With lockdowns finally in the past, there has never been a better time to take the family on a road trip around Lake Huron. Therefore, these seven townships are a must-see for any maritime fanatic eager to chow on local cuisine and learn a little about the history of these provincial places. Canadian and U.S. cultures blend and merge all over Lake Huron, presenting the rare opportunity to catch two birds in one stroke. From stories of log cabin explorers to nautical disasters, each town has something special for those who look.
Few towns in the west have managed to preserve the homesteading spirit quite as delightfully as Port Austin. A small town located on the thumb of Michigan’s mitt, with less than a thousand residents, Port Austin’s history tells the common tale of settlers building cabins along Lake Huron and making the most of their surroundings. A visit to Port Austin History Center features these same cabins, alongside gardens, an old-fashioned barber, artifacts and tools, and clothing that will take guests back to a more ‘manual’ era in American history. The parks by the beaches have established inviting places for families to frolic and relax, with nearby Blue Bell ice cream and mini golf activities to keep youngsters occupied. Turnip Rock, a legendary geological formation that resembles a floating island, is a short distance away. On the way in or out, Bird Creek Farms’ historic restaurant offers meals fresh out of the soil with badminton and other yard games that are sure to create lasting memories of the sanctuary that is Port Austin, Michigan.
A little further north and on the western coast of Lake Huron in Michigan sits Alpena, a town with 11,000 citizens. The downtown has been growing rapidly since the early 2000’s as more and more young families realize the value in raising children with abundant access to nature. A common sight is kids gathered around fishing pools or exploring the wildlife sanctuaries in the heart of town. The municipality itself is wrapped around winding rivers that grant Alpena her vibrant personality. Alpena is often lauded for its sense of security and safety, and overall cozy way of life. This has resulted in drawing many older residents to eventually retire in the area. Besides the many artistic and theatrical attractions the town offers, the Great Lakes Maritime Heritage Center maintains exciting displays of shipwrecks, model waves, and an archaeological area. In Alpena, a symbiotic balance between humankind and the untamable wilds has been found, and for that alone it deserves acclamation.
Just around the bend towards the north lies Rogers city, home to several salmon fishing tournaments. Like something out of Mad Max, the world’s largest open pit limestone quarry hugs the southeast edge of the town and is certain to make jaws drop. After the awe wears off, local baseball fields and parks by the water offer scenic views of the lake and an impressive marina. At the Great Lakes Lore Maritime Museum, guests will be greeted with model ships, artifacts, and models of storm charts that are complimented by friendly and knowledgeable staff. Here, the story is told of the final voyage of the 194-meter-long ship SS Carl. D Bradley, which sank in 1958, a true testament to the sleeping fury of Lake Huron. It is good to be on shore, but it is best to be in Rogers City.
A town where the original meaning of the name has been forgotten, Cheboygan surrounds the identically named river at the northwestern tip of Lake Huron. The town was originally constructed on the old campgrounds of the indigenous Ojibwe around 1844 and is now home to approximately 5,000 people. Some have theorized that the name bears similarity to older words that either meant ‘Sewing Needle’ or designated the area as ore-rich. From 1944 to 2006, the city was famous for hosting the U.S. Coast Guard Icebreaker called “Mackinaw” which insured the successful transport of goods during harsh winters. A popular attraction, aided by offers of free popcorn, is the Cheboygan Brewing Company which many would consider an essential asset to the community. Nearby, Sea Shell City is an amusing place to watch kids scramble around maritime-themed playgrounds while checking out displays featuring a 500-pound clam from the Philippines. Certainly, Cheboygan is worth a gander.
For those in need of respite from small towns without the bustle of a large city, the Canadian city of Sarnia welcomes and comforts all. The only boundary between this city of 72,000 and her western neighbor, Port Huron, is a customs bridge operated by Canadian and United States officials. Originally, the natural harbor that Sarnia occupies caught the attention of the French explorer La Salle in 1679. Nearby petroleum and salt reserves aided industry in the area, and the town is now famous for possessing over 100 parks and a large shopping mall with countless varieties of cuisine. The consistency of the climate is alluring, as the Huron waters keep the area cool in the summer and warm in the winter. Canatara, a park open since 1933, is worth strolling through simply for the oceanside views that some visitors describe as “nature’s spa.”
Wander west of Toronto long enough, and chances are you will stumble into Goderich. Founded in 1827 by William “Tiger” Dunlop of the Canada Company, the population hovers around 8,000 and the town continues to receive recognition for the maintenance and beauty of its civic spaces. That effort is not taken for granted, since an F3 Tornado in 2011 wreaked havoc in the community and destroyed over a hundred homes and buildings. The historic Huron Gaol was thankfully left untouched, a jailhouse that was built in 1839 and “hosted” a member of the Black Donnellys. Central to Goderich is a large octagonal roundabout dubbed “The Square,” with a courthouse planted in the middle of a park. Two of the notable eateries worth stopping by are Culbert’s Bakery and West Street Willy’s. The orderly grid design of the town and the attention to detail is what sets Goderich apart, and it does not hurt that the people are as friendly as they come.
Tucked away in the corner of Saginaw Bay and where Madonna once called home, Bay City boasts of a history involving lumbering, milling, and shipbuilding. 35,000 people still happily call the area home, which is no small measure of success for Leon Tromblé who constructed the first log cabin there in 1831. Famously, the Saginaw River brought bundles of wealth to entrepreneurs who used it to float lumber to mills, and the municipality is proud of the many still-standing historic mansions that resulted from this commerce. Summers are often humid and the winters can be unrelenting, but beautiful parks and walkways over the water, filled with wildlife, are enough to keep people coming back. The Bay City Fireworks festival is in a league of its own, and the local antique shops are not to be forgotten! The best of everything: Bay City.
With personalities unique to the people and sights they contain, all cities around Lake Huron deserve a spotlight. These handpicked destinations, however, shine a little brighter than the rest as a result of effort, community, and natural attraction. With stories stretching back centuries, all visitors play a part in that history by bringing aspects of their background into the mix and leaving every party more enriched. Future residents of Lake Huron may view our comings-and-goings in the same way that we look back on the explorers who first carved the cities out: with reverence and curiosity.
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