Michigan is defined by it’s natural boundaries – the Great Lakes. The lower peninsula is shaped like a mitten which is bordered by sandy beaches on the west-facing shorelines along Lake Michigan and mostly stony beaches facing east along Lake Huron (see my earlier post describing some of Michigan’s Rocky Shorelines).
Probably the most impressive stretch of sandy shoreline is near Traverse City at the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore which includes several miles of perched sand dunes along the Leelenau Peninsula and the large offshore archipelago, North and South Manitou Islands. These large sloping sand dunes tower 450 feet above the beach and Lake Michigan. The Manitou Islands are premiere backpacking destinations and offer real seclusion for the wanderer seeking remote solitude.
|The view of Lake Michigan from atop the bluff at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.|
South Manitou Island has designated campgrounds, fresh water supplies, lighthouse tours and shipwrecks. On North Manitou hikers are allowed to camp anywhere away from a body of water or a historical building (there are remnants of ghost towns on both islands) and must filter or boil water for drinking and cooking. Friends of mine who just camped on North Manitou two weeks ago reported that they didn’t see another human being for several days while hiking and camping on the large island.
|Hikers descend the dunes for an evening swim in Lake Michigan – before the grueling return climb.|
The west Michigan shore is basically a 200-mile-long stretch of sandy beach that is interrupted every few miles with a lighthouse and harbor town. Not only the area inhabitants but also thousands of tourists have tapped in to the beauty of this region with swimming, boating, kayaking, fishing, diving, four-wheeling, kite boarding, skinny dipping… and a whole lot more.
|Young hikers on South Manitou Island.|
Many of the beaches that line Michigan’s west coast are managed by city and state park services, and private land owners keep an eye on their waterfronts, but there are vast stretches of sand that don’t seem to be regulated by anybody – there’s simply nobody around. Ah, what seclusion, what freedom, what natural beauty, stretching for miles and miles!
On the eastern side, there are also golden sands that border the sunset side of Michigan’s “Thumb” from Caseville up to Sleeper State Park and Port Crescent State Park near Port Austin at the tip of the Thumb where the beaches end and the stony bottoms of the eastern shores take over.
|South Manitou Island snorkelers leap from the wreck of the Morazan, a freighter grounded during a blizzard in 1960.
(This activity is not endorsed by the Park Service.)
There are few places where it is legal to drive your Jeep on the beach, but at Silver Lake Dunes you are welcome to drive around on the sand dunes in your dune buggy or other four-wheel-drive vehicle, and there are many campgrounds nearby.
Visitors are often surprised at the shorelines of Michigan and the vast beauty – and recreational opportunity – that they present. One could spend a lifetime enjoying all of this, but there’s something to keep in mind before scheduling a visit here: Michigan is crossed by the 45th parallel, the latitudinal half-way point between the equator and the north pole, and this means that winters are harsh here. And the beaches are deserted while the local inhabitants hibernate next to the fireplaces in their cabins. The lakeshore is not a safe place to be when the snow is blowing, the wind is howling, and the ice is piling up on the beach in huge mounds. That’s why many Michiganders head south for the winter.
But in the warmer months the Michigan shorelines – whether sandy or stony – are some of the most inviting spots in the midwest! My personal favorite time is September after Labor Day when the kids have gone back to school and the campgrounds are empty but the water is still warm enough for wading, snorkeling or diving (I keep a wetsuit with my snorkeling gear in case the water temp isn’t quite warm enough for me) . And the cool evening temps make the campfire even more appealing. Ah, peace and quiet!
|Each September, Kaye and I camp within a few yards of the beach at Port Crescent State Park|