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Lighthouses shine a beacon on Michigan’s maritime heritage

The Ludington North Breakwater Light affords a prime place to enjoy Lake Michigan sunsets. Photo by

I count the steps every time I climb to a lighthouse lantern room: 56 or 39 or 45 …

I’m always surprised there aren’t more.

Jim Tamlyn, executive director of the Great Lakes Lighthouse Keepers Association in Mackinaw City, Michigan, tells me it’s because some of the lighthouses are on higher ground or built on breakwater walls, so super-tall towers aren’t necessary. And then he mentions the White Shoal Light, which has 143 steps.

The tallest lighthouse in the Great Lakes, it’s 20 miles offshore from Mackinaw City and surrounded by Lake Michigan’s waters. It welcomes 3-night “adventure” guests who must be physically and mentally capable. Upon arrival, you climb a 22-foot ladder out of a boat to access the isolated lighthouse. It takes courage for this dramatic but daunting sojourn.

My experiences simply climbing up inside these sites are more laid-back and relaxing. Some lighthouse steps are like ordinary house stairs. Some are ladders. And some are the spiral ones etched into our minds by the movies. The last few steps to the top are generally steep and may require a little maneuvering to get through a not-very-big opening.

But always, the view is worth the effort. My home state of Michigan boasts more lighthouses than any other state—129 in all—and last year I set out to visit the most scenic beacons on our western shore. About 30 of them welcome visitors during warm-weather months, starting in April or May.

With their historic charm, lighthouses have always captured my imagination. Here, I’ll introduce you to a dozen along Lake Michigan that light the way to experiences filled with maritime tales, scenic beauty, and hospitable lighthouse keepers.


Meeting Colleen McMurray of Rockford, Michigan, sent my lighthouse interest soaring in the spring of 2023. She was working her second shift ever as a volunteer day keeper at the White River Light Station near Whitehall when I visited.

It was her parents’ favorite lighthouse. One afternoon in fall 2022, she stopped by to take pictures of the waves and told the curator about her family ties to the lighthouse. He suggested she volunteer as a keeper, and she’s still excited—giddy, even—about the opportunity.

“I can’t believe I’m doing this,” says McMurray, who has since volunteered at several other lighthouses. “Welcoming curious visitors, seeing their faces full of excitement, and learning how far they traveled is a very rewarding experience. It’s helping make others’ bucket lists come true.”

The story of White River Light—active from 1875 to 1960—is tied closely to the tale of its first keeper, William Robinson, who served more than 40 years. The board decided that at 87, he could no longer do the work, and they appointed a new keeper in 1919. Vowing not to go, Robinson died peacefully in the lighthouse just before his departure date.

While some claim his ghost is still there, I didn’t encounter him. But I was treated to an amazing view of Lake Michigan and White Lake after climbing a spiral staircase. An on-site museum brims with nautical artifacts and images of the lighthouse through the years. Adults, $8.

The White River Light is 1 of 4 in the Sable Points Lighthouse Keepers Association (SPLKA), including the Ludington North Breakwater Light, which dates to 1924. Standing sentinel at the end of a long pier, the structure’s 4-sided pyramid shape is designed to deflect strong Lake Michigan waves. Adults, $8.

The other 2 lighthouses in the association—Big Sable Point and Little Sable Point—are tall and skinny, each with 130 steps to the top. All those steps up the black-and-white striped Big Sable, which was originally built in 1867, come after a nearly 2-mile walk to the lighthouse. Adults, $8.

Ludington features additional outdoorsy activities such as beaches, hiking trails, and, like other Lake Michigan coastal cities, great salmon fishing. I enjoy cultural history, so Historic White Pine Village proved fascinating, with 30 mid-1800s buildings, including a trapper’s cabin and a general store. Adults, $15.

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Traverse City

The cozy Mission Point Lighthouse at the northern tip of the Old Mission Peninsula is easy to love. Surrounded by thickly wooded trails on 3 sides, the picturesque spot overlooks Grand Traverse Bay. Guests 13 and older, $8.

The light guided mariners from 1870 to 1933. John and Sarah Lane lived there for 25 years, starting in 1881—he as the keeper, she as the assistant. John’s health was poor, so Sarah did most of the work. When he died in 1906, she became the sole keeper for a brief time.

In addition to showcasing local shipwreck information, the second-floor museum tells Sarah’s story with period clothing and exhibits that chronicle her duties. She is part of the state’s proud tradition of female lighthouse keepers.

Volunteer keepers Mike and Debbie Somand from the Detroit area warmly welcomed me to Grand Traverse Lighthouse (adults, $8) at the tip of the Leelanau Peninsula, about 35 miles north of town. “I wasn’t expecting to meet visitors from so many different places,” Mike says. “They come from all over.”

Later this year, the lighthouse will launch maritime history cruises carrying about half a dozen passengers to look at local shipwrecks. An ROV (remotely operated vehicle) will travel underwater so those on board can see what’s down there. “It’s going to be very intimate, a small group on a small boat,” says the lighthouse’s executive director, Stef Staley. “I’m so excited I can barely stand it. I want it in the water today.”

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, about 30 miles west of Traverse City, is a must-visit, with its miles of sand dunes and lush forests. Sleeping Bear Tour Company offers several tours, including its forest-bathing excursion that had me sauntering through the woods while paying close attention to my senses and breathing in the forest’s delightfully rich and musty scent.

While in Traverse City, check out its wineries, bike tours, fishing, and its great food scene. You can also set sail on the tall ship Manitou, which I’ve done several times. On one excursion, I witnessed an onboard marriage proposal. She said yes. I will always say yes to the city for its vibrant downtown and scenic surroundings.

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A person looks across the water at Holland's Big Red lighthouse.

While it's not open for tours, Holland's Big Red is one of Michigan's most-visited lighthouses. Photo courtesy Holland Area CVB

Perhaps the most photographed lighthouse in all of Michigan is Big Red in Holland—even though there’s currently no public access. Photos of this aptly named beauty, whose official name is the Holland Harbor Lighthouse, are generally taken from Holland State Park.

Each spring, the city’s Dutch heritage shines with millions of tulips and the Tulip Time Festival (May 4-12 this year) that celebrates them. The focal point at Windmill Island Gardens is, of course, a windmill from the Netherlands. And a visit to Nelis’ Dutch Village theme park (guests 3 and older, $17) is like taking a step back in time, with canals and wooden shoes. Lots of wooden shoes.

You may also like: Check these Midwest adventures off your bucket list

Mackinaw City

At the northern tip of Michigan’s lower peninsula, Mackinaw City has half a dozen lighthouses worthy of a visit, including Old Mackinac Point at the Mackinac Bridge and McGulpin Point about 2 miles away.

Old Mackinac Point, built in 1892 and known as “the Castle of the Straits,” was made obsolete in 1957 by the opening of the Mackinac Bridge. During its 65-year history, the lighthouse had just 4 keepers.

“This was a very desirable post,” says Dominick Miller, chief of marketing for Mackinac State Historic Parks, which owns the lighthouse. “Here, you were in a fairly bustling community. At other [more remote] lighthouses, you were on your own.”

Miller calls the lighthouse “a time capsule,” which tours celebrate. Adults, $10.25. Costumed interpreters, dressed as in 1910, greet visitors in rooms preserved to that period. The Straits of Mackinac Shipwreck Museum in a reconstructed warehouse has audiovisual displays and original artifacts. Adults, $15. Check times for the fog-whistle demonstrations so you aren’t startled.

Also guiding ships in the Straits of Mackinac through storms and fog, McGulpin Point Lighthouse operated from 1869 to 1906. $3 per person. In addition to tours, it offers lodging in an adjacent building.

Docent Ed Dunwoody—who looks like Santa in civilian summer garb—tells captivating historic tales. When explaining how Old Mackinac Point made McGulpin obsolete, he says, “The light didn’t shine far enough to reach Lake Huron  [to the east], and they could never figure out how to make light bend.”

Mackinaw City is the gateway to Mackinac Island. Take a ferry to this oasis that’s known for its historic charm and zero automobile traffic. A horse-drawn carriage ride is de rigueur. You can get a feel for the island with a day’s visit, and don’t miss a sample of its famous fudge.

In Mackinaw City itself, stop in at historic Colonial Michilimackinac, where restored buildings and costumed interpreters bring this mid-1700s fort and fur-trading village to life. Adults, $15.25.

And because Michigan is rich in forest resources, take in the sawing, chopping, and log rolling at the Jack Pine Lumberjack Shows. These are bona fide champion lumberjacks in a not-so-serious competition. Of course, we in the audience cheered on our favorite lumberjacks and chuckled at the Northwoods humor. Adults, $20.

You may also like: Exploring Midwestern vineyards and wine trails

Grand Haven and Muskegon

Grand Haven lighthouse.

A lighted catwalk leads to Grand Haven's signature lighthouses. Photo by Meybruck/Getty Images

Grand Haven’s Twin Lighthouses and lighted catwalk are the city’s signature sights. Walking the pier is a must-do for tourists and residents alike. The lights aren’t open to the public, but the Grand Haven Lighthouse Conservancy is working toward that eventual goal.

Grand Haven is all about the beach, which you can enjoy at Grand Haven State Park. The 48-acre park consists primarily of beach sand and offers great views of the lighthouses. Within walking distance of the park, the quaint downtown bustles with shoppers.

Named the nation’s first Coast Guard City USA, Grand Haven honors its connection to the seafaring service with the 10-day Coast Guard Festival. From July 26 to August 4 this year, visitors can enjoy live music, ship tours, a carnival, and a parade of ships.

To the north, in neighboring Muskegon, the Muskegon South Pierhead Lighthouse offers tours of the 48-foot tower. Adults, $5. Climb 2 spiral staircases and a shipman’s ladder to reach the top of this steel lighthouse, which dates to 1903.

Explore more nautical history at the USS Silversides Submarine Museum and the USS LST 393, World War II–era vessels that offer tours. Adults, $17.50. Step out of your comfort zone at the Muskegon Luge Adventure Sports Park. Activities $20 and up. I still can’t bring myself to go down the luge track in winter (on ice) or summer (on a wheeled sled), but I do feel like Wonder Woman on the zip line.

This sampling of Michigan lighthouses offers just a taste of the treasured towers you’ll find along its lakefront. Jim Tamlyn of the Great Lakes Lighthouse Keepers Association notes that about 3,000 ships plied the Great Lakes around 1895. “Those ships are gone but the lighthouses still stand,” he says. “These big, beautiful buildings are all over 100 years old. They have a lot of history. They have a lot of friends. It’s about keeping the memories alive.”

Elizabeth Granger is a freelance writer from Nunica, Michigan.

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