Some of the best places to discover the breathtaking beauty of Michigan are on its scenic byways and drives. If you’re looking for a scenic Michigan road trip without massive amounts of traffic, steal our itinerary and take a drive down the US 23 Heritage Route.
The US-23 Heritage Route is a Pure Michigan Byway (part of the Michigan Department of Transportation program) and winds through six counties covering a distance of 200 miles. Along the way, you’ll discover numerous charming towns in Northeast Michigan, each with its own unique history and unique hidden gems, from Standish to Mackinaw City.
This hidden gem spans over 360 miles of the breathtaking Lake Huron shoreline, offering a more peaceful and less crowded experience for those seeking a more tranquil road trip.
You’ll have the chance to explore miles of marine sanctuaries, rivers, streams, inland lakes, and forested lands — all of which offer tons of recreation, such as biking, hiking, horseback riding, and more.
Embark on an unforgettable journey along the Sunrise Coast via the US-23 Heritage Route and make the most out of your road trip with these must-see highlights. Get ready for an epic road trip filled with stunning views and unforgettable experiences.
Note: Our guide begins on the northern end of US-23 in Mackinaw City, but feel free to start your adventure on the southern end in Standish.
Discover Michigan History in Mackinaw City
At the tip of the Lower Peninsula in Michigan, Mackinaw City rests on the south side of Mackinac Bridge and is our first stop on the US-23 Heritage Route. This location makes it one of the most popular places in the state and is the reason it has such a rich history, particularly as a major military and trading settlement.
The city is home to Colonial Michilimackinac Historic State Park — a reconstructed 1700s French military outpost and fur-trading village where you can also tour Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse with costumed interpreters. You’ll find Heritage Village too — a village of restored 1800s and early 1900s buildings.
DETOUR OPTION: If you spend an extra day in Mackinaw City, you could take a day trip to Mackinac Island. The city is one of the best places to catch a ferry to the island, which has tons of activities, restaurants, and lodging options.
Lodging Options in Mackinaw City
If you wish to spend a night or two in Mackinaw City, we have a couple of top recommendations. Deer Head Inn Bed & Breakfast is a restored 1913 home located near Mackinaw Crossings, or you could book a vacation rental. On the other hand, Mackinaw City has some camping options, such as Mackinaw City KOA and Mackinaw Mill Creek Camping.
Explore Trails, Lighthouses, & Breweries in Cheboygan
Driving south on US-23, you’ll reach Cheboygan in about 20 minutes. This year-round destination has a little bit of everything for visitors. You can bike and hike the North Eastern State Trail — a 70-mile crushed limestone trail that stretches south to Tower and then southeast to Alpena.
Or, you can cycle and hike most of the North Central State Trail — a 62-mile multi-use path that actually starts in Mackinaw City and passes through Cheboygan before reaching Waters to the south. On top of that, the Black Mountain Recreation Area has an additional 30 miles of trails for biking and hiking, as well as cross-country skiing, snowmobiling, and snowshoeing during winter.
Aside from the trails, Cheboygan has a couple of lighthouses to see. The Cheboygan River Front Range Lighthouse was established in 1800 and is open for tours. It has a gift shop too. The Cheboygan Crib Light is a beautiful photo opportunity, and you can walk to the Cheboygan Pier Light at the end of the pier.
For a taste of Cheboygan, you’ll find numerous restaurants (as well as shops) downtown. Cheboygan Brewing Company, for instance, is a local favorite that likes to experiment with brews. Or, you could head outside of town to the Nicholas Black River Vineyards & Winery for a tasting.
Cheboygan Lodging Options
You’ll have plenty of lodging options in Cheboygan if you decide to stay overnight. For a home-away-from-home experience, we suggest Secrets On Main B&B — an 1892 Victorian Lady a short walk from downtown. Or, you can choose from unique options, like Eddie’s Cottages and Monarch Motel.
Uncover Great Lakes History & Scenic Shoreline in Rogers City
Continuing south on the US-23 Heritage Route, Rogers City is known for having breathtaking views of lighthouses and about 10 acres of pristine lakeshore — a picturesque spot for the annual Nautical Festival.
One of the best places to take in scenic views is Hoeft State Park. This 340-acre wooded recreation area is actually a few miles north of downtown Rogers City and was one of the first state parks in Michigan. It has 1 mile of sandy beach, and the 11-mile Huron Sunrise Trail runs through the park, connecting 40 Mile Point Lighthouse to South Shore Park. The park also has four other trails to hike.
DETOUR OPTION: For the chance to see the biggest waterfall in Michigan’s Lower Peninsula, take a detour to Ocqueoc Falls in Ocqueoc Township. Along with the view, you can cycle and bike the trails surrounding the falls and take a dip in the pool at the bottom of the falls.
Additionally, Rogers City is a fun place to learn about the Great Lakes. You can meet sailors, hear their stories at the Great Lakes Lore Maritime Museum, and learn about the lakes’ shipping history. And, the museum honors Coast Guard Lighthouse Keepers and Life Saving Station Employees.
FALL TIP: If you’re visiting Rogers City during autumn, have your fill of fall activities at Knaebe’s Apple Farm & Ciderworks — from apple and pumpkin picking to wagon rides to fresh cider and seasonal bakery treats.
Lodging Options in Rogers City
Rogers City has a few hotels and inns, two of which really stand out to us. The Purple Martin Lakeside Inn is located on the Huron Sunrise Trail. Featuring a nature conservatory and bird sanctuary, it has laid-back, beach-side lodging for visitors who love nature.
For convenient accommodations just off US-23, Presque Isle’s Huron Shores Motel is one of the best spots. It’s open all year with affordable rates.
Experience Abundant Nature & Visit Lighthouses in Presque Isle
As you follow US-23 South from Rogers City to Presque Isle, you’ll enter Thompson’s Harbor State Park — an undeveloped area that consists of 6 miles of trails and 7.5 miles of Lake Huron shore. The park is home to over 100 bird species, coyotes, deer, and even black bears.
Alongside this abundance of nature — which includes fishing on Grand Lake between US-23 and Lake Huron — Presque Isle has a few lighthouses that are worth visiting. Near the end of the Presque Isle peninsula that juts into Lake Huron, you’ll find the New Presque Isle Lighthouse.
This 113-foot tower was built in 1870 along with a keeper’s house and is the only one of nine “Poe Lights” on Lake Huron. A second keeper’s house was built close by in 1905 to accommodate more personnel, and it’s now a museum that you can walk through.
However, this wasn’t the first lighthouse built on this Presque Isle peninsula. That honor goes to the 30-foot Old Presque Isle Lighthouse, which was established in 1840 to mark the bay and harbor entrance. Operated as a park and museum alongside the keeper’s house, you can climb the tower for a small fee and explore the rest of the grounds.
At the base of the peninsula, the Presque Isle Harbor Range Light was built in 1870 when the old, aforementioned tower went dark. It’s still an active navigational aid and is now part of Range Light Park where a Rear Range Lighthouse stands at the back of the parking area. Also, the park features a keeper’s statue, the burial site of a keeper’s wife, and a beach on the bay.
Presque Isle Lodging Options
For plenty of time to see all of Presque Isle’s nature and lighthouses, choose from one of the township’s accommodations. North Bay Bed & Breakfast is located closest to the lighthouses, offering three themed rooms. Presque Isle Lodge is a 1920 lodge nestled in a scenic wood near Grand Lake.
See Shipwrecks, Wildlife, & Dinosaurs in Alpena
The next stop on this US-23 Heritage Route road trip is Alpena Michigan on picturesque Thunder Bay, and this Sanctuary of the Great Lakes is full of maritime history.
One of the most popular things to do is take glass-bottomed shipwreck tours. In fact, Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary is the only freshwater National Marine Sanctuary in the country and preserves nearly 200 historic shipwrecks!
Another preserve in the city is the Alpena Wildlife Sanctuary — a 500-acre area that surrounds Island Park. It has several walking paths through a variety of ecosystems, including meadows, marshes, woodlands, and sand dunes.
WINTER TIP: With lakes on all sides, ice fishing in Alpena offers a whole new level of excitement.
For more Great Lakes history, stop by The Great Lakes Maritime Heritage Center in downtown Alpena. This massive facility features dozens of informative and interactive exhibits, and you can take it all in for free.
While you’re downtown, there are plenty of shops and restaurants to peruse as well.
DAY TRIP OPTION: North of Alpena, the Rockport State Recreation Area is home to miles of hiking, mountain biking, and equestrian trails. And, it’s not far from the US-23 Heritage Route.
South of Alpena, we highly recommend stopping at Dinosaur Gardens in Ossineke, especially if you’re traveling with kids – it’s one of our favorite roadside attractions in Michigan. There are over 25 massive, handcrafted statues, as well as mini golf, snacks, a gift shop, and more.
It’s just off US-23, so you can make it part of a day trip with Negwegon State Park or stop on your way to Harrisville (next on our itinerary).
Lodging Options in Alpena
Since Alpena attracts travelers of all kinds, it has hotels, inns, and campgrounds of all types. Alpena Resorts is one of our top suggestions because it’s in a convenient location to reach the city’s best attractions. And on Lake Winyah, the Campers Cove RV Park & Canoe Livery offers cabin rentals and RV sites for those who like more of a roughing-it kind of stay.
Get Lost in the Beauty of Michigan State Parks in Harrisville
Taking your US-23 adventure farther south, Harrisville Michigan is the next city stop on this road trip. The city is considered one of Michigan’s best-kept secrets because it has several fantastic outdoor things to do but fewer crowds to contend with.
Firstly, the Harrisville Harbor of Refuge is a docking and refueling center for anglers who are after their next salmon and trout catches. Secondly, the area’s beaches have been named among the state’s top 10 for their beauty and old-fashioned lake vacation vibe.
Some of these beaches are located in Harrisville’s two state parks. You’ll actually drive by Sturgeon Point State Park on your way to Harrisville, so you can stop on the way or turn it into a day trip. The park features Sturgeon Point Lighthouse — a 70-foot example of a Cape Cod-style tower that you can climb — with a maritime museum that’s open during summer. And, you can walk into Lake Huron via a 1.5-mile reef.
More picturesque beach awaits just south of downtown in Harrisville State Park — one of the oldest state parks in Michigan. You can swim at the designated beach and hike along miles of trails — the 2-mile Heritage Trail actually connects the park to Harrisville at Third Street. There’s a day-use area and a modern campground too.
TRAIL TIP: Harrisville has at least five bike trails — Heritage Route Trail, Greenbush Route, Old Stone Church Route, Springport Route, and Sturgeon Point Route — for miles of riding that even connect the city’s two state parks.
Plus, art lovers will enjoy the Alcona County Quilt Trail — a project of large painted, wooden quilt blocks that are mounted to structures and points of interest throughout the county. For music enthusiasts, Inspiration Alcona hosts free Harbor Nights Concerts during the summer.
Harrisville Lodging Options
Compared to larger cities, Harrisville has fewer hotels, inns, and other lodging options. But if you want to really immerse yourself in the area’s nature, CampDoYaWanna Campground is the place to go. It’s located just across US-23 from Harrisville State Park, so it’s really close to everything the city has to offer.
For a more modern, pampered experience, we recommend The Sweetwater Sea Bed & Breakfast in Greenbush, which rests along the Lake Huron shoreline just a short drive south of Harrisville and next to US-23.
Hike & Paddle Your Way Through Oscoda
The next stop on your scenic Sunrise Coast drive via US-23 is Oscoda – part of Au Sable Township. Because of its location along the Au Sable River (which empties into Lake Huron), many of the activities here involve spending time along the river and in Huron National Forest, which has hundreds of miles of hiking trails.
TIP: If you want outdoor recreation closer to the communities’ centers, check out Oscoda Beach Park — the Jewel of Oscoda. It’s just three blocks from restaurants and shopping and has a long boardwalk, sandy beach and pier, skate park, splash pad, playground, basketball court, and charcoal grills with picnic tables.
You can enter Huron National Forest by kayaking the Au Sable River or driving the River Road National Scenic Byway — a 22-mile road that stretches west from Oscoda and Au Sable to the Westgate Overlook in Hale Michigan.
The overlooks offer stunning views of the river and wooded area, and you can stop at each. If you’re short on time, though, make sure that you add the Lumberman’s Monument to your itinerary.
More than just a statue, there’s a visitor center and museum about the area’s lumbering history, a short hike down 272 steps to a wanigan (a floating cook shack replica) with artifacts inside, and an educational hike along the Forest Discovery Trail that leads to an Au Sable River Overlook.
Another activity you don’t want to miss is hiking the Highbanks River Trail. The 7-mile trail (one way) stretches from Iargo Springs Interpretive Site to Sidtown, passing the Lumberman’s Monument about halfway through.
FISHING: Anglers rejoice! There’s a fishing access point at Riverbank Park in Oscoda, as well as many other spots along the Au Sable River.
Lodging in Oscoda
Oscoda is the perfect base for outdoor enthusiasts looking to explore the wonders of Michigan’s natural beauty. And when it comes to finding a place to stay, you’ve got several great choices!
Thomas Parkside Cottages is the ideal lakeside retreat, complete with its own private beach access and located right next to the aforementioned Oscoda Beach Park. If you’re looking for a pet-friendly experience, Blue Horizon Court is the perfect choice. With several separate cabin options, you’ll be able to relax and unwind in style while taking in the breathtaking views of Lake Huron.
Enjoy Outdoor Recreation in East Tawas & Tawas City
The US-23 Heritage Route continues south to East Tawas and Tawas City on Tawas Bay. No matter what you want to do, you’ll find it here — from wilderness adventures to shopping and dining — all in a small-town atmosphere.
Aside from fishing, kayaking, swimming, and stand-up paddleboarding in Lake Huron, you can dine and shop ’til you drop in either downtown area, as well as attend festivals throughout the year. Also, there are several parks to visit in both cities.
Along with the playgrounds, picnic areas, campground, and 2,000 feet of waterfront at East Tawas City Park, the city is home to Tawas Point State Park, which is on a peninsula that curves around the entrance of Tawas Bay. It has one of the best beaches in Michigan for swimming, the Tawas Point Lighthouse, and the 1.5-mile Sandy Hook Nature Trail with interpretive signs.
TIP: Since Tawas Point State Park is a layover spot for migratory birds, plan your visit in the spring or fall to watch the “show.”
In Tawas City, some of the best parks to visit include Town Square, Shoreline Park, and Gateway Park — all of which feature benches, lake swimming, grills, picnic tables, shore or pier fishing, playground equipment, and a walking/biking trail.
Not far from US-23 south of Tawas City, Tawas Blueberry Farm is a fun spot for blueberry picking — with four varieties to choose from. Just a little farther south, the Singing Bridge is an overpass above the East Branch Au Gres River with a railed boardwalk that leads to the beachfront below for taking a stroll and fishing.
East Tawas & Tawas City Lodging
You’ll find more than a dozen places to stay along Tawas Bay, but here’s a suggestion for each city. Always A Holiday! is a Victorian bed and breakfast in downtown East Tawas with three elegant rooms. If you want to stay closer to the blueberry farm, Paradise Beach Resort has fully furnished cottages on the shore.
Play, Dine, & Discover Day Trips in Au Gres
After your Tawas adventures, you can keep driving south on US-23 to experience more than just nature. The Au Gres River flows through the center of the city and into Lake Huron, and on its banks, the Au Gres Riverside Park has a splash pad, play area, farmers market, and large pavilion.
Downtown, you can have fun shopping and dining in locally-owned boutiques and restaurants. At Modern Craft’s Au Gres Wine Tasting Room, you can choose up to eight samples of reds, whites, and various fruit-flavored blends.
Additionally, Au Gres offers one of the most unique activities on the Sunrise Coast — Big Charity Island Day Trips. The Miss Charity Isle is a USCG-inspected passenger boat that makes day trip excursions to Big Charity Island, departing Charity Island Landing & RV Park. The boat ride takes about 1 hour each way, and you’ll get to spend about 2.5 hours exploring the island’s forest and shoreline.
Lodging Options in Au Gres
While Au Gres doesn’t have much in the way of traditional hotels, there are two awesome campgrounds to stay at. The Au Gres Riverfront Campground is located on the river on the north side of the city and features a day-use park, a playground, and recreational courts and fields. The Point Au Gres Marina & Campground is located south of downtown on the lakefront.
Tour a Train Museum & More in Standish
Since a lot of travelers start here on their US-23 Heritage Route road trips, Sandish is considered the Gateway to the North. You’ll find some interesting downtown shops — Jay’s Fruit Market, Ana’s Resale Boutique, Kristin and Company, and Sweet Gestures Candy & Gifts — and hometown eateries.
DETOUR OPTION: Before you get to Standish, you can take a side trip to Wigwam Bay Wildlife Area — a 3,137-acre marshland on the shore. Migratory birds stop here, and you can trek the nature trail, paddle the water, and go fishing and hunting.
The first place you might want to visit is the Standish Depot & Welcome Center — a former Michigan Central Railroad Depot in the city center. It has a museum where you can learn about turn-of-the-20th-century rail history through train artifacts, photos and documents, and depot memorabilia. There’s a Vietnam Veterans and Iraq War Memorial too, honoring soldiers killed in action.
If you have kids with you, the Children’s Park has two small playgrounds, grills, and picnic tables. And adjacent to the park is the Arenac County Fairgrounds, which hosts special events throughout the year — the county fair during mid-July is the biggest and has a unique theme each year with live entertainment, rides, food, and more.
Standish Lodging Options
Among the few lodging options in Standish, the Saganing Eagles Landing Casino & Hotel is one of the most happening spots in the area and gives you the chance to stay, play the slots, swim in an indoor pool, and dine all in one place.
On the other hand, there are two Outdoor Adventures locations in the area. The Saginaw Bay Resort and Campground is located in Standish with more than 350 campsites, mini golf, recreational facilities, and more.
To the north of Standish, the Wilderness Resort in Omer offers a peaceful atmosphere with over 200 campsites, live entertainment, planned activities, an outdoor pool, and more.
When Is the Best Time for a US-23 Road Trip?
The Sunrise Coast has so much to offer that it’s the ideal destination in every season. From relaxing to adventuring, you can experience whatever escape you crave while driving the US-23 Heritage Route.
Experience Spring on US-23
When the snow begins to melt along the Lake Huron shore, the flora begins to come to life again along US-23, blooming with fresh spring colors. This season is one of the best for hiking nature trails, geocaching, and visiting farmers’ markets, particularly the Alpena Farmer’s Market.
Sunrise Coast Summer Road Trip
The summer season is certainly one of the most popular times to take a scenic road trip along Lake Huron. That’s because the weather is ideal for boat and sailing tours, shipwreck tours, kayaking, scuba diving and snorkeling, swimming, and any other water sports that you can conceive. The best part is that all of these activities are available on the Sunrise Coast.
Scenic Fall Ride on US-23
It goes without saying that the fall colors enhance the drive on every scenic road in Michigan. The array of oranges, golds, and reds makes a dazzling reflection on the water. While it can still be busy during this time of year, it’s the best time to savor the flavors of the season at the lakeside towns’ bakeries and restaurants.
Driving the Sunrise Coast in Winter
Winter brings a whole new meaning to “magical” in Michigan with the icy shores and snow-covered trees that line US-23. Despite the cold weather, traveling during this season means fewer crowds. The main advantage, though, is all of the season-specific activities that become available — ice fishing, snowshoeing, sledding, sleigh rides, and snowmobiling.
Explore Michigan’s Sunrise Coast via the US 23 Heritage Route
Embark on a scenic drive along the US-23 Heritage Route and immerse yourself in the wonders of the Sunrise Coast. Our itinerary highlights some of the must-see attractions, but there’s so much more to discover! So, go ahead and explore to your heart’s content, and make unforgettable memories along the way.