When I was in college at Michigan State University, I would always laugh when my friends told me about their “up north” adventures in “The Thumb.” Since I’m from Traverse City, I had very specific views about what those kinds of adventures should entail. As with most things, I got older and learned that I was wrong about a few things.
Now that I live in Detroit, I figured I ought to fulfill the role of a “city girl” and travel to “The Thumb” for a #MittenTrip with The Awesome Mitten.
Fair warning: I had the pleasure of travelling during the Fourth of July weekend, which meant more than the average weekend both in time and activities (I did have to deal with the crowds, though).
Arriving in Port Austin
Since I was able to drive up from Detroit after work on Thursday night, my Friday morning started early with a walk down to the beach to take a good look at Lake Huron in the light of day.
Port Austin Motel is just down the road from a pleasant and quiet beach area, so I watched the haze come up off the waves with my fellow hotel guests and their dogs playing in the ebbing waves.
Equipped with a renewed spirit from the cool air off the lake, I headed to breakfast at The Lighthouse Cafe to finish up planning my weekend in Port Austin. I was well-prepared with great suggestions from several friends in Detroit, and for those folks, I’m very grateful – this was supremely uncharted territory for me. Breakfast was hearty, the restaurant was quaint, and the coffee was a welcome addition to my morning.
Best Things to Do and See in Port Austin
First and foremost, I needed to head just out of town to where M-53 and Stoddard Road meet to see the work of the Hygienic Dress League. I guess I can’t get too far away from Detroit without missing the beauty of street art.
Seeing the mural on the outside of a barn rather than on the streets of my beloved city was a little startling, but very beautiful juxtaposed with the expansive fields of corn that are very familiar from my other home in Traverse City.
The murals are part of a larger project to re-purpose the barns around Port Austin – Scott Hocking is currently working on a piece of his own. Like the industrial buildings in Detroit, the barns of Huron County are beautiful, served a great purpose to the fabric of the area, and are now underutilized.
Port Austin Kayak – Bicycle Rental
One of the main things I wanted to make sure to do while in Port Austin was explore the beautiful countryside and gorgeous coastlines. A friend from Green Veil Outdoor suggested I get in contact with Chris Boyle from Port Austin Kayak for all my outdoor needs while on this particular #MittenTrip.
Boyle was more than accommodating with a bicycle on the beautiful Friday morning. I had an idea of what I wanted to do, but Boyle had a suggestion and a map – so I took his advice instead.
My bike and helmet adorned with a Great Lakes Proud sticker set out on an adventure from the bustling city of tourists to the quiet of Port Crescent State Park. On the way, I saw fields of corn, cows and horses, thick woods, and rivers moving quickly toward Lake Huron.
I’ll admit, I’m not the most active of city girls – my average bike ride is a mere 2 miles – so the exercise was an adjustment, but I was pleasantly distracted by the picturesque views I was afforded for my efforts.
More to Explore in Port Austin
Once I was safely back to Port Austin, I decided to wander around the village and see what the stores had to offer. Aside from a t-shirt shop or two, the downtown area had unassuming restaurants and great little boutiques with unique offerings.
My favorite was the Mermaid’s Cove which is run by five local artists and carries the work of several Michigan artisans as well. I learned more about the barn projects, what to expect in town for the holiday the next day, and what other new art projects are popping up around the county (there are some good ones).
I heard a rumor that the Fireside Inn had pretty good food and carried craft beer (harder to find than one would assume). The restaurant is a little drive out of the main part of town, but it has a fun atmosphere, they carried Oberon on tap, and my burger was perfect after the hard work of the morning. With a full belly, I decided a nap was in order if I was going to get anything accomplished during the night, so I headed back to my hotel for a well-deserved rest.
Best Port Austin Restaurants to Try
Reenergized, I did a quick search for a place that had food and Short’s Brewing Company on the menu. The Internet told me that a drive out to Grindstone City would satisfy my itch for a tasty beer from my neck of the woods.
Dinner in Port Austin
On the way to Captain Morgan’s Grindstone Bar & Grill, I walked around Eagle Bay to see just what all the fuss was about on the other side of town. I’ll admit, the sun was glowing just right as the day was fading into the night and I was feeling more at peace than I could have asked for from a weekend and it was just beginning.
Dinner was perfect. It was an all-you-can-eat fish and chips meal paired with Short’s Soft Parade, I was in an “up north” haven.
Ice Cream in Port Austin
No vacation is complete without some ice cream, and I had been hearing about the Grindstone General Store all day.
Grindstone City was once a very important functioning city in Huron County and this store is the last remaining business from the original city. Operating since the 1890s, the store has charm and GIANT ice cream cones.
After an hour or so wait, I only ordered a “baby cone” and I struggled to finish. I recommend bringing a bigger appetite than I had the foresight to muster.
If you’re into something a little different, I heard great things about The Farm Restaurant, but make sure to remember a reservation. Thumb Area Transit is working on a pilot busing program for Friday nights and Saturdays – Grindstone General Store and The Farm Restaurant are both destinations for the program if you want someone else to do the driving.
Coffee in Port Austin
Since Saturday was the Fourth of July, I was prepared for a bustling day and headed out early. Green Clean Bean is conveniently located downtown, so I parted and headed over to grab a much-needed caffeine pick-me-up from this place that offers a full coffee bar stocked with baked treats, a wi-fi hotspot (much needed in this part of the state), and a laundromat. It’s brilliant really, and the coffee was great to boot!
More Things to Do in Port Austin
It was still too early for the farmers market, so I decided to walk around Port Austin State Harbor. There are runners, fishers, kayakers, and wanderers like me taking in the expansive views of Lake Huron paired with boats galore. A quick rest in some Adirondack chairs by the beach was a great way to prepare for the impending crowds of a holiday in a vacation town.
Port Austin Farmers Market
For weeks leading up to my #MittenTrip, folks were suggesting the weekly farmers market. Because this was a holiday weekend, the farmers’ market was amplified with lots to see, sample, and peruse. I walked away with some smoked fish, an item I only trust from the coastline folks, and a few other fun bits and pieces.
Aside from this market, the town was busting open with garage sales – they all knew I had a weakness, it seems. When there isn’t quite as large a crowd, I’d suggest also checking out Bird Creek Farms just outside downtown.
Lunch in Port Austin
After much shopping, it was time to fuel again. I had heard wonderful things about The Bank 1884. The restaurant is in an old bank with much of the old decor still intact. With a full menu of salads, sandwiches, quiches, and more, it was hard to choose what would get me through the rest of the day.
I decided on the quiche of the day and had some Michigan beer to wash it down. They were very busy, but the next time I’m in town, I’m going to try to get one of the coveted seats on their small patio out front.
Port Austin 4th of July Parade
The Fourth of July parade was a great slice of Americana and country living that I just don’t get to see in Detroit. My favorite part was all the candy the paraders were throwing to the crowd – the kids came prepared with plastic bags to catch all they could. It seemed like an adorable tradition.
Saginaw Bay at Port Crescent Road
After the parade, I was done with crowds for a while, so I decided to head back to one of the places that I explored on my bike ride the previous day. Where Port Crescent Road meets M-25, there is a footbridge that leads to some trails that then lead down to Lake Huron and Pinnebog River. Not only is the short hike a sight to see, but the beach is also less crowded along these dunes.
After a swim in Lake Huron (my first!) and a Hop Soda from Proper Soda, I felt prepared to take on the rest of the day’s festivities. If you’re not tired like I was, Pointe Aux Barques is a great drive and hike to take as well.
Evening in Port Austin
Since everyone was hanging out in town for the Fourth, I decided walking the short mile from Port Austin Motel to town was in my best interest. The traffic really wasn’t that bad compared to the way crowds slow things down in Traverse City, so I was pleasantly surprised by that experience. Olivia Millerschin was doing a free concert at the Veterans Waterfront Park, so I stopped to take in the state’s newest darling.
She definitely entertained and sweetly serenaded all of us into a beautiful night for fireworks, friends, family, and fun. After the concert, I grabbed some pizza from Joe’s Pizzeria. They were busy, but the food was great and you could tell it was a family affair to make that restaurant work.
Equipped with a small cooler (a garage sale find!) full of Short’s beer, I headed to the beach at the end of Larned Street. I’ll admit, I’ve seen quite a few fireworks displays in my short life, and Port Austin was well worth the experience.
It seems like you couldn’t have a bad view along the coastline, and the whole show was beautiful. It felt just like being back in Traverse City with the wind off the lake, there was just a bit more room to stretch out on the beach.
When it’s not a national holiday chock full of activity, I’d suggest a little trip to Caseville to do some shopping and check out the Thumb Brewery.
Kayaking in Port Austin
On Sunday morning, the crowds were gone, and it was time for another adventure. This was what I had been waiting for the whole weekend, I got in my kayak from Port Austin Kayak and started paddling toward Turnip Rock.
For years, I’ve been fascinated by the pictures of these limestone rock formations in Lake Huron and I made my way out there and back in just a few short hours. It was well worth the picture in my High Five Threads t-shirt to commemorate the joyous accomplishment!
The whole tour is about 7 miles round-trip, and if you’re feeling really adventurous, you can add a few miles to that to check out the Port Austin Reef Light.
More to Explore in Port Austin
After my grand adventure, I got on the road knowing that traffic would be hectic. I wasn’t the only one trying to get back to the Metro Detroit area, but I made it home feeling refreshed, exhausted, and thoroughly proven wrong about any misgivings I had about how truly spectacular “The Thumb” can be for the weekend.
What are some other suggestions of awesome things to do in Port Austin?