Top 10 Beach Towns on Michigan's Sunset Coast
You're in the right place - Michigan's Sunset Coast (aptly named, for the gorgeous sunsets!). The beaches on Lake Michigan are clean, sandy, and very swimmable. There are excellent restaurants, extraordinary artists, great music, and plenty of outdoor activities. It's my favorite place, in the whole world. Come along and explore, from Chicago to Traverse City.
Driving from Chicago, you'll be on Highway 196/US31. By the time you get to South Haven, you'll probably need to stop for refreshments. If you want burgers and classic American food, head downtown to Clementine's. If it's a weekend evening, you'll need to call ahead for reservations. Be sure to order the onion rings.
Beaches: There are two beaches - North and South Beach (with the Black River in between). North beach is located where the pier is (and right down the road from Clementine's). South Beach is across the river. Both have a $5 parking fee and feature restrooms and lifeguards.
If you'd prefer to wait for authentic Mexican, don't worry - it's just down the road, in Fennville. Take the M-89 exit and drive east for a few miles. Su Casa is in downtown Fennville - extremely delicious, authentic Mexican food. We love the family that runs this place. Stock up on fresh tortillas and such in the attached grocery. If you've got a party weekend, be sure to pick up a pinata. I've seen the love and care that goes into them! Family-friendly, reasonably priced.
Prefer fine dining? Salt of the Earth is also in Fennville. Locally-sourced, gourmet dishes are the norm. Extensive wine and beer list, and excellent bread. Perfect for a romantic meal out!
Beaches: Pier Cove, in Fennville, is a small, free beach. There are ten parking spots! If you have small kids, this is perfect - there's a creek that runs into Lake Michigan here, and they can splash away without worrying about waves.
Further down the road is the West Side County Park. Restrooms and plenty of picnic and family areas. Fees appy.
Just up the road is Saugatuck. sigh. Yes, my very favorite town in Michigan! It's full of great restaurants (try Marro's for great pizza, or Chequers British Pub). There's an old fashioned soda fountain at the drug store. Or, try the burgers at the Butler or the pies at Ida Red's. Be sure to stop for coffee at Uncommon Grounds. There is a plethora of stores downtown - art galleries, fun shops, boutiques, and more. There's a free restroom at the far end of downtown, if you need to take a break. Across the river is the town of Douglas. Of particular note to foodies is the Everyday People Cafe. YUM.
Beach: Oval Beach
• One of the Top 25 beaches in the world (Condé Naste Magazine)
• One of the two top freshwater beaches in the USA (National Geographic Traveler Magazine)
• One of the five best beaches in the United States (MTV)
You get to the beach via a winding road past a plethora of cottages, tennis courts, and the sailing club, and through a forest (a challenge to bike this road!). You emerge to a gorgeous vista. Turn right, you’ll hit the showers/bathrooms/concession stand. Past that, you’ll see a gentle slope to the beach, with lots of parking. On the south end, however, is the magic – fewer parking spaces, a rickety wooden stair to descend, gorgeous grasses in the dune, and a quieter beach. There will be one or two sandbars to swim to. Rocky few feet toward the lakeshore, then clean sandy bottom. No lifeguard on the south end. Park Fees Apply, unless you’re headed there for a sunset swim – the toll booth closes around 9.
Drive just past the entrance to the park, and you can climb Mt. Baldy and then cross the dunes to the beach – jump in for a refreshing cool-down!
Keep driving up the Sunset coast and you'll run into Holland. The downtown in Holland is a lot of fun - great stores, and some great restaurants. Try Boatwerks for waterfront dining on Lake Macatawa, or the New Hollland Brewing Company. As you drive north, you'll pass malls and other businesses. Keep heading toward Grand Haven.
Beaches: Two beaches here - the crowded Holland State Park, and Holland’s Tunnel Park
Less popular than the Holland State Park (and much less populated!), Tunnel Park is accessed through, you guessed it, a tunnel. Located on the north side of the Lake Macatawa channel, Tunnel Park is run by the Ottawa County Parks System. There’s a great beach, picnic areas, bathrooms, volleyball courts, kids playground, and of course, dunes. No lifeguards. You’ll need to take the stairs to get down to the beach. Located north of Holland’s famous Red Lighthouse. Clean sandy bottom. Beautiful! County Park Fees Apply.
Grand Haven's next! There's a lot to do here - fun boutique shopping downtown, and a nightly musical water fountain in the summer, on the river. Eat at the Sub Shop (just south of Grand Haven's downtown, right on US31). My favorite? The gyro sub. Amazing.
Beaches: There are two beaches downtown - the Grand Haven State Park, and the Grand Haven City Beach. Good Morning America-Travel Mom recommended the Grand Haven beach as one of the top 5 in the country.
However, I recommend driving just a few miles north to Spring Lake. Take the Spring Lake exit, just as you cross the bridge over the Grand River. Then head west to North Beach Park.
Run by the State Park System, North Beach Park is the local’s getaway. Just north of the Grand Haven Park (VERY CROWDED!), North Beach is a quiet, small park. There are handy bathrooms, a shelter, small kids’ play area, and best of all, handicap ramp down to the beach. North Beach has perhaps the shortest access from the parking lot to the lakeshore, and isn’t too wide, either. However, it is possibly the least crowded beach I’ve been to on Lake Michigan. There are great swimming buoys located a bit out – no sandbar that I know of. Clean sandy bottom. No lifeguard. Fantastic views of the dunes to the north, and Grand Haven Lighthouse to the south. County Park Fees Apply.
Keep driving - you'll probably be tired and just want to log some miles onto the car. You'll pass Muskegon, Ludington (great ice cream downtown), and keep going to Manistee - also known as the Victorian Port City.
Beaches: Manistee has two main beaches – 1st street (south of the channel) and 5th Avenue (north). 1st street is the most popular – lots of playground equipment, volleyball nets, a well-used boat launch with ample parking area for boat trailers, a pier for fishing, bathrooms, and plenty of parking (especially handy during carnivals). But my favorite is 5th Avenue, which is used more by swimmers. Access to it was restructured a few years ago, when some new developments sprung up. The Coast Guard is located here, as well. Somewhat ample parking. Clean new bathroom, a walkable pier with lighthouse, and wide flat beach make this a very fun place to take the family. Clean sandy bottom. Free.
For excellent food, keep driving a bit further north, to Onekama. You'll turn left (west) at 9 mile road, and drive into Onekama. [Right at the corner there is the Blue Slipper - NOW CLOSED (alas). Known to locals and traveling gourmands alike (featured in Gourmet magazine!), their Friday fish fry is delicious! Also recommend the lasagna, or the sandwiches - well, everything is delicious!] If you'd like a romantic gourmet meal, stop at the Glenwood. Their Beef Wellington is superb.
Beach: Onekama’s Portage Point Beach
Another beach accessed by a VERY Winding road past the remodeled Portage Point Inn. Stop on the way at the artesian spring and drink the best water you’ve ever had. Keep going south on the curvy road, pass on a single-lane road the Portage Point Inn, head around past the Onekama Sailing Club, and you’ll hit the Beach.Small parking lot, with a portapotty. The south path runs past a gazebo and has a partial wooden walkway. The north path (only about 60 feet away from the south path) runs past broken concrete from the parking lot, a pole with doggie bags on them (please keep the beach clean!), and the ever-present dunes to a gorgeous vista of Lake Michigan. There’s a short pier to the south, just north of the channel from Portage Lake. There are usually two or three sandbars, plenty of shallow areas (clean sandy bottom) for kids to play in, and a family atmosphere. No lifeguard. Free.
As you drive north, you'll hit Beulah, on Crystal Lake. Oh, so many great places to eat! Downtown, L'Chayim Bakery has excellent sandwiches and bagels. Or, stop at the Cherry Hut for delicious food and cherry pies! If you detour toward the big lake, on Hwy 115, you'll hit Frankfort. My favorite restaurant here is Fusion - they make great Pad Thai! Also plenty of ice cream shops, a fantastic library, and a free beach on Lake Michigan.
Beach: Downtown Frankfort beach. It's sort of a harbor beach, so the waves aren't as big. We love it here. Wide, sandy beach, clean and warm. Changing rooms/restrooms, no lifeguard, Free.
THE BEACH! Yes, I am talking about Sleeping Bear Dunes. It's a National Lakeshore, and an amazing place to stop. This is a national park, with a HUGE set of dunes to climb. If you can make it, the beach is worth a swim (to cool down!). It is particularly interesting in the off-season, when there is NO one around! The sand is firmer and you can climb the dunes more easily. National Park fees apply.
Where to eat: We love the subs at the Empire Village Inn. Also located in Empire is Grocer's Daughter Chocolates (swoon!) and a free city beach with gorgeous views of the dunes, from the lakeside. Empire is just south of Sleeping Bear Dunes.
Sleeping Bear dunes in fall
Now head inland a bit, to drive to Traverse City. You could, however, head up the east peninsula to Leland and Northport.
Leland has a city beach, with restrooms and picnic tables.
Northport has a beach area, and playgrounds and restrooms. It is right next to the marina.
But we are most familiar with Traverse City.
Traverse City was ranked by AOL Travel News in the #8 spot of America's Top 10 Beach Towns!
For eats, we recommend going casual if you've got a family. We love J&S Burgers, as well as House of Doggs. There are plenty of fine dining experiences, and lots of locally-sourced restaurants, wineries, ice cream, and more. Head to Popkies, downtown, for all kinds of flavored (and delicious) popcorn! Downtown there are many great shops, boutiques, and the State Theater for events.
House of Doggs
Beaches: There are many! beaches in Traverse City.
The Traverse City State Park is right on East Bay, and also has a campground. State Park fees apply.
The West End Beach is just west of downtown - is quiet and has parking and restrooms.
Clinch Park Beach is very popular, and has lifeguards and restrooms. Located on West Grand Traverse Bay, downtown.
The East Bay Park Beach has restrooms, lifeguards, and a shallow sloping beach.
Bryant Park Beach is on West bay, has a playground, restrooms, and lifeguards.
WHEW! You did it! Now, it's time to hit the road, or catch a flight and enjoy this Midwestern State. Airfare is inexpensive. Or you can hit the road and really enjoy the countryside.
What are your favorite places on Michigan's Sunset Coast?
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