20 Things to See in the Thumb

20 of the Best Michigan Tourist Attractions in The Thumb Region

With over 90 miles of shoreline, Michigan’s Thumb offers some top Michigan tourist attractions. There is always something to do or see near the tip of the Thumb. Most of these attractions and sites are free to access. A full day of fun can be had just by finding and exploring things to do in Michigan’s Upper Thumb. Taking a scenic drive along M-25 is all you must do to start.

This guide highlights the top Michigan tourist attractions in the Thumb region.

Let’s Cover This

#1 Top Michigan Tourist AttractionsTurnip Rock – An International Wonder

Turnip Rock Kayak
Turnip Rock near Port Austin

Turnip Rock is a small geological rock formation and one of the best Michigan tourist attractions in the Upper Thumb. It is a limestone stack located in Lake Huron, in shallow water a few meters offshore, near the Thumbnail rock, the extreme tip of Pointe Aux Barques, a small peninsula in Pointe Aux Barques Township, which in turn is the outer 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 water sports attractions for viewing by canoe and kayak. Unfortunately, it’s only accessible from the water as it’s privately owned and not open to the public. The nearest large community, Port Austin, is the usual base for kayaking trips to Turnip Rock. You can put it in for free at Bird Creek County Park if you have your kayak.

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#2 The Larger Than Life Artwork of the Emergency Ark

Emergency Ark Barn Art-Michigan's Thumb - Michigan Tourist Attractions
The Emergency Ark

The Emergency Ark –  Michigan tourist attractions wouldn’t be complete without a dilapidated barn from the late 1800s, carefully taken apart piece by piece, rebuilt by Detroit artist Scott Hocking as a vast wooden ark. Originally conceived as an “Emergency Ark,” the project plays into Hocking’s fascination with mythic forms and structures from the ancient world.

The Ark is considered one of the more unique things to see in Michigan. “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 immediately see its fabulous presence in that landscape.” It’s one of the 54North artworks of Michigan’s Upper Thumb and part of the Ten Barns in Ten Years art project. The Ark is a short drive from Caseville and Port Austin near Oak Beach County Park.

#3 Caseville’s 1/4 Mile Lake Walk

Caseville Breakwall
Caseville Breakwall during record low water.

Caseville Breakwall – It’s one of the few break walls anywhere that encourages you to walk out and take a look at Saginaw Bay up close. You can fish, hike, and catch a cool breeze on this 1/4 mile sprig of concrete and stone into Saginaw Bay. It’s a great spot for simple family fun to see what the pier fishermen have caught and admire the boats coming in and out of busy Caseville Harbor.

Watch the boats come in and out in the early morning and late afternoon. It’s a prime photography spot for its scenic views of the shore, Charity Island, and incredible sunsets. However, ifs it’s stormy, be prepared to get wet.

#4 Visit The Charity Island Lighthouse

Charity Island Lighthouse
Charity Island Lighthouse

Charity Island – 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 of shoreline. In the interior of the island, there is an 11-acre spring-fed lake. A ‘lake within a lake. Lake mariners supposedly named Charity Island 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 one of the least visited Michigan tourist attractions. This is due to its remoteness.

Geologically, the island contains pockets of chert 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 island’s northeast end, a small bay is lined with limestone bedrock. This offers a good holding ground as a place to anchor during storms. The harbor of refuge is accessible by small boats, though the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service controls access.

Visiting Charity Island From Caseville

Lady of the Lake - Michigan's Thumb - Michigan Tourist Attractions

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 island’s north end can be visited by an excursion boat from Au Gris or Caseville. You can arrange boat tours 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

Port Austin Reef Light
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 natural 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, eliminating the need to maintain the submarine cable.

#6 Pointe Aux Barques Lighthouse – One of the Oldest in the Great Lakes

Haunted Michigan Pointe Aux Barques Lighthouse - Michigan Thumb
Pointe Aux Barques Lighthouse

The Pointe Aux Barques Lighthouse – ranks among the oldest lighthouses in Michigan. Construction on the lighthouse started in 1847 and has been used for over 170 years. It is an active lighthouse maintained remotely by the US Coast Guard, 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 beneath these waves, presenting a hazard to boats as they round Michigan’s Thumb.

This Michigan Thumb attraction offers special dates each year for visitors to climb the tower and see the Lake Huron vista and rocky shoreline from the top of a lighthouse. The views are unique, and there are picnic areas nearby.

#7 Port Austin – Visit the Largest Farmers Market Outside of Detroit

Port Austin Farmers Market

Port Austin Farmer’s Market – One of the state’s largest ongoing farmer’s markets in Michigan. During the warmer summer months, on each Saturday, farmers, local artists, and artisans offer a unique blend of local flare for each weekend. Be ready to walk, as parking is 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 a fantastic assortment of local craftsmen offering clothing, rugs, collectibles, and furniture.

Some weekends provide a horse-drawn carriage ride of the town for market visitors. The market is open each Saturday through mid-October.

#8 Octagon Barn – Visit A Masterpiece Barn of Agriculture Design

Octagon Barn Gagetown Michigan - Michigan Thumb
Thumb Octagon Barn

The Thumb Octagon Barn is a unique barn 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 and moved to the site, where a one-room schoolhouse and grain elevator were. New construction included a schoolhouse museum, a large multipurpose building, a covered bridge, and a sawmill. In addition, a blacksmith shop is planned. The Octagon Barn is the site of many special events throughout the year. One of the biggest is the Fall Family Days.

#9 Sanilac Petroglyphs – Ancient Art from First Nation

Upper Thumb Petroglyph Archer  - Michigan Thumb
The Archer

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.

The petroglyphs pre-date the times of famous Native American Indians such as Chief Pontiac and Chief Okemos. However, because they are made in relatively easily crumbled 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 Sand Point – A Finger Out into Saginaw Bay

Sand Point - Michigan's Thumb
From NOAA/ Google Maps

Sand Point – The Sand Point Nature Preserve is one of the most critical protected coastal lands and natural attractions in the Saginaw Bay Watershed. Its role is 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 the most biologically diverse site along the Saginaw Bay shoreline. It’s a great place to see what this area looked like before pioneer settlement and development.

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 Bay Port – Home of the State’s Oldest Fishery

Bay Port Fish Company - Michigan Attractions
Bay Port Fish Company

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. One of the fun things to do with kids is to see a place that “smells like fish.”

The Bay Port Fish Company has four boats: the Osprey, the Argo, the Patsy, and the Sunflower. You may 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
Nature Center Boardwalk

Huron County Nature Center –  This little Michigan tourist attraction is midway between Caseville and Port Austin. The wilderness arboretum offers over 120 acres of woods, dunes, and marsh connected by an intensive trail system. Some boardwalks extend over marshy areas to 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 dune ridges (now with mature growth) and vast areas of pine, oak, fern, and huckleberry. Mountain Bike and outdoor enthusiasts can enjoy an extensive new trail system for riding among the dunes. There is no charge to visit and walk the trails. Donations are welcomed.

#13 The Thumbs Prohibition Past – Whiskey Harbor

Whiskey Harbor Shore Line - Michigan Tourist Attractions
Whiskey Harbor Shore Line

One of the more remote Michigan Thumb attractions to see is Whiskey Harbor. During the prohibition in Michigan, which started in 1919, the supply of liquor dried up. So, 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 nature trails leading to a remote beach area. It’s a bit wet and muddy, so bring your boots. Whiskey Harbor is a prime spot to watch for migrating birds. The site has remained untouched since the 1880s.

#14 Port Sanilac Lighthouse and Harbor

Port Sanilac Light by Harbor - Michigan's Thumb - Michigan's Upper Thumb
Port Sanilac Lighthouse in Winter

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. This light tower and house is one of the best-preserved historic sites in the Michigan Thumb.

Today, the lighthouse is privately owned. However, the navigation light is still in operation to assist mariners. In 2016, the United States Coast Guard removed the Fresnel lens from the tower and installed an LED light. The automated beacon flashes white every 2.5 seconds.

#15 Harbor Beach & Frank Murphy Museum

Frank Murphy Birthplace - Michigan Attractions
Justice Frank Murphy Birthplace and Museum

Harbor Beach was the birthplace of Frank Murphy. Murphy was the Mayor of Detroit from 1930-33, appointed Governor-General of the Philippines by FDR in 1934, Governor of Michigan from 1937-38, and appointed Supreme Court Justice in 1940. Murphy first practiced law in Harbor Beach after graduating from the University of Michigan. This 1870s Victorian Gothic Revival-style historic home is said to have the most extensive collection of Philippine cultural artifacts in the United States. The birthplace and the town of Harbor Beach are some of the neat places to visit in Michigan.

#16 See A Movie in A Drive-In Theater

things to see in michigan - Hi-way drive in

Drive-in theaters remained popular until VHS movies took hold of the market in the 1980s. Yet one still remains in the Thumb. If you want to experience seeing a movie in your minivan with the kids in PJs, head over to the Hi-Way Drive-In in Sandusky. This drive-in is one of the unique things to see in Michigan. The Hi-Way is considered the oldest continuous-running drive-in in Michigan. This drive-in has the traditional snack bar & indoor concessions, open seasonally since 1948. You can check to movie times on their hotline at 810-657-6684.

#17 A Tribute To Quanicassee Michigan’s Jenny, The Beer Drinking Bear

Jenny The Beer Drinking Bear
Jenny The Beer Drinking Bear

In the 1900s, Michigan was known for its roadside attractions to draw tourists to stop. An early attraction in the Thumb region was Jenny, the Beer Drinking Bear in Quanicassee. The owner of an early Michigan roadside attraction, Frank Vanderbilt, started collecting wild animals for a roadside zoo. One of his early acquisitions was a female black bear. The cub was supposedly orphaned after a fire in the Clare area. Frank’s acquired young cub is unknown, but it became part of the saloon’s attraction. The bear was smart and performed for pieces of bread, milk, and meat. Frank named the famed cub Jenny.

However, as time went on, the bear became more aggressive. Jenny was “euthanized” under mysterious circumstances. It was said that out of guilt, Frank Vanderbilt placed a statue of Jenny near the site of his former resort. It can be seen today as one of the Thumb’s roadside attractions.  It’s a neat roadside attraction near the Bay Shore Bar in Quanicassee, along M-25. It’s part of the lore at the base of Michigan’s Thumb.

#18 The Historic General Store and Vintage Gas Pump In Kilmanagh

Kilamangh General Store in 2023
Kilamangh General Store in 2023

For over a generation, locals have watched the slow deterioration of an iconic general store in the four-corner town of Kilmanagh. Many feared that the iconic general store would fall in. The store and surrounding town were still life subjects for artists and photographers.

However, starting in 2019, The Rummel and Woldt General Store is being transformed. The owner, Tim Voss, is doing a labor of love to restore one of the last general stores in Michigan. He has made great progress. While the store is not one of the most well-known Michigan tourist attractions, it’s certainly one of the things to see in Michigan.

#19 Historical Michigan Tourist AttractionsCross the Famous Croswell Swinging Bridge

Croswell Swinging Bridge
Croswell Swinging Bridge

One of the things to do in Michigan’s Thumb is a visit to Croswell. The Croswell Swinging Bridge is a historic suspension bridge in Sanilac County, Michigan. It is one of only three remaining swinging bridges left in Michigan and one of the few swinging bridges left in North America.

The Michigan Sugar Company supplied the materials for the bridge, completed in 1905. When finished, it stretched 139 feet across the Black River, intending to make it easier for factory workers who lived on the other side of the river to get to work.  It is a good-natured terror for little kids, with the bridge always moving and swaying. The sign on one end states, “Be Good To Your Mother-in-law.” A festival to celebrate the bridge takes place the second weekend of August each year and features cardboard boat races under the bridge.

#20 A Hidden Michigan Tourist Attractions – The Pioneer Village Log Cabins in Bad Axe

Pioneer Log Cabin Bad Axe
Pioneer Log Cabin Bad Axe

A task for all early pioneers in Michigan was to make a log cabin. The Bad Axe Historical Society is the curator of the largest collection of authentically restored pioneer log buildings in the state. The pioneer log cabins comprise a mini-museum collection behind the Bad Axe City Hall. The rustic cabins were donated and moved from various locations around Huron County. Each cabin contains antiques, household goods, and artifacts of the period. The Society has done an excellent job preserving and presenting this collection of log structures. Its big open house is Log Cabin Day during the last weekend of June.

If you have found Michigan tourist attractions in the Upper Thumb from your own personal experiences worthy of this list, contact us on our About Page. We hope this list helps you explore the best Michigan tourist attractions the Thumb has to offer

FAQs About Things To See In Michigan

What is a notable natural attraction in Michigan’s Thumb?

Turnip Rock is a unique geological formation accessible only by water. It’s a small island with a tree-topped rock, offering a distinctive experience for kayakers.

Can you tell me about a historical lighthouse in the Thumb region?

Pointe aux Barques Lighthouse, one of Michigan’s oldest, is located at the tip of the Thumb. It’s an important historical landmark that also houses a museum.

What is the significance of the Sanilac Petroglyphs in Michigan’s Thumb?

The Sanilac Petroglyphs, etched into sandstone, are historical Native American carvings. They offer a glimpse into the area’s ancient past and are a culturally significant site.

Can visitors explore any unique ecosystems in the Thumb?

The Huron County Nature Center and Wilderness Arboretum is a must-visit. It features diverse ecosystems, including a thriving arboretum, making it a great spot for nature enthusiasts.

What makes Charity Island unique in Michigan’s Thumb Region?

Charity Island, located in the middle of Saginaw Bay, is known for its natural beauty and historical lighthouse. It’s a serene getaway offering picturesque views and tranquil surroundings.

Ft-Gratiot-Lighthouse-Duplex - Michigan Tourist Attractions

A huge Michigan tourist attraction is lighthouses with 124 Michigan lighthouses across the state. They are uniquely functional and draw many visitors to explore their grounds or climb the towers. However, only two are accessible directly from the land of the four lighthouses in Michigan’s Thumb. All the others need a boat to access—lighthouses of Michigan’s Upper Thumb.

East Tawas State Harbor

Tawas – Fun Across the Bay – When Saginaw Bay was low, we could see the blinking lights of the Tawas Michigan from our beach on summer evenings. It’s a day’s sail from Caseville but a several-hour drive from the Upper Thumb. The Tawas area is one of the most beautiful places in Michigan. With its clear water due to the currents coming in from Lake Huron and the little town nestled near the harbor, the bay is a charming mix of a tourist town and art colony.

Things to do in the upper Thumb - for free

10 Free Things to do in Michigan’s Thumb – You have found the right spot if you are ever at a loss for things to do in the Upper Thumb. We looked for neat and exciting 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.

Port Austin Go Cart - Michigan Tourist Attractions

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. So if you need ideas for places to see and things to do, we have some suggestions for every taste.

Kilmanagh Gasp Pump

12 Quirky Roadside Attractions to See in Michigan’s Thumb – We encountered many folks who have come up to Michigan’s Thumb for their entire lives but never have seen these fascinating and sometimes quirky Michigan Roadside Attractions. Sometimes they are just off the road or tucked in out-of-the-way places. So if you’re visiting Caseville, Port Austin, Bay Port, Gagetown, or Harbor Beach, make a slight detour and check out these roadside attractions. They don’t cost a dime and usually have a story to tell.

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Michael Hardy

Michael Hardy is the owner of Thumbwind Publications LLC. Michael was born in Michigan and grew up near Caseville. In 2009 he started this fun-loving site covering Michigan's Upper Thumb. Since then, he has authored a vast range of content and established a loyal base of 60,000 visitors per month.

View all posts by Michael Hardy →

3 thoughts on “20 of the Best Michigan Tourist Attractions in The Thumb Region

  1. Great list! I’ve seen all but 2. In fact, could you tell us where that “Arc” barn is?

    1. Sorry I didn’t see this. The Ark barn is located near Oak Beach. Do a search in google maps for an exact location and directions.

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