Going Coastal: Your Summer Bucket List

Saugatuck by Johnny Quirin.
Saugatuck by Johnny Quirin.

This is an excerpt from the article “Going Coastal” in the Grand Rapids Magazine June 2018 issue. You can read the full article (and find out several more ways to enjoy this summer) by picking up a copy of the magazine from newsstands now. Don’t miss any Grand Rapids Magazine articles, order your subscription now.

High atop a sand dune at P.J. Hoffmaster State Park, looking out over Lake Michigan and the park’s campground beach, a memorial bench beckons campers, hikers and beachgoers to sit and take it all in.

Blessed with miles of public coastline, West Michigan is home to countless secluded and scenic spots that dot the Lake Michigan shoreline — each offering something unique in the way of fun.

Whether you want to escape to the woods, long for that carefree vacation feeling or haven’t visited the lakeshore recently, make this the summer you mark off your close-to-home bucket list. After all, one of the best reasons to live in West Michigan is that summer is essentially a three-month staycation.

Relax on the beach (or explore a dune)

With more than 100 miles of white sandy shoreline from South Haven to Ludington, the region is an oasis for sun worshippers and low-cost family outings.

A Michigan State Parks Recreation Passport easily pays for itself, as it allows users to enjoy any state park beach for free, and there are plenty to choose from, depending on whether you are going with toddlers, teens, friends or want to pair a beach day with other activities or a weekend of camping.

Holland, Van Buren, Grand Haven, Hoffmaster, Muskegon and Ludington state parks each have their own amenities, features and campgrounds: Grand Haven draws the teen and college crowd with a 3-mile boardwalk, pier and other attractions; Hoffmaster is popular with families and nature lovers; and Ludington is one of the state’s busiest state parks, with added attractions like Big Sable Point Lighthouse and fishing and kayaking on Hamlin Lake. Duck Lake State Park doesn’t offer camping, but it makes for a nice day trip and has a shallow wading area for younger children.

For those who don’t want to deal with traffic and crowds in Grand Haven’s busier districts, nearby Rosy Mound Natural Area and Ferrysburg’s North Beach Park make for good alternatives, with amenities like restrooms, picnic areas, parking, hiking trails and scenic views.

Saugatuck’s Oval Beach, with a $10 daily vehicle fee, welcomes singles or families and has been rated among the 25 best shorelines in the world by “CondéNast Traveler.” Muskegon’s Pere Marquette Beach has free parking and admission, nearby eateries and picnic areas, and places to have bonfires on the beach. Kruse Park welcomes four-legged friends, and beachgoers can walk along a boardwalk connecting back to Pere Marquette Park.

If sunbathing isn’t your thing, Ludington hosts sunset beach bonfires from 8-10 p.m. June 28, July 26 and Aug. 23 at Stearns Park Beach, the city’s beach with picnic areas, a playground and free parking.

And for those who enjoy a good thrill, the region’s natural sand dunes make for unique and adventurous land-based excursions.

Arguably one of the area’s most unique attractions isSilver Lake State Park, where visitors come from all over to ride the only sand dunes open to ORVs east of the Mississippi. Book a Mac Wood’s Dune Ride, a family tradition since 1930 that includes an open-air, seven-mile dune ride; or rent your own UTV through Silver Lake Buggy Rentals and explore the Silver Lake Sand Dunes at your own leisure.

Jeep owners and off-roaders can take their own vehicles and ORVs (with a trail pass) out on the dunes, zooming over sand moguls and exploring 600 acres of dunes overlooking Lake Michigan.

Climb a lighthouse

Peek into the past and peer down 100 feet — or look out over the lake as far as the eye can see — standing atop the watchtower deck at Big Sable Point Lighthouse. Wear your tennis shoes and get your phone ready — it’s definitely a selfie-worthy experience.

One of the state’s tallest and oldest continuously operating lighthouses, Big Sable’s tower invites visitors to climb 130 steps to the top for 360-degree views of the surrounding landscape. Part of the fun is making the 2-mile trek along a desolate stretch of jack pines and back dunes to see the lighthouse towering in the distance at Ludington State Park.

Sable Point Lighthouse Keepers Association also operates three others in the area: Ludington North Breakwater Light, Little Sable Point Lighthouse near Mears, and White River Light Station south of Whitehall. All of the towers are open to climb, with varying hours and closing dates, and host special events, including live music, throughout the summer. Little Sable, built of brick and the busiest of the three, stands over 100 feet tall near the Lake Michigan shore and contains its original third order Fresnel lens.

In Muskegon, the Muskegon South Pierhead Light is open for tours on select days and will celebrate its 115thanniversary Aug. 18 during the Bright Lights Festival. The 48-foot tower is much shorter than others, but a climb up two spiral staircases and a shipman’s ladder to the lantern room provides a nice vantage point to view Muskegon Lake channel and the broader Lake Michigan shoreline, dunes and beaches.

The region’s other area lighthouses aren’t open for tours but make great photo ops, including Grand Haven south pier’s inner and outer structures, the 1907 Holland Harbor South Pierhead Lighthouse — better known as “Big Red” — in Holland, and the 35-foot cast-iron South Haven South Pierhead with an elevated catwalk.

*Photo by Johnny Quirin

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