In the northern US, tucked in and around the Great Lakes of Lake Michigan, Lake Huron, and Lake Erie is a peninsula roughly in the shape of a mitten. This is the Lower Peninsula of the state of Michigan. The other section of the state is the Upper Peninsula, which borders on still another Great Lake, Lake Superior. Michigan has more than 3,224 miles of shoreline in total. With a history that focuses heavily on the resources and opportunities of so much water access, this long stretch is home to some truly charming lake towns, each with a history of its own.
The Straits of Mackinac separate the two peninsulas that comprise Michigan. On the eastern edge of these is an inhabited island of the same name. Indigenous residents of the area call this island “Mishimikinaak” or “Big Turtle” due to its shape. Over the years the French and British gradually shortened the name, until it reached its present official form.
Mackinac is a quiet place to visit as cars are not allowed at all. Access is by ferry from either Peninsula and travel on the island is by foot and bicycle, but also by horse-drawn carriage. Mackinac Island State Park covers approximately 80% of the island and includes a variety of natural areas including marshes, meadows, forests, and limestone caves. Amazing limestone formations are a unique feature of the island and include Skull Cave and Arch Rock.
With long stretches of sandy beaches and a downtown made for walking rather than driving, South Haven is one of the most beautiful towns in America. The area’s fame for beauty predates the town, as the land had long been home to the Ottawa, Miami, and Potawatomi, who call it "Ni-No-Nong," or "beautiful sunsets." These days visitors also come for the bright red South Haven Lighthouse, which has been in operation since 1872, the popular blueberry festival, and the family farm of Overhiser Orchards which has fifth-generation family owners. Here you can pick apples, peaches, and cherries straight from the orchard. A popular way to enter and leave the town in warmer weather is by hiking or cycling along the picturesque Kal-Haven Trail.
About an hour’s drive from South Haven is the town that inspired its name, Grand Haven. The Grand Haven Boardwalk is 1.5 miles long and nestled along the boardwalk are plenty of places to shop, eat, and drink within view of the lake and marinas. The nearby Grand Haven State Park features two lighthouses, both constructed in 1839. Connected by a lighted catwalk, they are among the most photographed lighthouses in the Midwest. You can also learn about the town's history with a ride on the trolley or a visit to the town’s train museum. Another unique attraction is the Grand Haven Musical Fountain, which during the tourist season runs a nightly half-hour musical and light display.
Where the Galien River flows into Lake Michigan is the small city of New Buffalo. The nearby Galien River County Park has a unique ecosystem of wild marshland with elevated walkways and an 18.28m high viewing tower so visitors can experience the land without harming it. For a contrasting experience, visitors also visit the zen labyrinth a little further out of town in Glassman Park.
In addition to these unique parks and the sandy beaches, New Buffalo also has a luxury hotel and restaurant complex, the Four Winds Casino Resort. A truly unusual spot is the craft beer and wood-fired pizza place, named the Beer Church Brewing Company because it is in a converted Methodist church.
At the mouth of the Kalamazoo River, where steep dunes meet farmland, is the tiny town of Saugatuck. Long a seasonal settlement for the Potawatomi, much of the land here is now the Saugatuck Dunes State Park and includes dunes as tall as 200 feet. Another special spot is the Oval Beach Sledding dunes, where many gather in the winter to sled down different slopes.
Saugatuck itself is a tiny town with great appeal for anyone interested in architecture. It is one of the few frontier towns spared from fire over the years, so contains examples of hundreds of years of different architectural styles, all the way back to the Greek Revival style popular before the Civil War. However, it also serves as an artistic hub due to the presence of the Ox-Bow School of Art. While in town, many make sure to ride the chain ferry, which is a system where a crank pulls the ferry along a chain and pulley system strung across the Kalamazoo River. It is the only chain ferry still in operation in the US (since 1838).
On a strip of land between Lake Michigan and the much smaller Glen Lake sits the town of Glen Arbor. One of the special things about the area is the spectacular natural environment of Sleeping Bear Dunes which Good Morning America named the Most Beautiful Place in America. This large national park includes numerous trails with scenic overlooks at Inspiration Point and Pyramid Point, as well as favorites like the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive and the Maritime Museum and Life Saving Station.
The town of Glen Arbor prides itself on its connection to its location, rejecting big box stores and chain restaurants in favor of small businesses that rely on local resources and artisans. It also boasts some of the best art galleries in Michigan.
The town of Cheboygan sits where the river of the same name enters Lake Huron. Long inhabited by the local Ojibwe, the name's original meaning has been lost, though possibilities include a reference to sewing or the rich ore deposits. Winter sports on Lake Huron are a big draw to the town, as the snow is smooth and pristine. While, in the summer, families book shipwreck tours on glass bottom boats with Nautical North Family Adventures, which also offers scuba diving and kayaking.
At the same time, visitors and locals alike take to boats on the shallow Cheboygan River either for recreation or to take advantage of some of the best fishing in the state. Along the shores are many places and restaurants to stop at and rest. One of the most popular is the Cheboygan Brewing Company, established in 1872, with several local brews to sample while munching on some free popcorn. For a truly unique shopping experience head to Sea Shell City, a maritime-themed playground with a large collection of nautical-themed novelties for sale. A stand-out attraction is the 500-pound "man-eating" clam from the Philippines.
The long coastline of Michigan offers diverse experiences in all different seasons, from skiing and sledding in the winter to kayaking and scuba diving in the summer. Despite this variety, some things are consistent. The area as a whole has a deep and long history from well before European contact. It also offers an abundance of scenic places to marvel at and photograph. Finally, the whole area is steeped in a long history of reliance on the amazing opportunities offered by the phenomena that are the interconnected Great Lakes.