Beach Us Maximus

Todd Zawistowski

Sand in your belly button. Sand jamming your camera. Sand piled under the liner of your running shoe. Sand caked to your sweaty bottle of soda. Sand sprinkled on your sandwich, and, hence, scrunching between your teeth. Sand in your baby’s diaper. Sand in your book. Sand in your eyelids.

Gritty problems one and all, but problems you ought to have. Summer is here (and moving fast) and sand where you don’t want it (but actually do want it) is what the glorious season is all about. Lack sand? Time to retool, friend. And that’s where we come in. Follow us to five spectacular reaches along our sand-blessed coast where a few billion grains await your sunscreen-stickied kiester. (Did we mention sand in your…?)

Oh So Natural Area

Some beaches offer sand. Others offer stones. A glorious few serve a perfect blend of each. Welcome, then, to Antrim Creek Natural Area, a delicate and lovely 1-mile shore of sand and stone just west of Atwood, at the end of Rex Beach Road.

Turn onto the forest road that leads to Antrim Creek beach and know in a heartbeat that you’ve reached a special place. The two-track winds through a lush and hilly woods on a quarter-mile run to shore. Just a few parking spots at road’s end sends a clue: you won’t find masses here.

Tumble forth to spectacular Lake Michigan shore. Cedar and birch edge the forest. Across the blue, Leelanau’s tip clips the horizon. Perhaps you’ll feel powerful vibes converging. Maybe because you are halfway between the North Pole and the equator, here near the 45th parallel. Maybe it has nothing to do with that.

Low water has left Antrim Creek Natural Area with a curious shoreline. Ridges of stone form shallow pools and tiny peninsulas to explore. Note how nature has done some fine sorting here. Find spreads of stone the size of apples in one place, the size of grapefruits in another. A clump of rocks as big as footstools commands its own space.

If it’s sand and sand only you want, keep walking south about half a mile to the park’s southern boundary. There Antrim Creek spills from the woods and sand spreads wide.

Insider trading: You won’t want to leave Antrim Creek Natural Area once you arrive, so stock up well for the day. Find local freshness at Friske Market, on U.S. 31, a half mile north of Rex Beach Road 231-599-2604.

Up By Brevort

When that thrill of grand expanse takes hold high on the Mackinac Bridge, don’t let it go. Snatch it. Hold it tight in your heart. Let the feeling set the tone for your day of sand along six spacious and public miles of Lake Michigan’s northernmost rim, up der in da U.P.

Dismount from the bridge and steer west on U.S. 2. At the 6-mile mark, pause a moment and pull off at Gros Cap Overlook for a cliff-top view of the undulating shore. Back in the car, continue west 6 miles more. Pass the sign that says, “Hiawatha Forest Welcomes You,” and a moment later, the scene unfolds: dune grass, miles of blue and that beach-scene classic—sections of decaying wind fence half buried in sand.

Pull off the road whenever you feel like stopping and step down to the beach. Note the absence of rocks. Yes, there’s car sound, but the pulse of  surf soon takes over. Spend the day picnicking and playing freshwater porpoise, but don’t head home with the sunset. Pull out the firewood you were smart enough to buy on the way up, and have yourself a merry little bonfire—this is one of the few beaches where fires are allowed. (Please: build your fire in a previous fire spot to keep the beach clean.)

Insider trading: For a bit of the real U.P. thing, drive on to Brevort and slip inside Gustafson’s (906-292-5424). Smoked meats (Cajun buffalo, anyone?) and smoked fish (fresh from the Straits) are the main attractions. But expect other provisions too: drinks, framed prints of wolves howling, snacks, fishing supplies, wild rice and water toys. BTW: Do your pelt shopping here, too.

Word to the wise: Strong southwest winds can cause a rip current along the U.S. 2 beach. Swim with care.

Dang-Good Harbor

Find a map of Michigan and let your eye trace northward along the wandering shore of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. There, about the middle of the park shore, it dips south in a smooth arc to form Good Harbor. The name tells you what you need to know. It’s a simple poem of a place, with sand and clear water and low dune rimming the inland view (okay, there’s lots of poison ivy too).

A special treat for rock-skippers also awaits: a mother lode of smooth, flat, oval chunks of limestone sized to fit the hand. Hit the beach during that windless evening lull when the breezes are shifting from offshore to on, and give a stone a pitch. Watch it dimple the surface with a skip-skip-skip-skip-skip-skip-skip-skip-skip.

Two access points get you there, and each ends at a place where the Park Service allows beach fires (bring wood and use an existing fire spot). From Leland, take M-22 to C-651; turn right on the gravel road. Or stay on M-22 a few more miles and turn right on C-677 (Bohemian Rd.)

Insider trading: For great eats at Good Harbor, seek out Michigan Traders, on M-22 by Little Traverse Lake and North restaurant. They like to say they have everything from baked to Bordeaux. What that means is fresh bread, homemade soups, superb sandwiches, dozens of salads and a nice selection of wines and beers. Call for special orders. 231-228-7459.

The Wild Side

There’s enough room for everybody at Wilderness State Park, just west of Mackinaw City. Twenty-three miles of untamed (and public) Lake Michigan shore trim Wilderness in a magnificent ribbon of beach—broad and sandy in some places, broad and stony in others. For a nice intro, steer your people to the campground beach—a parking lot, bathrooms and a store just down the road keeps things easy. Even on crowded days, if walk a short way you’ll have all the space you could want. Set up near the creek that empties there and the kids will build dams and play riverboat all afternoon on a half mile of Big Stone Bay’s sandy shore.

But perhaps you are the “other” kind of beachgoer, the kind that likes to pick through rocks to wonder at the Earth’s origins or to just say “wow” at the rock patterns and show them to your honey. Wilderness serves that experience too.

Continue along Waugaushance Point a couple more miles and turn right into the parking lot just before the dead end. Stones the size of radishes and eggs spread across acres of exposed, low-water shore. Glaciers graciously picked the stones up from points distant 10,000 years ago, ground them smooth and dropped them here during the big meltdown. Beware, though, because during piping plover breeding time—which can be most of summer—rangers cordon off  parts of this area . The Great Lakes piping plover is an endangered species and this stretch of stony seclusion holds the world’s greatest concentration of nesting pairs.

Insider trading: Head to the Wilderness Park Grocery for pizza, real sandwiches, snacks and things (like tent pegs) you forgot at home. The deli attendant will custom build a sandwich the way you like it.

Peach of a beach

No matter how many times you do it, there’s always a thrill when you drive the road up Elberta’s dune, roll over its crest and then edge slowly down the steep hill on the Lake Michigan side. Some thrill derives from the steepness. But just as much derives from the spectacle of the big lake and the dunescape that draws your eye far to the south.

Elberta beach is a Northern Michigan classic. The dunes tower along the shore, the sand runs clean to the shore and the surf covers the rest of what you need. For a special treat, watch the hang gliders launch off the local hang glider club’s pad a short way south of the mouth of Betsie Bay.

Oddly enough, though the public has for decades used the beach without restriction, only a portion is truly public. The rest is owned by a sand mining company that originally bought Elberta dune to dig it up and carry it away. Read the signs to know how you want to proceed. And before you do proceed, know not to trust the tracks left by 4-wheel drive trucks—what looks like hard-packed two-track suddenly turns to sandy quagmire and a tow truck charge. Park where other cars are. To get there, take M-22 to Elberta and take the first turn north after the causeway. Follow to the end.

Insider trading: The Elberta beach is close enough to Frankfort and Elberta that you can buzz into town when the snacking jones hits.  

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