcona County Quilt Trail to discover each and learn about the history that inspired the designs along the way.
11. Harrisville Bike Trails
You can also explore the historic gems in the city with the 2.5-mile Harrisville Heritage Route Trail. Or, bike the Greenbush Route, which takes you past the town's prettiest attractions along Cedar Lake. The Old Stone Church Route is another popular bike trail that starts in Harrisville; you'll travel along US-23 until you reach the nineteenth century church that was hand-built with local stones. Other great bike trails include the Springport Route, which is 16.5 miles out to the town of Springport, and the Sturgeon Point Route, which is only 5 miles and takes you to the lighthouse and back.
There's something to be said for classic roadside attractions such as Dinosaur Gardens, LLC. There are more than 25 massive statues that were handcrafted, and they make fun photo ops. Plus, exploring the lush, swampy grounds is a great way to stretch your legs. There's also mini golf, snacks, and a fun little gift shop, too!
Alpena, on Thunder Bay, is another town along the route. Step back in time at Old Town Alpena, the postcard-worthy historic district, or enjoy some rich culture at the Thunder Bay Art Council Gallery, where you can view masterpieces and buy local crafts. Get a taste for Alpena at Thunder Bay Winery, and sample eight locally-crafted wines for only $5.00, or at Stoney Acres Winery, with their selection of wines that range from sweet to dry, as well as unique fruit options such as pear and blackberry. If beer is more your taste, Alpena is home to Austin Brothers Beer Company.
There's also the Besser Museum for Northeast Michigan, which features exhibits on Native American culture, geology and industry, as well as a planetarium and restored historical buildings.
End it all by watching the sun set behind the Thunder Bay Island Lighthouse. Even though access to the historic light is limited, it's still a great photo opp.
14. Middle Island Keepers' Lodge & Boat Tours – Alpena
If you're looking to get out on the lake, schedule a boat cruise or scuba excursion with Middle Island Keepers' Lodge & Boat Tours. Spot lighthouses and enjoy the lake breezes from a guided boat tour, or explore historic shipwrecks below the water!
Throughout history, Thunder Bay has been famed for its treacherous waters... in fact, it was often referred to as "Shipwreck Alley." Hundreds of sunken ships remain at the bottom of the lake, but if you don't have the time or resources to dive down to visit one, there's always the Thunder Bay Marine Sanctuary, the only national marine sanctuary in the Great Lakes, which tells the story of human interaction with the lake, from its pre-Columbian history to early transportation to fishing camps and lighthouses. They offer glass bottom boat tours of the lake. The Great Lakes Maritime Heritage Museum is the visitor center, and has some awesome displays that educate and entertain as well.
16. Presque Isle
Then head further north to Presque Isle. The town is home to Presque Isle Harbor, and you can learn about how the harbor has played a major role in the town's history at Presque Isle Range Light Park. Once you're done checking out the range lights, visit the beach and its designated swimming area to cool off!
There's also the Old Presque Isle Lighthouse. Blow a foghorn, ring the massive bronze bell, climb to the top of the 30-foot brick tower, and learn about local legends surrounding the light and keeper's cabin as you explore the grounds of the lighthouse. For even more old-school fun, check out the Elowsky Grist Mill. The dam and grist mill were built in the mid-nineteenth century by German immigrants, and the mill operated until the 1960s!
The New Presque Isle Lighthouse was built in 1870, and remains the tallest light along the Great Lakes that is accessible by the public. Here, you'll find two keeper's cabins, one of which was built in 1905. It has been lovingly restored and dedicated to local history and lighthouse-keeping in general. If the climb up the 130 stairs to the top of the tower doesn't wear you out, you can always explore the natural trails in the surrounding park as well!
If you're an avid biker, then the Ocqueoc Falls Cruise is a must-do. The 37-mile ride features rolling stretches of country road, views of Lake Huron, charming small towns, the historic Forty Mile Point Lighthouse, and, of course, Ocqueoc Falls. It's the largest waterfall in the Lower Peninsula, and it's a favorite destination for locals for a reason: It's a top-notch swimming hole and picnic spot!
18. More Popular Bike Routes on the Sunrise Coast
Other popular bike routes on the Sunrise Coast include the North Eastern State Trail, which makes its way from Alpena to Cheboygan, hopping from town to town along the way, and the Au Sable Cruise, which follows the Au Sable River for 42 stunning miles along River Road, a National Forest Scenic Byway. There's also the 34-mile Sunrise Side Cruise, which is perfect for those who are looking for a more rugged and wild experience along Lake Huron's shores, with more forests and fewer towns. Or ride the Black River Route, which is a quick 24-mile loop past the shores of Lake Huron and through the ghost town of Alcona.
The next town you'll stop at along the route is Cheboygan. It's a popular vacation spot with year-round fun to be had. They've got lighthouses (naturally), with the Cheboygan Crib Light (if you look carefully, you can see the Fourteen Foot Shoal Light from the Cheboygan Crib Light) and the historic Cheboygan River Front Range Light, which is being restored.
The city is also filled with cultural institutions, such as the Cheboygan Opera House, with its gorgeous Victorian architecture and schedule filled with performances, classes, and more. If you're looking for a low-key experience in town, the Cheboygan Brewing Company is a local favorite. Their Amber and IPA are solid, and their more experimental brews, such as the blueberry cream ale, hibiscus IPA, and the black cherry and vanilla porter, are more adventurous and worth a try.
20. Nicholas Winery Tasting Room – Cheboygan
If you prefer wine, Cheboygan is home to the Nicholas Winery Tasting Room, where you can sit back and enjoy a few samples of their wine: Red-lovers will appreciate the Black River Red, and those who want something sweet will enjoy the Dionysos.
And you can soak in some natural beauty near Cheboygan as well. Herman Vogler State Conservation Area features eight miles of trails, plus excellent bird-watching and fishing opportunities.
21. Mackinaw City
After exploring Cheboygan, it's on to Mackinaw City! One of the coolest things to do in this lakeshore town is visit the Mackinaw Heritage Village. Step back in time to the turn of the century and explore life in the Straits of Mackinac as it was in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Restored buildings in the village include a wigwam, a chapel, a general store, and a saw mill. Be sure to check their schedule of events and programs and take a docent-led tour whenever available. Unwind with a flight of locally crafted beer, wine, or hard cider and some nibbles from Mackinaw Trail Winery.
22. Colonial Michilimackinac State Park – Mackinaw City
If you're craving more in-depth history, visit nearby Colonial Michilimackinac State Park (Don't worry, the name might be a mouthful, but the park is absolutely awesome!) It's a reconstruction of the 1715 fur trading post that occupied the park lands back in the eighteenth century. The park features archaeological exhibits and re-enactments. There's also the Historic Mill Creek Discovery Park, which has trails, exhibits at the visitor center, a treetop discovery tower, zip lines, and more, and the Icebreaker Mackinaw Maritime Museum, which is on a historic WWII-era ship that you can tour. Many of these spots, and other cool historic sites, are located along the city's Mackinaw Historical Pathway.
23. Old Mackinac Point Light – Mackinaw City
Not surprisingly, the region has its fair share of lighthouses as well. Old Mackinac Point Light, which operated from 1890 until 1957, looks almost like a castle!
Michigan's Sunrise Coast is a vacation unlike any other... roadside kitsch, excellent bike trails, quaint lakeshore towns, natural beauty, and intriguing history make for a US-23 road trip that's exciting, yet relaxing.