West Coast Beach Towns

Bill & Denise Semion
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Sunsets, Sand, Water: Perfect Getaway

When your home state boasts the longest shoreline of any state except Alaska, you tour there. When your home state has a lake that’s 118 miles wide, you head to its shores. When that lake hosts the largest freshwater sand dunes in the world, you vacation there.

I’m not talking about Florida, California, or Hawaii. I’m talking about Michigan. The state features the world’s longest freshwater shoreline in the world at 3,288 miles (5,292 kilometers). Yes, freshwater – water without salt, jellyfish, and other threatening creatures. Specifically, I’m in love with Lake Michigan, which ranks third among the Great Lakes in size, and sixth among all freshwater lakes in the world. The largest freshwater sand dunes in the world line the shores of Lady M. Though the uninitiated, gazing out at Lake Michigan typically garners responses like “geez, you can’t see any land from here,” “wow, it’s as big as an ocean,” and “I didn’t have to shower off after a swim.” Lake Michigan’s eastern shoreline is 1,638 miles (2,636 kilometers) long, with all but 45 miles (72 kilometers) of it in Michigan. If you prefer sunsets to sunrises, it will not disappoint.

Most summers, we carve out time to spend along the shores of this gorgeously grand lake spotted with quaint beach towns, campgrounds, and eateries. It’s just not summer without a trip to Lady M’s shores in our 2015.5 Leisure Unity MB, “Lucky Us.” Here, I’ll take you to three of my top stops along Michigan’s western shore: Grand Haven, Sleeping Bear Dunes, and Petoskey.

Grand Haven

My favorite Michigan beach town, located about one-third of the way up the Lake Michigan coast, is Grand Haven. Known as Coast Guard City USA, this town of more than 10,000 hosts many annual festivals and events, including their Kite Festival, Art Festival, Fourth of July Fireworks, and the nationally known Grand Haven Coast Guard Festival. Summers are busy here; a musical fountain provides a synchronized light and water show nightly from Memorial Day through to Labor Day and the Lakeshore Trolley provides easy transit from the day after Memorial Day to Labor Day Weekend within the town and nearby Spring Lake.

Grand Haven State Park‘s beautiful half-mile beach is known for its “singing sand,” the unusual “squeak, squeak” you’ll hear as your feet pad along the ground. Walk along the beach as well as the 1.5-mile boardwalk that hugs the Grand River from the middle of town out to the historic 1839 lighthouse at the end of the pier. Stroll the boardwalk in the morning, in the afternoon, and in the evening: morning for the quiet solitude; mid-day to watch the people and the boats, including fishing charters, speedboats, and sailboats; and evening for the sunsets. You’ll be tempted by the ice cream shops (our favorite is Sweet Temptations), restaurants, and snack shops along the way. If a storm is on the radar, please be mindful of the dangers of venturing onto this and other piers along Lake Michigan: powerful waves can and have knocked people into the water with disastrous results.

Grand Haven State Park, right on the beach, offers easy access to everything Grand Haven – the boardwalk, pier, restaurants, and more. The Lakeshore Trolley takes you right into town, or you can choose to ride your bike. Yup, it’s crowded in the summer, and you’ll feel like you are camping in a parking lot, but, you have unlimited opportunities to walk the beach and pier to catch that just perfect sunset, people watch, or gaze at the boats going by. If you want to stay here, plan to book your stay as soon as the sites open, as the demand is high to stay at this park.

Other options are to stay at some of the local private campgrounds or at P.J. Hoffmaster State Park, a little more than eight miles away, where you can get away from the crowds to enjoy a wooded, serene campground, quiet beach, and stunning sunsets. Several private campgrounds are also located along M-31. The downside of not staying at Grand Haven State Park is driving into Grand Haven and finding parking, especially in the summer or during an event.

You’re more likely to find a site off the lake. Campsites are tight at this popular park.
A Great Lakes freighter comes up the Grand River into Grand Haven.
Walk to the boardwalk from Grand Haven State Park to catch a sunset like this one.

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore

Next, visit Sleeping Bear Dune National Lakeshore. Plan to spend a few nights at the D.H. Day Campground, with easy access to the Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail, a 22-mile hard surface trail that takes you to various attractions within the park, as well as nearby Glen Arbor, a quaint “up-north” town with shops and restaurants. Take in spectacular views from steep sand bluffs towering more than 450 feet above Lake Michigan and venture through more than 100 miles (161 kilometers) of hiking trails. Camping is also available at the Platte River Campground, which provides access to the Platte River as it empties into Lake Michigan. Be sure to bring your paddleboard or kayak or visit Riverside Canoes to rent a vessel to float down the Platte River.

Our shady site at D.H. Day Campground.
The Heritage Trail runs right along the campground. Take a ride to Glen Arbor for lunch.
Glen Arbor offers eateries and shopping.
A drive along 7.4-mile Pierce Stocking Drive is a must if you are at Sleeping Bear Dunes. Bring a picnic and plan to spend the day here as you stop at the spectacular overlooks or hike one of the trails.
A short walk brings you to one of the most dramatic overlooks along Pierce Stocking Drive.
Photo op on the bluff? Yes, please!


Your next stop is Petoskey, a two-hour drive east and then north along Lake Michigan’s coast. Tip: if this is your first time in the area, break up this trip and stay one night (or two) at Traverse City State Park and explore the Leelanau Peninsula and TC itself. Another tip: On your way to Traverse City, stop at Moomers Homemade Ice Cream, which was once voted the best ice cream in the country. But back to Petoskey, this is a cute coastal town nestled in Little Traverse Bay. Stay at Petoskey State Park, where you can explore its mile-long beach to search for local Petoskey stones during the day or take in a sunset early evening. Just three miles northeast of the city of Petoskey and six miles south of Harbor Springs, this park is perfect for cyclists with the Little Traverse Wheelway, a 26-mile (41-kilometer) trail that follows the spectacular Lake Michigan shoreline from Charlevoix to Harbor Springs just outside the park entrance, and the North Western State Trail, a 32-mile (51-kilometer) inland trail connecting Petoskey and Mackinaw City.

Campsites at Petoskey State Park give easy access to the beach and the Little Traverse Wheelway.
Bike the Little Traverse Wheelway to Petoskey, where you can stop at Sunset Park overlooking Little Traverse Bay.
Bayfront Park, Petoskey
Take in a sunset on Little Traverse Bay from Petoskey State Park.

Michigan’s west coast is dotted with friendly beach towns, piers, and campgrounds where you can discover local shops and restaurants, spectacular sunsets, and more. If you’ve never been here, plan to add Michigan to your bucket list. You won’t be disappointed.

When You Go

Check your destinations for festivals and events, especially if you plan a trip in the summer. If you want to avoid crowds, consider visiting in late spring or early fall. Be aware that some towns and drives, such as Pierce Stocking Drive, can experience bumper-to-bumper traffic during peak autumn colors on weekends. In addition to websites for Grand Haven, Sleeping Bear Dunes, Glen Arbor, Traverse City, and Petoskey, you can find information at Michigan Beachtowns and Pure Michigan.

Bill & Denise Semion

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