Classic Roads: Michigan's River Road National Scenic Byway
The Au Sable River, which flows 138 miles through Michigan’s Huron National Forest on its way to Lake Huron, packs plenty of history. The “River of Sand” is a designated National Wild and Scenic River, and River Road, which twists along the southern banks of the Au Sable from the town of Oscoda to M-65, is a designated National Scenic Byway. The roads leading to River Road aren’t slouches either. U.S. 23 feeds River Road from the north and south at Oscoda and was declared a Huron Shores Heritage Route in 2007.
Riders coming from the west can sampleM-72, a Scenic Heritage Route from Grayling to Mio along the south banks of the Au Sable. From Mio, those who wish to bevel their knee sliders can switch to the northside of the river and follow the contortions of F-32 east as it twists and plunges with the river en route to M-65 at Glennie.
As River Road travels from Oscoda to the west, it features many parks, monuments, scenic overlooks, and other stopping points that lure you off the pavement every five miles. My suggestion is to take in as many attractions as possible. The Au Sable began as a main water route during the logging boom of the 19th century but now offers river cruises, fly fishing events, and a world-famous 120-mile, two-day canoe race from Grayling to Oscoda. The annual Au Sable River Canoe Marathon, dubbed “One of the Greatest Canoe Races on Earth,” started in 1947 and draws contestants from as far away as Australia.
Traffic on River Road, M-65, F-32, and M-72is usually very light and pavement conditions are excellent with plenty of curves and elevation changes. Traffic on U.S. 23 can get hectic on weekends. Huron National Forest routes are best ridden from May through October, with July, August, and September offering prime riding weather. Because of harsh winters, most attractions are open May through October.
Tawas Point Lighthouse
This lighthouseon Lake Huron at East Tawas was put into operation in 1876 and is now on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places. Before authorities stepped in and switched it to an optic beacon in 2015, this was one of the last operating lights to use a Fresnel lens. The lighthouse features daily tours and a museum. If you have ambitions of becoming a lighthouse keeper, you can also pay for the privilege of staying onsite and acting as the keeper for a week or two.
Fifteen miles west of Oscoda stands a bronze monument dedicated to the workers of Michigan’s early logging industry. This 14-foot statue of three loggers was designed and cast in 1931 by New York artist Robert Ingersoll Aitken. The park that houses the statue has free admission, a visitor center, a scenic river overlook, and a museum.
Au Sable River Queen
Six miles west of Oscoda the only paddlewheel river boat in northern Michigan is docked at Foote Dam. The River Queen offers two hour excursions up the river with musical entertainment and unspoiled views of the wilderness in Huron State Forest.
Ma Deeters Restaurant & Tavern
Dating back almost 100 years to the original logging days, this Michigan landmark must be sampled. Located in the old logging town of Luzerne, the establishment was opened in 1921 by Anna (“Ma Deeter”) and William Deeter to offer meals and lodging to loggers. The original establishment claimed to be the largest commercial log building east of the Mississippi. Unfortunately, it burned to the ground in 2015 and Ma Deeters is now housed in a new, one-story log structure.
This monument is dedicated to participants, volunteers, and supporters of the 70-year-old canoe race on the Au Sable. Built in 1968, it had to be replaced in 1982 when a driver slid off a slick River Road in the winter and demolished it.