Photo by Megan Fernandez
I was wrong—Lake Michigan isn’t tropical, but the café-au-lait sand is soft and clean, the lake can look dazzling blue in the morning light, and the water is swimmable—bracingly cold, but just at first dip.
The best part? It’s three hours away. You can spend a full day at a proper beach without risking a rental house or hotel. I just did my first there-and-back trip across the border and can vouch for the express version of a Lake Michigan getaway. The trick is to nail the details and maximize the time. Here’s how.
Pick a beach in Berrien County.
Adjacent to the Indiana border, the southwest corner of Michigan has several solid options. The New Buffalo Explored beach guide breaks them down with local expertise. We bypassed the closest, New Buffalo Lakefront Park, because it didn’t look as postcard-pretty as others and we worried it would be too crowded, as a popular stop for Chicagoans. We were tempted by the beach-snobby option to rent chaise lounges and umbrellas at a restaurant that would provide to-the-chair food and drink service, but that wouldn’t give us the flexibility to distance from other beach-goers to our liking. So we chose Warren Dunes State Park, another 20 minutes away. It’s probably just as crowded at New Buffalo, but we knew there would be room to spread out. We also wanted clean restrooms and a concession stand since we didn’t have a rental house to retreat to, and research steered us there.
Townline Beach in Union Pier would have been another good option. It’s a “road-end beach,” one of several located at the end of a residential street. These beaches are public but not well-marked, and generally, only locals and those with houses on that beach use them. Some road-end beaches are just a postage stamp of sand, and often there isn’t any parking. But Townline has a parking lot and a decent amount of shoreline. It’s also within a few blocks of Union Pier’s smattering of restaurants and groceries, a good replacement for a concession stand and restrooms. (Road-end beaches won’t have a lifeguard, though.) A late lunch of mussels or crab cakes with a caipirinha on the patio at the historic Gordon Beach Inn would be a great way to get out of the sun and use a restroom.
Weko Beach looks good, too. It has similar amenities as Warren Dunes (both have kayak and paddleboard rentals, too) without the hilly terrain. Unlike Warren Dunes, Weko welcomes dogs.
Watch the weather.
Another advantage of the day trip is that if the weather sucks, you can cancel. If you book a place, you’re locked in.
Pack for a schlep.
A big beach-snob hurdle—walking to and from the car laden with chairs, coolers, and bags. There are ways to make it tolerable, though. The first is a beach chair with backpack straps. This leaves your hands free for a small cooler and one bag with a towel, book, sunscreen, and snacks. That’s all you need. Skip the umbrella—it’s not that hot in Michigan. You can leave your cell and wallet in the trunk, too. Cell signal was nonexistent at Warren Dunes.
There’s no way around a schlep. At road-end beaches, there will be a long wooden staircase down to the sand, but then only a small walk to a set-up spot. At a big public beach like Warren Dunes, the parking lot sits right at the beach’s edge, but those beaches are big and broad, so you’ll walk a ways to an isolated spot. At Warren Dunes, you’ll also have to go up and down at least one sandy hill. It’s work.
We wish we had taken a noodle or inner tube. Bobbing in the water got boring fast. We took too much food and drink. Pack less (prioritizing water) and rely on the food trucks or restaurants within walking distance if you misjudge.
Download a podcast series.
To pass (and justify) the six-hour roundtrip drive, binge a podcast series you’ve been meaning to catch. Two if you don’t have a book to read on the beach. Wind of Change on Spotify is fantastic.
Wake up early.
We left at 6 a.m., planning to arrive at 9 or 9:30 to ensure a parking spot. But reports of full lots by 10 a.m. were off. We could have arrived at 11 a.m. or noon and been fine. However, those hours before the crowds arrived were sublime. The lake looks its prettiest shade of blue in the morning sun, and no one had yet to turn on a Bluetooth speaker. It was all breeze, lapping water, and cool spots in the sand that disappeared in the afternoon. If you’d rather sleep than maximize peace and quiet, leave at 8 a.m. and arrive around 11:30. The water isn’t warm enough to get in before the afternoon anyway.
Well, not really—just pack it and leave it in the car during the day, along with wet wipes to freshen up and a dry change of clothes. Eight or nine hours with your toes in the sand is plenty and lets you arrive home between 8 and 10 p.m. My companion noticed that she didn’t feel as gross as she expected on the drive home—probably because Lake Michigan is freshwater, not saltwater, and it never got sizzling hot on the beach. Everything was rather perfect—as long as a driver is sober by day’s end.