May 20, 2008 at 1:00 am

Celebrate Michigan!

Discover the great lighthouses that line the Great Lakes

Lighthouses have been called America's castles. And, like many picturesque European castles, they're fun to visit.

Indeed, some of my best vacation memories revolve around family excursions with the kids to historic Michigan lighthouses.

Such outings are fairly easy and inexpensive, considering that Michigan -- with more than 3,200 miles of coastline on four of the Great Lakes -- boasts more lighthouses, 124, than any other state, according to the Great Lakes Lighthouse Keepers Association.

Terry Pepper, the group's executive director, says many lighthouse visitors, from casual admirers like my family to photo-snapping buffs, are struck by the beauty, history and sheer isolation of these maritime sentinels.

"They tend to be magnificent structures, beautiful to look at, and harken back to a time when survival was a little closer, more pressing, than today," he says. "They also tend to be located in some pretty spectacular places," such as islands, harbor entrances and prominent points along the Michigan shore.

Some are situated atop offshore shoals, reefs or shallows -- sites riddled with a history of tragic shipwrecks. And a few lighthouses are said to be haunted. Read on for a few of my family's favorites.

Old Presque Isle Lighthouse

Haunting tales are what my family remembers about our visit in the mid-1990s to Old Presque Isle Lighthouse on Lake Huron, 20 miles northeast of Alpena.

Though it was a bright summer day, I still recall how my spine tingled as Lorraine Parris, widow of the late lighthouse keeper, chatted in the cottage-museum about the tower light that still glowed at night, even though power had long been disconnected.

What's more, her grandson and a visiting little girl, on separate occasions, reported seeing her late husband, George, clad in his keeper's uniform, she said.

Old Presque Isle has been investigated over the years for paranormal activity and featured -- inconclusively -- on TV science-fiction and myth-busting shows. But the tale persists even today.

"The light still goes on just about every night," claims Edna Lentner, who has worked there six years and says it can be seen only from certain spots on the road or pier. "It's not any huge brilliant light, it's like someone just ... turns on a little light bulb. People have gone out fishing at night and storms have come up and they've used that light to find the harbor. It's really eerie."

But that doesn't stop couples from exchanging vows at Old Presque Isle or visitors from climbing the tower's hand-hewn limestone steps that date to 1840. Kids still love to ring the museum's big, shiny brass bell.

New Presque Isle Lighthouse

While in the neighborhood, it's only natural to visit New Presque Isle Lighthouse a mile away from the Old Presque Isle Lighthouse.

After a heart-pounding climb up 130 steps, we looked upon a vast expanse of sparkling blue water, thick green forests and white, sandy shoreline.

It's a view that's literally breathtaking: at 109 feet, the New Presque Isle is the tallest lighthouse on the Great Lakes that's accessible to the public. It was built in 1870.

The park below is a great place to turn the kids loose, as we did, and enjoy a family picnic.

Au Sable Point Light Station

When my son was in fourth grade, he did a project on the Au Sable Point Light Station.

That summer, we set off for the Upper Peninsula to visit "his" lighthouse in Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, west of Grand Marais.

En route, we were able to dip our toes in three Great Lakes -- Huron, Michigan and Superior -- in one day.

From Hurricane River Campgrounds in Pictured Rocks park, we strolled along a 1.5-mile, tree-shaded path to the 1874 lighthouse, where we chatted with a park ranger.

We also had a memorable encounter with shipwreck skeletons. Down a cliff from the beacon, just offshore, we explored the planked remains, complete with exposed spikes and rods, of three wrecks submerged in the shallows.

40 Mile Point Lighthouse

At 40 Mile Point Lighthouse, 40 miles southeast of the Mackinac Bridge, near Rogers City, we actually walked on a shipwreck.

Just down the beach from the 1896 light lies the wreck of the Joseph S. Fay, one of 27 wooden ships that went down in a fierce Lake Huron storm on Oct. 19, 1905.

About 150 feet of the freighter's side is visible in the sand, and we stepped gingerly between metal rods and spikes in the planked remains as we pondered the events that brought her there.

Whitefish Point Light Station

For history, variety and drama, few lighthouses can match Whitefish Point Light Station on Lake Superior. Despite its remote setting, north of Paradise in the Upper Peninsula, the lighthouse-museum complex drew more than 65,000 visitors last year.

Like most families, we were intrigued in the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum by gripping tales of shipwrecks, moody sound effects and displays of artifacts, including the bell recovered in 1995 from the wreck in nearby waters of the Edmund Fitzgerald.

And outside, as Lake Superior waves slapped the beach, we were moved to tears by makeshift driftwood crosses left by visitors remembering the 29 crew members who perished when the legendary freighter sank off the point during a ferocious 1975 storm, 17 miles from where we were standing.

We also toured the restored Whitefish Point Light Station, which was established in 1849 (and automated in 1970) to help mariners navigate the region that came to be known as "the graveyard of the Great Lakes."

And we were surprised to learn that in 1918, during World War I, an assistant lighthouse keeper may have been a German spy who was hauled away by government agents.

Nowadays, visitors may stay overnight in Whitefish Point's restored Crews Quarters with five B&B-style rooms ($150 per night, double).

Grand Haven South Pierhead Entrance Lights

Lake Michigan, of course, is studded with lighthouses, each more picturesque than the next.

One of our favorites is at Grand Haven, where two red lighthouses guard the harbor. The inner light is a traditional, 51-foot-tall lighthouse tower, while the outer fog signal building resembles the bow of a ship, designed to break waves during large storms.

The best part is the long catwalk that connects the two. A few years ago, after picking the kids up from summer camp, we stopped there to unwind and found that strolling along the pier, waves crashing below, was the perfect place to catch up and reconnect as a family.

Travel You can reach Susan R. Pollack at (313) 222-2665 or">


Excursions to Michigan lighthouses make great vacation memories. If your summer travels take you to one , tell us about it in 150 words or less. Send your Lighthouse Vacation Memory to or Susan R. Pollack, The Detroit News, 615 W. Lafayette Blvd., Detroit, MI 48226. Deadline is July 21.
Two winners will receive a membership to the Great Lakes Lighthouse Keepers Associationor a copy of the book, "Reliving Lighthouse Memories," by Sandra Planisek.

Shoot your best shot

Summer is a great time to spread the word about the people and places that make this state special by entering The Detroit News' Celebrate Michigan! photo contest at Simply upload your photos in our Celebrate Michigan! photo gallery by Sept. 1.
Each weekly winner will receive tickets to a Tigers game or other event. Weekly winners will be eligible for one of three Michigan travel adventures:

  • Grand Hotel: Two-night getaway for two (late summer or fall) at the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island, including breakfast and dinner.
  • Garland Resort : Two nights, midweek, plus two rounds of golf at Garland Resort in Lewiston.
  • Grand Traverse Resort: Two nights at this Traverse City resort.
    Enter the contest!