The Depot

2021 Guide to the U.S. Coast Guard Festival

Since 1924, U.S. Coast Guard personnel have descended on Grand Haven, Michigan, affectionately known as “Coast Guard City, USA,” to participate in the U.S. Coast Guard Festival that honors the men and women of the U.S. Coast Guard. It is a badge of honor for the small Western Michigan city which earned the designation officially from the U.S. Congress on November 13, 1998.  

The yearly event began as a picnic when a Michigan Coast Guard station held rowing competitions for those stationed in Grand Haven. The picnic, over the years, transformed into the U.S. Coast Guard Festival (around 1937) that provides family friendly activities with a focus on the men and women of the U.S. Coast Guard serving in the West Michigan area, and celebrating the history of the U.S. Coast Guard.

These days, the U.S. Coast Guard Festival has an attendance of more than 350,000 people, according to the Michigan Economic Development Corp. Coast Guard leaders also attend the multi-day event.

Grand Haven was the first city to be designated as “Coast Guard City, USA” by an act of Congress that was signed by President Bill Clinton on November 13, 1998. According to the U.S. Coast Guard, 28 cities now share that designation, but only Grand Haven is host to the U.S. Coast Guard Festival.

In 2020, due to COVID-19, the U.S. Coast Guard Festival was cancelled, but ordinarily there’s a long list of stuff to see and do.

First, who doesn’t love a parade? If you’ve got kids, be sure to check the Kids Parade that includes families, children’s organizations, and marching bands, to name a few. If you’re really a parade fan, then be sure to catch the Coast Guard Grand Parade, one of the largest and most popular parades in Michigan. Nearly 100,000 people crowd downtown Grand Haven to show their appreciation for the men and women of the Coast Guard. It is one of the major draws of the U.S. Coast Guard Festival.

Is all that parade watching making you hungry? Well, there are a lot of opportunities to eat at the U.S. Coast Guard Festival. There’s a variety of food and it’s a lot like visiting a carnival midway. Plus, local eateries are all welcoming and entice you with their bill of fare.

Once you’re done pigging out, work off that elephant ear by running in the annual Coast Guard Run. The race route is beautiful offering incredible views of Lake Michigan and the Grand Haven pier and lighthouse. Not a big runner? No worries, the course lengths vary from a mini obstacle course to one mile, 5K and 10K routes. You can also just cheer on the runners as you slurp down a beverage of choice.

After you’ve cooled off from your run (or from your cheering), check out some of the Coast Guard ships which are available for tours free of charge at the Grand Haven pier. When you’re done chatting with the crews, you can stroll down the street to Grand Haven’s Central Park and visit the hundreds of crafters at the Coast Guard Craft Fair which is an outdoor marketplace of handcrafted goods by some of Michigan’s best craftspersons.

If you didn’t run the Coast Guard Run, try the Walk of Coast Guard History, created to recognize the history of the U.S. Coast Guard and the City of Grand Haven. Each year a historical location is chosen by the U.S. Coast Guard Festival committee and a brass Coast Guard seal is installed at the historical site. The sites are located throughout Grand Haven.

Once the sun goes down, Washington Street in downtown Grand Haven is closed so festival attendees can dance in the street. All types of music can be heard. Lastly, look towards the night sky because the U.S. Coast Guard Festival’s fireworks display is bound to please.

Whether you are in the Coast Guard, celebrating someone who was in the Coast Guard or if you’re just interested in attending a great summer-time event that has something to offer the whole family, make the U.S. Coast Guard Festival a must-see event.