I had a plan. Once we were done seeing the sights in Holland, Michigan, that Sunday morning, we would travel down the coast and stop at the various Lake Michigan beachfronts on the way home. I had mapped out how long it would take us to get to each one and what else was there to do. As I said, I had a plan.
But like most good plans, this one didn’t quite turn out as expected. In fact, it was, in some aspects, a total fail. On the bright side, though, it gave me a lot of insight into the area to share with others.
Our first stop was Saugatuck, the location of Oval Beach. Since it was lunchtime, we decided to find food before getting some sun and ended up having to wait to be seated at a restaurant for 40 minutes. It is a cute area, so it was not surprising to see so many people looking at the shops and eating at the restaurants, and I will say, the food was completely worth the wait! (Try GROW Café + Bistro when you visit.)
It was lucky we decided to eat first because I overheard two women next to me talking about Oval Beach and how crowded it was that day. I also learned that it was going to be $20 for my husband and me to get in, and with both of those factors, I decided we would take our towels elsewhere.
Silver Beach, which is basically in St. Joseph and beside Benton Harbor, was next on the list. Unfortunately, there wasn't any parking available close to the waterfront, and when we drove by, we noticed there likely wasn’t an open spot on the sand anyway. However, I was excited to see St. Joseph North Pierhead Outer and Inner lighthouses, so we found temporary parking by some boating docks and walked the pier before setting out again for our third option: Grand Mere State Park.
Now, we had heard great things about Grand Mere from some friends. They mentioned that it was kind of a hidden gem that had one of the least crowded beaches, so we were excited. Our GPS wasn’t very helpful in getting us there, though. In fact, we drove down several other roads before trying the right one. And once we parked, we realized the shore was still pretty far away. But, there was a trail, so we weren’t concerned.
(Warning, here comes another “but.”) But then, right as we were beginning our walk, some parents and grandparents with two toddlers were returning to their cars. They said: “We didn't get very far because the path looks rough! There are ticks! It’s too difficult to get there, so we're giving up!" They mentioned that they had also tried South Haven's beach (which wasn’t on my list that day), and it was super packed.
My heart sank. If it was a jungle and we couldn’t reach the beach, I was running out of options. On the way into Michigan, we had already tried to get to the dunes in Indiana Dunes National Park (which was going to be our final stop on the day’s itinerary) and had driven around for an hour, unable to get to them and the water. So, all we had left after trying Grand Mere would be Warren Dunes State Park.
The good news is that my husband and I don't usually back down from a challenge and enjoy adventures. So we decided to just go for it, and thank goodness we did (and didn’t listen to the family). The hike was paved and clear the whole way there, and I’m not sure why they were so concerned about ticks when the vegetation rarely even touched you. In their defense though, about ¾ of the way through, it turned into sandy hills, which would be hard to climb with toddlers. While it wasn't the shortest of hikes and the sand was burning our feet, it was worth it.
As we surveyed the beach, we noticed it was less crowded despite not being as well-kept as the others. That being said, there were more people there than we thought. Boats were anchored everywhere — the word must have gotten out — and I understand the attraction. You can easily stand in the water and talk or play a game of catch because it’s all soft sand underneath you. There’s also a view of nature rather than buildings. We had a great afternoon!
Even though most of our efforts didn’t pan out, we decided to try one more option after Grand Mere so that we could actually enjoy some sand dunes. Warren Dunes State Park proved to be successful. It’s $9 per car, but you can lie on the beach, climb dunes or go on a hike; it’s a great place for an all-inclusive day.
So after a wild goose chase, here are my conclusions about the beaches in southwest Michigan:
Choose Oval Beach in Saugatuck if you also plan to shop and dine out.
Choose Benton Harbor and Silver Beach if you also want to walk a pier and see a lighthouse.
Choose Grand Mere State Park if you prefer fewer crowds and a more natural area, and don’t mind a hike.
Choose Warren Dunes State Park if you want to do a variety of outdoor activities.
As for Indiana Dunes State Park, I have no advice because we never found it. But I guess that was just a glimpse into the rest of the weekend we were going to have as we tried to find an open beach at Lake Michigan in the middle of the busy summer. So much for plans, am I right?