Ludington – Bustling Port Town With Maritime Heritage
Published: Friday, September 14, 2018
By: Kim Skeltis
Spend even a day in Ludington, and its relationship with Lake Michigan is palpable at every turn. Ludington North Breakwater Light beckons boaters, as does the U.S. Coast Guard Station standing sentinel on the north side of the Ludington channel. Further up the 28-mile sandy coastline is the iconic black-and-white Big Sable Point Lighthouse in Ludington State Park. These markers tell the story of Ludington’s rich and expansive maritime heritage dating back to 1847 when the first permanent settler arrived to pursue a business opportunity in lumber.
Ludington’s maritime culture remains as vital as ever today. The U.S. Coast Guard operates an active station adjacent to its original location, which is now a maritime museum. The 65-year-old S.S.Badger, a coal-fired car ferry, still sails daily to Manitowoc during boating season and twice daily in the summer. Charter fishing boats depart daily from Ludington, one of the top fishing ports on Lake Michigan. And, while the lights are now automated, Ludington’s two lighthouses safely guide boaters in and out of the harbor.
Upon arrival at the port of Ludington — marked by the North Breakwater Light — you will find a variety of marinas and boat launches to meet your needs. Ludington features two full-service marinas — Ludington Municipal Marina (for boats up to 125 feet) and Harbor View Marina (for boats up to 100 feet) — with modern shower and restroom facilities plus fish cleaning stations. Two public boat launches also offer water access to Ludington: Loomis Street Boat Launch on Lake Michigan with four docks and eight launching ramps plus restrooms, fish cleaning station, and parking; and Copeyon Park Boat Launch on Pere Marquette Lake (connected to Lake Michigan) with two docks, restrooms, and parking.All of which is to say that a trip to the bustling port town of Ludington is a rich and rewarding experience – not only full of maritime heritage, but also modern-day attractions and conveniences mostly within walking distance of the waterfront.
Once docked, you are just a few blocks from downtown Ludington. In fact, that is one of the primary reasons that Ludington is a popular overnight stop for boaters traveling America's Great Loop — they love Ludington’s modern marinas and close proximity to downtown. This city of 8,500 features a compact, yet amenity-rich, downtown only a short walk from the waterfront, anchored by the cross streets of Ludington Avenue and James Street.
Shop at boutique stores, find convenient services, stay in a mom-and-pop hotel, and satisfy your hunger and thirst at the many downtown restaurants, cafes, and pubs. If you were lucky enough to land “the big one,” take your cleaned, fresh catch to one of the participating restaurants in Michigan’s “Catch & Cook” Program – The Blu Moon Bistro, P.M. Steamers, and Scotty's Restaurant – who will cook up your fish and prepare gourmet sides. Ludington also has a thriving craft beer scene, with Jamesport Brewing Company and Ludington Bay Brewing Co. on James Street (also serving excellent gastropub fare), and the Mitten Bar featuring Michigan-only craft beer and wine around the corner. After dinner, stroll to third-generation family-owned House of Flavors for a scoop of one of 30 flavors. If you’re with a group, order a Super Dooper Pig’s Dinner with 12 scoops of ice cream on three bananas with 12 toppings.
If you seek open spaces to stretch your legs after boating, Waterfront Sculpture Park, immediately adjacent to the marinas, is a 5.3-acre park featuring green space for picnicking, a large playscape area for kids, and a sculpture trail with nine bronze sculptures depicting aspects of Ludington’s history. For a walk along the Lake Michigan shoreline, head to Stearns Park Beach, the free city beach just west of downtown with 2,500 feet of sugar sand, a grassy area with picnic tables and grills, plus a playground, skate park, mini-golf course, and volleyball and shuffleboard courts. A half-mile, walkable pier juts out to the North Breakwater Light for a spectacular stroll. Stearns Park also is a favorite spot for watching the sun set over Lake Michigan.
Want to enjoy some local culture? Most of Ludington’s top attractions are just blocks from the waterfront, including the new Port of Ludington Maritime Museum, located fittingly in the former U.S. Coast Guard Station (also on the National Register of Historic Places). This state-of-the-art, family friendly museum provides interactive exhibits about Ludington’s maritime heritage, offering glimpses into the past with artifacts, historic photographs, and voices of people who shaped the region. A favorite exhibit for kids and adults alike is the replica pilothouse of the Pere Marquette 22 where visitors can pilot the car ferry into and out of the harbor or across Lake Michigan in various weather conditions. If you’ve got little ones in tow, check out Sandcastles Children’s Museum for some fun. This hands-on discovery museum will stimulate creativity and curiosity through special exhibits like a mini S.S. Badger plus a small aircraft that kids can pilot. And you might be lucky enough to visit Ludington during one of its many festivals or events like fall favorite Bell’s Octoberfest Sept. 28-29 or downtown Ludington’s Halloween events Oct. 27. Check pureludington.com/events for a complete list of events.
There is plenty more to explore in Ludington and Mason County beyond the waterfront if you wish to travel further afield. One of Ludington’s crown jewels is Ludington State Park, located at the end of M-116 just six miles north of downtown. It is home to 5,300 acres of scenic sand dunes, a 5.5-mile long sandy Lake Michigan beach, 20 miles of hiking trails (perfect for fall hiking), Hamlin Lake with public boat launch, plus Big Sable Point Lighthouse. Don’t have wheels? We’ve got you covered with two bicycle shops, Spindrift Cyclesports and Trailhead Bike Shop, both renting bicycles. Or take advantage of Ludington Mass Transit Authority’s on-demand bus system, where $2 (and less for seniors or youth) will get you anywhere within Ludington, Scottville, and Pere Marquette Charter Township.
For more information about Ludington, visit pureludington.com.
Ludington Calendar of Events
New Year’s Eve Ball Drop, Pure Ludington BrrrewFest, Lantern-lit Skiing/Snowshoeing, fat biking, ice fishing
St. Patrick’s Day Celebration, S.S. Badger Maiden Voyage, Big Sable Point and Ludington North Breakwater Lighthouses open
Love Ludington Weekend, Lakestride Half Marathon, Gus Macker, Sunset Beach Bonfires, Ludington Freedom Festival/Fourth of July Parade & Fireworks, West Shore Art Fair, Friday Night Live, Ludrock, Offshore Classic Fishing Tournament, West Shore Bank Rhythm & Dunes Concerts, Movies in the Park, Suds on the Shore
Bell’s Octoberfest, Lumber Day, Downtown Ludington Halloween/Spooky Trick-or-Treat, Rocktober Night of Fright, Aglow on the Avenue, fall color drives, U-pick orchards and fruit markets
This article first appeared in the Fall Issue (Sept/Oct) 2018 of Great Lakes Scuttlebutt magazine.