May 2009 Issue
Great Lakes, Great Beaches
Summer sun and sand attract beach lovers to Michigan’s 3,000 miles of coastline.
No one appreciates summer like a Northerner. After a long winter, there is nothing so heavenly as a summer afternoon at the beach.
Summer at the lakeshore is the prize Michiganians and visitors enjoy for tolerating winter’s cruelty. Most beaches boast the same fine, golden sand squeaking underfoot, and whitecaps to wash away the remains of footprints and sandcastles. Some offer people-watching, others lie peacefully abandoned; some are dominated by lighthouses, others by dunes.
But one thing remains constant: With 3,000 miles of coastline to choose from — more than the entire Eastern seaboard — beach-loving Michigan visitors are never more than a couple of hours from paradise.
Saugatuck’s Oval Beach
Ranked one of the nation’s top five beaches by MTV and one of the top 25 shorelines in the world by Condé Nast, Oval Beach hums with beach-goers each summer. Beachside parking leads to a golden strand strewn with beach blankets, sand castles and Frisbee-tossing teenagers.
Located in the village of Saugatuck, Oval Beach appeals most to active beach lovers. A long sandy shelf lies just below Lake Michigan’s waves, attracting families and young people with swimming, wading and sand play. Half a dozen dunes adjoin the parking lot, tempting climbers with a birds-eye view of the lakeshore. Beach vendors sell Hawaiian shaved ice and other snacks, and there’s a bathhouse as well.
When the sun begins to set, head to Saugatuck’s small but pleasant downtown, sprinkled with community gardens and window boxes overflowing with yellow nasturtiums and red geraniums. Quaint boutiques sell beachwear, sandals and locally made crafts. Art galleries feature Saugatuck’s finest watercolors, acrylics and ceramics. Michigan’s local blueberries, peaches and pears fill café menus, and the town’s bars pour locally produced beers and wines.
Oval Drive, Saugatuck, MI 49453. $10/ car weekends, $5/car mid-week. Saugatuck/ Douglas Convention & Visitors Bureau, 269/857-1701. www.saugatuck.com.
Ludington State Park
Even Michiganians, who are accustomed to great beaches, are wowed by Ludington’s miles of pristine shoreline and wild dune vistas. Heading north out of Ludington, M-116 parallels the “Big Lake,” breaking through thick stands of pines to reveal unhindered views of Lake Michigan when the route reaches the water’s edge. To the west, sunlight glints off the water and warms swimmers and sunbathers; to the east stretch miles of sand dunes scattered with sparse dune grass and the occasional weathered pine tree. This is Great Lakes beachfront at its best.
This four-mile stretch of M-116 lies interspersed with half a dozen free beach access areas. If you can find parking, smooth your blanket on this undeveloped expanse of beach paradise and play in the sand, swim or sun yourself free of charge.
Otherwise, head north into Ludington State Park, if for no other reason than to visit the dramatic black-and-white-striped Big Sable Lighthouse. Accessible only via a 1.5-mile beach walk, Big Sable is among Michigan’s most photographed lighthouses. Its lower level includes a small museum and gift shop. Ludington State Park is home to its own Great Lakes beach, as well as three campgrounds and inland Hamlin Lake, with calmer (and warmer) water.
8800 W. Hwy. M-116, Ludington, MI 49431; 800/44-PARKS, 231/843-2423. www.michigandnr.com/parksandtrails. $8/car daily, $29/car annually for nonresidents.
Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore
The Sleeping Bear Dunes are home to some of Michigan’s highest dunes and some of its most spectacular scenery. Most visitors explore the park via the 7.5-mile Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive, which meanders through hardwood forest and over rolling dunes. At the end of the trip is a 450-foot bluff providing breathtaking views of Lake Michigan and the surrounding lakeshore.
Swimming at the base of this bluff is difficult. Making the nearly two-mile trip straight down rarely causes problems, but the strenuous three-to-four-hour climb back to the car at the end of a swim is exhausting. Instead, swim at Platte River Point at the south end of the park for easy Lake Michigan access and views of the Sleeping Bear Dunes.
The Sleeping Bear Dunes are also popular with backpackers and outdoor enthusiasts, who crisscross the park’s 100 miles of trails on foot. The Cottonwood Trail is among the most popular, a one-and-a-half-mile loop that features Great Lakes flora and fauna and colorful wildflower beds. The almost three-mile Sleeping Bear Point Trail has similar plant life.
The park is also home to the ghost town of Glen Haven, which once housed a cherry and apple canning factory.
Explore the abandoned buildings and tour a small museum before checking out Glen Haven Beach, another perfect spot for swimming and sunbathing.
9922 Front St., Empire, MI 49630, 231/326-5134. www.nps.gov/slbe. $10/car allows unlimited access for one week.
Petoskey State Park
In the late 1800s, the town of Petoskey encompassed little more than Bay View, a Methodist summer camp that occupied the city’s lakeshore. Vacationers headed north to enjoy summers cooled by Lake Michigan breezes, the shade of hardwood trees and the beaches that would one day become Petoskey State Park.
Petoskey State Park continues to draw vacationers, and can be accessed from Petoskey via paved bicycle trail or car. The park’s one-mile golden swimming beach includes picnic and playground areas as well as hiking trails that lead up the beloved dune Old Baldy. The beach is also scattered with Petoskey stones, smooth, freshwater coral fossils whose gray surfaces reveal the 350-million-year-old corals only when wet. Hunting for Petoskey stones, found only in this region of Michigan, is among the most popular pastimes at Petoskey State Park.
In the evenings, summer vacationers continue to enjoy the 19th-century landmark Bay View Inn. But Petoskey has evolved into a thriving resort community, filled with independent shops, marinas and fine dining. The town’s century-old Gaslight District offers dozens of independent boutiques and galleries. And several championship golf courses lie within an easy drive of town.
2475 Hwy. M-119, Petoskey MI 49770, 800/44-PARKS, 231/347-2311. www.michigandnr.com/parksandtrails. $8/car daily, $29/car annually for nonresidents.
Mackinac Island State Park
Set between Michigan’s upper and lower peninsulas, Mackinac Island is one of Michigan’s loveliest destinations, at every turn offering views of crystalline water, pastel Victorian summer homes and the graceful white towers of Mackinac Bridge.
Eighty percent of Mackinac Island is designated a state park. But unlike most Michigan state parks, this one offers no good swimming beaches —a stony lake bottom and frigid Lake Huron waters see to that. Instead, enjoy a beachside picnic, skip stones and enjoy unforgettable views of the lake and Mackinac Bridge.
The island’s unspoiled terrain and its ban on motorized vehicles make it a perfect destination to explore on bicycles, which can be rented downtown on Main Street. Head for M-185, or Lake Shore Road, an eight-mile route encircling the island. The flat, smooth route hugs the shoreline and is easily traveled by even young family members. The road passes Fort Mackinac, whose history includes a significant battle in the War of 1812. Other famous landmarks include Arch Rock and the Grand Hotel. The hotel’s colonnaded 660-foot front porch is the world’s longest.
At day’s end, head to the beach again, the only place where you can watch the sun rise over one Great Lake and set over another.
Visitors Center, Main Street (across from Marquette Park), Mackinac Island MI 49757, 906/847-3328 (May-Oct.), 231/436-4100 (year-round). www.mackinacparks.com. No admission charge.