“I don’t think I know how to be a lake person.”
The words spilled out of my mouth during a conversation with my husband as we drove toward Houghton Lake, the destination for our end-of-summer #MittenTrip. As someone who didn’t grow up in Michigan, I couldn’t quite grasp the concept of what it meant to “spend summers on the lake.” The idea was intriguing, but I didn’t really know where to start. Did I need to be a pro fisher? Would I have to take up waterskiing?
Determined to learn what a weekend of living in Houghton Lake would look like, I put aside my preconceived notions and got ready for a weekend of exploring Michigan’s largest inland lake.
After grabbing a late breakfast and hitting the road, my husband, Brad, and I arrived in the Houghton Lake area around mid-afternoon. A perfect, 73 degrees-and-sunny day greeted us, so we rolled down the windows and took a preliminary cruise around the lake. Almost immediately, I noticed the sweetest floral smell floating through the air.
“Does the whole town smell like honeysuckle?!” I wondered out loud.
Of course, Brad was no more an expert than I, but as we drove around for the next quarter of an hour, the flowery fragrance followed us the whole way. Houghton Lake, I don’t know what it is or how you do it, but you are the prettiest-smelling place I’ve ever visited.
We stopped at a public boat launch to get a close-up view of the lake, and I was immediately won over by the sound of cool, clear water washing against the shore. Knowing we’d have plenty of time by the water that weekend, we hopped in the car and set off to explore the plethora of antique, thrift, and novelty shops in town.
After treasure hunting at a few local spots, we succumbed to hunger and stopped at Joe’s Coney for a late-afternoon lunch. A favorite among locals, Joe’s is known for its Detroit-style coney dogs (they serve up Koegels—my favorite!). I opted for the Joe’s Special, a regular coney with seasoned ground beef. Delicious!
Next, we crossed the road to check out the wonderfully kitschy Rockin’ Chair Gift Shop. This place offers more than just souvenirs—it’s a picture-taking goldmine for tourists! Outside, you’ll find painted walls with face cutouts, life-size animal statues, a Santa Claus, and lots of Native American-themed décor.
After snapping a thousand photos and resisting a new pair of moccasins, we continued along the lake toward Prudenville, where we stumbled upon Bart’s Fruit Market. A lovely indoor/outdoor produce store that offered fresh Michigan fruit, locally-made pies and candies, Bart’s reminded me of the produce stands my family and I frequented while I grew up in Virginia. The cashiers were friendly, the produce was fresh, and there was an awesome selection! We purchased a couple of peaches and a container of chocolate-covered peanuts, then drove back up the road to check in to our hotel and spend time by the water.
Sitting on a dock behind the hotel, we enjoyed the tranquility of Houghton Lake and a sky so clear and blue, it almost didn’t look real. Slowly, I began to understand that maybe this was what life at the lake was all about. And then I gave myself permission to lose track of time.
As the sun dropped lower in the sky, we knew that it was time to wake up (at least a little) for our evening plans. We decided on a movie at The Pines Theatre, which has been in business since 1941. Specially designed to look like a hunting cabin, The Pines was filled with animal trophies, a fireplace, and other unique touches that really drove home the feeling of being “Up North.” After our late lunch, Brad and I decided to forego dinner and instead filled up on popcorn and soda. It was the perfect end to an evening and a great start to our weekend.
Our plan to spend Saturday on the lake was derailed after waking up to rain, so we switched gears and opted for a day exploring the nearby Higgins Lake area. With umbrellas in tow, we fueled up on breakfast at The Landmark, a cozy, homestyle eatery situated in a Higgins Lake neighborhood. Next, we followed our GPS to North Higgins Lake State Park, where we spent a nice chunk of time checking out the Civilian Conservation Corps Museum (CCC). Here, we learned how over 100,000 young men were fed, sheltered, and employed by the CCC to improve Michigan’s forests during the Great Depression.
Craving more outdoor time, we drove down the road to check out the water at Higgins Lake. Selfishly pleased by the lack of crowds on that misty morning, I strolled along the sandy shoreline while Brad did a little dock fishing. Higgins Lake, we found, appeared to be surrounded by more forested areas than Houghton Lake, which was largely encompassed by homes and businesses. I loved that the two were so close in proximity, yet still unique in their own characteristics.
That day, the Houghton Lake Chamber of Commerce hosted Hubs ‘n Pubs, a classic car show that attracted auto enthusiasts from near and far. Coincidentally, Brad is also a huge car geek, so it was a given that we’d attend. The rain didn’t stop this annual show from filling up, and we enjoyed drooling over dozens of beautifully restored, colorful automobiles (a welcome contrast to cloudy skies!).
Working up an appetite, we ventured from Prudenville to the top of Houghton Lake, where we stopped in for sandwiches and live music at Northshore Lounge. Filled with outgoing “regulars,” this place was filled with groups of friends and family who all knew one another. This communal focus on people, I realized, was another key component to “living the lake life.”
Later that afternoon, we treated ourselves to a game of miniature golf at Lakeland Recreation, a local park that also offers go-kart racing, batting cages, and arcade games. The putt-putt course was huge and filled with fun, Michigan-themed obstacles, including lighthouses and synthetic grass cut into the shape of the Mitten State. It was definitely a go-to activity for a drizzly day at the lake, as lots of families and couples were out on the AstroTurf that afternoon.
After my excellent putt-putt skills failed me (I lost), we made our way to Trestle Park, an historic site named for the logging railroad train trestle that stood there during the 19th century. Today, the park incorporates a nice playground, lots of historical markers, artifacts, and an awesome railroad mural—all with a great view on the edge of Houghton Lake.
That evening, we followed the advice of the entire Internet and went out for pizza at Buccilli’s. The restaurant was extremely crowded, but there were multiple dining rooms so we were seated right away. Admittedly, our pizza did take a while to hit the table, but the atmosphere was comfortable and our food was amazing, so we didn’t even mind. Boxing up our leftovers, we followed up with dessert at The Custard Cup. Brad raved about the chocolate/vanilla swirl, while I went with an equally awesome, hand-dipped cone that featured ice cream from House of Flavors. Needless to say, we were both happy campers.
Sunday promised clearer skies for boating, but when Brad and I settled in for breakfast at Little Boots Country Diner, the sun had yet to reveal itself. Mulling over our options for the day, we enjoyed a delicious meal of southern-inspired food and considered the risks/benefits of taking a chance on the weather.
The moment we finished our breakfasts and asked for the check, however, we were greeted with an unexpected surprise: the clouds rolled back and the sun came out. Brad smiled like a kid on Christmas morning. We were going out on the lake after all.
Securing a pontoon rental for the afternoon, we set out on Houghton Lake with our fishing poles and swim gear. Not five minutes from the time we left the dock, true story—Brad stopped the boat, threw his line in the water, and caught a bass on his first try. I caught nothing the whole day, so my attention was better focused on taking photos and catching up on my reading. I did redeem myself, however, when Brad let me drive the boat all by myself. I’m basically a pro now, as long as someone’s there to tell me what all the buttons do.
Halfway through the day, we docked at The Limberlost and ate burgers atop the outdoor balcony. I loved being able to get off the boat, grab lunch, then head back to the lake without having to drive back into town. The view from the restaurant was awesome, too—no wonder The Limberlost is such a popular hangout!
Back on the boat, we decided that we couldn’t call it a day without jumping in the water. Driving out a little bit, we found a clear spot in the sun and gradually lowered ourselves into the shallow lake. I wont lie—it was cold! After a minute, though, we adjusted to the lake temperature and enjoyed swimming around in the clear water. I was also pleasantly surprised to feel soft sand beneath my feet, a contrast to the rocky and/or mucky lake I was expecting.
As the day drew to a close, we admired some of the most beautiful, sparkling water reflections we’d seen in a while and climbed back on the boat to head back. This was when I really started to understand how big Houghton Lake was—I actually had time to take a short nap on the way back to the marina! After packing up the car, we made one last visit to The Custard Cup (I tried the chocolate custard this time—so good!), then spent a few minutes watching osprey at the Houghton Lake Flats before heading down the interstate. Finally, the biggest realization of all hit me.
“Life on the lake” isn’t meant to be described; it’s meant to be experienced. Small towns, good food, your favorite people, and some of the most beautiful scenery nature has to offer—those are things that even an “outsider” like me can wholeheartedly appreciate.
What do summers on the lake mean to you? Do you have fond memories of Houghton Lake and the surrounding area? Comment below!
Explored and written by Jennifer Bowman for the Awesome Mitten.