By Laura Niemiec
For most people who were born and raised in Michigan City, the steadfast iconic red and white lighthouse on the southern shore of Lake Michigan is symbolic of home. Those who’ve since moved from the area share photos of the 1904 East Pierhead Light on social media and proudly announce, “This is my hometown” or simply, “This is home”. On any given day, regardless of the season, you will find photographers, professional and amateur alike, with cell phones or Nikon’s snapping photos of the pier. I am one of them. Regardless of the temperatures you’ll find me on the shoreline even in subzero temperatures. Someone once told me the East Pierhead Light is the most photographed structure in the state of Indiana. While I have not read any facts to support that statement, I wouldn’t guess it to be too far from the truth.
In early 2014, I was approached to share one of my photographs in the Lake Michigan Lighthouse & Circle Tour Map. Since that time, I’ve begun tackling the list of lighthouses that stand watch over Lake Michigan and the other Great Lakes (currently at 15 of 105, long way to go!). Some of the lighthouses are within a short walk, while others require a bit of a hike, miles on an unpaved road… and some even require a boat.
If you’re local to Northwest Indiana or the Chicagoland area, there are quite a few you can visit within a weekend, or even a day if you’re really ambitious. In this article, I will take you from Michigan City, Indiana to Grand Haven, Michigan. Aside from a sense of adventure, be sure to bring money for entrance fees to parks/beaches depending on the time of year. If you go from fall to spring, most of these places do not charge a fee for parking. Also, I recommend getting a Michigan Recreation Passport sticker for entry to state parks if you are not a resident. It’s $31 and will pay for itself pretty quickly.
In Michigan City, a city that is on Lake Michigan but not in the state of Michigan, you’ll find two lighthouses. The first one, mentioned earlier on, is the 1904 East Pierhead Light. It’s a hotspot for photographing the sunset, especially the time of year when the sun sets directly behind Chicago. It’s also beautiful when cold fronts move through the region kicking up waves over the pier or in the winter when shelf ice forms turning the lake into a scene that could be mistaken for the arctic. (A quick note that I hope readers please heed, do not go on the pier when the waves are washing over it and please do not climb the shelf ice. It is not safe!).
About a half-mile south of the East Pierhead Light is the 1858 Michigan City Lighthouse, now home to the Old Lighthouse Museum. If you have time and are interested in local history, I recommend taking a tour. The museum is open seasonally but even if they are closed it still makes for a great photo opportunity. Out front you’ll notice a long anchor chain. It’s made of up 844 links, one for each life lost in the SS Eastland disaster in 1915. The boat overturned while loading passengers in Chicago who were to come to Michigan City for an annual company picnic. In July 2015, the Michigan City Historical Society recognized the 100th anniversary of the tragedy with this memorial.
A short drive along Highway 12 will put you in New Buffalo, Michigan. At the harbor here you’ll find a replica of the 1840 lighthouse that once stood watch over the harbor. Though you can walk right up to the lighthouse as soon as you leave the parking lot, I find it best viewed by climbing the steps to the right of the lot and viewing it from atop the sand dune.
After hopping back in your car, you’ll head north to St. Joseph, Michigan. There are a few ways to get there with the most popular being Red Arrow Highway or I-94. If you’re in a hurry, I-94 is the best bet, but if you want a more scenic route take Red Arrow. If you take Red Arrow, and have extra time, I highly suggest stopping off at Warren Dunes State Park where, depending on the time of year, you can go for a swim, have a picnic, climb a 240-foot sand dune, or go for a hike. Once you’ve made it to St. Joe, you have two options to view the St. Joseph Lighthouse. The first is from Silver Beach (from across the channel) and the second is from Tiscornia Park, the latter allowing you to walk up to the lighthouse. On the main pier you’ll see two lighthouses, the outer was constructed in 1906 and the inner, very similar to the 1904 East Pierhead Light, was constructed in 1907. The 1906 outer pier light is probably hands down the most famous in the state of Michigan after a photo of it covered in ice went viral during the polar vortex a few years ago, even though the photo itself had been taken a few year prior.
Leaving St. Joseph, you’ll travel north, via the route of your choice, to South Haven to visit the 1903 South Haven Lighthouse. It’s a small red lighthouse, not to be confused with Big Red to the north in Holland, with a long pier perfect for a stroll or to perch on and watch the sunset.
Next stop, is Holland State Park in Holland, Michigan and the Holland Harbor Lighthouse, also known as Big Red. You won’t be able to walk up to the lighthouse from here but you can take in the view from across the channel. If you want to get to the lighthouse side of the channel, you’ll have to cross private property (and of course be on the other side of Macatawa Bay).
If you have time, and are physically up for the challenge, I suggest taking advantage of the Lakeshore Connector bike trail (paved route, not an actual trail), that runs 20 miles, one way, to Grand Haven which is the next and final lighthouse on this trip.
The 1905 Grand Haven Lighthouse will be the third red lighthouse you’ll visit in a row and the final one on the trip. From Michigan City to Grand Haven it’s roughly 116 miles, give or take a few detours but the trip to visit all 6 lighthouses can easily be done in a day (says the girl who’s done it before).
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