It’s finally here. My favorite time to be in Michigan’s Thumb. The Caseville Cheeseburger Festival has long since past. The Labor Day weekend has come and gone. Things are quieter. I can now cross M-25 over the the beach in silence and without fear. What a great season. For many folks, this was an odd summer. Extremely hot in July then the rain hit just about every weekend. Saginaw Bay was cool and clear until mid-August and the walleye stayed in the shallows off “The Slot” until really late in the season. Now it’s time to put away the beach toys and look for that favorite sweatshirt when near the fire on cool nights or when burning leaves.
The Fall Season in the Thumb
Now it’s time for football on Friday evenings on WLEW, chili on the stove, and it’s finally cool enough for a sweatshirt. I don’t expect the leaves to fall until later in September, but I am seeing a hint of color on my maple trees. The crickets are in full chirp mode during the overnight. A sure sign of a waning summer.
It’s going to get more quiet, more serene. Soon the boats will be coming out at the marina, the trailers parked all summer at the campgrounds will be leaving or wrapped up and winterized. Cottages will be closed. Garden’s are turned over.
However, for now, I look forward to the iconic Indian summer. A string of unusually warm days after a snap of chilly ones. It sometimes hits during late September, but I’ve seen it come later. The long shadow of a bright sun and crisp fall air. It’s an ideal time to be around at the tip of the Thumb.
Our Fall color tour starts at the gateway to the thumb. In the 1800’s, stagecoaches plied their way north to lumber camps along ancient trails on the Lake Huron shoreline. Schooners and steamships passed on their way to the upper Great Lakes. Today you will travel north along M-25. This is considered one of Michigan’s earliest scenic highways as most of it closely hugs the shore all the way around the thumb. Our first stop is to see if we can catch a glimpse of one of the big freighters moving up the St. Clair River.
Maritime Center at Vantage Point
This venue is a great place to watch the freighter and boat traffic on the St. Clair River. It’s free to visit with indoor and outdoor seating available. The Maritime Center holds artifacts from the history of shipping in the river. There is also a snack bar and food vendors outside seasonally. Talk a walk along the mile-long boardwalk and natural pathway. On Sundays shipping, history presentations are conducted. The farmers market is open from 8am until 2 pm on Tuesday and Saturday in season. Plenty of parking and free Wi-Fi is available.
Our first stop is only a little over a ½ hour from Port Huron. This town was first settled in the 1830’s supporting lumbering and early farmers with blacksmith, shoemaker, and fishing. Today it’s considered “on the edge” of suburbia for Metro Detroit.
Lexington General Store
This store was built in the late 1800’s and is a great example of what was in just about every country village and town in Michigan. Known for their large candy selection including the old-fashioned penny candy. Walk along old squeaky wood floors, and browse gifts, lake signs, candles, kitchenware, jellies, and souvenirs. Listen for the “cha-ching” from their pull handle register from every sale. This is a neat step back in time.
Port Hope, On Lake Huron’s Shore
This is our long jaunt north. We pass by the historic site of White Rock. A scared native site and a treaty marker that ceded all land south of it to the early European settlers. Port Hope is also home to a completely restored railway depot from the early 1900’s. Past Harbor Beach with this large harbor and lighthouse. We continue to head just north of Port Hope to get to Lighthouse Park.
Pointe Aux Barques Lighthouse
The original Pointe aux Barques Lighthouse was constructed of stone taken from the shore of Lake Huron in 1848. The keeper’s house and separate tower were located on a three-acre clearing hacked out of the dense wilderness. By 1857, the ravages of shoreline weather and a fire in the interior of the house created the need for a new structure. The new keeper’s house and attached 89-foot tower were built of the finest brick available. The light is still an active aid to navigation, making Pointe aux Barques one of the oldest continuously operating Lights on the Great Lakes.
Only 10 minutes away from the lighthouse. But unless you’re a local it could be tough to find. If you are looking for a treat head to Grindstone General Store for a large ice cream cone.
White Church Gallery
Shows over 25 fine artists from all over Michigan in a renovated 1880’s Methodist Church. They carry fine art, wood, glass, ceramics, jewelry, fiber, and more. White Church Gallery is the first truly dedicated art gallery in the Thumb. The uniqueness of the restored church and remoteness of location makes it an amazing place. The centerpiece of this renovated church is a beautifully restored qua-trefoil stained glass window at the front of the gallery crafted by Tom Newton. You can sit on the pews of the old church at across the street at Rybak’s Ice Cream on the front porch.
Shelly’s Bar & Grill
It’s lunchtime. Shelly’s is one of those hidden gems that no one talks about. They don’t advertise much because they don’t need to. A favorite with the locals and bike clubs touring the shoreline. It’s one of our go-to places when we want to get away from the crowds and tourists of Port Austin. Make no mistake, its tavern food. But they have large portions, and if you’re lucky enough to find they have walleye available – get it. Don’t let the exterior put you off. It’s super clean and they have the coldest beer at the tip of the Thumb.
After lunch, you can keep hugging the shoreline or cut through the back roads through Port Austin. A quick stop in the shops, pubs and galleries may be in order. After exploring, keep heading east out of town.
Port Crescent State Park
This state park is one of the largest state parks in southern Michigan. Located at the tip of Michigan’s “thumb” along three miles of sandy shoreline of Lake Huron’s Saginaw Bay, the park offers excellent fishing, canoeing, hiking, cross-country skiing, birding, and hunting opportunities. However, a little-known aspect of this park is that it sits on the location of a ghost town. Port Crescent prospered as a lumber town from about 1864 to 1881. One sawmill became so busy salvaging thousands of trees felled in one of the infamous fires experienced by the Midwest in 1871 that it added a 120-foot brick chimney to help power the plant. The remains of this chimney can be seen in the campground area.
From Port Crescent State Park continue to head west on M-25 through Caseville. You will pass Sand Point. This spike of land extends over a mile into Saginaw Bay and has some of the neatest cottages in the area. Continue west along Wild Fowl Bay until you reach the town of Bay Port. Watch for the big fish sign and turn right toward the docks.
Bay Port Fish Company
The Bay Port Fish Company has been a commercial fishery in Lake Huron and Saginaw Bay since 1895. The company operates between spring and fall, depending upon the weather and has four boats: the Osprey, the Argo, the Patsy, and the Sunflower. You can see the Osprey and the Argo tied up in Caseville harbor at the fish house just south of the break wall. They are open seven days a week. Be aware “it smells like fish”.
This is one of the oldest settlements in the Thumb. First established as a mission among the Native Americans who lived in the area for generations. Headquarters of Michigan Sugar, you will be able to see large mounds of locally grown sugar beets that are being prepared for processing. Here the tour concluded. Hence, you have a choice of continuing on M-25 toward Bay City and I-75 or heading East on Owendale Road until you head on M-53 south toward Utica and Detroit.