If you are looking to experience the wild beauty of Northern Michigan with modern comforts, this is your sign to plan a trip to the Sanctuary of the Great Lakes — Alpena Michigan.
In mid-September, during the transition from summer to fall, my family experienced the best of both seasons in Alpena. From a shipwreck boat tour, dark sky park stargazing, stellar restaurants, and more, Alpena provided the perfect location to create unforgettable family memories.
Steal My Alpena Weekend Itinerary
What We Did
- Splashed in Ocqueoc Falls
- Experienced fall fun at Knaebe’s Apple Farm
- Cruised Thunder Bay on a shipwreck boat tour
- Walked through Dinosaur Gardens
- Explored Island Park in Alpena’s Wildlife Sanctuary
- Stargazed at Rockport State Recreation Area
- Toured the Great Lakes Maritime Museum
Where We Ate
- Red Brick Tap & Barrel
- Cabin Creek Coffee
- The Fresh Palate
- The Court Yard
- JJ’s Pizza & Steak House
- Mangos Tequila Bar
- Downtown Scoops
Where We Stayed
- Holiday Inn Express & Suites
For our first Friday afternoon adventure, we headed a bit north of Alpena to Ocqueoc Falls, the largest waterfall in the lower peninsula.
While Ocqueoc Falls only has a 5-foot drop, the ease of access, ability to climb and play in the falls, and hiking trails along the water make it a must-see waterfall.
A couple of things to note if you visit Ocqueoc Falls:
- A Michigan State Park pass is required for entry.
- The only facilities here are vault toilets near the parking lot.
From the parking lot, we took the short paved path down to the falls. As an accessible waterfall, there is a ramp all the way down to the river’s edge. The rest of the area surrounding the falls is quite rocky and uneven.
On the mid-September day we visited, the temperature was in the upper 70s. My husband and kids took advantage of the warm weather to swim in the falls, while I waded through the river. The water felt cool and refreshing. Plus, it was awesome to have the waterfall all to ourselves.
September is a lovely time to explore Ocqueoc Falls, especially to squeeze out the last bit of summer. In the cooler weather of October, the trees will be magical here, aglow in autumn colors.
Fall Festivities at Knaebe’s Apple Farm
Just down the road from Ocqueoc Falls, we found a local treasure for delicious eats and family-friendly fun — Knaebe’s Apple Farm.
While Knaebe’s is open for handcrafted wood-fired pizza and hard cider in the summer, fall is the prime season here. In the fall, apple picking and cider and donuts are added to the list of attractions to enjoy.
After swimming in Ocqueoc Falls, fresh apple cider and donuts made the perfect afternoon snack. We ordered cinnamon, pumpkin, and sprinkled donuts. My personal favorite was the pumpkin donut, and the kids were stoked about the sprinkled ones.
Behind the main buildings, you’ll find lots of family fun, including a petting farm and creative play structures. My boys had a blast climbing the massive tire tower and wooden pirate ship and vehicles. There was even an apple slingshot course, although it wasn’t fully set up yet.
Knaebe’s is the perfect Northern Michigan farm for some fall festivities!
Rugged Beauty at Rockport State Recreation Area
On our drive down into Alpena, we briefly stopped by Rockport State Recreation Area. We wanted to scope out the area in the daylight before returning in the evening to enjoy some stargazing in one of Alpena’s designated dark sky parks.
From the main highway, a dirt road drive of about 3 miles brought us out to Lake Huron’s rocky coastline. Getting a feel for the terrain and the road in was definitely helpful preparation for stargazing late at night — more on that later on!
Modern Comforts at Holiday Inn Express & Suites
For our weekend in Alpena, we stayed at the Holiday Inn Express & Suites, centrally located in the downtown area. If you enjoy easy access to walking trails, restaurants, and shopping, I’d highly recommend the Holiday Inn.
Built only a few years ago, the building and rooms all have a comfortable, modern vibe. Plus, the Holiday Inn has a nice swimming pool, which is always a hit for our family.
Artisanal Dinner at Red Brick Tap & Barrel
For a small town, Alpena is bursting with phenomenal restaurants. A short convenient walk from the Holiday Inn, the Red Brick Tap & Barrel was a spectacular spot for dinner and drinks.
Set in a restored 100-year-old building, the Red Brick Tap and Barrel menu features many locally sourced ingredients.
For dinner, we started with the Crispy Cube appetizer and tasty avocado ranch and marinara dipping sauces. From Red Brick Tap and Barrel’s robust menu, I tried the Maritime Mojito, which was an excellent compliment to my generously proportioned Greek Salad.
Cozy Breakfast at Cabin Creek Coffee
For breakfast on Saturday morning, we took a short walk from the hotel to Cabin Creek Coffee. Inside has a cozy cabin vibe and plenty of seating. Cabin Creek Coffee’s menu has a wide array of coffee drinks as well as breakfast and pastry items.
An iced caramel mocha coffee, warm cinnamon roll, and veggie egg wrap made a delicious breakfast combination. A hearty meal (and plenty of caffeine) to start a day of exploring!
Alpena Shipwreck Boat Tour
Of all our Alpena adventures, taking a shipwreck boat tour was definitely a highlight. With glass bottom viewing wells, Alpena Shipwreck Tours cruises through Thunder Bay where over 200 shipwrecks lie beneath Lake Huron’s powerful waters.
In the summer, boat tours are offered multiple times a day. From Labor Day to early October, boat tours run once a day at 9 a.m.
What to Know Before Your Alpena Shipwreck Tour:
- Arrive 15 minutes early as the boat leaves promptly on time.
- Plan on three hours for your boat tour. We boarded at 8:45 a.m. and returned at around 11:45 a.m.
- Bring a sweatshirt or light jacket for the cool Thunder Bay breeze.
- Food and drinks are allowed on the boat. You can pack your own or purchase some on board.
- Bring cash to tip the hard-working crew at the end of your tour.
The Weather Will Determine Which Shipwrecks You See
If the waters are calm, the tours head out to Thunder Bay Island to view shipwrecks out there. On the day of our tour, we had sunny skies with steady winds. Our ship captain attempted to take us out to the island but the waters were too choppy to make it out there safely.
Instead, we viewed a couple of shipwrecks closer to shore. Since we had a full boat tour, we took turns standing around the glass bottom viewing wells as the ship slowly glided over the wreckage below.
After our captain regaled us with shipwreck tales, it was eerily beautiful to see pieces of a century-old ship beneath our feet.
When we returned to shore, I was eager to learn more about the history of shipwrecks in Thunder Bay. Luckily, the tour boat dock is located right behind the Great Lakes Maritime Heritage Center.
By this time, we were ready for lunch, though, so we decided to come back on Sunday. The museum is open daily from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., which makes it a very flexible option to fit into your schedule.
Cosmic Lunch at The Fresh Palate
For lunch, we headed to downtown Alpena to dine at The Fresh Palate, a farm-to-table restaurant featuring lots of organic and healthy options.
For an appetizer, we started with the Hummus Among Us plate. Then, we filled up on hand-tossed and stone-fired pizza, salad, and the It’s So Gouda rice bowl. All of which were very fresh and flavorful!
Besides the delicious food, I loved the open-air seating at the Fresh Palate. Since the weather was warm, the wall between the indoor dining and outdoor dining was open. It was so comfortable eating indoors while still feeling a light breeze.
Kid Heaven at Dinosaur Gardens
In the afternoon, we ventured to Ossineke, just south of Alpena, to Dinosaur Gardens, a gold mine for kids-focused entertainment.
Known for its life-sized dinosaur sculptures, Dinosaur Gardens is open for family fun all summer long. After Labor Day, it is open on Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. through early October.
When you visit, you can choose to pay for your activities as a package deal or a la carte.
We purchased the basic Dino Pass for the kids, which includes mini golf, fossil digging, gem sluicing, and the walking tour. The package deal also comes with a bracelet and a handy nylon bag to hold the mini fossils and gems. For the adults, we just paid for mini golf and the walking tour.
If you only have time or money for one activity at Dinosaur Gardens, do the walking tour. Our whole family agreed that was the best part.
Surrounded by a lush forest of majestic trees, the half-mile walk takes you on a winding path with interesting dinosaur sculptures and informational signs along the way. The sculptures were originally built between the 1930s and 1960s, so some are starting to show wear, but many have been renovated and are in good condition.
Dinosaurs, digging in sand, and driving golf balls — what more could a kid ask for?
Serene Nature at Island Park in the Alpena Wildlife Sanctuary
After our Dinosaur Gardens adventure, we headed back into Alpena to explore Island Park in the Alpena Wildlife Sanctuary.
With a picturesque covered bridge, an accessible paved path, dirt hiking trails, a lookout platform, and plenty of wildlife, Island Park is a nature lover’s dream.
As we walked through the covered bridge, it was pretty cool to realize we were hiking onto an island. After scoping out the map, we took the stairs and the dirt trail around the perimeter of the island to the wooden lookout platform for a gorgeous view of the nature preserve.
Luxurious Dinner at The Court Yard
By then, we had worked up an appetite, so we enjoyed a lovely meal at The Court Yard, an Italian restaurant and steakhouse. With outdoor patio seating and a rich, moody interior, The Court Yard makes a great option for a date night or a nice family dinner.
If homemade bread is your love language, treat yourself to dinner at The Court Yard. The warm garlic bread dripping with butter was heavenly.
For dinner, my husband ordered the filet mignon, which was incredibly juicy and tender. My Michigan salad was fresh and fruity, and the kids enjoyed their elevated mac & cheese with a side of broccoli. We all left full and satisfied.
Stellar Stargazing at Rockport State Recreation Area
If you can’t already tell, we are a family that tends to take more action-packed trips than relaxing trips. After dinner, we went for a swim in the Holiday Inn pool, and usually, we would have tucked in for bedtime.
However, it was a warm, mostly clear night, and we were so close to Alpena’s dark sky parks. We decided to make some memories and go stargazing. After a 30-minute drive from the hotel, we made it to Rockport Recreation Area a little after 9 p.m.
Of course, both of our kids fell asleep on the drive. Our 5-year-old slept in the car the whole time, but our 8-year-old woke up and wanted to see the stars. (Don’t worry, they both caught up on sleep by napping most of the way home on Sunday afternoon.)
On our way into the park, we passed one car leaving. Otherwise, we had the place to ourselves. In the parking lot, there was one street lamp on, which was helpful for navigating in the dark but detracted a little from the dark sky vibe.
Looking up, we could see the Milky Way and countless, brilliant stars. It reminded me of stargazing deep in the Upper Peninsula woods.
I’m not a professional photographer, but I managed to take one decent shot of the night sky. Pictures could never do it justice, though. A dark sky park experience is one of those things you have to see in person.
Hearty Breakfast at JJ’s Steak & Pizza House
After a full day of adventures, we all slept soundly and woke up ready for breakfast.
In many small towns, finding restaurants or activities open on Sundays can be a challenge. With a wide range of hours, JJ’s Steak & Pizza House makes a great spot for breakfast on a Sunday morning in Alpena.
As a bar and grill, JJ’s decor includes an eclectic range of taxidermied animals throughout the restaurant, such as a large alligator above the bar.
From JJ’s classic diner menu, we enjoyed pancakes the size of plates, omelets, hash browns, toast, and juice. Lots of food at an affordable price!
Hands-On History at Great Lakes Maritime Heritage Center
With full bellies, we headed back to the Great Lakes Maritime Heritage Center to learn more about the history and ecology of Thunder Bay. While the museum is free to visit, donations are always welcome.
Inside the museum are two floors of fun and educational exhibits. On the main floor, the biggest exhibit is the walkable schooner replica. With thunder and lightning effects, a voice recording tells tales of an impending storm. It was my favorite exhibit.
On the other hand, my 5-year-old called it the “haunted boat” and wanted to get out of there as quickly as possible. He enjoyed the “underwater” diving tube play structure and slide much better. We also had fun with a computer simulation of navigating a Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) through a shipwreck.
Filled with so many interesting displays, you could spend hours learning and exploring at the Great Lakes Maritime Heritage Center.
Flavorful Lunch at Mangos Tequila Bar
After packing up at the hotel, we stopped at Mangos Tequila Bar for lunch. While alcohol is served here, Mangos is also a family-friendly restaurant — complete with kids’ menus and crayons.
With bright colors and festive lights, dining indoors feels like a party. Mangos also has a cute patio for eating outside with a front-row view of Alpena’s whimsical fish mural.
For lunch, we started with chips & salsa. Since we were at a tequila bar, I had to try the house margarita, which was delightful. My street tacos were crunchy and savory, and my husband loved the grilled grapefruit on his Hawaiian burger.
At Mangos, the kids’ meals are huge. One kids’ meal of chicken tenders & fries was plenty for both our boys (with leftovers too).
With the colorful atmosphere and delicious Mexican food, Mangos is a must-try dining experience on your next visit to Alpena.
Tasty Treats at Downtown Scoops
After a short walk along Alpena’s bi-path, we indulged in some tasty ice cream at Downtown Scoops as our last stop.
For kids, the junior-size ice cream cones were still quite generous. My husband and I shared a root beer float made with refreshing Jones Soda.
Located in a historic building, the window seats are the perfect spot for taking in a downtown view with your dessert. A sweet end to a lovely trip!
Enjoy the Beauty of Alpena
While this was our first family trip to Alpena, it definitely will not be our last! We highly enjoyed staying in the downtown area with so many amazing restaurants within walking distance — not to mention all the hiking trails and outdoor adventures nearby as well.
When do you plan to adventure to Alpena? From fall festivities and winter wonderlands to spring blossoms and summer beach days, it is always a great time of year to experience the Sanctuary of the Great Lakes!