Maine calls itself “The Lighthouse State.” Ha. Guess Maine hasn’t been to Michigan lately.
We take the prize as the state with the most lighthouses. Are you a visitor enjoying coastal scenery? A hobbyist eager for more stamps in your United States Lighthouse Society passport? A West Michigander who hasn’t made it to a beach lately? Make this the summer you visit the beautiful, historic lighthouses in Muskegon, Grand Haven and Holland.
Back in the day, Michigan’s 3,000 miles of coastline along four of the Great Lakes was dotted with more than 150 of them.
One hundred twenty-nine (now automated) still guide boaters into ports and coastal rivers — and 34 of them are along the West Michigan coastline. GPS is great, but only to a point. “Even with today’s electronics, you get the little guy out there in a boat and maybe his batteries ran out,” says David Karpin, who took care of lighthouses before retiring from the Coast Guard. He now heads up the Grand Haven Lighthouse Conservancy.
Visiting a lighthouse inspires people to take pictures. We consulted Todd and Brad Reed Photography to find out how they get great lighthouse shots — between them, the father-son team have taken tens of thousands. (Yes, really.) Brad Reed’s advice boils down to this: Make sure there’s something in the foreground and time your photography to capture “magic light.”
“Whether you’re a professional or just an everyday person taking pictures with a cellphone, the most important part of the photo is the foreground, and it’s the part most people forget,” he says.
“Think of photos as a layer cake: a foreground, a middle ground, and the background. In a lighthouse photo, the lighthouse is the middle ground and Lake Michigan is the background. Find something — dune grass, a stump, a family member — and put that in the foreground. Just that alone will make your lighthouse photography so much more interesting.”
“Magic light” is natural light that delivers hyper-definition. Reed says the difference it makes in a photo is like the difference between a 1980s TV and today’s best high-def model. It appears most often in the 15 minutes before and after sunrise and the half hour on either side of sunset, he reports. “That’s your best chance to get pink or glowing light. At that point you don’t need any fancy work — Mother Nature will do the photoshop work for you.” Reed recommends rainy days, too. “If it’s raining but the sun peeks through the clouds, it’s magic light.”
An opportunity to step inside
There are routine tours this summer inside just one of the lighthouses featured in this article — Muskegon’s South Pierhead Light. Docents lead tours Friday through Monday (see muskegonlights.org for times and ticket details).
But if you’d like to poke around inside one in Grand Haven, too, bookmark August 7 — National Lighthouse Day. Visitors will have access to the interior of Grand Haven’s South Pierhead Light that afternoon and evening. (Times weren’t yet finalized at press time.)
Hopes are high that, starting next spring, the door to that lighthouse will be open regularly to visitors. Thanks to a $60,000 grant from the Michigan Lighthouse Assistance Programs, safety improvements are scheduled to be done by next spring, Karpin says, and historical exhibits, a small gift shop, and the interior of the lighthouse will be open for business.
Lighthouse Locations 101
A pair of vintage lighthouses stand sentry on the south side of the channel from Lake Michigan into Muskegon Lake. (You’ll spot a tower on the north side of the channel, too, but it’s a utilitarian modern model that lighthouse enthusiasts call a “sewer pipe light,” Jeff Shook of the Muskegon Lighthouse Conservancy says.)
The South Breakwater Light is easy to walk to from Pere Marquette Park. Just stroll out on the breakwater. This lighthouse, shaped like a tall pyramid, was built in 1931.
To walk to the older, cylindrical South Pierhead Light (circa 1903), find a parking space along Pere Marquette Park and walk to the north end of the beach, where a NOAA field station sits at the bend in the road. (From other starting points, set your GPS for 1431 Beach Street, the address of the field station.) White lines mark the straight path between NOAA buildings to the pier.
It’s simple to walk from Grand Haven’s shopping district to the two lighthouses on the downtown side of the Grand River: Walk to the river and turn left onto the paved riverfront “boardwalk.” You’ll come first to the cylindrical red South Pierhead Inner Light, circa 1905. Beyond it at the end of the pier is a barnlike 1875 lighthouse known as the “fog house,” a nickname from back when it also had a foghorn. (As in Muskegon, the light on the north side of the channel is modern.)
For a shorter walk, park at Grand Haven State Park, or the channel parking lot accessible through the state park campground entrance. (The latter requires a Michigan recreation passport.) Both have access to the boardwalk.
If photographing the lighthouses against the lake (and perhaps a sunset) is your goal, the breakwater on the north side of the river channel may be your sweet spot. (On the south pier, a catwalk complicates west-facing shots.) Set your GPS for North Shore Fisherman’s Lot, Grand Haven. The walkway from that parking lot and the breakwater it leads to, which parallels the south pier, offer spectacular views.
Holland Harbor Light, known locally as “Big Red,” is said to be the most photographed lighthouse in Michigan. When you see it in person you’ll know why.
The angular 1907 structure on the south side of the channel to Lake Macatawa is striking from the boardwalk, beach, or breakwater of Holland State Park, just north across the narrow channel — the public spot closest to Big Red. (The walkway to it lies within a gated community.)
For another good vantage point, climb 275 stairs to the top of Mt. Pisgah, a clearly marked wooded dune three-quarters of a mile east of the entrance to the State Park beach. There’s a modest amount of free public parking in between.