For the last 5,000 years or so, the wind has swept over beaches of the largest lakes in the U.S., forming a chain of sand dunes. Standing up to 400 feet tall, they edge along the freshwater, moving and shape-shifting through time.
Hikers and tourists can climb the peaks and valleys through the state parks along the shorelines and hang out on soft-sanded beaches without any fear of running into stingrays, jellyfish or sharks.
We were on an east-to-west road trip along the north highways and found ourselves drawn to explore parts of the Great Lakes. Their vast waters drift into an outline of beaches, each with their own personalities.
Our first stop — Holland… Michigan.
Holland State Park
Pleasantville. Suspiciously clean. This opener for Weeds. These are a few things that come to mind when entering Holland.
With darling beach scenes and sailboat envy all around, the place sits on Lake Michigan and is filled in by Lake Macatawa. Holland State Park is nestled in the urban area, making it convenient for coffee and food if not set up for cooking.
There are two camping areas — one on the beach and one on Lake Macatawa, half a mile from Lake Michigan. If the term “camping” is thrown around loosely these days, this park exhibits the loosest end. Lake Macatawa campground has 200 sites, packed-in but large and well-equipped, with playgrounds and 24-hour bathroom and shower facilities. The showers are 8-by-5-foot rooms that lock and have 20-foot ceilings…
If you’re okay with the lack of ruggedness, it’s a convenient location with plenty of activities within biking and walking. This includes the highly photographed red lighthouse, Lake Michigan beach, a general store, ice cream and snack spots, watercraft and bike rentals, and a restaurant. Right across the street from the camp entrance, Macatawa Boat House rents out stand up paddleboards (SUPs) and kayaks, as well as the Megladon — a ridiculously big SUP fitting up to seven adults.
The clean streak of Holland ends right on the shores of both lakes, unfortunately. When renting the paddleboards, I asked a local about swimming in the water.
“Lake Macatawa? Uh. Most people swim in Lake Michigan,” he responded. But even there, the shoreline had lumps of grassy seaweed washed up with small pieces of trash weaved in and some pieces floating in the waves.
Fortunately, there are efforts to clean these waters up now.
Saugatuck Dunes State Park
The sand dunes rolling up and down the beaches of Lake Michigan give each spot a different character. Some waterfronts are cliffside with narrow beaches to hike down onto, while others are more typical and wide with mounds towering behind.
Saugatuck Dunes State Park is something in between. The beach trail meanders through an old elder forest for about a mile before opening to the massive lake. As a tourist mostly unfamiliar with how the ecosystem formed, it seemed strange to have trees mixed with the dune and water landscape. But then I learned the vegetation entraps the sand, building the towering hills. Small wooded areas (like the one in this park) can get buried entirely through time.
Approaching the water, the trail turns to sand, as fine as campfire ash and smooth to walk over. The view opens up to shorelines with shady, tree scattered perches. This was the cleanest beach we checked out, and definitely worth the short hike in. The park is day-use only, spreading 1,000 acres and 2.5 miles of beach.
Warren Dunes State Park
If your sand dune experience is lacking, there’s no way to drive to the beach area of Warren Dunes State Park and not want to run up and down the giant pile of sand looking over the parking lot. Up on top, the view spans over miles of beach and the vast intrigue of Lake Michigan.
In the summertime, the place clearly gets pretty used. We drove in at sunset on an August Saturday, which was stunning. But with nearly every space in the parking lot filled, we returned the next morning for a less crowded scene.
With the beach empty, the trash problem was much more apparent. Garbage overflowed from every can. It was blown all over the sand, plucked from uncovered bins by the hundreds of seagulls that have found a food source from people’s leftovers. Maybe it’s a “summer problem” for the park with the swaths of tourists attending, but it makes you want to organize an immediate beach clean-up.
After shuffling up and down the sand dune, I spent the first few minutes on the beach wondering if I should even get in the water as plastic bobbed in the waves and twirled tiny pieces towards my feet. But it takes a lot to keep me from swimming. Most of the garbage (that can be seen) is on the beach and in the shallow waves close to shore, so swimming out seemed less creepy.
Once out 10 to 12 feet out, the water was amazing — glass, around 70 degrees and blissful.
Warren Dunes State Park has more than 200 camp sites, from rustic cabins to semi-modern spaces. Sawyer is the closest town. If looking for food or coffee: Greenbush Brewing offers some delicious beer and food (like the build your own mac and cheese), and Infusco Coffee Roasters is a great morning spot.
Lake Michigan’s beaches are stunning, fun, special and worth visiting. Although there are issues with trash around the Great Lakes (22 million issues), there are multiple efforts in place to clean up the area. So maybe, soon, there will be less swimming in dirty water and more enjoying the allure of the scenery. It deserves the effort.