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One of Michigan's little-known vacation hotspots is Muskegon Lake. Lake Muskegon, as it is sometimes called, has been a major port on the eastern Lake Michigan shoreline for more than 150 years. The mile-long Muskegon River channel connects Muskegon Lake to Lake Michigan. The cities of Muskegon and North Muskegon have been known as powerhouses of industry since the mid-1800s. Largely because of its industrial past, Muskegon Lake has seldom been thought of as a tourism destination - a mistake that increasing numbers of visitors are rectifying. Muskegon Lake was a sought-after resort community around the turn of the last century. And, people are finally discovering that the 4,232-acre lake still holds its historic charm.
"Muskegon" is derived from the Ottawa Indian term "Masquigon" meaning "marshy river or swamp". The lake and surrounding wetlands are considered vital parts of the coastal wetlands of the Great Lakes. Muskegon Lake is noted for its water-borne fun: more than one yacht club calls the lake 'home port'. Sailing is a favorite here, as are power boating, water skiing, kite-boarding, pontooning and paddle sports. With 13 marinas and seven launch sites, Muskegon Lake offers plenty of access to visiting lakelubbers. Sailboat races and regattas are held regularly in the warmer months. Fishing is a favored activity on Muskegon Lake. Besides the highly-recommended walleye fishery, the lake offers up northern pike, largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, bluegill, crappie, Chinook salmon, brown trout, lake trout and catfish. The fishing never stops, even in winter, when the 'hard water' enthusiasts flock to the ice. Those wishing to cast for the really big ones can charter a fishing boat out of Muskegon onto Lake Michigan. The Muskegon River upstream is a favorite for paddle aficionados, with much of the river available to canoeing and kayaking along with river bank campsites. Bear Lake, with 415 acres lies just north of Muskegon Lake and can be reached by channel.
As for swimming, the city of Muskegon provides several public parks with access to water and swim areas, including Kruse Park, advertised as Michigan's only 'dog beach'. Two large public beaches on Lake Michigan are located on both sides of the Muskegon River Channel: Muskegon State Park north of the channel and city-owned Pere Marquette Park south of the channel. The two-and-a-half mile beach at Pere Marquette is designated one of the cleanest beaches on the Great Lakes. And, Harbour Towne Beach is located on Muskegon Lake on the south side of the channel. Muskegon County contains nearly a dozen Lake Michigan public beaches, so water access is always at hand. One of the better-know is P J Hoffmaster State Park, just south of Muskegon at Norton Shores.
Muskegon offers much for visitors to enjoy: many historic homes are available for tours. The restored Frauenthal Theater has evolved into the Frauenthal Theater for the Performing Arts and hosts visiting artists and a regular concert series. It is the home of the West Michigan Symphony Orchestra. Muskegon Museum of Art joins several galleries in delighting the discerning eye, while antique shops abound. The Lakeshore Museum Center maintains several historic properties, including an 1875 fire station. Probably the best known is the Great Lakes Naval Memorial and Museum with its WWII submarine, the USS Silversides, and the USCGC McLain, a Prohibition-era Coast Guard cutter that saw enemy action in WWII. Warship buffs can even arrange sleep-over duty on one of the ships. Also, the USS LST393, docked at the waterfront, holds a veteran's museum; the SS Milwaukee Clipper, built in 1904, provides tours of a passenger cruise ship with a long and varied history. Those wishing to take a modern-day cruise can either book the Port City Princess for a cruise around Muskegon Lake or a longer trip into Lake Michigan. And, for the most up-to-date water travel, the Lake Express High Speed Ferry can transport both autos and passengers to Milwaukee in two-and-a-half hours.
For more active adventures, the Muskegon Luge and Outdoor Sports Complex at Muskegon State Park offers a wheel luge run in summer. The City of Muskegon Lakeshore Trail provides a paved pathway for walking or bicycling along most of the lake's south shore. The Musketawa, meandering 26 miles from Muskegon to Marne, opens up the countryside for hiking, cross-country skiing, horseback riding and snowmobiling. Those wishing less strenuous activity can enjoy the Muskegon Lake Nature Preserve with the Al Bell Trail, the Fred Wilder Observation Tower and the Wilder River Walk. And as a drawing card for children, Michigan's largest amusement park and water park is only 20 miles away.
Beautiful Muskegon Lake lies at the mouth of the Muskegon River before it enters Lake Michigan. The river itself, Michigan's second longest, played a major role in the development of Muskegon during the logging era. Because Muskegon Lake provided an excellent sheltered natural port and the river provided a method of log transport, Muskegon quickly became the heart of the Michigan timber industry. At one point, 47 sawmills dotted its shores. A number of lumber barons earned their fortunes cutting, selling and shipping the products of Michigan's vast forests. Noted for their philanthropy and civic pride, these same business tycoons contributed generously to education and the arts, building a fine metropolis along Muskegon Lake's shores. Many of the ornate homes and buildings have been restored to provide bed-and-breakfast establishments and urban living for resident professionals.
The protected harbor was excellent for industrial shipping; however, the natural outlet of the Muskegon River to Lake Michigan had a propensity toward shifting sand, causing seriously shallow areas. Because ships were often stranded due to the shallow river outlet, Congress finally authorized funds to enlarge and dredge the river to better accommodate shipping in the 1860s. This rich shipping history is reflected in the fact that Muskegon Lake itself holds two navigational lighthouses, and the entrance supports four more: two on the North and South breakwaters and two on the north and south banks of the channel entrance to Muskegon Lake. The former Coast Guard light station on the channel has been restored and is the home of the Great Lakes Environmental Research Facility-Lake Michigan Field Station.
The Port of Muskegon supplied much of the timber for rebuilding after the devastating fires of 1871, including the Great Chicago Fire. The timber resources were eventually used up, and Muskegon moved on to develop other industries, such as paper mills and the building of tanks during WWII. Most heavy industry has since moved away, and local residents have obtained funds to complete clean-up of polluted sediments to further restore the lake to optimum health.
By the late 1800s, Lake Michigan Park became a famed destination of vacationers and day visitors who flocked to the resorts built near the shore. An amusement park, dance hall and other attractions kept tourists arriving in a steady stream. Around 1900, an actor's colony of sorts developed along Lake Michigan in the area of the current Pere Marquette Park. Famed silent film actor and director Buster Keeton lived here summers as did a number of vaudeville stars and stage acts. By 1938, the Actor's Colony had faded; lake tourism had changed. Parks now provide the best options for visitors to enjoy the lakefront. And the Muskegon Lake area provides them in great abundance.
Visitors wishing to enjoy this little-known watery paradise will find all types of vacation accommodations, including resort hotels, cottages and private homes for rental. Camping is permitted at both of the state parks along Lake Michigan but may require prior reservations on busy weekends. Real estate on the lakefront is available for a surprisingly economical price. And new condos, lofts and townhouses overlooking Muskegon Lake can often be found. So, hook up the boat trailer, and pack the kids and the car. Discover Muskegon Lake this year. You'll wonder why you didn't find it before!
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