Summer Escapes along Michigan's Southwest Shore
Along Lake Michigan’s scenic shoreline, check out these beaches, dunes and small towns, each with a character all its own.
At St. Joseph's Silver Beach County Park, water and sand have to compete for attention. In the splash park, kids drench one another with water cannons. Walkers stop to consider modern art at the sand's edge. And on a vintage carousel, laughing riders cling to fanciful hand-carved mounts. Seventy-six stairs up the bluff, downtown eateries, such as the Rooftop at RyeBelles, serve up artisanal pizza and other dishes, plus memorable lake views.
Twenty-five miles northeast in South Haven, a town of about 4,000 at the mouth of the Black River, Stephanie Steenbergen sips coffee on the porch of her family's beach house just a Frisbee toss from Lake Michigan.
"We came to South Haven for a weekend when our first child was born 15 years ago and fell in love with it," the Glenview, Illinois, resident says. "The sand in the street, the kids running around, the little sno-cone hut-so nice."
On summer days, views of the lake often include the masts of the 101-foot-long sailing ship Friends Good Will, which cruises from Riverfront Park's Michigan Maritime Museum. It's often full of kids armed with plastic swords, just in case pirates show up.
During afternoon breaks in town, there's no missing that you're in the heart of blueberry country. As the nation's leading producer of the berries, Michigan harvests more than 30 varieties each year. That means, of course, that visits to picturesque shops such as The Blueberry Store are always fruitful.
A half-hour north, Holland seems to provide options for almost everything. Lake Michigan or adjacent Lake Macatawa. An iconic lighthouse or a Dutch windmill. A European Alps-style restaurant (AlpenRose) or a Dutch meal (de Boer Dutch Brothers Restaurant). The earliest visitors start arriving in May for the legendary Tulip Festival, which brings hundreds of thousands of visitors for parades, carnivals, stage performances and more.
One of the shore's best overnight beach experiences comes at Grand Haven State Park (a half-hour north of Holland), where RVs park a few steps from the sand, and food trucks and tailgating campers tempt the senses. Volleyball courts stay busy on summer nights, and campers can take a trolley to Chinook Pier and the Boardwalk for miniature golf, shopping or beach supplies.
An hour north of Holland, dune lore and more keynote Muskegon's Hoffmaster State Park. Guided hikes and presentations teach visitors about the towering dunes that fill 3 miles of shoreline. Amenities include camping areas and a compact but comfortable beach.
"We have beaches in New Jersey, but they're not like Lake Michigan," says Miriam Diephouse-McMillan, back home in the Mitten for a beach reunion with her sisters. "Fresh water is nice to swim in, and there are fewer critters like crabs and sharks."
Farther north at Ludington State Park, 22 miles of trails explore the largest of lower Michigan's state parks, which covers about 5,300 acres. Visitors rent canoes and pedal boats on Hamlin Lake, and Big Sable Point Light is a landmark for freighters, fishermen and hikers. For $5, you can climb the lighthouse's 130 steps for a look.
Just about where the ring finger would end in the Mitten sits one of the shoreline's most-loved destinations: Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore on the Leelanau Peninsula. The best way for first-timers to experience the 71,000-acre park near Glen Arbor is to follow Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive, which winds through sandy forest and steep-sided dunes, including a 450-foot giant that presents a straight sight line down to Lake Michigan. The warning signs aren't kidding when they say not to go down it. Many people take two hours getting back up-or wind up footing the bill for their own rescue.
Hiking through the dune grass and dune cherry-fringed trails that trace ridgetops, Lisa Agle and her father, Chuck, reflect on the quiet dignity of the dunes. "It's amazing to think that these dunes were made by glaciers in the ice age," Lisa says. "It makes you feel small when you see these enormous things."
Thirty minutes south of the dunes in tiny Beulah on the shore of Crystal Lake, visitors and locals throng the Cherry Hut restaurant, which opened in 1922. "I'm a fourth-generation waitress," vacationing college student Rachel Niesen says as she serves fresh cherry pie in her crisp red-checked uniform. "My grandmother even met my grandfather here."
Just outside the national lakeshore's border, The Homestead resort nestles almost invisibly among the forested dunes a short walk from Lake Michigan. The central resort village features a spa, shopping, bike rentals, a gym and sumptuous dining at Nonna's Ristorante. The resort features both a par-3 golf course and a full course designed by Arnold Palmer.
After dinner, guests gravitate toward sunset views on the resort's private beach. As families fall silent, silhouetted paddleboarders pause, bobbing on gentle waves suddenly ablaze in another day's final glow on Michigan's Sunset Coast.
A Day at the Dunes
Hike Thirteen trails include options such as a stroll to Good Harbor Bay or a 3-mile trek to Sleeping Bear Point, which carries hikers across dunes and through a ghost forest of dead trees to a Lake Michigan overlook.
Bike The paved 16-mile Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail connects Empire and Port Oneida. Make a stop at a working general store and blacksmith shop in the restored 1920s village of Glen Haven.
Climb Run up a 110-foot-high sand dune for views of Glen Lake before tumbling down the Dune Climb. Parking and a picnic area sit at the base of the climb (on M-109, 5 miles north of Empire).
Paddle The shallow 6-mile Crystal River flows from Glen Lake to Lake Michigan (kayak and canoe rentals in Glen Arbor). The serene Lower Platte flows through Loon Lake before reaching Lake Michigan (rentals at M-22 bridge).
For more information on Michigan adventures, visit michigan.org.