With over 90 miles of shoreline, Michigan’s Thumb offers some of the top Michigan tourist attractions. There is always something to do or see near the tip of the Thumb. Most are free, the fun is finding and exploring things to do in Michigan’s Upper Thumb.
Note: Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, some tours, events, and businesses may be affected. Please check with the business or tour provider first.
#1 Turnip Rock – A Michigan International Wonder
Turnip Rock is a small geological formation in Michigan. It is a limestone stack located in Lake Huron, in shallow water a few meters offshore, near the rock called the Thumbnail which is the extreme tip of Pointe Aux Barques, a small peninsula in Pointe Aux Barques Township which in turn is the extreme tip of The Thumb.
Turnip Rock has been severely undercut by wave action. Its top has a significantly larger cross-section than its base. Thus, its unusual form looks like a turnip. It has made it one of the top Michigan tourist attractions for viewing by canoe and kayak. It’s only accessible from the water as it’s privately owned and not open to the public. Port Austin, the nearest large community, is the usual base for kayaking trips to Turnip Rock. If you have your own kayak you can put it in for free at Bird Creek County Park.
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#2 The Larger Than Life Artwork of the Emergency Ark
The Emergency Ark – This Michigan tourist attraction was a dilapidated barn from the late 1800s, carefully taken apart piece by piece, has been rebuilt by Detroit artist Scott Hocking as a huge wooden ark. Originally conceived as an “Emergency Ark,” the project plays into the Hocking’s fascination with mythic forms and structures from the ancient world. “Many of Scott’s projects are in hidden spaces, where you can’t necessarily see them,” one enthusiast noted. In other words, “this is enormous — and so visible.” I drove in from the east, and could see right away the great presence it will have in that landscape.” It’s one of the 54North artworks of Michigan’s Upper Thumb and also part of the Ten Barns in Ten Years art project.
#3 Caseville’s 1/4 Mile Lake Walk
Caseville Breakwall – It’s one of the few break walls anywhere that encourages you to walk out and take a look at the bay up close. You can fish, walk and catch a cool breeze on this 1/4 mile sprig of concrete and stone out into Saginaw Bay.
Watch the boats come in and out in the early morning and late afternoon. However, ifs it’s stormy be prepared to get wet.
#4 Visit The Charity Island Lighthouse
Charity Island – Also called Big Charity Island is the largest island in Saginaw Bay, in the Michigan waters of Lake Huron. Consisting of 250 acres in area and has about 3 miles shoreline. In the interior of the island, there is an 11-acre spring-fed lake. Literally a ‘lake within a lake’. Charity Island was supposedly named by lake mariners for its location, placed ‘through the charity of God’. The island rests at the entrance to Saginaw Bay midway between the city of Au Gres, Michigan, and “The Thumb”. Charity Island’s lighthouse is a seldom visited Michigan tourist attraction. This is due to its remoteness
Geologically, the island contains pockets of chert that are believed to have been quarried by Native Americans. Offshore, the gravel reefs to the south create a shallow-water channel. This separates Charity Island from its smaller neighbor, Little Charity Island. The area between the two islands is a favorite spot for fishing. On the northeast end of the island, a small bay is lined with limestone bedrock. This offers good holding ground as a place to anchor during storms. The harbor of refuge is accessible by small boats, though access is controlled by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Visiting Charity Island From Caseville
The island is closed to camping and hiking as it’s a designated nesting area for Bald Eagles. It is also a spot to see the Pitcher’s Thistle, or dune thistle, an endangered species. The lighthouse on the north end of the island can be visited by an excursion boat from Au Gris or Caseville. You can arrange a tour of the island for a group or participate in one of the weekend dinner cruises. Reservations and information can be made with Explorer Charters.
#5 Port Austin Reef Light
The Port Austin Lighthouse – Is located in the shallow reef off the shore of Lake Huron, about 2.5 miles north of Port Austin, Michigan sitting on a rocky reef, which is just north of the tip of the Thumb and a real hazard to navigation. The light was first lit in 1878, and its pier was modified in 1899. However, the lighthouse is still operational and is automated. The foundation materials are a pier, and the tower is constructed of yellow brick, with buff markings. It is an octagonal, 60-foot tall tower, with an attached keeper house. In 1985 the lens was replaced by a 12-volt solar-powered Tideland Signal 300 mm acrylic optic, which eliminated the need to maintain the submarine cable.
#6 Pointe Aux Barques Lighthouse – One of the Oldest in the Great Lakes
The Pointe Aux Barques Lighthouse – ranks among the oldest lighthouses in Michigan. It is an active lighthouse maintained by the US Coast Guard remotely, located in Lighthouse County Park on Lake Huron near Port Hope, Michigan in Huron County. “Pointe aux Barques” means ‘Point of Little Boats’, a descriptor of the shallow shoals and reefs that lurk beneath these waves, presenting a hazard to boats as they round Michigan’s Thumb.
This Michigan Thumb attraction offers special dates each year in which visitors can climb the tower and see the Lake Huron vista and rocky shoreline.
#7 Visit Largest Farmers Market Outside of Detroit
Port Austin Farmer’s Market– One of that states the largest on-going farmer’s market in Michigan. Every Saturday farmers, local artists, and craftsmen offer a unique blend of local flare for each weekend. Be ready to walk as parking is at a premium in this small town. Enjoy an early Bloody Mary at the” Bank” and proceed to get your weekend stock of fresh corn, vegetables, local fruit, and an amazing assortment of local craftsmen offering clothing, rugs, collectibles to furniture. The market is open each Saturday through mid-October.
#8 Visit A Masterpiece Barn of Agriculture Design
The Thumb Octagon Barn is a historic and unique barn located outside Gagetown, Michigan. It was built in 1924 by local businessman James Purdy. The Michigan Department of Natural Resources bought the property from the bank in 1991 to be incorporated into the adjacent Gagetown State Game Area. The farm buildings including the octagon barn had fallen into disrepair and were in danger of demolition. Local citizens banded together and organized the first Octagon Barn Festival in 1994 to raise funds to repair the barn. The Friends of the Thumb Octagon Barn was formed that year.
After the barn, historic farmhouse, garage, and electric power plant were restored, other buildings were moved or built on the old Purdy farm. Moved to the site where a one-room schoolhouse and grain elevator. New construction included a schoolhouse museum, a large multipurpose building, a covered bridge, and a sawmill. A blacksmith shop is planned.
#9 Ancient Art from First Nation
Sanilac Petroglyphs – The Sanilac Petroglyphs historic site is located near Cass City. Take M-53 to Bay City-Forestville Road and proceed east to Germania Road. Head south a one-half mile on Germania; the site is on the west side of the road. The carvings, known as petroglyphs, were discovered by residents after a fire swept through the area in 1881 and revealed rocks bearing the designs. Because they are made in relatively friable sandstone, geologists have determined that the carvings were made 300 to 1,000 years ago, dating back to the Late Woodland Period. The Bowman, believed to represent a hunter, is the most well-known of the Sanilac Petroglyphs, rock carvings etched into a sandstone outcrop. The Petroglyphs are one of a kind on our list of Michigan Thumb attractions.
#10 A Finger Out into Saginaw Bay
Sand Point – The Sand Point Nature Preserve is one of the most critical protected coastal lands in the Saginaw Bay Watershed, and probably one of the most important in the Great Lakes. Through the North American Wetlands Conservation Act the Saginaw Bay Herpetological Survey found Sand Point Nature Preserve to be the most biologically diverse site along the Saginaw Bay shoreline.
Sand Point was also the legionary location of General George Meade who conducted the first survey of the region. Sand Point was the latitude baseline for Lake Huron. Check out the historic survey post. “Wilderness Surveyor to Victorious General”.
#11 Home of the States Oldest Fishery
Bay Port – This is one of Michigan’s Upper Thumbs tiniest lakeshore villages, but it overflows with a unique history. Home of the Bay Port Fish Company, operates between spring and fall, depending upon the weather. The company has four boats: the Osprey, the Argo, the Patsy, and the Sunflower. You can see the Osprey and the Argo tied up in Bay Port or Caseville harbor just south of the Caseville break wall. Fresh, smoked, and frozen fish can be bought from the retail store in Bay Port. Bay Port fish can also be found at several Farmers Markets in Michigan. Look for booths at the Port Austin Farmers Market, Ann Arbor Farmers Market, and the Eastern Market in Detroit.
#12 Walk on Ancient Sand Dunes in Michigan’s Upper Thumb
Huron County Nature Center- Is located midway between Caseville and Port Austin. The wilderness arboretum offers over 120 acres of woods, dunes, marsh connected by an intensive trail system. There are boardwalks that extend over marshy areas to really get close. Considered one of the most overlooked Michigan Thumb attractions, the center offers a glimpse of the Michigan Upper Thumb as it appeared 100 years ago. Alternating sand dune ridges, (now with mature growth), and wide areas of pine, oak, fern, and huckleberry.
There is no charge to visit and walk the trails. Donations are welcomed.
#13 Visit Whiskey Harbor
One of the more remote Michigan Thumb attractions to see is Whiskey Harbor. During prohibition in Michigan, which started in 1919 the supply of liquor dried up. Bootleggers turned to Canada, which had favorable liquor laws. The notorious Purple and Sugarhouse Gangs trafficked bootlegged liquor from Canada. They came into Michigan via the Detroit River, Lake St. Clair, and even the shoreline of the Thumb.
The Kernan family owned the land around Whiskey Harbor and preserved the 45 acres of this beautiful shore. In 1989, the family donated the land and beach to the Michigan Nature Association. You can visit the harbor and walk on a trail leading to a remote beach area. It’s a bit wet and muddy, so bring your boots and get ready to get a bit wet. Whiskey Harbor is a prime spot to watch for migrating birds. The area has remained basically untouched since the 1880s.
#14 Port Sanilac Lighthouse and Harbor
The Port Sanilac Lighthouse was constructed at breakneck speed in October 1886. The tower, house, and oil house were completed on October 13, 1886. A few days later, the light was put into operation on October 20th utilizing a fixed white light, produced by a fourth-order, Barbier & Fenestre Fresnel lens. The brick octagonal tower has a focal plane of 52 feet, with a total tower height of 59 feet. The light sits on a bluff 69 feet above Lake Huron.
Today the lighthouse is privately owned. However the navigation light is still in operation as assistance to mariners. In 2016, the United States Coast Guard removed the Fresnel lens from the tower and installed an LED light in its place. The automated beacon flashes white every 2.5 seconds.
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Related Sites for Michigan Thumb Attractions
A huge Michigan tourist attraction is lighthouses. With 124 Michigan lighthouses across the state. They are unique, functional, and draw many visitors to explore their grounds or climb the towers. Of the four lighthouses in Michigan’s Thumb, only two are accessible directly from the land. All the others need a boat to access—lighthouses of Michigan’s Upper Thumb.
Tawas – Fun Across the Bay – When Saginaw Bay was low, on summer evenings we can see the blinking lights of the Tawas Michigan from our beach. It’s a day’s sail from Caseville but a several hour drives from the Upper Thumb. The bay is clear due to the currents coming in from Lake Huron and the little town nestled near the harbor is a charming mix of a tourist town and art colony.
10 Free Things to do in Michigan’s Thumb – If you are ever at a loss for things to do in the Upper Thumb, you found the right spot. We went looking for neat and interesting things to do and came up with this list of 10 free things to do in Michigan’s Thumb. Check back with us from time to time as we will find more fun down the road.
15 Amazing Things to Do In Port Austin Mi – Another Michigan tourist attraction is Port Austin Michigan. It’s the Art and Cultural Center of the region with its galleries, Studio Tour Weekend, Labor Day’s Art in the Park, and yearly Porch Concerts. But there is much more to see and do at the tip of the Thumb. If you need ideas for places to see and things to do we have some suggestions for just about every taste.