A great lake: The best of the Midwest's sandy shores
By Alan Solomon
Posted on belleville.com on April 27, 2007
Michele Kuder talks about the Indiana beach she loves. "I grew up here, before it was national lakeshore," she says. "You've got beautiful sand and really nice dunes, a couple of cliffy-looking things, a bunch of rocks ..."
Glenn Stutzky has been coming to his favorite beach in Michigan for 20 years. "It's kind of like a little secret tucked away here," he says. "A little gem."
Jason Martens is still dripping as he talks about a Wisconsin beach unlike any other. "Great beach. The stones, the clear water ..."
Lake Michigan is ringed with beaches. It's not a solid ring. In some places, towns and docks and power plants and factories and marinas get in the way; in others, nature had other things in mind.
In some - Chicago and Milwaukee come to mind - great cities claimed waterfront for commercial use. But in both Chicago and Milwaukee, thanks to visionaries, we still have beaches.
It's possible to circumnavigate Lake Michigan, the largest lake wholly within the United States, by car and never be more than an hour or so from a place where sand - or, at the very least, sloping shoreline - meets fresh water and endures what passes here for surf.
What's surprising is how different beaches that share this body of water can be from one another. What's even more surprising is how startlingly beautiful they can be, and not just at sunrise or sunset or while we're under the influence of freshly melted s'mores.
"It's gorgeous," says Rita Wagner, who collects fees at Michigan's Ludington State Park. "We had a lady here from New Jersey, and she says, `I've never seen anything like this. I'm going here now instead of going to the ocean.' We have the best beaches."
Which are the best of the best? For many of you, the best is the beach your folks took you to and the one you take your kids to now, or the one by the cottage built by your grandparents.
For the rest of us:
"Everybody's looking for something different," says Ryan Koepke, information clerk at Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, near Michigan City. "Families, they want lifeguards. Younger people want more quiet beaches - or they want the more active beaches. Some people want to see the scenery. They want to see the dunes."
So here's an assortment, one writer's opinion of the best on Lake Michigan, perfect beaches to share with your kids, or with that someone you like a lot or to enjoy alone with your thoughts on a cool November morning.
Al's Top Five ...
1. OVAL BEACH, Saugatuck, Mich.
Everything anyone could ask of a beach for the masses: manageable size, lifeguards, sugar sand, barrier dunes, clean water, good concessions and a bonus:
"There's tons of trails here that people can hike," says Beth Robinson, who operates the beach's concession stand. "If the weather's not great, they can still hike through the sand dunes."
There's also plenty of parking, though it still isn't enough on some summer weekends. That's when locals head for the relative solitude of nearby Douglas Beach and Saugatuck Dunes State Park.
Somehow, even at peak times, Oval is a beach that retains a reasonable naturalness and sanity while accommodating crowds drawn to the area by the charms of Saugatuck and Douglas Beach.
2. LUDINGTON STATE PARK, Ludington, Mich.
–Here's what Ryan Koepke, of Indiana Dunes, says of Ludington: "It's gorgeous. It blows this place (Indiana Dunes) away."
The park is 7 miles of beach, all of it backed by dunes, some of them enormous. Most of the dunes are in turn backed by forest; if you can't find solitude here, you're too glued to your cell phone.
You enter the park and drive 3 miles between dunes. Over the dunes on the left is free beach. There's roadside parking. Past the pay station is a lot for 125 cars, concessions and restrooms and the beginning of even more dramatic beach.
Even on the busiest days, says park supervisor Dan Flaherty, "If you're willing to hike up the shoreline a way, there's some very remote sections." All are as pristine as a 21st century Michigan beach can get.
"Our job," says Flaherty, "is to keep it that way."
3. ESCH ROAD BEACH, Near Empire, Mich.
If this lake has a beach that challenges the ones in Hawaii or Mexico, this is it: sugar sand in what resembles a broad mountain cove, with those "mountains" covered with what could pass - if you don't look too closely - as tropical jungle.
It's an illusion, of course, though a glorious one. The largest mountains are the massive Empire Bluffs, and high, forested dunes ring the cove.
There's a flaw: This is a popular beach for fires, and pits of dormant coals mar much of the beach near the entry area. There is also a sign reminding visitors that Michigan doesn't like nudity on its beaches, which suggests nudity here sometimes happens; whether that's a flaw depends on you.
Limited parking. Primitive toilets.
4. POINT BEACH STATE FOREST, Near Two Rivers, Wis.
Whitefish Dunes without the mobs: nice sand, nice dunes, not entirely wild (there's a playground by a picnic area) but largely unpopulated for considerable stretches. Also, unlike sections of Whitefish, the beachside dunes aren't off-limits.
"People can walk on them," says superintendent Guy Willman. "We just ask them to tread lightly, because the plants are so sensitive."
Serious naturalists will appreciate the unusual ridges and the mix of trees - hemlock, balsam fir, red pine - more typical to the North Woods but happy here in this shoreline microclimate. Good parking and a lighthouse that's off-limits but photogenic.
5. NORTH AVENUE BEACH, Chicago
Most of Chicago's beaches, north and south of Buckingham Fountain, have their constituencies and sub-constituencies - racial, cultural, sexual-preferential, whatever. You can't deny that Oak Street Beach, within walking distance of the Drake Hotel, Bloomingdale's and California Pizza Kitchen (and with an often spectacular constituency), is a wow.
But no beach better represents the marvelous mix that is Chicago than the beach at North Avenue. It's diverse in every way: Footballs coexist with volleyballs, soccer balls and Frisbees, and it's remarkably clean and full of life. The bonus: Like Oak Street Beach, a look in any direction but east assures you you're in the greatest of Midwestern cities. Plenty of concessions, restrooms; limited parking.
... and the best of the rest:
6. INDIANA DUNES NATIONAL LAKESHORE, Near Michigan City, Ind.
Miles of beach, some with names and certain characteristics: Lakeview is nice for families, Central is one of the rare public-beach areas that invites your dog to swim along. Plus there are dunes trails and quality exhibits and programs we've come to expect from the National Park Service.
It's very crowded on summer weekends. Two million come here annually, mostly in summer; another million come to the adjacent state park.
"Summer's always fun," says Koepke, who grew up in the shadow of the park's famous dune, 123-foot-high Mt. Baldy, "but I like the fall too. Much less crowded, and if the wind is right and the lake is right, you can still have warm lake temperatures."
One downside: Michigan City's huge shoreline power plant, well to the east but a lurking presence nonetheless. Another: Parking on a summer Sunday can be gone well before church lets out.
7. SOUTH BEACH, South Haven, Mich.
With St. Joseph's Silver Beach and City Beach in Grand Haven (and its state park next door), this is one of three exceptional town beaches on a 75-mile stretch of Michigan shoreline. All feature great sand, lifeguards, playgrounds and unique lighthouses that provide character to those family photos.
Which to choose depends on where you stay. St. Joe and South Haven have longer traditions of tourism than Grand Haven, which is still transitioning.
What elevates South Beach are the dunes south of the pier that shield the beach from the residential area, providing at least an illusion of being away from lawns and SUVs. Street parking is where you can find it.
8. P.J. HOFFMASTER STATE PARK, Near Grand Haven, Mich.
Rarely crowded, this is a dazzling beach with wonderful dunes that's relatively little known in a region full of more popular destinations.
"It reminds me of Sleeping Bear," says Glenn Stutzky, an instructor in social work at Michigan State. "It's just a little slice of that."
It's also much like nearby Saugatuck Dunes State Park. Key difference: While the Saugatuck Dunes beach can be a 20-minute hike on a forest path with challenging slopes, Hoffmaster is a breeze.
9. CHARLES MEARS STATE PARK, Pentwater, Mich.
Smaller than some of Michigan's other state beaches - the "private" signs come up kind of fast - this nonetheless is a charmer that combines the convenience of a town beach, including easy parking, with hints of the rawness of the dunes-bordered stretches. It helps that even the obligatory campground is tucked behind the dunes and trees.
The family necessities - concessions, toilets, picnic tables, the rest - are handy. Even better, the jewel that is Pentwater's Hancock Street is just a couple of blocks away.
10. NORDHOUSE DUNES WILDERNESS, Near Manistee, Mich.
There's more of the same amazing beach that brings people to Ludington State Park. This is Ludington with far less traffic congestion but a little less ease of access.
The parking lot, large and largely empty on a weekday visit, is about 150 yards from the beginning of the sand, and the slope down the first dune is just steep enough to discourage a run back to the car for supplies.
But if solitude is what you want, or a magical sunset far from the distractions of civilization, this is a blessed option.
11. PLATTE RIVER POINT, Near Honor, Mich.
This, within Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, is where Michigan's Platte River enters Lake Michigan. On one side of the river the beach is a mix of sand and stones. Those multicolored stones bring collectors.
Wade across the river and through the low, grassy dunes, and the sand softens into the more familiar stuff. It's like two separate beaches divided by a shallow stream that warms nicely.
"On a clear day," says Chuck Retallick, attendant for parking lot at the site, "North and South Manitou (Islands) are visible out there. Just a beautiful, beautiful corner."
Plus it's a prime spot to see Great Lakes piping plovers, an endangered species.
12. FISHERMAN'S ISLAND STATE PARK, Charlevoix, Mich.
More interesting than the wholly adequate, kid-friendly but unsurprising Lake Michigan Beach near town, this one begins with an end-of-the-road patch of sand popular with hunters of Petoskey stones, fossilized coral that, when polished, is used for jewelry and other keepsakes.
The romance of that part of the beach is compromised by the cement plant that hovers nearby. But a drive or hike into the wooded campground area reveals tent and camper sites backing almost to the water - unusual in these parts - and a beach that's generally more rocky than sandy but nonetheless pleasant.
Toward road's end is a parking lot and facilities. Not for everyone.
13. PETOSKEY STATE PARK, Near Petoskey, Mich.
Last of the big-dunes beaches on this shore, this is a full-service beach - toilets, concessions, playground, parking - that has everything but a sense of wilderness.
Appropriately, this is another area scanned for Petoskey stones, especially in damp weather.
"When it's raining," explains a veteran hunter, "you can spot `em right off the bat." When it isn't raining, you have to somehow wash off the dust to spot the telltale markings.
The sand's OK but a little stony. In general, Petoskey isn't as subdued as Harbor Springs' sweet but clubby-feeling town beaches north of here.
14. LAKE MICHIGAN RECREATION AREA, Near Brevort, Mich.
U.S. Highway 2 west of the Mackinac Bridge glides along the bottom of the Upper Peninsula. Beyond Epoufette, the Hiawatha National Forest includes stretches of beach that rival the first few miles of Ludington State Park for raw beauty. Here and there, big dunes make their own natural statement.
As most travelers are content to pass by on the way to or from the bridge and Mackinac ferries, there's an opportunity to have this one to yourself. Not much in the way of help to the beach, aside from a few welcome step-structures. Roadside parking until the west gate, where there's a lot, toilets and camp facilities.
15. SCHOOLHOUSE BEACH, Washington Island, Wis.
A compact, pretty beach on the island's north shore that's special primarily because, instead of sand, it's covered with smooth stones the size of small potatoes. Which doesn't keep people from spreading out a towel and sunbathing.
Hurt? "A little bit," concedes Tiffany Sodergren of Chicago. "You have to find your right spot."
Kids can't make castles, but instead they amuse themselves by throwing the stones into the water. (No charge for that; pocketing a stone, on the other hand, is a $250 fine.) The stone-covered shallows also keep the water impossibly clear. Some parking, a raft to swim to, and that's about it. It's a popular bicycle destination on this bike-happy retreat off the Door Peninsula.
16. WHITEFISH DUNES STATE PARK, Near Sturgeon Bay, Wis.
Door County's preeminent beach: 3 miles of sand and Michigan-quality dunes, backed by woods and terrific hiking trails that relieve some of the pressure generated by summer crowds.
Large as it is and near-natural as it is and remote as it is from the county's resorts, restaurants and shopping, in high season there's no chance of finding solitude here. This is, first and foremost, a family beach, with everything that brings, and that's great if you're a family.
But in spring and fall, when the only other intruders may be the occasional hiker or sketch artist, and in winter, if you're properly outfitted, this is a treasure for those seeking quiet inspiration. Ample parking, restrooms.
17. KOHLER-ANDRAE STATE PARK, Near Sheboygan, Wis.
It's about half the length of nearby Point Beach and capacity-strained on summer weekends. But this is the southernmost significant expanse of well-duned beach on the Wisconsin side of the lake, and it's truly beautiful.
Sadly, water quality has become an issue here. The beach had to be closed to swimming nine days last summer, vs. four for Point Beach, and many other days the water tested out "poor" though tolerable for most swimmers.
"We have a couple of rivers that come out just to the north of us," says Jim Buchholz, park superintendent. "But we have never had anybody come back and say, `Hey, I got sick from your park.'"
Alan Solomon: firstname.lastname@example.org
© 2007, Chicago Tribune.