Fly over West Michigan and you’ll see it: An unbroken, 500-mile swath of golden sand dunes as far as the eye can see.
Sand dunes form the hallmark of the Great Lakes State’s western shore, from the Indiana border to Mackinaw City. The dunes narrow to tiny ridges here. They rise into gentle hills there, collapse into broad beaches over there and in still other places form towering bluffs nearly insurmountable from the water’s edge. Michigan’s dunes vary in size and shape, but remain a constant on a visit to the state’s west side.
MAKING OF A DUNE
The constant pounding of Lake Michigan’s violent winter ice sheets and year-round wind and waves have for millennia pulverized the stone left behind by glaciers into finely-ground sand. Powerful surf forces the tiniest sand particles on shore where the wind carries them upward and inland. You can watch the dunes’ movement on a windy day, when the air glitters with tiny gold particles blowing up and over the dune’s crest.
Michigan’s dunes represent the largest collection of freshwater dunes in the world. The state’s western shore is built of an intricate ecosystem that includes golden, flat water’s edge; barren, undulating hills and bluffs of sand; and hilly foredunes covered with grasses, beech and white pine trees that sit distant from all but the most violent storms.
Lake Michigan’s long, golden stretch of dunes grew from violent beginnings. But the resulting landscape offers a stunning coastline with shapes beautifully elegant, soft under bare feet and warm under a beach blanket on a sunny day.
LACE UP YOUR BOOTS
The best way to get acquainted with Michigan’s dunes is along a hiking trail. What looks from a distance like an insignificant cluster of dune plants may reveal itself up close to be the tiny orange-yellow blooms of the Hairy Puccoon or the purple blooms of milkweed, sweetly fragrant up close and, with any luck, frequented by bobbing monarch butterflies. What look like featureless rises of sand from a distance may reveal themselves up close to be dotted with the nearly invisible trails of gulls and endangered Piping Plover tracks. You’ll never see them from your car. Best to dig out your hiking boots and hit the trail.
Among Lake Michigan’s most spectacular dune hikes are those at the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. Best known for their spectacular perched location — these dunes formed atop steep, rocky ridges left by retreating glaciers — the Sleeping Bear Dunes tower 450 feet above Lake Michigan. People young and old (mostly young) run down the steep dune embankment at Lake Michigan Overlook for the thrill of plunging into the cool water below and for the challenge of making their way back up afterward. It’s a climb that can take hours.
Just inland from Sleeping Bear’s namesake dunes are 71,000 acres of ancient forested dunes dotted with 26 inland lakes and over 100 miles of hiking trails. The paved, flat Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail winds through hardwoods to the ghost town of Glen Haven, once a Lake Michigan port. A more strenuous trek is Sleeping Bear Point Trail, a three-mile route that meanders over steep dunes en route to Lake Michigan.
PJ Hoffmaster State Park near Muskegon claims only three hiking trails. But the park is a favorite for the wildflowers that pepper the way through hilly, forested dunes to the lake. Each May, Hoffmaster’s trails brighten with white trilliums, columbine and lavender hepatica. Other times of the year hikers see yellow violets, orange hawkweed and Canada mayflowers.
FLIP FLOPS AND BEACH BUMS
Where Lake Michigan’s dunes meet the lake in broad, flat swaths, there you’ll find Michigan’s most popular beaches. And one of the best is in Grand Haven. On warm, sunny days, it seems all of West Michigan celebrates summer on this beach.
Vacationing families, sandcastles, bikini-clad teens and the scent of charcoal fill the days at Grand Haven State Park. The park’s 48 acres are devoted almost entirely to beach play save a sizable campground. Scarcely a beech tree or a clump of dune grass gets in the way of Frisbee tossing.
Oval Beach, another Michigan favorite, draws sun worshipers to Saugatuck. Chosen repeatedly as one of the nation’s best beaches by MTV and Condé Nast, Oval Beach attracts teenagers and families with its beachside parking. Once you arrive, you won’t have to walk far to spread your beach blanket.
Hawaiian shaved ice and other beachside concessions satisfy the appetites of active beachgoers at Oval Beach. For a vigorous workout, climb the sandy slopes of one of the half dozen steep sand dunes that separate the Lake Michigan beach from the town of Saugatuck. Climbing the loose golden sand takes some time. Getting back to the bottom seldom does.
Silver Lake is the only Michigan state park where thrill-seekers can drive their own vehicles over barren, shifting stretches of Lake Michigan dunes. It’s a sport that’s wildly popular. Four-wheel vehicles of all sizes clip fluorescent orange safety flags to their vehicles, make their way slowly up the mountains of loose sand and then careen down the dunes’ steep backsides.
Visitors who want to experience the thrill of a dune ride in someone else’s vehicle head to Mac Wood’s Dune Rides. Since 1930 the Silver Lake outfitter has whisked visitors up and over the dunes on entertaining jaunts through seven miles of sand dunes. The 40-minute trip in iconic red, 20-passenger buggies is punctuated with lots of funny one-liners and bad puns but visitors end up learning a lot about the region’s geology, too. Drivers describe the natural forces that created the dunes, the trees and plants that thrive in the barren landscape, and the phenomenon of fulgurites, sheaths of melted sand formed by lightning strikes in the dunes.
Even Michiganders, who are used to great beaches, are wowed by the waterfront in Ludington. Shortly after leaving the city limits, Lakeshore Drive (M-116) passes through a stunning eight-mile stretch of undeveloped sand dunes.
A half-dozen small roadside parking areas allow visitors to park for free for an afternoon of beach time. But it’s worth continuing north to Ludington State Park for a visit to Big Sable Point Lighthouse. Accessible only via a two-mile beach walk, the 112-foot black and white striped lighthouse is one of the most photographed in Michigan. Climb to the top of the 1867 light for unparalleled views of the Lake Michigan shore and its dunes.
Another of Lake Michigan’s popular lighthouse visits is Mackinaw City’s Old Mackinac Point Light Station. The light has been a landmark in the Straits since its construction in 1892, its honey-colored brick and brilliant red roof as unmistakable in daylight as its light was at night. History displays and artifacts like the light’s original Fresnel lens fill the main floor while costumed guides offer historical information and lead tours up into the tower.
It is here that modern travelers pause on their visit. Through the tower windows to the north are the graceful spans of the Mackinac Bridge, linking Michigan’s Upper and Lower Peninsulas. And below is the melding of two Great Lakes, Huron and Michigan, the beginning of Huron’s stony beach to the east and a narrow golden strip to the west, the northern end of Michigan’s dunes.
This article originally appeared in the 2014 spring/summer issue of Experience Michigan magazine. The contents of this article were checked for accuracy when it was published; however, it’s possible some of the information has changed. We recommend you call first if you have specific questions for the destinations, attractions or restaurants mentioned in this article.
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