Michigan is the epicenter of the Great Lakes, boasting more miles of freshwater coastline than any other state in the country. Soft sugar sand beaches stretch along these shorelines, connecting charming port communities from the Indiana state line all the way to the Upper Peninsula. And as a bonus, the west coast of Lake Michigan offers unparalleled sunsets at the end of the day.
Known as the “Hamptons of the Midwest,” Michigan’s Harbor Country includes eight quaint communities in Berrien County rich in history. Pulitzer Prize winning author Carl Sandburg lived in this area for many years with his wife (and her prize-winning Chikaming goats). Architect Frank Lloyd Wright built a handful of his midcentury modern homes here as well, drawing inspiration from the natural views that the shoreline and surrounding landscape provided. In the heart of this area is the Warren Dunes State Park in Sawyer, a nearly 2000-acre park which stretches for three miles along the Lake Michigan shoreline and rugged dune formations that rise 26 feet above the beach below.
Most people who visit South Haven are familiar with South and North Beaches, separated by the Black River, pier, catwalk and 1903 navigational light. But the town – known as the “Blueberry Capital of the World” and for its rich maritime heritage – has several other noteworthy beaches like Casco Township Nature Preserve, Deerlick Creek Beach, Dyckman Beach, Newcome Beach, Oak Street Beach, Packard Park & Beach, Pilgrim Haven, Van Buren State Park, and Woodman Beach.
Just a short hike .6-mile from The Felt Estate and Shore Acres, an historic and majestic home built in 1927, you’ll find the 1000-acre Saugatuck Dunes State Park. Located in Allegan County, between Saugatuck and Holland, Saugatuck Dunes has 13 miles of hiking trails, a designated natural area, and plenty of beach for the family to spread out for a picnic, make a sand castle, or splash in the shimmering waters of Lake Michigan.
The Grand Haven pier and lighthouse are a highlight of the 48-acre Grand Haven State Park, consisting entirely of beach sand and scenic views of Lake Michigan. After a day at the beach, settle in along the northern banks of the Grand River at Dewey Hill for the nightly synchronized display of water and lights at the Grand Haven Musical Fountain – operating from Memorial Day through Labor Day, since 1962.
In the early 1900s, the beach near present day Pere Marquette State Park in Muskegon was likely populated with silent film and vaudeville stars like Buster Keaton, who summered here with his family in an area known as Bluffton’s “The Artist Colony”. Other nearby parks of interest include Beachwood Park, Muskegon Beach, Bronson Park, and the Kruse Park Dog Beach.
Ludington is home to 28 miles of pristine beach, including Ludington State Park and the Stearns Park Beach located downtown at the end of US-10. While enjoying fun in the sun, you’re likely to see the Lake Michigan Carferry SS Badger making its way between here and Manitowoc, Wisconsin. Noted as one of the “Top 5 All America Beaches in the U.S.,” Stearns Beach offers 2,500 feet of shoreline as well as plenty of family friendly activities (playground, skate park, mini golf, shuffleboard, volleyball) as well as a picnic area, walkable pier, and historic North Breakwater Light. This is also one of a growing number of public beaches around the state offering accessibility to those in wheelchairs. Three seasonal boardwalks have been constructed within the park allowing those who have trouble navigating through the sand the ability to get down to Lake Michigan. There are also manual beach wheelchairs available for use, for free, at the concession stand.
Michigan’s largest beach playground is the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, which stretches for 35 miles through Benzie and Leelanau Counties (including North and South Manitou Islands). Founded in 1970, this nationally-recognized destination (named “The Most Beautiful Place in America” in 2011) features unparalleled beaches, towering sand dunes that stretch 450-feet above Lake Michigan, and a handful of noted sites like the DH Day Farm, Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive and Covered Bridge, Port Oneida, the Glen Haven historical village, and Leland Fish Town, with its preserved shanties and the ferry boat which transports visitors to the islands.
Tucked away inside the Elk Rapids Day Park, along the shore of Lake Michigan, is an unexpected treasure known as the “Walk of Art.” More than 30 unique and nature-inspired installations have been added since 2012 by the non-profit organization Art Rapids (founded in 2005). The park also features hiking trails, a picnic area (with tables and grills), the Deborah Wentworth Memorial Pavilion, and bath house. The picturesque beach is rarely crowded, making it a great place to hang out for a summer afternoon.
Little Traverse Bay boasts several beach areas, most ideal for searching for the coveted state stone…the Petoskey Stone. According to the Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council, Little Traverse Bay is approximately 45 square miles (3.5 miles wide between Petoskey and Harbor Springs and approximately 10 miles long) and is Michigan’s fourth largest bay behind Green Bay, Grand Traverse Bay, and Bay de Noc. Petoskey’s Magnus Park City Beach offers 1,000 feet of shoreline and is within walking distance to the pier, downtown, and one of the oldest buildings in northern lower Michigan – the St. Francis Solanus Mission on West Lake Street, the only existing building in the Arbre Croche district built by Jean Baptiste Trotochard and dating back to 1860 and Bishop Frederic Baraga’s era.
Between the famous Leg’s Inn Restaurant in Cross Village and Lake Michigan, you’ll find the Cross Village Beach. Located at the northern end of the M-119 Tunnel of Trees Scenic Heritage Route, this 20-mile Pure Michigan Byway winds north along the shoreline from Harbor Springs through Good Hart, ending in Cross Village. Further north, you’ll find the Levering Township Park and Sturgeon Bay Township Beach, both just south of Mackinaw City’s Wilderness State Park and the Headlands International Dark Sky Park.
In addition to shoreline beaches, Michigan has more lighthouse than any other state – at more than 125. Many of these are open for public tours as museums (including tower tours), some offer programs where you can volunteer to serve as a modern day keeper. A handful are even known to house the spirits of former keepers as noted among the pages of “Michigan’s Haunted Lighthouses” by local historian and author Dianna Stampfler (available at MiHauntedLighthouses.com).
For a list of additional beaches (both Great Lakes and inland lakes) as well as historic lighthouses along Lake Michigan and the Straits of Mackinac, visit WMTA.org.
Note: A Recreation Pass is required for entry into Michigan State Parks.