Take a Lighthouse Tour
Thanks to its location on Grand Traverse Bay near the once-bustling Manitou Passage (a time-saving but frequently hazardous route between the mainland and the mysterious Manitou Islands) Traverse City is a convenient base for exploring five historic lighthouses. Best of all, four of the five can be easily visited and are open for tours — and two even allow visitors to try their hands at being volunteer lighthouse keepers.
The Grand Traverse Lighthouse & Museum, located at the tip of the Leelanau Peninsula near the village of Northport, is one of the oldest lighthouses on the Great Lakes. It’s beam guiding ships through the northern entrance to the Manitou Passage for 150 years.
Today it is a museum surrounded by a picturesque state park where visitors can envision the once-isolated life of lighthouse keepers and their families, with extensive exhibits and period furnishings from the 1920s and 1930s. Its popular “volunteer lighthouse keeper” program provides an opportunity to live in the lighthouse, carrying on routine maintenance and answering the questions of its frequent visitors.
Some 45 miles to the south near the town of Frankfort, the Point Betsie Lighthouse – the second most photographed lighthouse in the U.S.” — marks the lower entrance of the Passage. Built in 1858, its brightly-colored buildings are clustered in a scenic dune area at the very edge of the surf. Point Betsie was the last lighthouse on the eastern Lake Michigan shore to be automated (in 1983) and is still in operation.
The cozy Old Mission Point Lighthouse was built in 1870 to warn ships away from the dangerous shoals at the tip of the Old Mission Peninsula, but was replaced by an offshore beacon in 1933. The lighthouse is open for tours, and also has a popular volunteer lighthouse keeper program. It’s part of an attractive park with popular beaches, historical exhibits and extensive hiking and skiing trails, and is a popular destination with visitors and locals alike.
Even more picturesque, but somewhat less accessible, the South Manitou Island Lighthouse can only be reached in summer, after a 90-minute ferryboat ride from the Lake Michigan port of Leland. A classic 100-foot tower, the light rises abruptly from the shore of the island, and visitors can climb its 117 steps for a thrilling view of water, sky, forests and dunes. Established in 1840 to beckon vessels to what was then the last deepwater harbor north of Chicago, the light has recently been relit after years of darkness. It’s now part of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.
Just a few miles away, the North Manitou Island Shoal Lighthouse — known to locals as “the crib” – is not open to visitors. Built in 1935 to mark an unusual and dangerous shoal, it stands by itself in the middle of the water. For 42 years this artificial island was home to a three-man Coast Guard crew. Since 1980 it has been operated as an automated navigational light and has been taken over by a large population of cormorants. Although visitors are not encouraged to climb onto the large structure, it can be viewed up-close from the ferry that takes visitors to South Manitou.
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