The 2023 Guide to the 7 Best Things to Do in Alpena Michigan

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The 2023 Guide to the 7 Best Things to Do in Alpena Michigan

Alpena, Michigan, is a city nestled between a vast forest and an endless clear blue bay on Lake Huron in the Northeast Corner of Michigan.  Founded in 1854, Alpena was originally called Thunder Bay but was renamed Alpena in 1871.  It is known as the Sanctuary of the Great Lakes, and for good reason.  The city is home to various natural wonders, including Presque Isle Lighthouse, the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary, and the Alpena State Forest. 

In addition to its natural beauty, Alpena also has a rich history.  The city played an essential role in the lumber and shipping industries during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  Today, Alpena is a thriving community with a vibrant downtown and various attractions.  In this article, we’ll talk about some great things to do in Alpena, Michigan.

Alpena is the perfect destination if you are looking for the ideal place to relax and reconnect with nature.  But beware!  You may want to stay after visiting this darling town in Northeast Michigan.

Besser Museum for Northeast Michigan

The exterior view of the Besser Museum - a gray 80's building on one level with a parking lot in the foreground.


The giant Bald Eagle sculpture is the first thing you’ll notice when you enter the Besser Museum parking lot.  The statue was created in 2000 by artist Tom Moran and debuted in the 2000 Independence Day Parade.  After marching down the parade route, the sculpture has been located at several different locations around town and has rather appropriately landed at the Besser Museum.  Stop and take a selfie.  It’s really cool!

Author poses in front of a huge Bald Eagle Head made of steel.

Inside the museum, you’ll find Besser’s extensive collection of artwork, including a Warhol and many other gorgeous finds.  They also have an area dedicated to artists from Northeastern Michigan.


If you love history, you’ll love Besser.  A walk through the museum is akin to taking a step back in time.  Inside the front door, a fully restored 1911 Alpena Flyer welcomes you.  This classic car is the perfect example of the history you’ll find on display throughout the museum. 

A 1911 Car built in Alpena and on display in the front of the Besser Museum in Alpena Mi

We had a great time wandering the street display re-creating the Alpena area of the 1890s.  I love getting a peek at American history in this way.  But if an indoor display isn’t your thing, head out back, where you’ll find a number of historic buildings, including a schoolhouse, a church, and a bank.  These buildings give you another glimpse into Alpena’s past.

Nature and Science

Nature and Science lovers will particularly enjoy the lower level, where you’ll find an extensive collection of taxidermy animals.  All the animals on display come from this region of the state and are artfully displayed.  We loved the bears and the large cats!

An adult woman stands posing next to a large Mountain Lion on Display at the Besser Museum in Alpena, Michigan.
My beautiful daughter Lexi is a cat-lover, so she really liked this large Mountain Lion.
The author with pink hair poses near a taxidermy bear and makes a frightened face
We loved the bears on display and this one seemed like a fun lil guy. Not sure why I posed this way, but hey – at least we were having fun!

Science lovers will enjoy the state-of-the-art planetarium that takes you on a fantastic journey through the stars.  You can learn about the constellations, the planets, and galaxies.  We didn’t find time on our visit to enjoy the planetarium, but reviews are great for the in-house shows, so if you have time, check it out and let me know what you think!

Science, Art, and History Combined

Finally, our favorite part of the Besser Museum was the Lafarge Fossil Park, where you can dig for Devonian fossils and keep what you find.

Making our way out to the fossil park in the hot sun, my daughter and I commented that we probably wouldn’t find much as, most likely, all the good stuff would be gone.  We planned to look for just a few minutes, but it didn’t take long before we were squealing and digging like small children.

We discovered there is no end to the number of fossils you’ll find when you start looking closely.  We got so involved in our digging that we missed closing time for the museum, and the next thing we knew, the manager politely let us know that it was time to go.  She graciously invited us back on another day and let us know that a second fossil area near the front of the museum is open 24/7.

The author stands in the center of a gravel quarry-like area holding up two melon-sized rocks
The author and her adult daughter pose while leaning on a giant Petoskey stone on display at the Besser Museum, one of the things to do in Alpena, Michigan

In summary, if you’re looking for a fun and educational day out in Northeast Michigan, then be sure to check out the Besser Museum!  This remarkable museum has something for everyone, whether you’re visiting during the warmer months of summer or the cooler months of winter.

Dark Sky Parks

If you are a stargazer or photographer or love outdoor activities, you will LOVE the dark sky preserve parks in Alpena.  We spent time at the Rockport State Park Recreation Area, about 20 minutes North of downtown Alpena.

The recreation area has plenty of space to stretch out to observe the night sky.  I brought my camera in anticipation of capturing some gorgeous Milky Way and star trails shots.  Unfortunately, during my visit, the wildfires in Canada and New York State had created a hazy sky, so although we could see some stars, the results were not what I had hoped for. Check out my guide for nighttime photography so you can plan your next dark sky adventure. 

The author is inside her car with a remote shutter and points to the camera outside the car window.
This is one way to beat the bugs when you’re shooting photos at night. Use a remote and place your camera just outside the vehicle with the windows closed.

In addition to the Rockport State Recreation area, check out Negwegon State Park and Thompson’s Harbor State Park.  These parks have been designated as dark sky preserves by the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA) because they have low levels of light pollution, making them ideal for stargazing.

If you have never visited a dark sky park, be ready.  When the ambient light from nearby cities is not a factor, you’ll be able to see more stars and planets than you knew existed.  You might see the Milky Way galaxy if you stick around late enough on a clear night.  Sometimes the Northern Lights will put on a show, and you can quickly lose yourself in the majesty of the night sky.

If you’re looking for a place to stargaze in Alpena, Michigan, check out one of these dark sky parks.  You won’t be disappointed!

Visit the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary

Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary is a hidden gem in the Great Lakes.  This underwater wonderland is home to over 100 shipwrecks, some dating back to the 1800s.  The sanctuary is also home to marine life, including fish, turtles, and otters.

Outdoor adventurers can enjoy camping, swimming, and boating in Thunder Bay.  Rent a kayak or a canoe to explore the shoreline and get up close to some of the shipwrecks beneath the water’s surface in the sanctuary.

Thunder Bay is also known for its excellent fishing.  While visiting, we talked to many locals who spend lots of time fishing around the area, catching many different fish species, including salmon, trout, and walleye.

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NOAA’s Glass Bottom Boat Tour

We were most excited about seeing the shipwrecks in Thunder Bay.  Over 100 shipwrecks have been identified in the region, with over 100 more yet to be identified and marked.  Visitors can explore the shipwrecks by scuba diving, snorkeling, boating, or taking a virtual tour.  We chose a glass-bottom boat tour that sails from behind the Great Lakes Maritime Heritage Center.

The author with her pink hair and pink shirt poses in front of clear blue skies and the open water of Lake Huron
Lake Huron behind me, the sun above me. It’s a beautiful day at sea!
a radar view on a tv screen shows a water chart.
As we looked at the shipwrecks, the crew gave us information and showed images on the boat’s tv screen.
A square fringed in black with a geometric shape in shades of gray.  This is a window looking at the bottom of Lake Huron at a piece of shipwreck.
A clear view of the shipwreck below us. Ghostly….
The Captain and 3 Crew Members pose in front of the Lady Michigan with the author and her daughter. Blue skies behind the boat and tall orange cones are in the forefront.
The Captain and his crew posed with us! Thanks, Captain!
A white beacon floats in blue lake water marking where a shipwreck lies.
A bouy marks the front end of a shipwrecked boat on Lake Huron.
A Boat Captain and two ladies stand in front of the Lady Michigan.
Thanks for the photo, Captain!

The Lady Michigan glass-bottom boat tour is reasonably priced and gave us a 2-hour tour out into the sanctuary, where we cruised over five shipwrecks.  The staff on board was fun, friendly, and very knowledgeable.

The boat slows down at each wreck and has passengers gather around an open bay area on the boat’s lower deck, where windows about 5’ below the bottom of the vessel give a gorgeous view of the wreckage below.  Each ship below the water’s surface has a story; the boat staff told us those stories as we hovered over the site.  Seeing the wreckage is cool, but the most interesting part is hearing the stories of how, when, and why that particular boat sunk.

Great Lakes Maritime Heritage Center

A blue and white building with people walking up the ramp to the entrance.
The NOAA Building that houses the Thunder Bay Marine Center.

After exiting the Lady Michigan, we wandered back through the Great Lakes Maritime Heritage Center.  This museum has exhibits about the history of the sanctuary and its shipwrecks.  Scale models of the ships brought the tragedies of these shipwrecks to life.  And if you’re on a budget, you’ll love the free admission!

Don’t miss the display where you can see artifacts removed (often illegally) from the shipwrecks.  Did you know the best way to preserve a shipwreck is to leave it alone?  It is a felony to remove or disturb artifacts on Great Lakes bottomlands, according to Michigan’s Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy.  See all the details HERE.  So if you plan to snorkel or scuba around these shipwrecks, don’t be tempted to take a lil souvenir home with you.  If you do, you’re breaking the law!

In the center of the Maritime Heritage Center, you’ll find a giant replica of a wooden Great Lakes schooner.  Enter from below to get a glimpse into ship life.  Step up top and feel the power of a Lake Huron storm while you walk the deck, surrounded by a full-sized mural depicting a dark and stormy sky.  Listen closely to hear the thunder rumble and watch the flickers of lightning.

The inside of the Marine Center showing a large wooden schooner replica
The marine center is amazing and so educational and fun!
Pink background with "Hip Grandma Merch" available on front

Explore Nature at Duck Park & Island Park

A wooden sign with the words "DUCK PARK" with trees behind it

Duck Park and Island Park are a nature experience in the city, and we loved it!  Duck Park lies on the shore of the Thunder Bay River and has plenty of space for parking, a picnic area with picnic tables, and a scenic view of Island Park.

As for Island Park, this 17-acre island has hiking and nature trails and a plethora of wildlife-watching opportunities.  The Thunder Bay River lazily winds around the island, which you can reach through a pedestrian bridge.  The bridge is beautiful, built with completely hand-hewn logs and flanked with gorgeous summer flowers.

A wooden, covered pedestrian bridge with a man approaching.
The logs in this bridge were carved by hand.

A hike around the island is the perfect way to rack up some steps on your pedometer ad enjoy nature’s beauty.  Or, if you enjoy fishing, dip your line into the water from the island, where you’ll find fishing platforms along the water’s edge.  Or, if you’d like a mild adventure, consider checking out the island from the water.

Alpena Pedal & Paddle Kayak Rental

I was excited to find Alpena Pedal & Paddle Rentals, located at Duck Park within Alpena’s city limits.  I am a new kayaker, so I’m having a great time exploring new places on the water.  I was terrified to step into a kayak just a year ago, but now I’m having so much fun with it.  Proof that you’re never too old to learn a new hobby.

A small gray storage shed with signage for the Alpena Pedal and Paddle Rental Company
Look for this small barn at Duck Park when you are ready to rent a Kayak.
The author with her pink hair sits atop an orange kayak with a green tree-covered background

The serene Thunder Bay River winds around Island Park and is the perfect place for a novice kayaker to explore using her own paddle power!  I especially loved the kayak launch right near the rental shed.  That launch made getting in and out of the water super easy, which is excellent for new kayakers and more mature kayakers who don’t have the flexibility of their youth.

A Painted turtle suns itself on a gray/white log sticking out of the water
We caught this turtle catching some sun while we paddled.

As we peacefully paddled, we noticed how clear the water was below us.  Greenery packs the water, but it serves a purpose.  It acts as a filter, making the water crystal clear.  As we paddled around the island, we saw a blue heron, a gorgeous swan, and even a turtle sunning on a log.  And all this wildlife is right in the middle of Alpena’s city limits! 

If you’ve never kayaked but want to try it, I highly recommend this great experience!

Rockport Fossil Hunting

A stone and wooden sign sits at the entrance of the Rockport State Recreation Area in Alpena Michigan

You cannot visit the Northern portion of Michigan’s lower peninsula without enjoying a fossil dig.  Hunting rocks and fossils is new to me, but I can safely say I’m hooked on it now that I’ve enjoyed it.

After our trip to the Besser Museum and our mini dig, then a nighttime viewing of the stars at Rockport Recreation Area, it only made sense that we’d return to the now-familiar location to check out the Rockport Quarry, where we could go wild hunting for fossils and treasures!

The author poses in a pink shirt next to a sign that points directions to the Quarry and the sinkhole
We didn’t venture the entire 4 mile round trip to the sinkhole, but we did find the quarry.
a limestone quarry spreads out as far as the eye can see with some tall, spindly greenery sticking up here and there.
We expected a gray empty stone wasteland, so we were surprised to see so much greenery.

Here are my tips for successful fossil hunting in the Rockport Quarry.

Proper Shoes

Beware before you go that you’ll want to wear some comfortable walking shoes, even better, hiking shoes.  You’ll be walking down a long gravel road to reach the quarry, but once you get there, you’ll be stepping on piles of rocks, both large and small.  Thin-soled shoes will get uncomfortable, so protect your feet!

The Best Bucket

We made a side trip to the local Wal-Mart to pick up a bucket for collecting our treasures.  We weren’t sure what size bucket to bring, but we each chose a large sand bucket.  Although we chose our size wisely, we would have chosen a sturdier bucket with a more substantial handle if we had to do it again.

Packing Extras

Because you’ll be hiking over rough terrain, bring some water.  You’ll be glad you did, especially if you go at midday in the summer.  Speaking of summer midday, you might want to bring sunscreen and wear a hat to provide shade.  The quarry is very open, and although trees are all around the outside, the inner area is very open and sunny.

If you have delicate hands or manicured nails, consider wearing garden gloves to protect your hands.  You will be digging through hard rocks.  Finally, if bending over or squatting is tricky for you (it is for me), consider bringing a little folding stool or something to plant your butt on while you dig.

Don’t Forget

Finally, you will need to carry everything you collect back to your vehicle, so if you plan to collect a lot of fossils, it might be worth bringing something on wheels to haul them back.

Hunting for treasures in the quarry was one of our favorite activities on our trip!  We found many cool fossils and rough Petoskey stones, which are relatively common in Northern Michigan.  Stay tuned for pictures of our Petoskey stones all shined up!  If you have no idea what you’re looking for, check out this handy guide from the University of Michigan’s Museum of Paleontology.

The author and her daughter pose while squatting down on a gravel road.
It was hot and we were tired, but we had so much fun!

If you are up for an even bigger adventure, check out the local sinkhole at Rockport Recreation Area, about a 4-mile round trip hike.

Finally, if you want to relax after rock hunting in your air-conditioned car, take a quick road trip up North 23 to visit the Old Presque Isle lighthouse and the New Presque Isle lighthouse.  And just for the sake of education, Presque Isle is pronounced “Press-keel,” which I learned during my visit.  If you want to sound like a local, be sure to let that roll off your tongue like you know what you’re doing. 

Downtown Shopping

You cannot visit Alpena without a leisurely walk through the quaint downtown, where you’ll find a lovely selection of unique and fun shops.  The Culligan Plaza Fountain Square is a beautiful little public space on the downtown corner of Chisolm Street and Second Avenue.  The fountain is refreshing, and you will find plenty of room to sit and rest and enjoy the ambiance of the downtown area.  The Fountain Square is an excellent spot if you need to rest or want to enjoy a picnic lunch in town!

a beautiful summer fountain with flowers on pedestals in the foreground.
Downtown Alpena is very lovely.

We couldn’t help but notice that Alpena is a fan of the arts, with plenty of theaters around town and not all movie theaters.  If you’re here on a rainy day, visit the Sanctuary Theater, which opened in 2023.  If you want to catch a stage performance, check out the Alpena Civic Theater or the State Theater.  The Thunder Bay Theater is temporarily closed due to a fire but plans to rebuild are underway.

If you’re a shopper, check out some of these darling shops in the downtown area:

Regalo Luxury Gifts carries handmade lotions, soaps, and an assortment of unique gift items.

Cedar and Threads has a fun assortment of greeting cards, several featuring hand-quilled designs.  And take your time and sniff all the soaps, lip balms, and bath bombs.  So many fragrances!

Finally, we loved The Local Basket Case, which had an abundant supply of high-quality tees and sweatshirts and some fun local treasures.  They are also home to a magnificent 3-D mural outside their building, which is worth a look. 

Mural Walk

Finally, I love a mural, and Alpena delivers!  While you’re in town, stop at the Visitor Center to get a list of all the murals you’ll find in town. 

Need a Place to Stay in Northeast Michigan?

Wrapping it All Up

One thing is for sure, once you’ve visited Alpena, Michigan, you will surely want to come back.  There is no shortage of exciting activities to fill your days.  Alpena is a great place to learn about the natural world and to enjoy the outdoors.  There is truly something for everyone in this charming city on the shore of Lake Huron.  Have you been?  I’d love to hear about it!

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