Day-tripping: A family friendly beach destination

Distance from Grand Rapids: 1 hr 24 min (96.7 mi) via I-96 W and US-31 N
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Dogs play in the water at Buttersville Park in Mason County. Photo by Stacy Feyer-Salo.

Some years ago there were billboards advertising Ludington as “Up North, Close By.” I don’t know who came up with the slogan, but it’s an accurate description. The Ludington area has all the amenities of “Up North” (beaches, boating, cute shops, delicious dining options, fudge, fishing, hiking and biking trails, etc.) without the long drive. Most people I talk to in Grand Rapids seem to think it’s much further away than it is. When I mention I’m driving to Ludington for the day to go to the beach, I’m usually met with disbelief. Shock, awe, contorted faces. I guess if you’re not accustomed to it, it can seem like quite the journey.

Here are some tips to make it quick:

  1. Gas up the night before. Pack your car with towels, sunscreen and a cooler full of ice.
  2. Leave just early enough to beat any traffic you might encounter around Muskegon on a sunny Saturday morning, but not so early you get there before beach hours.
  3. Check that there isn’t road construction along the way, because that can seriously put a damper on the plan for a quick trip.
  4. If you forget something at home, keep going. There are many shops (even a Meijer) there.

From downtown Grand Rapids, take I-96 West to Muskegon and go north on U.S. 31. I always take the first Ludington exit, Pere Marquette Highway, because it allows me to stop at P.M. Expeditions,1649 S Pere Marquette Hwy, an old time country corner store with a great craft beer selection. I also stock up on beach snacks like nuts and local salmon jerky.

P.M. Expeditions, a good place to stock up on craft beer before heading to the beach. Photo by Stacy Feyer-Salo.

After filling the cooler, I take Iris Rd. to Lakeshore Drive and turn right (north). The winding byway goes past a living museum, Historic White Pine Village, 1687 S. Lakeshore Drive –  a must for any history buff. Actual structures built by the area’s early pioneers have been moved here to create a mock historical village on the shores of Lake Michigan. Blacksmiths, schoolteachers and other guides dressed in the fashion of the late 1800s populate the village on certain days throughout the season. Check the website (historicwhitepinevillage.org) to find out when this, and other events like corn roasts and concerts take place. An authentic trapper’s cabin, a general store, a hardware store, a doctor’s office, post office, farmhouse, county courthouse, ice cream parlor and more – all decked out in yesteryear gear – comprise this historical gem. You may even catch a glimpse of a newlywed bride and groom exiting the picturesque hilltop chapel. The cost to enter is $11-15 (kids under age 4 are free) and it’s more than worth the price of admission. After a visit, you’ll wonder why you haven’t heard of it. It’s that good.

Just up the road (in local vernacular, up means north and down means south) a mile or so on the left is a fantastic dog beach located in Buttersville Park. If you go on a weekday it’s almost always empty except for the people staying at the adjacent campground, another hidden gem.

There’s a decent sized parking lot and a dog beach there and the township even provides poop bags. As a child I used to watch Fourth of July  fireworks with my family from this spot. Ludington’s iconic North Breakwater Light (lighthouse) is visible from this vantage point, too. It looks like you could walk to it, but there’s a wide channel and a lot of boat traffic in between.

Monument to Father Jacques Marquette. Photo by Stacy Feyer-Salo.

A bit north of Buttersville Park is a monument to Father Jacques Marquette, a Jesuit priest who explored the country in the 1600s with Lewis and Clark and Sacajawea; a large cross that sits atop a sand dune towering over Lake Michigan to the west and Pere Marquette Lake to the east.

After a couple hours on the beach I take a dip in Lake Michigan and then head down the scenic coastline for lunch. It’s hard to keep eyes on the road as – without warning– you suddenly find yourself high on a bluff with a stunning bird’s-eye view of Lake Michigan while crossing the bridge of a hydroelectric dam at the Ludington Pumped Storage Plant (to take in the amazing vista, there’s a parking lot on the north side of this monstrosity, with steps to a viewing station).

My lunch destination is Bortell’s Fisheries, a charming fish and chips counter, located at 5510 S. Lakeshore Dr. In operation since 1898, this unique seasonal eatery offers the best fried perch I’ve ever tasted and some nice picnic tables on which to enjoy the meal.

Bortell’s Fisheries, a seasonal fish and chips shop on S. Lakeshore Drive (between Pentwater and Ludington). Photo by Stacy Feyer-Salo.

Once I’ve gotten my Bortell’s fix, I’ll head into town to see what’s going on. On any given weekend throughout the summer a diverse range of activities and events await. Art fairs, street fairs, farmers markets, softball games, basketball and fishing tournaments. Ludington even has a half marathon– the Lakestride – that marks the beginning of the summer tourist season. One of the biggest attractions in town is House of Flavors, 402 W. Ludington Ave., a family-owned ice cream factory/restaurant that boasts 75 years of making and serving ice cream from the same location adjacent to Rotary Park.

I always try to make it to Ludington for the Fourth of July. The parade consists of the usual; floats, antique cars, people on horseback, fire trucks and beauty queens. But the culminating act – the  world famous Scottville Clown Band – sets it apart from all others. Whether it’s a patriotic Sousa march or “Basin Street Blues,” followed by a rousing rendition of “The Stripper” (accompanied by one of the clowns performing a mock striptease), these fun loving musicians always succeed at making people laugh in addition to putting on a great musical show.

No trip to Ludington is complete without a hike at the Ludington State Park. Located about six miles north of the city at the end of yet another jaw dropping scenic drive through sand dunes, the 5300-acre park situated on the shores of Lake Michigan boasts towering dunes, forests and Big Sable Point Lighthouse. Once inside the park, many will choose to hike the two miles to view this breathtaking Michigan icon in person. I prefer the solitude of the Island Trail. Depending on the day, I might rent a kayak from the concession stand on Hamlin Lake and paddle out to explore an island.

I’m always sure to make my way back into town to Stearns Park in time to watch the sunset. Named one of the best beaches in the world in 2021 by Travel Addicts, Stearns has ample free parking and 2,500 feet of sandy shoreline. There’s a walkable half-mile long pier, at the end of which stands a stunning lighthouse; the best place for sunset gazing. In addition to its wide sugar sand beach, this park boasts a playground and a large grassy picnic area complete with tables and grills. A skate park, shuffleboard courts and mini-golf provide even more entertainment for beach goers. The picturesque beach has wheelchair accessible paths to the water’s edge and is a walkable distance to downtown Ludington’s shops and restaurants. The beach’s concession stand provides grab-n-go items like pressed paninis, charcuterie boards and “snackle” boxes.

Lobster nachos from Over the Moon at 125 S. James St. in Ludington. Photo by Stacy Feyer-Salo.

If a snackle box doesn’t fill you up, not to worry, dinner options in Ludington are plentiful. My favorites are located on James Street. Lobster nachos from Over the Moon are divine. Order absolutely anything from Blu Moon (same owners, different menus) and you won’t be disappointed (including their sushi, I promise). The house salad with green goddess dressing is also a must. Jamesport Brewery serves my favorite beer (if it’s in season);  blueberry wheat. This brew pub has a menu chock full of American fare and I’ve never had a bad meal there. Another local favorite is Scotty’s. It’s located a bit out of the downtown area, but if it’s prime rib you’re after, they do a great job. Get the spinach salad. You won’t be disappointed. Nightlife includes The MItten Bar (unrelated to the Leonard St. establishment), the two other bar/restaurants attached to it and the Tiki, located in the Stearns Motor Inn. There’s also a place called Stix on the outskirts with a new outdoor seating area that offers good food and live music.

I generally head back to Grand Rapids after a day in the sun, water and sand. If you plan to stay the night, Brenda’s Harbor Café serves a great breakfast. If you’re in need of a bloody mary with brekky, try Old Hamlin. In addition to plenty of B&B’s, hotels and motels (that are generally booked weeks or even months in advance), the area offers some amazing campgrounds, resorts and RV parks.

Camping:
Cartier Park, 1254 N. Lakeshore Drive in Ludington, (231) 845-1522.
Buttersville Campground, 991 S Lakeshore Dr, Ludington, (231) 843-2114.
Ludington State Park, 8800 M-116, Ludington, (231) 843-2423.
Riverside Park, 700 S Scottville Rd. in Scottville, (231) 757-2429.

Glamping:
Barothy Lodge- Fifteen private secluded lodges on the Pere Marquette River, located on Barothy Rd. in Walhalla, (231) 898-2340.
Poncho’s Pond RV Park, 5335 W. Wallace Ln., Ludington, (888) 308-6602.

Kayak/canoe rentals:
For beginners, I suggest renting from P.M. Expeditions, 1649 S Pere Marquette Hwy and doing “the loop.” If you’re a little more adventurous, go to Henry’s Landing kayak rental and campground (located at 701 S. Scottville Rd. in nearby Scottville) and do the Custer Bridge to Scottville Bridge stretch, which takes about three hours.

For more information on Ludington, or for help planning your trip, visit the Ludington Area Convention and Visitors Bureau website.

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