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Beaver Island is the largest island in the Beaver Island Archipelago of islands. In fact, at approximately 54 square miles, it’s the largest island in Lake Michigan. Located about 32 miles off the coast of Charlevoix, Michigan, although you can fly in, most people reach the island via the Beaver Island Boat Company’s ferry.
While Beaver Island has outdoor activities like hiking, biking, birding, and stargazing, history buffs will find the area a wealth of exciting stories. Here are nine of my favorite things to do on the island.
Start your day on Beaver Island with an island tour. We started with the van tour, but they also offer maps for self-guided walking and driving tours. The excursions give an island overview, so you’ll know where you want to explore more.
Beaver Island Boat Company offers 90-minute van tours that provide an overview of Beaver Island. The knowledgeable guides clue you in on the island’s fascinating history. The tour covers six areas on the north end of the island.
If you’d like to take a free self-guided walking tour, the Beaver Island Historical Society created one that covers 17 sites over 2.5 miles. It will guide you through downtown, the cemeteries, and various museums.
Stop by the Beaver Island Community Center to pick up a self-guided driving tour map. In addition, the Historical Society has added 22 signs that include a complete history of some of the less well-known sites.
You can take your car to Beaver Island, but you must reserve early as each ferry trip accommodates only 19 vehicles. I tried booking on a Wednesday for a busy summer weekend, and they were sold out to vehicles. So, call early if you plan to take your car. If you visit for only a day or two, renting a car on the island is more cost-effective.
Beaver Island has a diverse history, and the Mormon Print Shop Museum takes you on a journey through that history. The museum tells the story of Native American life not only on Beaver Island but on the other islands in the archipelago.
It showcases the history of Irish families who settled on Beaver Island after leaving Ireland during the 1840s to escape the famine. Finally, it tells the saga of James Strang and his Mormon followers, who formed a kingdom on Beaver Island during the 1850s.
I especially enjoyed the Women of Beaver Island exhibit, where I learned about Elizabeth Whitney Williams, a female lighthouse keeper. An unusual occupation for a woman at the time.
Before coming to Beaver Island in 1893, Feodor was an actor and newspaper editor. Born in Estonia, he went to the island on a spiritual quest, where he wanted to become self-sufficient. To that end, he bought a cabin and 200 acres on Sloptown Road.
Although he never studied medicine and had no intention of practicing it, the island didn’t have a full-time doctor. So, using skills he learned to treat his animals, Protar began dispensing medicines that would treat ailments such as the common cold, arthritis, and rashes. Pain relievers and the medication he dispensed didn’t require a prescription because many didn’t become restricted drugs until 1915. Many others he produced himself in his kitchen.
Knowing his limitations, he didn’t oversee severe illnesses or childbirth. So, throughout his time on Beaver Island, Protar helped over 2,000 people, all without charge.
Since Protar’s home doesn’t have regular open hours, you can plan a visit through the Mormon Print Shop Museum to check out the cabin’s interior.
Off the road, hidden in a forest of birch trees, you’ll find the Beaver Island Toy Museum & Store. The museum, open seasonally from Memorial Day through early fall, will bring back childhood memories, even for those in our 60s. The Toy Museum features vintage toy airplanes hanging from the rafters and shelves of toys clear to the ceiling. You’ll find over 50 retro metal toys that kids from the 20s and 30s used to sit in and pedal to make them go. The beams above display a variety of tin robots, bikes, and ships.
In addition to the items on display, they have a store that features small children’s toys for a dime a piece. At these prices, you can be generous with the grandchildren.
Be sure to look at the art gallery area in the back, where local artists display their work. The museum’s owner, Mary Scholl, also sells her artwork in various forms in the gallery store.
Beaver Island sits in the flight path for many migratory birds heading north to their breeding grounds. Since it is the largest island in Lake Michigan, it makes the island a vital resting point for migratory birds. In addition, the island has the Beaver Island Birding Trail to assist visitors in their birding quest.
The island has over 12,000 acres of preserved land, supporting a variety of habitats. The Birding Trail offers 35 suggested locations for prime viewing. You can download a map that includes a description of these sites here.
You’ll see the widest variety of species in the spring and autumn. During spring migration, flocks of warblers and thrushes feed along the coast. The island serves as a summer breeding ground for waterbirds and shorebirds. The Piping Plover, an endangered species, breeds on sandy beaches. The inland lakes are great places to spot common loons, bald eagles, and osprey. In the winter, you’ll spot handsome creatures, such as snowy owls and snow buntings.
This checklist offers a comprehensive list of various species, the best season to see them, and how likely you are to spot them.
Pro Tip: You’ll find Beaver Island Birding Trail signs in white and orange. The white signs indicate you should observe from the road, while the orange means you’ll need to get out on the trail to explore.
From the 1870s until the 1940s, Beaver Island was a fishing village. The Marine Museum tells the story of Beaver Island’s Great Lakes history.
The museum, housed in what was once a net shed, was built in about 1904 for Shing Martin, a third-generation island fisherman. Martin used the shed to dry and repair fishing nets. Today, the exhibits tell the stories of the island’s maritime history. You’ll find information on shipbuilding and different vessels that operated on the island.
Memorabilia and artifacts from steamship Captains and fishing families are also on display. The museum also describes the stories of the shipwrecks surrounding Beaver Island and displays artifacts that washed ashore from the wrecks.
The Beaver Island Archipelago has 13 other islands, and the museum provides information on those as well.
You’ll find two lighthouses on Beaver Island, one on the island’s north end and the other on the south.
In 1856, they built Beaver Island Harbor Light on Whiskey Point to support St. James Harbor. This light is also known as the Whisky Point Light. They updated it to a taller 41-foot tower in 1870 and added a more powerful Fourth Order Fresnel lens. Today, the lighthouse is still aiding boat navigation. Although the light keeper’s residence is no longer there, and you can’t climb the tower, you can capture some great images while visiting the grounds.
The Beaver Head Lighthouse, located on the Island’s south side, features a 46-foot tower built in 1852. Although the lighthouse is not an active navigational aid, you can climb the 46 wrought-iron steps to the top. The light features a connected Keeper’s House and a brick Fog Station on the shore below the lighthouse.
Beaver Island offers miles of trails at various levels of difficulty and distances. As you’re hiking the trails, be aware that cell phone coverage is spotty on many routes, and many do not have water sources, so be sure to carry a full water bottle. Also, bring one of the several available paper trail maps. Seasonal weather affects the island’s trail conditions, so that some trails may become impassable during the rainy season.
Download the Beaver Island App for both iPhone and Android phones, which includes trail maps. Then, preload the maps before starting your hike.
Since its location is in the center of northern Lake Michigan, Beaver Island’s skies are some of the darkest. Sky Quality Measurements (SQM) rate on a scale from 16 to 22, with 22 being the darkest. On Beaver Island, the ratings are consistently 21SQ.
The best opportunity for stargazing on Beaver Island is along the shoreline. Check out the Beaver Island Trail map for some of the best places for watching the night sky. The Beaver Island sky features incredible Milky Way views and dazzling Northern Lights displays. Meteor showers are another exciting sight for those who enjoy the dark sky.
Pro Tip: Beaver Island Boat Company has two different boats going to the island and runs from mid-April until December. I recommend the Emerald Isle as it features an elevator for those with some mobility challenges, although if you wish to reach the upper deck, you’ll still need to climb a flight of stairs.
For more information on traveling to Michigan, check out these articles:
Amy Piper is a travel writer and publisher of Follow the Piper, a blog focusing on luxury travel and food experiences. Her passion for travel has taken her to 41 countries. Amy resides in Lansing, Michigan, and as a Michigan expert, she is currently writing the Michigan chapter in four anthologies about the Midwest.