Chicago’s skyline is visible across Lake Michigan due to an atmospheric anomaly, photo courtesy Southwest Michigan Tourist Council

Sunsets and Sandy Shores

Across Lake Michigan from the big city, an inviting landscape awaits in this scenic corner of the American heartland


The “Welcome to Michigan” sign feels like a release.

After an hour or two of driving east from Chicago, past the smokestacks and train tracks, the jammed freeways of Illinois and Indiana, you loosen your grip on the steering wheel. You turn up the radio and roll down the windows. You’ve arrived on Lake Michigan’s eastern shore.

The Great Lakes’ “sunset coast,” a stretch of rugged dunes and beach towns of every flavor, offers visitors a relaxing experience highlighted by picturesque views, invigorating swims and some of the finest beers in the country.


Dine, Then Dune

Both U.S. Route 12 and Interstate 94 enter Michigan from the southwest near New Buffalo, a little beach burg that serves as a popular getaway for Chicagoans and Michiganders alike.

While this tourist hotspot offers plenty to eat, two restaurants stand out: Redamak’s and The Stray Dog Bar and Grill.

Redamak’s is a classic roadside burger joint, where grilled burgers are served with crinkle-cut fries and your choice of cocktails, beers or soft drinks.

A favorite of generations of families, Redamak’s is cash-only and often has a line out the door. Let the crowd guide you, and enjoy the wait.

For something a little more dressed up (for a beach town), head over to The Stray Dog. Situated in downtown New Buffalo, the restaurant features rooftop dining and drinking for the 21-plus crowd, with a selection of tacos, salads and burgers to satisfy any palate.

The Stray Dog’s logo—featuring the silhouette of a scruffy mutt—has gained fame of its own on T-shirts seen up and down the coast. The model was a dog named Jack, who was rescued by the Michiana Humane Society after he was found tied to a tree as a puppy. Jack was saved by some friends of The Stray Dog’s owners and became the restaurant’s namesake when it opened in 2001. The Stray Dog sells a new T-shirt with Jack’s likeness each year to raise money for local animal charities.

Both spots offer to-go orders for those ready to hit the beach ASAP, which is common given the next stop.

Warren Dunes State Park rises from the lakeshore just north of New Buffalo. Within the 2,000-acre park, which opened in 1930, the road to the beach is surrounded by tall deciduous trees clad in deep green leaves come summer. Pull-offs lead to campsites and shaded picnic spots perfect for a packed lunch.

Approaching the lake, a long vista of blue spreads out as far as the eye can see. Lake Michigan is the only Great Lake surrounded completely by the United States, and reaches depths of 923 feet. But here, the lake is relatively shallow and water temps rise to 68 to 70 degrees—refreshing, if a little cool.

There are a few schools of thought about how to tackle the park’s two main attractions—its beach and dunes, which tower to 240 feet.

This author prefers to climb the dunes first, take in the big views up Michigan’s coast and down toward Indiana, then jump in the lake to cool off after scorching his feet on the hot sand. Another tactic is to head straight to the water, splash around, then climb a dune to build your body temperature back up. Both approaches have their merits.

A fascinating—if rare—sight can be glimpsed from atop the dunes. Near sunset, hawk-eyed visitors can make out Chicago’s skyline from across the lake some 53 miles away. This is a trick of light refraction, where warm air and light from the setting sun cause the outlines of the Willis (formerly Sears) and Hancock towers to bend along with the earth’s curvature.


Tap In

To date, Michigan hasn’t added much to America’s culinary scene. While square, sorta deep-dish Detroit-style pizza is beginning to receive its due, the regional food offerings have remained mostly that: regional.

Where the state shines, though, is with its brass taps. Drinkers can find Michigan beers from Manhattan to Austin to San Diego and every stop in between.

Bell’s Brewing was founded in 1985 in Kalamazoo. It’s flagship beer is Two Hearted, an award-winning IPA, courtesy photo

Continually named America’s best beer by the American Homebrewers Association, Bell’s Two Hearted, a bitter but delectable IPA, stands out in a packed field of Mitten State competitors. Founders Brewing Company’s Kentucky Breakfast Stout (KBS), a deeply flavorful oatmeal stout, routinely joins Two Hearted on the top-10 list, and both breweries are a must-visit for those who enjoy good beer.    

Heading north along Lake Michigan’s coast, you can veer east and drive 30 to 40 minutes to visit either brewery—or both!

Bell’s Eccentric Café serves as the brewery’s flagship tasting room. Located in Kalamazoo, a small college and manufacturing town, Bell’s is the brainchild of Larry Bell, who founded the business in 1985. Bell’s maintained a fierce independence for over 35 years before selling to New Belgium Brewing Company in 2021.

Since then, though, quality has remained a focus for the brewer.

Bell’s offers dozens of beers in addition to Two Hearted, including one near and dear to Michiganders’ hearts: Oberon. Each spring, the brewery releases that year’s edition of the sought-after wheat ale with an Oberon Day, which heralds the coming of warmer weather after a long, dreary winter. Oberon remains on tap through the summer and is a seasonal favorite locally. 

Farther up the coast and inland, you’ll find Founders Brewing Company in Grand Rapids. Located in the up-and-coming city’s downtown, Founders’ taproom features its laundry list of widely distributed beers such as KBS and All Day IPA—a session IPA suited for a beach day—in addition to beers available nowhere else.

While Founders has long shed its craft brewing status—it sold to a Spanish company in 2014—its brewers are still proudly inventive, especially at the taproom. This spring’s offerings included a raspberry-tinged KBS and delicious honey wheat.

Other regional favorites include Holland’s New Holland Brewing and Traverse City’s Right Brain Brewery.


Pure Michigan

After your sudsy detour, head back to the lakeshore for some solitude. As you continue north from Grand Rapids and Muskegon, towns become quainter, with more pines mixed into the local flora and slightly cooler lake temperatures.

Those who venture this far are officially “Up North,” though the term means different things to different Michiganders.

One of the joys of the north country is its wilderness. Loaded with deer, black bears and small herds of elk, this is a land away from the hustle and bustle of the downstate cities.

Visitors feeling ready for a rugged adventure can camp at Nordhouse Dunes Wilderness Area, a unit of the Huron-Manistee National Forest just north of Ludington.

This 3,500-acre parcel tucked against the coast is pure wilderness, with no motorized vehicles allowed. Load up a backpack and hike your camping gear about 2 miles toward the shore on the Nurnberg trail to the beach. Along the way, you’ll pass through bogs and stands of pines before eventually reaching the gently rolling sand dunes.

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is famed for its incredible views and steep, sandy slopes that lead down to prime beaches, courtesy photo

The wilderness is renowned for its location on the lake and the availability of dispersed camping on the beach just 400 feet from the breakers.

If a wide vista is more your thing, push northward to the tiny town of Empire. There, you’ll find Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.

Sleeping Bear is a stunning 35-mile stretch of Lake Michigan coastline. From towering 460-foot-tall dunes to the lake’s azure waters and the adjacent Manitou Islands, the park is Michigan’s ecological crown jewel.

Located along the state’s famously scenic M-22 highway, Sleeping Bear protects 72,000 acres of dunes, coastline and forest. You can get a sense of the Great Lakes’ massive scale on any number of trails, but to really feel it, take a cruise on the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive.

Overlooks 9 and 10 on the drive deposit visitors at the top of a 450-foot-tall dune, where you can take in the views or take on the dune itself.

The physically fit can sprint, slide and roll straight down the dune at a 45-degree angle. The experience is an utter delight, capped with a mad dash and dive into the lake, which is more frigid at this latitude but still refreshingly pleasant. At the bottom of the dune, the world is your oyster.

If that were the extent of the exercise, it would be far too hedonistic for staid northerners. So, like a kid staring down a long driveway covered in snow with naught but a shovel, this is where you begin the work of character building. Because the only way back to your car, and wiser friends and family members who stayed behind, is to scale the sand-covered dune—and sand doesn’t provide great traction.

How long the upward trip takes depends on your level of fitness and grit, which, coincidentally, you’ll also be covered with. This author runs about a 9:15 mile and has made it back up in about 15 minutes. Others take closer to a half hour or hour, allowing for breaks.

Signs atop the dune warn visitors that the climb can take as long as three to four hours, and park rangers routinely rescue adventurers who overestimated their ability. Run or slide down at your own peril.


The Cherry on Top

After toweling off the sweat and sand, finish your trip with a half hour drive to Michigan’s cherry capital, Traverse City.

Known as Michigan’s cherry capital, Traverse City is a rising tourist destination, photo by Sara Wellman, courtesy Pure Michigan

The burg is an extremely popular vacation destination for Michiganders, and others, as the word on Northern Michigan is out. Traverse City’s airport has recently added summer flights from Florida and Texas as reverse snowbirds visit to escape the heat.

Traverse City gets its nickname from the numerous cherry orchards that once dotted its landscape—the trees grow well in its sandy soil. Though the industry has recently contracted, the town is still a source for cherry-flavored everything.

Activities abound here, from breweries and wineries to beautiful beaches and trails. Try your luck on a fishing charter and see if you can snag the native lake trout (aka Mackinaw) and stocked salmon that make Lake Michigan an angler’s paradise.

The best way to finish your trip to Michigan’s coast, though, is to stop by any of the dozens of ice cream parlors, grab a cone and take in one last sunset over the big lake. Don’t forget your shades.

Kyle Magin is a writer based in Durham, North Carolina. He’s a native Michigander and very much looking forward to a summer trip Up North.

1 Comment
  • Alyssa Gaggino
    Posted at 04:14h, 11 July Reply

    Kyle you knocked that out of the ballpark! Fabulous travel guide.

Post A Comment

error: Content is protected !!