The nearly 500 miles of pristine freshwater beaches that stretch along the shoreline of Lake Michigan have drawn visitors for generations. The east shore of Lake Michigan, which stretches from Berrien County north to the Straits of Mackinac, is the largest freshwater dune system in the world. With towering sands that rise several hundred feet above the lake, there are countless locales to soak up the sun during the day and then watch it set across the western horizon as night falls.
Ottawa Beach, Holland
Ottawa Beach is divided into two distinct units, each with its own campground—one along Lake Michigan and the other along Lake Macatawa. A dune-walk stairway and hiking trail through the Lake Macatawa Unit provide access to Ottawa Beach. Kayak, canoe, and stand-up paddleboard rentals are available at the Macatawa Boathouse for those wishing to get out on the water.
In addition to expansive sugar sand beaches, the park features picnic tables, beach volleyball courts, fire pits and grills, a beach house, a pier, and historic Holland Harbor’s “Big Red” Lighthouse. The Ottawa County bike trail also runs through the park, connecting to 25 miles of paved roadside trails.
Ludington State Park, Ludington
Nestled between the shores of Lake Michigan and Hamlin Lake, Ludington State Park sprawls out for nearly 5,300 acres with several miles of sandy shoreline.
The park’s noted historic site is the Big Sable Point Lighthouse, constructed in 1867. Accessible by walking about two miles along the beach, this is one of more than 110 lighthouses found along the Lake Michigan Circle Tour route.
Ludington State Park also offers three modern campgrounds with a combined 355 campsites; ponds, marshlands, and forests; an outdoor wooded amphitheater; 18-miles of hiking and biking trails; and an official Michigan Wildlife Viewing Area.
Depot Beach, Charlevoix
Named after Pierre Francois Xavier de Charlevoix—the French explorer who was said to have spent the night in the area during a harsh storm in the early 1700s—this Lake Michigan shoreline community has been flourishing as a summer tourist destination for nearly 140 years.
Today, Depot Beach continues to welcome locals and visitors who wish to get off the beaten path and enjoy the warmer waters of Lake Charlevoix. Stretching out adjacent to the historic depot, the beach area offers a covered pavilion, picnic areas, playground equipment, and a small beach monitored seasonally by lifeguards.
Silver Beach – St. Joseph
For more than 100 years, vacationers have flocked to Silver Beach in St. Joseph for the sugar-sand beaches that stretch for 2,450 feet along the freshwater shoreline. In the early years, the Silver Beach Amusement Park graced this space, offering family-friendly activities that would last all day long and into the evening.
Today, new generations can enjoy the Silver Beach Carousel, walk the pier to the historic range lights, look into Michigan’s tallest kaleidoscope and watch the colorful changing patterns, and then settle in on the beach to watch the sunset reflecting on the shimmering waters of Lake Michigan.
Mount Baldhead – Saugatuck
Perched proudly in downtown Saugatuck, Mount Baldhead is a 600-foot-tall sand dune that overlooks Lake Michigan to the west and the Kalamazoo River to the east. Atop this bluff, a large white ball still stands—a former World War II radar station that was established to detect planes coming over the Great Lakes. Today, it is most commonly used by boaters as a location marker as they travel the local waterways.
While in the area, be sure to check out the award-winning Oval Beach, take a dune ride or a riverboat excursion, and then plan to trek a mere 300 or so steps to the top of Mount Baldhead’s summit for breathtaking views that stretch out for miles in all directions.
Grand Haven State Park
After a day of exploring downtown Grand Haven, head west along the Grand River boardwalk toward the expansive 48-acre State Park. The park, consisting entirely of beach sand, provides scenic views of Lake Michigan and the Grand Haven pier and range lights. During the summer, head back to the channel for the nightly presentation of the “World’s Largest Musical Fountain” on Dewey Hill. If your visit is in the winter, stay parked in your car and take in Mother Nature’s sunset show or bundle up and go for a walk along the snow-covered beach.
Silver Lake Sand Dunes – Mears
One of the largest deposits of living dunes encompasses some 2,000 acres of rolling sands, one-and-a-half miles wide and three miles long, bordering Lake Michigan and Silver Lake. This area is home to the Little Sable Point Lighthouse, built in 1874, where visitors can climb to the top of the tower for a keeper’s view of the vast shoreline and beyond.
One of Silver Lake State Park’s biggest draws is the 450-acre off-road vehicle area, where dune buggies reign. The windblown sand, undulating ridges and valleys, wispy dune grass, and scrub brush create a desert-like environment where adventure seekers can tear it up all day long, before lining up to watch the sun set in the west.
Empire Bluff – Empire
In the heart of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, the 1.5-mile long Empire Bluff trail leads to an overlook some 400 feet above the sandy shoreline of Lake Michigan. On a clear day, South Manitou Island comes into view off in the western distance, while South Bar Lake and the Robert H. Manning Memorial Light are visible to the north. The trail is open year-round, and is an ideal spot for snowshoe treks with the family. No matter the season, Empire Bluff is a popular sunset viewing spot, just bring a flashlight for the trip back down to the park entrance.
The Emerald Isle – Beaver Island
On the east side of Beaver Island (known as “Michigan’s Emerald Isle”), the aptly Irish-named Donegal Bay is considered one of the prettiest spots on the island. Here, Mt. Pisgah, an overgrown sand dune that rises 700 feet above the beach, is the highest point on the island. Located just a quarter mile from the shoreline, this climbable bluff provides an adventurous and romantic place to end the evening, as the sun says goodbye for the day.
Feel the sand between your toes as you experience the warmth of a West Michigan summer from the ground up. Unique to this side of the state, towering sand dunes provide the perfect playground for a sunny getaway. The dunes can be enjoyed by every member of the family, whether you hike up them, run down them, or let a four-wheeled vehicle do the work for you.
Hiking the dunes is not for the faint of heart. For example, at the North Ottawa Dunes in Ferrysburg, you’ll find 593 acres of wooded dunes located just off the Lake Michigan shoreline, with elevation changes of 185 feet in the parabolic dune formations. Eight distinct dunes in the rugged landscape exceed 750 feet in height for spectacular, scenic views of the surroundings.
While the trip up may be exhausting, and you might have to take a few breaks along the way, the view from the top is well worth the effort. If you time your trek just right, the top of the dunes is the perfect place to catch a spectacular Lake Michigan sunset.
Of course, what the kids will really be excited about is the trip back down. Running down the dunes can be a bit of a balancing act, but once you get the rhythm and just let gravity show you the way, you’ll feel a bit like you’ve taken flight. The best reward at the bottom is to give your sand-ravaged toes a good soak in the cool waters of Lake Michigan.
If what you’re looking for is the ultimate sand dune adventure, you’ll find options up and down the area. Visit Saugatuck Dune Rides in the south, and Silver Lake Buggy Rentals, Parrot’s Landing, and Mac Woods Dune Rides in the Silver Lake area.
The first dune scooter was designed from a Model-A Ford and carried four passengers. Today, you’ll find a four-wheel drive modified vehicle with aircraft tires modified to fit up to twenty people. The experienced dune drivers will take you for a tour through the dunes, and down to the water.