I live in the mountains and my grandsons live in the desert. Which means neither they nor I have much opportunity to enjoy natural water features—lakes, rivers, and so forth—and the outdoor adventures related to them. It’s so very dry here, so very dry there.
Because of our similarly parched home states, when I recently toured gems of communities on the “sunrise coast” of Michigan—primarily the Tawases and Alpena (thanks, Pure Michigan!)—I couldn’t help but consider how much my landlocked grandsons would be thrilled by ocean-like Lake Huron as well as the abundant inland lakes and rivers marking the area.
In addition to the water wonders, though, the magical coast featured unexpected treasures my grandkids—and all kids—would find especially appealing. These fifteen top my list:
Beaches and Parks
Both the Tawases (above) and Alpena (below) boast several beaches. Some sandy, some more rocky, all exhilarating and ideal for splashing and such.
Shoreline parks are a plus for the kids, and most of the beaches have play structures and picnic tables.
Beachside fun in Alpena
An old-fashioned main street East Tawas, MI
An old-timey candy store, ice cream shoppe, Ben Franklin drugstore and more. A super spot for finding special eats and treats you won’t find in the big city.
Tuttle Marsh Wildlife Area Oscada, MI
This 5,000-acre wetland project attracts birds galore, with 35 earthen nests, osprey landings and a Great Blue Heron rookery in addition to the natural habitat that attracts egrets, songbirds, Sand Cranes and more. Birds aren’t the only wildlife enjoying the wetlands. Animal residents include black bear, bobcat, white-tail deer, muskrat, beaver, mink, weasel, otter, fox, coyote, and other mammals (which is why enjoying the area from within motor vehicles rather than on foot is advised).
River Road National Scenic Byway runs east/west between Oscada and M-65
A scenic drive may not seem all that thrilling to youngsters, but when the 22-mile-long byway along the AuSable River includes stops at the Eagles’ Nest Lookout—officially the Canoe Memorial Scenic Overlook—where chances are high bald eagles and their babes will be spotted or the Lumberman’s Monument, which was declared in 2006 the official home of Paul Bunyan, with features just for kids (log piles to climb!), kids will quickly appreciate the ride. Grandma Susan Elliott says just west of the monument is Iargo Springs, which has not only a lovely view but 294 steps “that take you down to a wonderful fairy-like spring near the river.”
Dinosaur Gardens Ossineke, MI
This will be a tough one to top for my dinosaur-loving grandsons. The lush, 24-acre swamp has huge ferns, huge trees, and huger-than-huge dinosaurs. The life-size dinos line a half-mile walk that makes visitors feel they’ve traveled back in time. Way back. Once the trail has been traversed, there’s mini golf with greens in the shape of dinosaurs and a frozen yogurt bar in the gift shop that houses more dino souvenirs than dino fans might imagine could even exist.
Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary Alpena, MI
Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary is the nation’s only freshwater marine sanctuary and protects the significant number of shipwrecks at the bottom of Lake Huron. The visitor center educates and intrigues visitors who want to know all about the area’s 100-year maritime history and the numerous ill-fated ships of “Shipwreck Alley.” In the center, kids can man the wheel of a ship and get the feel of sailing on stormy seas. They can see artifacts and learn new facts, romp about the indoor marine-themed play area, and watch hi-tech presentations on state-of-the-art screens.
Plus, the center’s the spot to purchase tickets for the Alpena Shipwreck Tours—an unforgettable experience for adventurers of all ages as they board the glass-bottom Lady Michigan and scan the depths of Lake Huron for sunken ships.
Island Park and Duck Park Alpena, MI
A gem hidden in the center of Alpena, Island Park is surrounded by a 500-acre wildlife sanctuary and accessible via a covered bridge originating in Duck Park, a 2.5 acre roadside park bordering the Thunder Bay River. What might kids enjoy in the tranquil space? The list is endless: They can hunt for frogs and snails; hike; birdwatch; enjoy a picnic; fish; watch for turtles and Great Blue Herons and beavers and more. Brave adults with kids in tow can join them on a tube or in a canoe to paddle along the Blue Heron Water Trail through the sanctuary.
Knaebe’s Mmmunchy, Krunchy Apple Farm Rogers City, MI
A 13-acre apple farm and cider mill, Knaebe’s is a favorite fall destination for visitors and residents. With 30 varieties of dwarf and semi-dwarf apple trees, the baskets and crates are filled come harvest, and the farm bustles with rides, a petting zoo, games, and goodies galore from inside “Ma’s Kitchen,” including fresh cider, honey, and maple syrup plus the best apple donuts ever.
Cedar Panning Alpena, MI
Youngsters get to step up to the sluice and pan for gems and crystals out of their bucket (provided) filled with sand or dirt. Using a shovel and screen, goodies are soon revealed. Those who pan get to keep any gems, fossils, or crystals they find. Gems and minerals found include garnet, topaz, crystals, quartz and more (including a guaranteed arrowhead in every bucket).
Rockport State Park Recreation Area north of Alpena, MI
This 4,237-acre retreat has unmatched variety of options for outdoor explorers of all ages. More than a dozen sinkholes to discover (but not climb into!), including one that’s nearly 100 feet deep and has water and fish inside. A bat hibernaculum made from two conveyor tunnels from old mining operations where big bats, little bats, and tri-colored bats reside. A deep-water port and pier to walk out on and look for ancient dock pilings beneath the turquoise water, fish off the edge, or launch a canoe or kayak. A 300-acre abandoned limestone quarry that has fossils dating back to the Devonian Period (that’s about 400 million years ago) as far as the eye can see—and fossil hunters can bring a bag and take home up to 25 pounds of the treasures. Plus some of the best stargazing in the country as the area is far from light pollution and officially designated “Dark Lands” where stars, meteors, planets and moons can be easily spotted.
Besser Museum and Planetarium Alpena, MI
Speaking of stargazing, Besser Museum, which focuses on history, art and science, has an amazing planetarium for viewing (and learning about) constellations and other cool stuff high in the sky. Plus, kids will appreciate the Foucault Pendulum which “gives visual proof that the Earth is rotating while demonstrating Newton’s Law of Motion” as well as the numerous exhibits and activities meant just for kids.
Tawas Point State Park East Tawas, MI
In addition to being home to Tawas Point Lighthouse, the 183-acre park features campgrounds and shallow shore line with water warm enough to swim in. This spot is a must-see, according to Susan Elliot, resident of the Tawases and grandmother to Vivian, 3, and Jacob, 5 months. “There is nature galore to see,” she says. “You can fish, hike and explore, picnic, or play on the beach.” Plus, there are sailboat races to watch every Saturday in the summer.
Kids can ride bikes on trails throughout the country. But how many trails run alongside a body of water as large as Lake Huron? Not many. Unless you’re on the sunrise coast of Michigan, where you can hop on the Alabaster Bike Path just south of Tawas and ride for four miles along the shore with only thickets of trees here and there interrupting the lake view. Or on the City of Alpena Bi-Path/River Walk 18-mile system that runs through the entire city, with spans long the Thunder Bay River. Those two options are far from the only ones, as paved and non-paved biking trails wend around and about the entire region. Bike-rental stores are nearly as easy to find as bike-riding trails.
Holes being relative, as anywhere and everywhere throughout the eastern coast of Michigan is the perfect spot to fish. From Lake Huron piers to docks on inland lakes, from the edge of rivers—or in the rivers—fishing tops the list of outdoor activities for all ages.
Sites to set sail by kayak, canoe, paddleboard, windsurf, and tube
Sports stores that rent out watercraft are as plentiful as bike rental places, making it easy as can be to choose the desired mode and request directions to nearby spots to drop into the water for hours of fun. I lean more toward drifting lazily down the river in an inner tube or canoe, but I bet my grandsons would opt more for paddleboarding. Or windsurfing. Or kayaking. Fortunately the Tawases and Alpena areas offer endless options for getting in and getting about the region’s picturesque waterways in any way visitors might desire.
Full details on all fifteen spots I want to take my grandkiddos—plus many more destinations of interest to kids and adults—can be found on Tawas.com, VisitAlpena.com, and PureMichigan.org (Michigan’s official travel and tourism site).
I imagine a top takeaway for my grandsons and other kids visiting these super spots will be the realization that outdoor adventure and activities are far more exhilarating—and worth pursuing—than the electronic entertainment they’ve grown accustomed to experiencing on screens of all sizes.
That, as well as lifelong memories of the wonderland on Michigan’s sunrise coast, too, of course.