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150th Anniversary of the Big Sable Lighthouse in Ludington, Michigan

Michigan is home to more lighthouses than any state in America – a deserved claim to fame due to its 3,000-plus miles of Great Lakes shoreline. Of its 129 lighthouses, two are right here in Ludington, Michigan, including Big Sable Point Lighthouse – the second tallest on Lake Michigan’s eastern shore and one of the oldest continuously working in the state. Cue the birthday cake and candles, because it turns 150 years old this year!

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The iconic black-and-white lighthouse, built in 1867, still serves as a U.S. Coast Guard aid to navigation, though Big Sable was fully automated in 1968 and keepers were no longer needed. Today, the tower is lit by a small LED light – a far cry from the five-foot Fresnel lens lit with a three-wick burner fueled with lard oil when the tower opened. You can check out the Fresnel lens at the new Port of Ludington Maritime Museum. 

So what motivates 17,000 visitors to walk the two-mile, one-way trek annually to Big Sable, located on a sandy (sable is French for “sand”) promontory in Ludington State Park? Why do lighthouses like this one conjure up feelings of nostalgia and romanticism?

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Part of the lighthouse’s charm is that it offers a peek into the past. A small handful of Michigan lighthouses date back to before the Civil War, and Big Sable was the only lighthouse Congress approved during the war, though it was ultimately constructed afterward. And because lighthouses of this kind are no longer built (marine navigation needs can be met today by a simple steel tower with LED light), there is only a finite number left in varying levels of upkeep, and only 15 on Lake Michigan are open to the public. It’s no surprise that the lighthouse is listed on the Michigan State Historic Sites and National Register of Historic Places.

The Big Sable Point Lighthouse is such a place, and the journey is as important as the destination. Nestled among jack pines along a desolate stretch of dunes, the lighthouse isn’t visible for the first two-thirds of the hike. Its isolation is even more pronounced since it is only accessible on foot or by bicycle, outside of six Bus Days in the summer (and until a road was constructed in the 1930s, it was only accessible by boat or via the beach).

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Once you climb the 130 steps to the top (kids have fun counting the stairs) and receive your “I climbed Big Sable Point Lighthouse” sticker, take in 360-degree views from the watchtower deck overlooking Lake Michigan, rolling sand dunes and hidden tide pools only visible from above. Kids will especially enjoy reading fun facts about the lighthouse along the railing (“Chicago 160 miles,” “Your shoes are 92 feet up,” and “Shortest distance to Wisconsin 51 miles,” to name a few), plus picking up an activity book once back down.

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Back at ground level, watch a 10-minute video about the lighthouse history, see the original keeper’s uniform and other artifacts, and shop in the keeper’s quarters-turned gift shop. Give yourself extra time to enjoy the grounds around the lighthouse, whether to hike the dunes, photograph the replica fog signal building, or eat a picnic lunch. For a unique trip back, follow the shoreline for additional water views (your toes might get wet along the way!).

Looking for a more intimate lighthouse experience? Consider these special activities and events:




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