We took an overnight trip out of the thumb region and across Saginaw Bay to do a little business in East Tawas and see new sights. We found that the 22-mile River Road National Scenic Byway runs westward from Lake Huron to the Huron National Forest. It runs parallel to the historic Riviere aux Sable, which in French means River of Sand. We decided to skip the endless commercial strip that makes up the lakeshore to make a trip along this Byway on our way back to Caseville.
During the lumbering era, the Au Sable River was an important waterway transporting big white pine from Michigan’s forests to sawmill cities on Lake Huron. The Lumbermen’s Monument Visitor Center, located in the heart of the byway, is where you can find out more about its lumbering heritage.
Travelers on River Road National Byway will find a wealth of recreational activities, ranging from off-road vehicle and snowmobile tracks to tranquil hiking and cross-country skiing pathways. In addition, the byway provides access to camping, fishing, and boating opportunities. Visitors will appreciate the lush woodland and stunning scenery from the various scenic overlooks along the route for a more relaxing experience.
What is A National Scenic Byway
The USDOT chooses a National Scenic Byway, a road with six “intrinsic qualities”: cultural, historical, natural, recreational, scenic, and archeological. Congress created the list in 1991 to conserve and maintain the country’s picturesque but typically less-traveled roads while also encouraging tourism and economic growth.
All-American Roads, which must satisfy two of the six intrinsic traits, are picked as the most scenic byways. The designation denotes that they have unique characteristics to the United States and are distinct and valuable enough to serve as stand-alone tourist destinations.
Michigan has three roads with this national distinction out of the 120 National Scenic Byways and 31 All-American Roads. We visited the River Road National Scenic Byway just north of Tawas and west of Oscoda.
Taking A Road Less Travelled
We left East Tawas and headed north on US-23 toward Oscoda. Once in Oscoda, we almost missed the turn west to take the River Road Byway toward Hale. I kind of wished we had stopped and explored the twin towns of Au Sable and Oscoda. Their location on the Lake Huron shore was inviting.
Footesite Park and the Au Sable River Queen Paddleboat
Footesite Park was our first stop. It’s the only public swimming beach along the River Road Byway, and the water looked really nice. On scorching summer days, families flock to the park with their children. Larger boats can use the park’s reinforced boat ramp to enter Foote Pond. The asphalt parking space is spacious enough to accommodate vehicles towing boat trailers.
Footesite Park is also where the Au Sable River Queen docks. The AuSable River Queen is a paddle-wheel riverboat that offers two-hour round tours. This paddle-wheel boat runs into the autumn season so you can enjoy the magnificence of the changing leaves. On weekends, live music is performed on the Au Sable River Queen. In addition, the boat has a snack bar that you can get refreshments for your trip.
Au Sable River Vistas
One of the amazing elements of this route is the high elevation overlooks of the Au Sable River. One of our stops was the Foote Pond Overlook. The pictures don’t do it justice. We found ourselves stopping and taking in the view. It was mid-week, so we had much of the place to ourselves.
The Lumberman’s Monument was erected in 1931 as a lasting memorial to the lumbermen that harvested Michigan’s giant white pine. A 14-foot bronze statue overlooks the beautiful Au Sable River. The three figures represent various stages of the historic lumbering era. In the center, the timber cruiser holds a compass; a sawyer holds an ax and crosscut saw to his left. On his right is the river rat using a peavey. Etched on the granite base are the names of the memorials contributors and the words “Aiken Fecit.” Fecit comes from the Latin word meaning “to make” The sculptor artist was Robert Aitken of New York.
The Civilian Conservation Corp Building
The comfort station was built, and the Civilian Conservation Corps landscaped the grounds of the monument in the mid-1930s. Today the log cabin hosts a display covering conservation efforts to recover from the lumbering era, forest firefighting, and the Great Fire of Oscoda and Au Sable on July 11, 1911.
Iargo Springs Interpretive Site
With its sheer cliffs overlooking the Au Sable River and various springs, this location has a long history of recreational use dating back to before European immigrants arrived. The springs and site were discovered by Native Americans while traveling along the river, according to legend.
The springs were dammed and rerouted in the 1800s to supply water to riverbank logging operations. The water and sights drew people from the bluff in the 1920s and 1930s.
The Civilian Conservation Corps built a trail to the springs in 1934. Today, the location serves as an outdoor teaching center, with exhibits highlighting the region’s history, geology, and plant and animal life. There are further exhibitions nearby.
A 300 step stairway descends down to the springs and river. It’s quite a workout. Once at the bottom, you can walk along boardwalks among the naturally flowing springs. Two of the springs have been dammed, and small waterfalls created.
The River Road Scenic Byway is an excellent chance to see real Michigan wilderness yet still be only a few minutes from the Lake Huron shoreline. Bring your hiking shoes, play your best road trip music and have fun exploring.