Catch the Fall Colors in Ludington, Michigan
By Brian E. Clark
For most Midwesterners, flying to New England this fall to see the brilliant changing hues of the region’s hardwoods is probably off the table.
But you can still get your autumn-color fix. The rolling landscape of western Michigan in and around Ludington is an excellent alternative to see the brilliant red, yellow, and orange leaves of quaking aspens, elms, oaks, and maples set amongst the deep green of pine, cedar, and spruce trees.
Top that off with a backdrop of the blue and sometimes frothy white waters of Lake Michigan, complete with an occasional picturesque lighthouse and you’ve got plenty of reasons to visit one of my favorite areas of the Midwest.
Because I live in Madison, WI, I usually travel from Wisconsin to Ludington via the S.S. Badger, (ssbadger.com) a 100-meter long ferry that has been plying the waters of Lake Michigan for more than half a century. Alas, its season has ended but will resume in May. If you live in Chicago, Ludington is about four hours north by car.
Ludington was founded at the mouth of the Pere Marquette River in the middle of the 19th Century. Native Americans had lived in the area for centuries, hunting, fishing, and growing corn, beans, squash, wild potatoes, and onions.
Settlers mined salt deposits and cut the trees – the forebears of which now draw so many leaf-peepers. Sawmills boomed in the later 1800s. By 1892, they’d shipped more than 162 million board feet and 52 million wood shingles to growing cities like Chicago and beyond. Ludington was also a major Great Lakes port. In 1875, the first railroad began cross-lake shipping operations with the sidewheel steamer SS John Sherman. Today, the S.S. Badger remains the sole ferry to cross Lake Michigan.
The first Europeans arrived in the 1600s. The French Explorer and missionary Father Jacques Marquette died and was buried here. A memorial and large iron cross mark the spot on a hill near town.
My traveling companion and I saw that marker from the deck of the Princess of Ludington (ludingtonharbortours.com) on a recent sunset tour that began in Ludington’s harbor and headed south. Serenaded by a guitar-playing troubadour, we chugged past the Ludington Light and by bluffs on Lake Michigan’s western shore that are now exploding with color.
Once a tour boat that plied the waters of the Apostle Islands in southeastern Lake Superior – and before that as a ferry to Mackinac Island in Lake Huron – the Princess was purchased earlier this year by long-time sport fisherman Al Laaksonen of Ludington. He refurbished the Princess, filling what he called an “empty niche” for visitors who wanted to tour the harbor and surrounding waters by boat.
As we traveled along the shore Laaksonen, regaled me with stories about his decades plying the waters of Lake Michigan. Though he’s now in his eighth decade, the waterman said he had no plans to slow down.
We learned more about Ludington’s maritime history with a stop at the Port of Ludington Maritime Museum (ludingtonmaritimemusuem.org) in a beautifully restored U.S. Coast Guard Station. The three-story building is filled with displays that deal with the region’s Native American history, fishing, shipwrecks, lighthouses, car ferries, scuba diving, and more. The museum is run by the Mason County Historical Society, which also operates the nearby Historic White Pine Village.
For dinner, we stopped in at Table 14, an upscale Charleston, South Carolina-inspired bistro that serves an eclectic and seasonal menu with a southern twist. I had yummy crab cakes and sea scallops, while my traveling companion had a mouth-watering filet mignon. For dessert, we wandered up Ludington Avenue to House of Flavors, which has been making delicious ice cream for more than 70 years.
We’ll be back.
Mason County, in which Ludington is located, has plenty of roads offering beautiful colors. Here are some of the top routes for seeing those striking hues by foot, bike, kayak, and car:
This fall color takes you by car or bike through the downtown, by the shore of Lake Michigan and down country roads.
Explore more than 18 miles of trails, a canoe trail, Hamlin Lake, Big Sable River and more than 5,300 acres of unspoiled natural forest.
The Ludington School Forest offers more than 5 miles of urban biking trails and hiking trails. It’s a convenient spot to get outdoors and take in the sights and sounds of autumn.
Cartier Park is a popular spot for both walker and bikers. Located about a mile north of downtown Ludington on the corner of Rath Avenue and Bryant Road, it’s a convenient spot to enjoy nature and the colors of autumn. Mountain Bikers can enjoy 3.5 miles of trails, while walkers can stroll along a paved one-mile loop.
Brian E. Clark is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer and photographer who contributes to the Chicago Tribune and LA Times on a regular basis. He also writes a weekly travel column for the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. A native of Iowa, Clark is a University of Colorado, Boulder, graduate who focuses on adventure travel. He’s a veteran whitewater kayaker and skier who has lived in Norway, Sweden, Brazil and Bolivia. He worked for newspapers in Washington State and California for 25 years, including the San Diego Union-Tribune, before returning to the Midwest. He manages to head back West several times a year when he’s not off in other corners of the globe. Or poking around Wisconsin.