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 of these attractions and sites are free to access. A full day of fun can be had just finding and exploring things to do in Michigan’s Upper Thumb. Taking a scenic drive along M-25 is all you need to do to start.
#1 Turnip Rock – A Michigan International Wonder
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
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. “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 the fabulous presence it will have 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 – It’s one of the few break walls anywhere that encourages you to walk out and take a look at the 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 – 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. 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 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 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
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, 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. Construction on the lighthouse started in 1847, and it has been in use for over 170 years. 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 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 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 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 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 a fantastic assortment of local craftsmen offering clothing, rugs, collectibles, to 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
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 and 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. 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
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 – 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. The Saginaw Bay Herpetological Survey found Sand Point Nature Preserve the most biologically diverse site along the Saginaw Bay shoreline through the North American Wetlands Conservation Act. 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 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. 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 – 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
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. 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
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 as an 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.
#15 Harbor Beach & Frank Murphy 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 1937-38, and appointed Supreme Court Justice in 1940. Murphy first practiced law in Harbor Beach after graduating from the University of Michigan. This 1870’s Victorian Gothic Revival-style historic home is said to have the most extensive collection of Philippine cultural artifacts in the United States.
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Related Sites for 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.