Stay for an hour, a night, or months
By Brighid Driscoll | July 31, 2021
Though they’re rarely necessary to guide Great Lakes ships home anymore, Michigan’s lighthouses are still alluring destination points for travelers, photographers, and history buffs. What draws us to these relics of Michigan’s storied past? Their grand stature? The mysterious, isolated lives of their keepers? The legends of the days and nights they succeeded — or failed — to keep early sailors safe? While we don’t know your answer to the question, we know of several lovely lighthouses scattered throughout northern Michigan’s stretch of Great Lakes where you can visit and ponder it for a few hours, a few days, or weeks in utter solitude.
Saint Helena Island Lighthouse
Just 10 miles west of the Mackinac Bridge sits historic St. Helena Lighthouse, on its own island, in its own world. Once home to around 200 people, the island now sits uninhabited, with the exception of wildlife. The last full-time lightkeeper at St. Helena, Wallace Hall, transferred to another post in June 1922, and the St. Helena station was boarded up. Care for the lighthouse became the responsibility of the Old Mackinac Point lightkeepers, who boated out to the island to check up on the light only when passing boats reported an issue. Time, mother nature, and vandals — both human and rabbit — ravaged the abandoned lighthouse, boathouse, and assistant keeper’s housing until by the ’80s, they were in such desolate shape, the boathouse and keeper’s cottage had to be razed. In 1989, the Great Lakes Lighthouse Keeper's Association stepped in and, with the help of volunteers and Boy Scouts groups, has steadily improved the lighthouse and keeper's quarters to become the stunning showpieces they are today. A grant awarded last year by the Michigan Economic Development Corporation will improve the lighthouse further, financing efforts to remove old paint and add new paint, replace dilapidated masonry and sealant, and make other changes. The island offers little in terms of commercial recreation; there are no hotels. But the GLLKA accepts volunteer assistant lightkeepers in the summer — the catch being that a fee is charged to volunteer. However, that fee goes toward the volunteer’s housing, meals, snacks, beverages, and other consumables enjoyed during your time, which can run from three days through the entire two-month period the lighthouse is open to tours. Positions are open to singles, couples, and families (kids age 8+) and entail duties from general cleaning and maintenance to tour guide services. You’ll get a firsthand look into the past and present of this enduring icon. Download a volunteer application at gllka.org/st-helena-island-light-station.
Presque Isle Lighthouses
Lighthouse aficionados, rejoice: Two lighthouses reside at this historic site. The “Old Lighthouse” was built along with a keeper’s house in 1840 to mark the entrance into Presque Isle Bay and harbor. For a small fee that goes toward upkeep, visitors can climb the old lighthouse. It might be particularly fun to visit in the early fall. Folks claim that it’s haunted and ghosts can be heard or seen around the old lighthouse. Ghost stories, however, don’t plague the “New Lighthouse.” After just 30 years, the old lighthouse had rapidly deteriorated. The solution was to build a brand new lighthouse at the tip of the peninsula. It was constructed in 1870, and the keeper’s house was rebuilt on its original foundation. In 1905, a new keeper’s house was built. Today, the new lighthouse is still operating smoothly. Presque Isle Township allows the public to climb the new lighthouse for a small fee. The view — northeast across Lake Huron to Great Duck Island and, on a clear day, to the north side of Canada’s Georgian Bay — is one worthy of the 113-foot climb. After a long trek up and down stairs, Old Lighthouse Park is an ideal site for a relaxing picnic lunch while watching boats pass by. The old keeper’s house is located in the park and operates as a visitor’s center, museum, and gift shop. The new keeper’s house is also a beautifully restored museum filled with historically accurate decor, furniture, and artifacts from the 1915 era. Entry is free. Don’t forget to ring the Lansing City Hall clock tower bell. It outweighs the Liberty Bell and makes for a tasteful tourist photo op. No overnights here, but volunteer keepers are needed for the 2021 season for regular 2.5-hour shifts greeting visitors for the lighthouses and keeper house.
Point Betsie Lighthouse (pictured above)
Tour, visit, and even stay at this gorgeous lighthouse built just north of Frankfort in 1858. Point Betsie is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is still actively working today. Out of all of the “live-like-a-lightkeeper" experiences, this one is arguably the most posh. The keeper’s quarters are available to rent for up to six. The quarters underwent renovations last year, and unsurprisingly, have been booked all summer. Two bedrooms, fresh decor, a view of the Manitou Islands, and no obligation to volunteer make this stay a getaway. Climb to the top of the lighthouse; explore their various historic exhibits, including info on the fragile dune ecosystem; and check out the Boathouse Museum. To wind down, take a short walk down to Point Betsie Beach. It’s covered in powdery sand and is a great spot to rock hunt. After a meditative stroll looking for the perfect Petoskey stone, catch a view and a photo of the lighthouse against a sunset sky. Can’t spend a night? Spend $5 for a 30-minute lighthouse tour instead. www.pointbetsie.org
McGulpin Point Lighthouse
The first recorded deed in Emmett County’s history was for McGulpin Point in 1811, but McGulpin Point Lighthouse wasn’t built until 1869. Located along the Straits of Mackinac, it was a necessary lighthouse as boat traffic in the straits increased dramatically through the 1850s. Eventually, the Old Mackinac Point Light Station was deemed the more easily managed lighthouse between the two, and McGulpin Point Lighthouse was decommissioned in 1906. Seven years later, it was purchased by a private owner. After a string of other owners, Emmet County purchased the property in 2008. The county still owns and operates the lighthouse and has done so lovingly. While the original lighthouse was built with living quarters within, they are not rentable. A well-appointed cottage with room for four next door, however, is. A vital part of any visit to McGulpin Point is its Discovery Trail. The trail leads walkers through the history and landscape of McGupin Point, with docents at various stops on the trail providing tidbits and historical context about each location and what it represents to McGulpin’s larger story. Costumed re-enactors are lively, engaging, and fascinating to gain knowledge from. With a location just moments away from Mackinaw City, this lighthouse makes for a great, multi-faceted trip. www.mcgulpinpoint.org
*Photo courtesy of Dennis Buchner, Unsplash