MidwestWeekends.com — Your Travel Guide to the Upper Midwest

Cruising to a lighthouse

In summer, excursion boats give visitors a chance to see historic beacons.

Copper Harbor Lighthouse.

© Torsten Muller

The Copper Harbor lighthouse is on a peninsula, but accessible only by water.

By definition, lighthouses aren't easy to visit.

Most are between a rock and a hard place, out of the way and on the edge of a fickle inland sea.

“When the government came here after 1843, they were afraid the Native Americans would be hostile, but they quickly found out the only thing hostile was Lake Superior,'' said our captain on a cruise to the Copper Harbor Lighthouse in Michigan's Keweenaw Peninsula.

Like the 1866 Copper Harbor light, many lighthouses in the western Great Lakes are accessible only by boat.

Off the eastern edge of the Upper Peninsula, the 1931 DeTour Reef Light sits on a concrete platform surrounded by water, and visitors have to wear a safety harness to climb up and off it.

Around the Apostles, Door County and Mackinac Straits, most lights are on islands or shoals.

The Copper Harbor light is on the tip of a peninsula that protects the harbor, but private owners make it inacessible by land. So we motored out on one of the excursion company's Sunset Tours.

Geologist Douglass Houghton found the first copper here in 1840, and a copper rush started after the Treaty of La Pointe was signed in 1842. Shipping boomed, but some boats didn't survive.

Our captain pointed out the grave of the John Jacob Astor, the first commercial boat on Lake Superior and the first wreck when it broke apart in a 1844 gale. Nearby, the City of Superior was brand-new when it sank in an 1857 squall.

The first lighthouse was finished in 1848 but soon began to crumble and was replaced. The 1848 keeper's quarters remain and is a museum, furnished as it would have been.

After we docked, we walked through the house, which sheltered eight keepers and their families between 1849 and 1919. Cans of supplies were on kitchen shelves, card games and a sewing machine in the bedroom and wool pants and a carpetbag  in the closet.

On the grounds, we walked wooded paths past historical plaques. “I fear (copper fever) may prove the ruin of hundreds of adventurers who will come with expectations never to be realized,'' Houghton said in 1841. He drowned four years later at age 37, caught in an open boat by a nor'easter.

On the boat ride back, the captain told us how protruding rock in the harbor makes clearance as little as 14½ feet in one spot, and how the color of harbor lights and the timing of their flashes tell mariners where they are.

“When it's green and flashing every six seconds, I know I'm at Copper Harbor in Michigan,'' he said.

The harbor entrance to Mackinac Island.

© Beth Gauper

The Round Island lights across from Mackinac Island are the first beacons passengers see on Shepler's eastbound cruise.

By then, the sun was sinking over the blue lake, turning the horizon a warm orange. The scene looked just the Michigan state license plate.

Copper Harbor Lighthouse Tours are offered daily in summer. But to see many other lighthouses, you'll have to plan ahead, because some can be seen only once or twice a year.

Here's how you can see the light.

Memorial Day weekend to mid-October, Copper Harbor Lighthouse tours. On the tip of Michigan's Keweenaw Peninsula, boats ferry tourists to the light because private owners block access.

The short trip across the harbor includes a look inside the lighthouse, a museum that's part of Fort Wilkins State Park. On clear days, take the Sunset Tour, which leaves the Copper Harbor dock two hours before sunset.

For more, see Copper Harbor refuge.

Memorial Day weekend to the first weekend of October, Fireboat Cruises of Sturgeon Bay, Wis. At the gateway to the Door Peninsula, Door County Fireboat Cruises gives 1½-hour narrated tours from the city dock by the Door County Maritime Museum.

One tour goes to the 1883 Sherwood Point Lighthouse in Green Bay and the other to the two lighthouses at the end of the ship canal, the 1882 Big Red fog-signal building and the 1899 tower at the Coast Guard station.

For more about Sturgeon Bay, see The door to Door County.

Mid-June to mid-September, Shepler's lighthouse cruises from Mackinaw City, Mich.  On the Straits of Mackinac, Shepler's Ferry offers frequent lighthouse cruises that pass under the Mackinac Bridge. 

The eastbound straits cruise passes six lights and the westbound straits cruise four lights. A 3½-hour extended westbound cruise passes Skillagalee Light, and a four-hour extended eastbound cruise passes Spectacle Reef.

Shepler's also offers a six-hour cruise to six lighthouses in Les Cheneaux Islands and an all-day cruise to St. Helena Island Light. Only a few of the specialty cruises are offered, so plan ahead.

June, Door County lighthouse cruises during Lighthouse Festival. The Door County Maritime Museum in Sturgeon Bay sponsors expeditions, including a cruise to Plum Island, in the middle of the Death's Door Passage.

Passengers can get off the boat to explore the 1895 range lights and the ruins of an 1848 lighthouse.

The Island Clipper Tour, which takes passengers to Rock Island for a hike to the 1837 Pottawatomie Light, Wisconsin's oldest, and past Plum Island and the 1873 Pilot Island lighthouse, also is very popular.

Visitors at the Raspberry Island lighthouse.

© Beth Gauper

In the Apostles, national park-service rangers give tours of the Raspberry Island light.

A third tour leaves from Fish Creek for Chambers Island, home of an 1868 lighthouse. Tickets for the three cruises, $55, go on sale to non-members April 1 and sell out immediately.

Other boat tours cross the Death's Door and explore lights in Baileys Harbor and Sturgeon Bay. On the Keepers' Kin Tour of Sturgeon Bay, relatives of lighthouse keepers will share stories and memorabilia.

For more, see Lighthouses of Door County.

Throughout the tourist season, trips to Washington Island from Gills Rock on the Island Clipper include views of Plum and Pilot islands. The launch makes several trips a day from Memorial Day weekend through the first weekend of October.

Mid-June through August, Cruises to Michigan's DeTour Reef Light from Drummond Island, Mich. At the easternmost tip of the Upper Peninsula, the DeTour Reef Light Preservation Society offers two-hour guided tours to this waterbound lighthouse on Saturdays except the second week of August, when the tour is on Sunday. 

Late June through Labor Day weekend, Cruises to Raspberry Island Light in Wisconsin's Apostle Islands.  Apostle Islands Cruise Service offers this cruise, which includes two hours to visit the lighthouse on the island, staffed by national park-service rangers. 

The cruises leave Tuesday and Friday-Sunday from Bayfield. There's also a daily cruise past Raspberry and Devil's Island light, from mid-May to mid-October, and a sunset tour Monday-Saturday from late June through Labor Day weekend.

For more, see Lighthouses of the Apostles.

Late June-late September, St. Marys River Lighthouse Cruise from Sault Ste. Marie, Mich. Soo Locks Boat Tours offers a 4½-hour tour through the Soo Locks and along the St. Marys River to Point Iroquois Light and Canadian lights that include Gros Cap Reefs. 

They leave at 8 a.m. Wednesdays from mid-July through August and Saturdays from in early July and September.

June, July and August, Lighthouse Cruises from Charlevoix, Mich. Keweenaw Excursions offers cruises to lighthouses around northern Lake Michigan and along the St. Marys River to Sault Ste. Marie. Some are sponsored by Boatnerd.com.

September, Apostle Islands Lighthouse Celebration out of Bayfield, Wis. The festival is the only time the Apostles Islands Cruise Service offers tours to lighthouses on several islands.

Cruises include stops at Sand, Devils, Raspberry and Outer islands, and non-stop cruises that pass Michigan and Long islands, each of which have two lighthouses.

Fall Color Lighthouse Cruise out of Charlevoix, Mich. See nine lighthouses on a 10-hour cruise offered by Keweenaw Excursions.

October, Great Lakes Lighthouse Festival in Alpena, Mich. Five Lake Huron lighthouses, at Tawas Point, Sturgeon Point, Forty Mile Point and Presque Isle, will be open for tours, and visitors can take boats or helicopters to see the lights on Middle Island and Thunder Bay Island.

Lighthouse associations from all the Great Lakes are invited.


Last updated on December 16, 2014

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