Lake Huron Roadside Park Port Sanilac
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My Awesome Summer Road Trip Itinerary Up Michigan’s Thumbcoast

In my early twenties, I found myself between jobs for a couple of weeks. I used the opportunity to pack up my car and head on one of the most incredible road trips I have had to this date. We covered just over 3,000 miles heading as far west as Seattle before returning.

One of my favorite parts of the trip was wandering up the pacific coast highway and making stops in the beach towns along the way. The drive itself was worth the trip, with each turn something new to marvel at out in the distance.

Now that I am well settled into my thirties and have a family, these types of road trips are few and far between, but my need for adventure and capturing the wonder of this earth has yet to go anywhere.

Lucky for me, I gave birth to an equally as adventurous daughter. I don’t think I have ever heard no as a reply in her short three years when I ask her if she wants to come along with me on a trip. And fortunately for us, we didn’t have to travel far to have our own amazing road trip up a coastline all for ourselves.

With 140 miles of coastline to explore and delight in, plus my newfound love for Lake Huron, planning a weekend road trip up the Thumbcoast was the answer to the call for adventure.

Thank you, Blue Water Visitors Bureau, for partnering with Awesome Mitten to highlight the best of the Thumbcoast in the 2023 #MIAwesomeList Michigan Summer Bucket List.

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Perch Dinner at Marine City Fish Company photo by Amanda Shaffer

Lunch at Marine City Fish Company

Our trip first began in Marine City. We arrived in town just in time for an early dinner and were fortunate enough to quickly be sat at a two-top at the charming Marine City Fish Company.

I grew up perch fishing on Lake Michigan and was blessed with fresh perch dinners throughout my childhood. Because my mother was such a fantastic cook in the kitchen, I have often shied away from ever ordering fish in a restaurant.

Now that I am no longer in southwest Michigan, having a fresh perch dinner is something I haven’t experienced in many years, until now. I was blown away by the taste and meal quality at the restaurant and am already trying to plan a trip back for another perch dinner.

This is the quintessential place for dining in a coastline town with a patio and second-story seating that include views of the St. Clair River. They do take reservations, and I suggest making one when you can because as we left, the tables filled fast and stayed full well past typical mealtime. 

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Watching the freighters in the distance from the Inn on Water Street balcony photo by Amanda Shaffer

Inn on Water Street

Room with a view? Yes, please! We lodged at the Inn on Water Street for our stay in Marine City. If you want to stay in the heart of Marine City, this is where you’ll lay your head. We quickly unpacked and showered.

We had reserved a balcony room, and my three-year-old and my young-at-heart self could not have been more delighted with our choice. A faint honk would beckon us, and we would find ourselves on the balcony watching a freighter travel through the river.

If you have little ones or as equally memorized by these large vessels, you’ll get a front-row view at the Inn on Water Street. For our stay, having just a five-minute walk to dining and a ten-minute walk to Marine City Beach, the location makes traveling with a three-year-old as easy as it could be. 

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The Sweet Tooth of Marine City photo by Amanda Shaffer

An After Dinner Treat at the Sweet Tooth of Marine City

If you have a sweet tooth or just a taste for nostalgia, a trip to The Sweet Tooth of Marine City is a must. My three-year-old scanned the assortment of options, but her ultimate decision landed her on a classic vanilla ice cream cone. 

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The Marine City Lighthouse photo by Amanda Shaffer

Enjoy the View at the Riverside Parks

We walked just across the street to the Civic Women’s Club River Park, a beautiful shaded park on the St. Clair River, lined with flowers and benches to sit and enjoy your treat with a view of the river.

This park melts into the Lighthouse Park, where you can grab an iconic picture of the Marine City Lighthouse with the St. Clair River in the background. 

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Enjoying Marine City Beach photo by Amanda Shaffer

Walk to Marine City Beach

After a quick outfit change at the hotel, we walked back the ten-minute stroll to Marine City Beach. With a swimming area, a playground atop the sand, a pavilion, picnic tables, and public restrooms, this is where time will be well spent.

Watching the boats and freighters pass through the river while playing in the sand delighted my three-year-old, and we stayed until the sun was just about set. 

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Blue Water eBike rental on the Bridge to Bay Trail photo by Amanda Shaffer

Bike or Walk the Bridge to Bay Trail

I have heard murmurings of the beauty and peacefulness of parts of the Bridge to Bay Trail but had not ever experienced it for myself. The trail covers 50 miles of shoreline and is diverse in nature, including riverwalks, boardwalks, rail trails, and bike paths.

For our part of the trip we reserved a rental from Blue Water E-Bike Rental for our part of the trip. The owners of this family business enjoyed e-bikes on their travels and wanted to bring this incredible resource to the Thumbcoast region, making exploring more accessible for others.

I rented the e-bike and trailer for my three-year-old for our trip, and riding the small stretch of the trail to East China was incredible. On our short ride, we saw a deer, many bunnies, squirrels, and birds. It was like our very own nature cruise. Once we arrived at the township park, my three-year-old spent her time at the large, gorgeous wooden playground.

You could easily extend your ride much longer along the trail, but seeing we had more time in the car ahead of us, this was the perfect place to get some energy out and stretch our legs. 

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A light lunch near the water at Pepper Joe’s photo by Amanda Shaffer

Lunch with a View at Pepper Joe’s

After playing, we packed up and headed out to continue our adventure up the coastline. We had worked up an appetite on our morning expedition. The fact that St. Clair was just a short drive along the shore was perfect for us. We stopped at Pepper Joe’s for a light lunch.

With a made-from-scratch menu and river views, this is the perfect place to enjoy a meal by the water. 

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Taking a stroll at Lexington State Harbor photo by Amanda Shaffer

A Visit to Lexington State Harbor

After lunch, we continued up the Thumbcoast. While we enjoy many towns and beaches along the Huron shoreline, I decided on Lexington State Harbor as a good halfway point for our trip from Marine City to Port Austin.

The choice was easy because it also was a coastline town we had not had a chance to visit before. This tiny town is lined with unique shops, and walking the harbor is worth the stop alone.

Make sure to grab a cone at Scoops beforehand to walk the pier with or enjoy in their adorable shaded sitting area. They only accept cash but have an ATM on site. 

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A view worth stopping for at Lake Huron Roadside Park photo by Amanda Shaffer

Hidden Gems Along the Way

While the west coast of Michigan boasts some famous scenic turnouts and roadside parks, I want to draw attention to the east coastline and its impressive amount of hidden gems alongside the shoreline.

We continued to ooh and ahh as we drove along M-25 and decided to pull off at the Lake Huron Roadside Park. We enjoyed our snack at a shaded picnic table and had the stretch of rocky beach on Lake Huron all to ourselves.

If you are looking for a treasure of locations along the Huron shoreline, explore these roadside parks

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Arriving at 85ten Boutique Hotel photo by Amanda Shaffer

Making Ourselves at Home at 85ten Boutique Hotel and Events

After being recharged by our light snack and fresh water visit, we continued on the serene drive to Port Austin. Awaiting us was Jill, the owner of 85ten Boutique Hotel and Events, with a warm welcome and to take us on a tour of our room and the grounds.

While the hotel’s luxuriousness was breathtaking, the owner’s hospitality truly took my breath away. You’ll feel right at home at 85ten and can tell that hospitality and caretaking is not only a part of their lives but who they are.

I have already started planning when I can return for a getaway with my husband. The attention to detail is evident with small touches such as handmade soap from a local company in Bad Axe to made-from-scratch breakfast; we thoroughly enjoyed our stay and cannot wait to return. 

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Dinner on the patio at Bird Creek Farms photo by Amanda Shaffer

Elevated Outdoor Dining at Bird Creek Farms

After unpacking and getting ready, we ventured just around the corner to Bird Creek Farms for dinner. As luck would have it, they were hosting a fundraiser for the Port Austin Fire Department during our visit.

All proceeds went to the fire department for a new fire engine, and the sense of community that was felt was the cherry on top for our visit. We ordered, and then my daughter was able to enjoy the fundraiser bounce houses while we waited. The outdoor dining was an incredible way to spend our evening in Port Austin.

While I enjoyed a cider on the patio, my daughter dug into her chicken bites. These aren’t your typical kid’s plate chicken nuggets, and you’ll likely want to order some of your own after taking a taste test. I enjoyed the tenderloin steak bites and trusted my server’s recommendation on the creamy horseradish sauce, and I am so glad I did.   

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Mini-golfing at Kooky Mini Golf photo by Amanda Shaffer

Kooky Mini Golf

After dinner, we enjoyed a round of golf at Kooky Mini Golf. We have played a lot of mini-golf as a family over the last few years, and I have never encountered a course like Kooky Mini Golf. You will pay $9 for your 18 holes plus one bonus hole.

Each hole has a different theme varying from the Port Austin reef lighthouse to Mario characters. My three-year-old made it through each hole, a new milestone for our mini-golf adventures since she usually has had enough about two-thirds of the way through.

With its convenient location and fun atmosphere, we were so happy the course had caught our eye driving through town. 

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Sunset at Vertans Waterfront Park photo by Amanda Shaffer

Sunset at Veterans Park

Just a short drive from the mini-golf, you’ll find public access to a gorgeous beach and a playground at Veterans Waterfront Park. We packed up our sand toys and threw bedtime to the wind.

Because of Port Austin’s location on the thumb, you are able to enjoy both stunning sunrises and spectacular sunsets. You can enjoy a stroll on the breakwater’s walkway, where you can take in the scenic views of the shoreline, marina, and Port Austin Reef Lighthouse. 

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Breakfast at 85ten Boutique Hotel photo by Amanda Shaffer

Breakfast at the Hotel

After a full first day in Port Austin, having a homemade breakfast in the newly redesigned kitchen dining area of the 85ten Boutique Hotel was the perfect way to start our morning.

When I say that they pull out all the stops to make you feel at home and well cared for, I mean it. Fresh coffee while the light speckled in our dining area made for a beautiful start to our day.

After finishing up, we packed up to check out and continue our adventure in Port Austin. 

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Enjoying our first time kayaking together photo by Amanda Shaffer

Morning Kayaking at Port Austin Kayak

This was my daughter’s first time on the water in a kayak, and I was so glad that I chose Port Austin Kayak for the occasion. We walked into Port Austin Kayak with a tentative plan in our heads. They offer single kayak rentals to view Turnip Rock as well as shorter and tandem kayak rentals to take the Broken Rock Trail.

Because we were just getting our feet wet with kayaking as a duo, I chose the two-hour rental, and the staff could not have been more kind and attentive as I asked questions. From the front desk to getting launched, the friendly disposition of each employee made me feel welcome and like they truly just wanted you to have a great time on the water.

Safety is their priority, and they were stopping rentals at a certain time to ensure everyone arrived back from their kayak tour safely because of the forecasted weather. Walk-ins like mine are always welcome, but on holidays and weekends, reservations are highly encouraged.

They also have retail available at their rental location, where I picked up a water bottle sticker to commemorate the trip. 

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A fresh smoothie from Pak’s Cofee Bar photo by Amanda Shaffer

Smoothie at PAK’s Coffee Bar

After our morning on the water, we headed back to PAK’s. We were able to catch the coffee bar, which is located in the Backyard Restaurant and Beer Garden, just before closing for a refreshing smoothie before their closing.

They are open daily from 7 am-12 pm and have a variety of espresso drinks to enjoy. 

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Enjoy a meal at PAK’s Restaurant and Beer Garden photo by Amanda Shaffer

Lunch at PAK’s Restaurant and Beer Garden

With a fresh strawberry smoothie in hand, we headed just behind the restaurant to the backyard beer garden. When I think of a backyard near the water, I envision a location just like theirs.

With brightly colored chairs and wood tables overlooking the marina and then out to Lake Huron, it is truly lunch with a view. I enjoyed the PAK cheeseburger, and if you’re a burger fan, I am sure you will too.

The impeccable service I experienced at the kayak rental was also found at the coffee bar and restaurant, making me believe it’s standard for Port Austin Kayak employees. 

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A Port Austin tank top to take home as a souvenir photo by Amanda Shaffer

Souvenirs at Port Austin Dime Store

While I am not a big shopper, I have fallen in love with the Thumbcoast so much that I wanted something tangible to bring home with us. If you’re like me and looking for something to bring home with you, you’ll find it at Port Austin Dime Store on Lake Street.

You’ll find decor, fudge, toys, clothing, and so much more. My daughter picked out her own souvenir in the form of a Port Austin tank top, and I purchased a cozy sweatshirt. 

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A view from Lighthouse Park of the St. Clair River photo by Amanda Shaffer

Traveling the Thumbcoast

While I might not be in my early twenties anymore, my need for exploration and adventure has never left. It is something I am glad to share and experience with my children.

Having my three-year-old join me along the Thumbcoast was such a treat, and she has already asked to return to many of the places we have visited.

If you’re looking for adventure this summer, it’s out there. And you know what? It’s closer than you think.