Some of the prettiest beaches in America with the most stunning shades of blue water are not found by the ocean, but around Lake Michigan. On a recent trip to the West Coast of Michigan, I fell in love with its charming beach towns, bed and breakfasts, hiking, postcard lighthouses and the most captivating sunsets I’ve ever seen in my life. There is a relaxed, fresh, serene feeling to being in the Lake Michigan area that is such classic Americana — what the Michiganders call the Lake Effect. All that for — let’s be real — a lot less than what it costs to vacation at the usual suspects. Here’s why Lake Michigan is an amazing place to spend your summer.
1. Hang out at gorgeous beaches
I grew up next to the Pacific and now live by the Atlantic, so I had my doubts about the whole freshwater thing. Isn’t lake water sort of… weird? But I was completely unprepared for how oceanic, expansive and crystal-clear Lake Michigan truly is. The only major difference is that the waves here are smaller and closer together, which adds to that serene vibe. For powder-soft sand and blue, blue waters, head to one of the many beaches and state parks along the coast.
Each beach boasts its own unique character, so you can find the one that suits your mood. If you want serenity, head to Stearns Park, just a few minutes’ walk from downtown Ludington. This tranquil beach with a picturesque lighthouse is an amazing place to see the sunset. If you want family-friendly, try Ludington State Park, which has a beautiful beach house that makes picnics a cinch. If you want to see and be seen, Grand Haven State Park is the place to go for that social, youthful atmosphere. The water is definitely warm enough for swimming, or you can just read a good book and relax on the sand.
Pastel sunset over Stearns Park — this was the first time I’ve seen a sunset in those shades of pink and green.
2. Explore lighthouses
Ludington North Breakwater Light (in Stearns Park).
Little Sable Point Lighthouse
Did you know that Michigan has more lighthouses than any other state? There are more than 150 working and retired lighthouses along its coasts, and lighthouse aficionados come from all over the country to tour or even become a volunteer keeper for a few weeks at a time. Back in the day, these structures guided the many ships (cargo and passenger) on the Great Lakes; now, you can soak up the nostalgic charm standing by the lighthouse, or go all the way to the top.
With the help of local guides and photographers Todd and Brad Reed, I climbed all the way to the top of Little Sable Point Lighthouse and was treated to this breathtaking view over the lake. The water here has been compared to the Caribbean and I have to say, it is just as clear and vivid.
At the top, I got a tiny bit homesick in front of this sign that pointed toward the exact bearing of New York City — 675 miles; not as far as you’d think.
3. Enjoy relaxing breaks at local eateries and B&Bs
Are you getting hungry reading these exhausting climbs to the lighthouses? I ate unbelievably well during my entire trip, at unique restaurants that line the main streets at each of these beach towns. I can only recount some of the highlights.
Wood-fired oven pizza (made vegan for me, yay!) at Kirby Grill in downtown Grand Haven. The rooftop patio overlooks the waterfront, where they have a water and light show called Musical Fountain every night through Labor Day.
Vegan sushi with tempura veggies, avocado, sriracha mayo and teriyaki sauce at Blue Moon Bistro in downtown Ludington.
Quinoa salad at P.M. Steamers by the Ludington Marina. Do sit on the patio and watch the ships dock for the evening. So beautiful!
Is it really an American vacation without a trip to an old “ice cream shoppe” on Main Street? No, it isn’t. We headed over to the locally renowned House of Flavors (downtown Ludington), where I got a vegan-friendly raspberry sorbet. My traveling companions, however, got crazy flavors like Blue Moon, Eskimo Kisses and World’s Fair Caramel Popcorn.
Last, but not least, one of my favorite things I ate on this trip wasn’t at a restaurant, but at Summer’s Inn (a 15-minute walk away from Stearns Park), which is run by a lovely couple named Keith and Suzette. I was so touched by their earnest attention to detail, such as featuring fresh, local asparagus and strawberries for the guest breakfast.
When my plate came loaded with local berries, I got a little worried for them (those farm berries are expensive!). But their real claim to fame might be the world’s best cinnamon raisin bread, which Suzette makes from scratch at 4 a.m. every morning. Besides Summer’s Inn, both the Ludington and Grand Haven areas are full of Victorian mansions (former homes of lumber barons) that have been converted into boutique B&Bs.
My breakfast at Summer’s Inn — unfortunately, I inhaled the cinnamon raisin bread before taking the photo. Oops.
4. Go on a sunset cruise
There is truly something special about the sunsets over Lake Michigan. I don’t know if it is the calmer waters of the lake, or some unique atmospheric quality, but the sunsets here have such incredible colors not seen anywhere else. For the best look at the painterly skies, take a sunset cruise — there are both classic schooner and smaller boat tours. For the ultimate Lake Effect, watch the sunset on a boat while sipping wine, listening to music and feeling the cool breeze wash over you.
5. Explore the outdoors (sans beach) by hiking, or touring the sand dunes
Red pine forest at Rosy Mound
For those of us who need to balance out our beach days with lush, green hiking days, you can find plenty of trails around the lake towns. Rosy Mound Natural Area near Grand Haven is a favorite hiking area where you can walk through incredibly lush, tall forests right next to sandy beaches.
View from the top of Rosy Mound
Adventurous spirits have to check out the sand dunes at Silver Lake State Park. I admit I didn’t quite know what to expect from these famous sand dunes. These steep dunes and deep moguls of powder-soft sand stretch over 400 acres. You can rent your own ORV (off-road vehicle) or go on a tour, and enjoy the starkly beautiful scenery reminiscent of the movie The English Patient.
6. Chill out with a beer at local microbreweries
Michigan has a thriving microbrewery culture. This is partly due to the fact that breweries take a lot of water, which Michigan has in abundance — but it’s also because Michiganders love making things of their own. At hipster-magnet Odd Side Ales in Grand Haven, you can taste such interesting brews as Maya Mocha Stout, Pineapple IPA and my favorite Hells Yes Munich Lager, in a biergarten-meets-beach-club setting. If you need a more family-friendly atmosphere, Jamesport Brewing Company in Ludington is a brewery/historic restaurant/local hangout with amazing dinner options as well as craft beer.
Kick back with your friends at Odd Side Ales.