Depending on where you grew up or have traveled within our great state, the term “Northern Michigan” means something different to each of us. For many, it refers to the Traverse City region, or perhaps a bit farther up in Charlevoix or Petoskey. Some may even believe that only the Upper Peninsula qualifies for such a label. Regardless, it seems that very few people tend to consider the northeast part of the mitten when listing their most cherished northern cities.
Mary Beth of the Alpena Convention and Visitors Bureau is determined to make it known that Alpena belongs on that list of great northern Michigan destinations, and this weekend’s Mitten Trip was proof that she is absolutely right. The Alpena CVB not only provided an indescribable level of hospitality but also acted as personal chauffers and tour guides for myself and another travel writer for the weekend. This allowed me to experience Alpena to the fullest extent, and I was thrilled to fit so many awesome Michigan adventures into one incredible weekend.
As I made my way around Saginaw Bay and onto US-23 to meet up with the coast of Lake Huron, I felt as if I had jumped forward a month. The landscape quickly changed from green with splashes of color to radiant orange-yellows and deep shades of red. Over some steep hills and past a couple rocky facades, I passed the 45th parallel just before sunset and met my hosts for dinner.
Jessie of the Alpena CVB – like Mary Beth and many others – is a local who had moved away and then came back. She told us about the history of The Center Building as we and Lisa, a writer for a different blog, drove into downtown Alpena and walked to the restaurant. Once a sign of bustling downtown commerce, The Center Building had been a Montgomery Ward department store in a past life. In its revitalization, it now houses a suite of offices on the second floor and a set of art studio spaces, named Art in the Loft, on the third floor. The first floor is mostly occupied by The Fresh Palate, a gourmet farm-to-fork restaurant with a unique menu that blends international, American and Southwest staples in a west-coast style.
After we finished our deliciously wide variety of entrees – I ordered a pasta dish with bacon and mushrooms, while the other writer got tortilla chip-crusted chicken breast – Eric, the owner, sat down with us to share his story of moving west before finding a calling in the culinary arts. He has since returned to Alpena, bringing his ideas and talents with him.
Jeff, the owner of Latitudes Tavern – the local dive bar, shared a very similar story. He had entertained a career in forestry and moved west before returning to Alpena to enjoy and support his hometown. He has since joined the City Board of Commissioners and become an active part of the community. Jeff had brought in a bubble hockey game for the Red Wings season opener that evening; the previous night had been dedicated to serving the beers of a new brewery in town. There seemed to be an endless list of community ties and events either just passed or coming soon.
The small town charm and hospitality were humbling to this Metro Detroiter. I slept easily my first night in northern Michigan, knowing I was in good hands for a weekend filled with unique adventures.
This weekend’s Mitten Trip really took off as Mary Beth and I met for breakfast at Cabin Creek Coffee, a popular breakfast nook with locally roasted beans and various animal mounts on the walls. We sat at what appeared to be a handmade café table and ate fast once the food arrived – not because we were in rush, but because it was so good!
We let the coffee kick in as we crossed the Thunder Bay River to the Great Lakes Maritime Heritage Center, a striking blue building in the shadow of the city’s white water tower. As we got our tickets and cut through the building to the riverfront path, an incredibly friendly docent named Chuck greeted us on the Lady Michigan glass-bottom boat. After offering everyone sunscreen on this particularly sunny day, Chuck took the microphone and led us through the history and significance of everything we were about to see.
The Lady Michigan left the dock on the Thunder Bay River, crossed under the downtown Alpena drawbridge, and entered Thunder Bay. Turning north, we cruised up the shoreline to Lafarge, one of the world’s largest and longest operating cement facilities. We approached as a barge full of cement passed, and the captain took us right up next to the freighter (don’t try this at home!). Although the barge looked empty aside from the crew, Chuck was able to clearly describe the hydraulic pump and tank systems they use as he pointed out the pipes and machinery on the barge’s deck.
We continued north along the shore to the first shipwreck, a wooden barge that sank in 1917. The water on this day was uncharacteristically murky – reportedly the worst they’d ever seen, after storms with high winds that week – but we were still able to see the top of the hull as we passed over. We tried another shipwreck a couple miles to the east, a derrick barge (crane boat) that sank in 1929. The water was still murky, but we were able to catch glimpses of a giant steam engine boiler and the lattice of a steel crane boom. The captain was disappointed with the low visibility and offered refunds, but I was plenty happy with just being on the open water in warm sunshine as colorful autumn leaves zipped by along the coast.
Once back at the dock and off the boat, I explored the Great Lakes Maritime Heritage Center and its replica of a 136-foot shipping schooner. The exhibit was built by a master shipbuilder but is kid friendly. It’s definitely one of the most unique and noticeable features of what is already an interesting museum.
After a brief visit to the dive shop, Mary Beth and I grabbed lunch at Burgie’s. Touting themselves as the home of “gourmet burgers,” the menu was full of diverse and delicious options. I settled on a turkey burger with bacon and Mary Beth ordered her usual, a salmon burger, as we contemplated whether it was warm enough to sit on the large patio outside the restaurant.
Refueled and refreshed, we hopped on US-23 and headed north to visit the Presque Isle lighthouses. Locals and those of us who took French in high school know to pronounce it presk-eel (which means “almost an island” or “false island”). However, it’s hard to say anything when your jaw drops at the view from atop a 38-foot and then 108-foot lighthouse. Old Presque Isle Light, on the south end of the “almost island”, was built in 1840. It is supposedly haunted by a previous keeper because while there are no utility lines or bulbs in the structure, it is still occasionally seen lit. New Presque Isle Light, on the north end, was built in 1870. This lighthouse is much more (relatively) modern and was used as a model for many later lighthouses of its time. It is also the tallest lighthouse on the Great Lakes that is open for the public to climb.
After many stairs and many more pictures, Mary Beth and I met Jessie and Lisa at the Rockport State Recreation Area, halfway between Presque Isle and Alpena. True to its name, Rockport was a deep-water port for the valuable limestone that comprises the foundation of Alpena and much of northern Michigan. Huge piles of rock stand above the trees on the shore, which we climbed for a better view while waiting for our two-mile boat ride to take us from the port to Middle Island.
Captain Mike (and his dog Lizzie) provide the only regular access to Middle Island. His family owns a majority of the 300-acre island, including the lighthouse and its facilities. The light itself is automated by the Coast Guard’s lighthouse services, but almost everything else on the island is either untouched nature or part of the Middle Island Keeper’s Lodge bed and breakfast. The family staying for the weekend was kind enough to offer me meals and a bed for an overnight stay during their vacation. We ate, played cards, looked out for miles in the dark as the beacon shone from atop the lighthouse, and then watched the stars and a small meteor shower without having to worry about light pollution (except for the beacon) within probably a dozen miles. I will surely never forget those exquisite views of an otherwise entirely uninhabited area, and I’m eager to go back for another stay on the island!
Just outside the lodge, which was originally the house for the fog horn, I used the shower. It was essentially a wooden box with a water heater and a shower head. Surprisingly, it was not much unlike any other hotel shower, except it uses lake water, and it was a great way to start the final day of my Mitten Trip.
Captain Mike and Lizzie brought some tourists to the island and picked me up for a ride back to Rockport to meet Mary Beth. She led me over a small hill, and it was like stepping millions of years into the past (or future?) as we crossed into a mile-long limestone quarry. Acres of gray stones, all smaller than the size of a basketball, covered the ground. Trees framed the edges of the quarry in the distance, and the whole thing looked like a giant Zen garden, as the mining equipment had raked long, shallow trenches into the landscape.
We walked a couple hundred yards down a dirt and rock path before Mary Beth took a sharp turn into one of the trenches to look for fossils. She explained that the location was abandoned as a quarry because there was too much organic material in the limestone, and it didn’t take me long to see what she meant. Nearly every visible rock had the distinct shape of coral, shell, scale, or other formerly organic matter. Had this area been underwater, these fossils would have gradually become polished over time and recognized as Petoskey stones. Instead, as Mary Beth put it, they are raw “Alpena stones.”
Rockport is unique in that it is the only state park where you’re allowed to take something from the grounds – up to 25 pounds of fossils per person per year – and I certainly took advantage by tracking down some prehistoric specimens for my daughter and I to identify and polish. I could have easily gotten lost once I got to a point where every direction was gray and rocky, but fortunately Mary Beth knew the way back to the car and back downtown for lunch.
Black Sheep Pub was all but empty by the time we arrived for a late Sunday lunch, but it had the charm of a place that must have been a lot of fun the night before. European flags and signs adorned the walls, and drums and speakers were still set up in the front corner stage. I ordered an unusual burger, which included a fried egg on top, but the extra effort wasn’t necessary. The burger itself was one of the best I’ve tasted. It was so savory I could have eaten it plain.
We made one last loop through downtown, and I got to see a community-funded mural in the process of being created, the shop and studio of a comic book artist who has worked on Transformers and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and a hand-built bridge on the edge of a wildlife preserve.
That took just enough time that we went straight to the airport for our scheduled aerial tour with pilot Chuck (not the same docent Chuck as before, but equally kind and knowledgeable) of Aviation North. The views from 100 feet up in a lighthouse were amazing, but the views from 1,000 feet up in a plane were simply breathtaking. Chuck took us basically over all of the landmarks we had visited the previous two days. As we flew over downtown we saw the Lafarge plant, the shipwrecks in Thunder Bay, Rockport, Middle Island, and the Presque Isle lighthouses before turning around over Thompson’s Harbor State Park for an inspiring view of brightly colored trees all the way to the horizon.
For our last stop of the weekend, we ventured down US-23 just outside of Alpena to the community of Ossineke. There, we found Dinosaur Gardens – a tourist attraction that I guess is exactly what it calls itself (a “prehistorical zoo”), but it’s maybe not exactly what you’d expect. We passed a tall statue of Jesus holding a globe and continued along a dirt path through what seemed like a marshy area. Starting with an enormous Brontosaurus at the entrance, life size concrete dinosaur models dotted the path every dozen yards or so. The project started 80 years ago as an art project. The artist was fortunate to be in a cement town when he had issues choosing the perfect material to withstand the outdoors while still holding the detail he wanted. Needless to say, the detail was achieved and the original structures are still standing now, decades later. Mary Beth and I snapped a few selfies with the dinosaurs and then it was time for me to get on the road.
With many, many thanks to her, the Alpena CVB, and all of the wonderful people I met during my Mitten Trip, I waved goodbye to Alpena and an amazing weekend as I re-crossed the 45th parallel and joined the many vacationers heading home along I-75 South on Sunday evening.
I will definitely be thinking about Alpena for my next vacation. Is there anywhere we didn’t stop that we should have? Let me know in the comments, and I’ll check it out!