Tawas Bay, MI
Early Chippewa Indians recognized the treasure they had found in one of the largest natural harbors on Lake Huron, which came to bore the name of their Chief O-Ta-Was. Today, the twin cities of Tawas City and East Tawas are tucked in along the shoreline of Tawas Bay as it winds inward from Saginaw Bay, welcoming visitors who seek a quiet yet quaint vacation escape.
Bounded by the Huron National Forest on the west, the shoreline to the east and the famous AuSable River on the north, today’s visitors will find that a rich heritage remains, balanced with unlimited recreational opportunities, historic sites and cultural offerings.
Roads were established here in the 1920s and opened up touring in the Tawas area. Today, several historic and scenic routes wind through the area, providing unlimited opportunities to get off the beaten path. US-23 is the Sunrise Side Coastal Highway which parallels the Lake Huron shore. M-55 is one of only three state highways that stretch shore- to-shore, from Tawas on the Lake Huron coast west to Manistee on Lake Michigan.
River Road, a newly-designated National Scenic Byway, meanders 22 miles along the historic AuSable River. Celebrating the area’s colorful lumbering history, this route boasts Lumberman’s Monument, built in 1932 in remembrance of the timber cruiser, the sawyer and the rivermen who cleared the way for the county’s future.
Along this byway, Iargo Springs provides an unparalleled, dramatic view of the AuSable River Valley from a 30-foot-high observation deck. Walk down the nearly 300 steps and along the elevated boardwalk that winds through towering hemlock, pines and cedar to the mystical place where the underground springs come together and form cold water streams. Native Americans considered this a holy place offering magical powers and they gathered here for tribal pow wows.
Situated in the heart of Iosco County, this remote shoreline area of Northeast Michigan is commonly referred to as the “Sunrise Coast” – and with good reason. The majestic waters along this coastline provide a shimmering stage, where sunrises draw top billing as one of the best shows around.
Tawas Bay averages 15 to 25 feet in depth offshore, with a near-shore average water temperature in the mid-70s during the heat of summer. Established in 1897, the Tawas Bay Yacht Club hosts several events each summer on the bay including a Regatta in July and a Venetian Night Festival in September.
Nearby, the sheltered East Tawas Harbor of Refuge and State Dock provide 30 60 seasonal and 110 76 transient slips (checking on updated numbers), with all modern-day conveniences, including WiFi. Anglers consider the bay a hot spot for perch, brown trout, walleye, lake trout and salmon, making recreational fishing vital to the area’s growing resorting and tourism industry.
Maritime history takes many forms here in Tawas. Step aboard the 85-foot Appledore IV, which offers tall ship excursions on Tawas Bay throughout the season. Whether you choose the public sail, sunset adventure or dinner cruise, you’re sure to find it a relaxing sightseeing adventure.
An off-shore excursion awaits for those willing to travel across the open waters of Saginaw Bay to Charity Island aboard the 50-foot NorthStar with Michigan Sunrise Tours. While on the island, you’ll be given the opportunity to tour the lighthouse keeper’s residence before returning back to Tawas. The residence now also offers a bed-and-bread experience.
Heritage Coast Sailing and Rowing, a non-profit that encourages boat building and rowing and sailing programs, has now completed the Heritage 23, based on the Mackinaw boat of the mid-1800s and will soon launch the Penobscot 14 on the waters of Tawas Bay.
Traveling here by boat from Detroit to the south or the Straits to the north, visitors skirt along Tawas Point and past the historic lighthouse, which has guarded the shore since being built in 1876 (the first lighthouse here was erected in 1852). Open for tours throughout the summer, one can enjoy breathtaking views that stretch for miles from the top of the 70-foot tower which stands proudly inside the Tawas Point State Park. Now you can live as a lighthouse keeper and stay for a week at the keeper’s home through the Tawas Point Keeper Program. There is a fee for this program but it offers lighthouse lovers a unique opportunity to stay and work in a lighthouse while interacting with the many visitors to the site. Birdwatchers also flock to the point, as they follow the area’s spring and fall migration of birds. The annual Tawas Point Birding Festival in mid-May is a spectacular time to view more than 250 species of birds.
The Tawas area sits inside the Huron National Forest, which is home to a wealth of natural treasures. The Tuttle Marsh Wildlife Area is a 5000-acre wetland complex, situated just seven miles north of Tawas. This free attraction offers excellent bird-watching and a Great Blue Heron Rookery, as well as unique plant communities and countless water-friendly reptiles and animals such as beaver, muskrats and waterfowl.
Those looking to explore the river in historic style might prefer the AuSable River Queen – a double-decker, authentic paddlewheel boat. Patriotically painted in red, white and blue, she has been transporting generations of families along the river for more than 40 years.
Paddlers can make their way along the famous AuSable River just 15 miles to the north or head out onto the open waters of Tawas Bay. Guided tours are also available, for those looking for a local’s perspective.
Although geographically small, East Tawas boasts a popular downtown shopping district that stretches over a six-block area, primarily along Newman Street. Here, visitors would be amiss if they didn’t stop in to The Book Nook, Windjammer’s, Ben Franklin, Tawas Bay Arts Council & Gallery or the countless other shops and stores here, in search of unique treasures and regional finds.
Discover more about the region with a stop at the Iosco County Historical Museum, check out one of the lively performances by the Tawas Bay Players or take in a show at the 1910 vintage “Family Theater” which adds to the nostalgic charm of the downtown area.
When hunger strikes, seek out Northwoods Steak House on US-23 in East Tawas, where a fine selection of steaks, seafood and desserts are waiting to be devoured. An extensive wine list, including a couple Michigan favorites, can also be found in this intimate, yet rustic “up north” setting. Other local favorites include Legacy of Tawas Bay, Pier 23 Food & Spirits, Mr. Jack*ss, Barnacle Bill and for a scrumptious breakfast, White Tail Cafe. Or grabe a pice of piece of home-made jerky, more than a dozen choices from Klenow’s Market in operation since 1900.
After dinner, cure your cravings for something sweet like hand-dipped chocolates at the Village Chocolatier or Tawas Bay Fudge Company. Sign up for the “Cookie of the Month Club” while at MarMar Gourmet. Those seeking a healthier alternative should plan to stop by the Northeast Michigan Farm Market, held every Saturday between May and October in Downtown East Tawas.
Throughout the region, numerous resorts, motels, cottage and cabin rentals and charming B&Bs provide respite at the end of the day, just as they have for generations. This unspoiled “Sunrise Coast” is one of the state’s best-kept secrets just waiting to be discovered!