Anchors Aweigh in the Great Lakes State
Having lived most of my life in Michigan, I am guilty of taking our abundance of lakes for granted. We have two geographical bragging rights as Michiganders: our hands serve as local maps and we have access to North America’s largest source of fresh water.
Even our state name’s origin is brag-worthy: “Michigan” means large lake. With all of these beautiful waterways at our disposal, there is no shortage of boating opportunities for families to experience our namesake.
Southwest Michigan provides many exciting ways to enjoy boating through historic tours and boat rides. Kids will love to cruise Lake Michigan on a historic tall ship, travel down a scenic river on a paddleboat, or tour a World War II Landing Ship Tank.
Read on for our favorite ways to take to the local waters.
Set Sail with These 8 Boat Ride Options for Families
We’ve rounded up eight options for guided boat cruises, car ferries and boat rentals to explore some of Michigan’s most scenic waterways.
Before you set sail, we suggest verifying the following: minimum age requirements, outside food/beverage policies, payment options (some are cash or card only) and cancellation rules (some go rain or shine; others will reschedule).
Guided Boat Cruises
The Michigan Maritime Museum in South Haven offers free museum admission when you purchase a ride on any of their boat excursions. Our favorites include the Friends Good Will (1810 replica sloop) and the Lindy Lou (river launch replica). Kids, ages four and older, will enjoy the Pirate Chaser Sail.
Boat Trip (FGW): 1.5 – 2 hours, (Lindy Lou): 1 hour | Departure City: South Haven
Travel from the Kalamazoo River to Lake Michigan aboard the Star of Saugatuck. This authentic sternwheel paddleboat trip is offered as either a daytime or sunset adventure that includes a narrated tour. Kids will enjoy the animals: passengers frequently see foxes, bald eagles, and deer. A cash-only snack bar is available onboard (no outside food or beverages). The upper deck is open and the lower deck is enclosed.
Boat Trip: 1.5 hours | Departure City: Saugatuck
Tour beautiful Lake Macatawa into Lake Michigan on the Holland Princess. This 65-foot paddlewheel riverboat offers dinner and lunch cruises or private charters for events. Children can take a turn on the karaoke machine and pick a prize from the captain’s treasure chest.
Boat Trip: 2 hours | Departure City: Holland
The Aquastar tours Muskegon Lake for just under two hours. Cruises typically run twice daily (afternoon and sunset); private charters also available. Check weekends for themed cruises, including luaus and pirate cruises. Kids (10 and under) ride for free with a paid adult during the afternoon/sunset cruises.
Boat Trip: 1.75 hours | Departure City: Muskegon
Sea Rocket Adventures promises a high-speed destination cruise along Lake Michigan. Based out of New Buffalo near the Indiana border, their company offers forty-minute narrated rides that feature historical facts, music and humor. (Riders must be at least three years old).
Boat Trip: 40 minutes | Departure City: New Buffalo
Captain for a Day
Want to take the wheel? Travel back in time with Retro Boat Rentals in Saugatuck and cruise along the Kalamazoo River. They offer vintage-style boats for rent with fun chrome details, retro colors, and quiet, electric motors.
Pack up the kids (they ride for free if 16 or under) and some snacks for a comfortable cruise along the water. Some of the boats allow you to anchor and swim or bring your dog!
Boat Trip: 1.5 – 3 hours | Departure City: Saugatuck
Ever think it would be faster to get to Wisconsin if you could just drive across the lake? The SS Badger car ferry carries not only passengers, but you guessed it – vehicles! After leaving the Ludington port, in a mere four hours, you will arrive in Manitowoc, Wisconsin.
Seem like a long time on a boat? This ferry is prepared for families: free movies, television, Badger Bingo, and kids’ activities are all available during your trip. Food and beverages are available for purchase (outside coolers must remain in your vehicle).
Boat Trip: 4 hours | Departure City: Ludington
Historic Ship Tours
The Great Lakes have been home to many historic ships over the years. Thankfully, several of these have been restored and offer tours to experience nautical history first hand. All three of these fun options are located in Muskegon.
World War II history buffs will love exploring one of the last two Landing Ship Tanks. LST 393 is a veterans museum that offers tours of this 1942 vessel. The museum has artifacts and exhibits that honor all military services as well as America’s war dogs. Tip: strollers are permitted, but will be restricted to the tank deck (other levels require using ladders or steep stairs).
Visit a World War II submarine, the USS Silversides. This vessel earned 12 battle stars and is credited with sinking 23 ships. If a day tour isn’t long enough, they offer overnight stays. Kids will also enjoy the Submarine Tech Class, where they can build their own submarines in teams.
Also in Muskegon, stop by the SS Milwaukee Clipper and tour this 1904 vessel during the summer. This ship is the oldest passenger steamship on the Great Lakes and carried passengers from Muskegon to Milwaukee. Visitors will enjoy exploring this old ferry ship (built 8 years before the Titanic) which features a movie theater, ballroom and art deco interior.
Any other boating excursions for families in Southwest Michigan? We want to know. Drop us a line in the comments.