Under and Around the Mackinac Bridge: Westbound Straits of Mackinac Lighthouse Cruise

Introduction to The Mackinac Bridge and The Straits of Mackinac Area

The Mackinac Bridge spans 5 miles across the Straits of Mackinac, where Lake Michigan and Lake Huron meet, and links Michigan’s two scenic peninsulas. Completed in 1957 after a 3-year construction process, the Mackinac Bridge has become an engineering marvel often associated with Michigan. The Mackinac Bridge is not the only attraction that brings visitors to the Straits of Mackinac. In addition to Mackinaw City, and the numerous activities on Mackinac Island, one can take a lighthouse cruise from the comfort of a Shepler’s ferry. https://www.sheplersferry.com/.

Information about the Shepler’s Lighthouse Cruises

The lighthouse cruises take place in the summer and require advanced reservations. The lighthouse cruises tend to fill up quickly, so getting your cruise tickets early is recommended. Additionally, there are a variety of different cruises that may be taken depending on the direction (eastbound or westbound) and length of time (ex. 3 or 4 hours). 3-Hour Westbound Lighthouse Cruise tickets cost $51.50 for adults, $29.50 for kids, and children under 5 are free. Onboard the Shepler’s ferry, one can learn the history and lore of the lighthouses, via an expert guide from the Great Lakes Lighthouse Keepers Association.

Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse

The 3-hour westbound lighthouse cruise’s first stop is the Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse, which operated from 1892 to 1958, when it became a museum. The lighthouse’s light was powerful enough to be seen 16 miles away by ships approaching the treacherous Straits of Mackinac. The lighthouse itself stands 58 feet tall and may be climbed with tickets being $8.50 for adults, $6.00 for children, and free for kids 0-4.

Old Mackinac Lighthouse from the water
Old Mackinac Lighthouse from the land side

The Mackinac Bridge

The lighthouse cruise then passes under the span of the Mackinac Bridge, where one can see cars and trucks passing 200 feet above on the bridge through the perforated steel grating that comprise the Mackinac Bridge’s center two lanes. It is an exciting experience to see the underside of the Mackinac Bridge from the water. As is often wondered by tourists, the perforated center two lanes of the Mackinac Bridge were not designed to be scare motorists. The steel grating was designed to allow wind to pass harmlessly through the grating on windy days and allow the Mackinac Bridge to sway slightly. This was a design feature that Dr. David B. Steinman, the architect of the Mackinac Bridge, utilized after the 1940 collapse of the old Tacoma Narrows Bridge in Washington State due to high winds and the inflexibility of the old Tacoma Narrows Bridge.

The Mackinac Bridge
The Mackinac Bridge – 2
Underside of the Mackinac Bridge
Underside of the Mackinac Bridge – 2
Underside of the Mackinac Bridge – 3

St. Helena Light Station

The second stop on the 3-hour westbound lighthouse cruise is the St. Helena Light Station, which is located on St. Helena Island in Lake Michigan, about 8 miles northwest from Mackinaw City, Michigan. The lighthouse itself was built in the 1870s, while the outlying buildings of the lighthouse were built in the 1890s. This light station is only accessible by water and it is only possible to physically visit this disused lighthouse by either taking an occasional daytrip offered by the Great Lakes Lighthouse Keepers Association in the summer, or volunteering to be a summer lighthouse keeper through the GLLKA.

St. Helena Lighthouse – Profile
St. Helena Lighthouse – Close Up
St. Helena Lighthouse- Fading in the distance

White Shoal Lighthouse

The third stop on the 3-hour westbound lighthouse cruise is the White Shoal Lighthouse. The lighthouse is located near White Shoal in Lake Michigan, 20 miles west of Mackinaw City. It is also unique for being the only lighthouse in the Great Lakes to have a “candy cane” striping pattern. The lighthouse itself was built in 1910 and is only accessible by boat. It is possible to visit the lighthouse during the summertime through a tour with the White Shoal Light Historical Preservation Society.       

White Shoals Lighthouse
White Shoals Lighthouse – Up Close
White Shoals Lighthouse – Leaving

Grays Reef Lighthouse

The fourth stop on the 3-hour westbound lighthouse cruise is the Grays Reef Lighthouse. This lighthouse was completed in the 1930s and stands 65 feet tall. Like the White Shoal Lighthouse, it is only accessible by boat. However, unlike the White Shoal Lighthouse, there are no tours to this remote, octagonal Lake Michigan lighthouse.

Grays Reef – Profile
Grays Reef Lighthouse- Up Close – 1
Grays Reef Lighthouse – Up Close – 2

Waugoshance Lighthouse

The fifth and final stop on the 3-hour westbound lighthouse cruise is the Waugoshance Lighthouse. It was built in the 1850s and is unique for its “birdcage” design. However, the lighthouse was considered redundant in 1910 after the nearby White Shoal Lighthouse was completed. The disused lighthouse then became a site for World War II bombing practice. As a result, the lighthouse resembles a ruin rather than a maintained lighthouse. As the lighthouse is not open to the public, the only visitors seem to be seagulls and other birds. Waugoshance Lighthouse is most easily viewed from a boat, although it is visible also from the water at nearby Wilderness State Park.

Waugoshance Lighthouse
Waugoshance Lighthouse – Up Close

Overall Impressions & Considerations

The 3-hour westbound lighthouse cruise offers a great opportunity to view a variety of Michigan’s Great Lakes lighthouses. Since lighthouse cruise take place on a Shepler’s ferry, one has a choice of sitting on the top deck in the open air or on the lower deck where one can be “protected” from lake spray in wavy conditions. Onboard the boat, there are restrooms, and snacks and drinks available for purchase. Additionally, there are books available for purchase that explain the Great Lakes lighthouses’ lore and history. Still, it must be remembered the lighthouse cruise takes place on Lake Michigan and Lake Huron, so it is possible to encounter a few waves, which can be enjoyable for some!  Fortunately, if the conditions are too rough to undertake a cruise, Shepler’s will inform guests and allow them to reschedule.

If you find yourself in the Straits of Mackinac area and are interested in Great Lakes lighthouses, taking a Shepler’s lighthouse cruise is well worth it!