9 Absolutely Gorgeous Beach Vacations in Northern Michigan

The sun and water beckon, and we see no good reason to ignore the temptation. Pack your vacation playthings and head north to these nine stunning destinations for a Northern Michigan beach vacation!

Vacation Destination: Point Betsie, Frankfort

Located on the south end of shipwreck-strewn Manitou Passage, Point Betsie juts out like a proud chin into the waters of Lake Michigan, ready to take whatever the elements throw at it. On calm days, the vast sandy beach in Frankfort is a peaceful spot for sunbathing, sandcastles and touring historic Point Betsie Lighthouse—but locals know that the real magic happens when the weather rolls in. “Point Betsie has great energy—especially on a windy day when you have the tourists mixing with the surfers, windsurfers and kiteboarders,” says photographer Elizabeth Price, who became so enamored with the surfers she saw at beaches like Point Betsie that she took up the sport herself. Our suggestion for an epic beach day: Head to Point Betsie with a picnic in tow, spend the afternoon exploring the shore, and linger late for the sunset—which is always a stunner, whatever the weather.

EAT: Soak up Frankfort’s local flavor with a platter of pan-fried whitefish at Dinghy’s or toast the day at Fusion, where creative cocktails and the North’s largest sake list complement the Asian-American cuisine.

STAY: The Hotel Frankfort is just two blocks from Lake Michigan and also right downtown! Head to Stormcloud Brewing Company after watching the sunset and walk back to your room.

PHOTO BY: Elizabeth Price

Vacation Destination: Wilderness State Park

Petoskey locals simply call it “Wilderness,” and for good reason. This behemoth of a state park encompasses 10,000 acres of wetlands, meadows, forests and 26 miles of unspoiled Lake Michigan shoreline. The waterfront is particularly spectacular: sandy on the west end, stony toward the east, and stretching on seemingly forever, it’s a paradise for rock pickers and anyone who’s ever listed “long walks on the beach” among their defining interests. Our favorite way to enjoy Wilderness State Park is to spend the day hiking and wildlife-watching along the park’s miles of meandering trails, then climbing over the low, scrubby dunes on the western edge to watch the sun set over Sturgeon Bay.

EAT: Legs Inn is a legendary Polish outpost with a big outdoor deck and wonderful lakefront views.

STAY: Let the waves send you into sleep by snagging a site at the park’s Lakeshore Campground, which puts you right on the water’s edge.

PHOTO BY: Robert de Jonge

Vacation Destination: Copper Harbor, Keweenaw Peninsula

One of the best views in the entire state is secreted away in Copper Harbor, Michigan’s northernmost town, at the peak of the Keweenaw Peninsula in the Upper Peninsula. There, rising more than 700 feet above Lake Superior, is Brockway Mountain: a spiny ridge from which, on a clear day, you can see all the way to Canada. Sure, you can get to the top of Brockway by car—but since Copper Harbor is a mountain biking mecca, adrenaline junkies should follow the lead of this honeymooning couple, caught in action while pushing up Edge Trail by photographer Aaron Peterson. Copper Harbor Trails currently boasts more than 35 miles of scenic single-track that takes riders through wild forestland and offers views of Lake Superior.

EAT: Find hearty breakfasts, locally caught trout and authentic Northwoods charm at Tamarack Inn.

STAY: Cozy up in one of the sweet little cabins at family-owned Pines Resort, home to an on-site restaurant (with homemade pie) and Zik’s Bar, a favorite watering hole for locals.

PHOTO BY: Aaron Peterson

Destination: Mackinac Island

Mackinac Island, the crown jewel of Michigan’s island parks has been a beacon of summer vacation bliss for more than a century. Go ahead and embrace the tourist-tailored must-dos: eat fudge, take a horse-drawn carriage tour, pedal the island’s perimeter. But then, wander off the beaten path: Mountain bike the island’s hilly interior, golf with hickory sticks at historic Wawashkamo Golf Club, have champagne and scones at Grand Hotel’s daily high tea (non-guests are welcome with an admission fee).

EAT: The Chuckwagon, a snug diner right on Main Street, is home to the island’s best burgers.

STAY: Lodging on the island runs the gamut both in price and style, from sprawling historic inns to intimate B&Bs. For a splurge, stay at the sophisticated Hotel Iroquois, where the dazzling waterfront scenery includes a view of 1895-built Round Island Light.

PHOTO BY: Matt Carissimi

VACATION Destination: Petoskey State Park

This 300-acre oasis on the protected inner curve of Little Traverse Bay has been a summertime haven since the early 1930s, when it was known as Petoskey Bathing Beach. As its original name suggests, the park’s main draw is its gorgeous, crescent-shaped shoreline: an enormous expanse of white sand flanked by soft dunes and crystal-clear, shallow waters. (This is one of the best spots in the region to hunt for Petoskey stones, so bring a pail to take home any treasures.) When you’re ready for a break from the sun, follow the half-mile hiking trail to the top of Old Baldy, a nearly 800-foot-tall sand dune that affords a magnificent view over the bay.

EAT: Outfit your picnic at Julienne Tomatoes, a favorite local spot for sandwiches made with fresh, local ingredients.

STAY: Of the park’s two campgrounds, Tannery Creek is more secluded—and the sites will get you closest to the water.

PHOTO BY: Robert de Jonge

Vacation Destination: Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore

There’s arguably no place on the Great Lakes where the region’s geologic history is more dramatic—or more beautiful—than Pictured Rocks in the Upper Peninsula. The boat cruises that depart daily from Munising are a popular way to explore the 40-mile lakeshore park, but a guided kayak trip gets you closer to the breathtaking juxtaposition of Lake Superior’s emerald waters and Pictured Rocks’ colossal, multicolored sandstone cliffs. “The best parts of the park can only be seen from the water,” swears Aaron Peterson, a photographer and avid kayaker. Northern Waters’ full-day excursions will have you exploring caves, picnicking on secluded beaches, and threading along the rugged shoreline to landmarks like Lovers Leap, pictured above.

EAT: Falling Rock Cafe & Bookstore is a warm, eclectic spot with locally roasted coffee, ice cream and fresh, simple fare.

STAY: Hurricane River Campground is a magical spot where the mouth of the river meets Lake Superior. Get there early, as its 21 sites are first-come, first-served. In Munising, the waterfront Sunset Motel on the Bay is a squeaky-clean mom-and-pop establishment; some rooms have complete kitchens, and a few are even pet-friendly.

PHOTO BY: Aaron Peterson

VAcation Destination: Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore

First-time visitors to Sleeping Bear Dunes often can’t believe their eyes when they see this fresh-water ocean, all shades of blue and green, set against a striking landscape of sheer sand cliffs and pristine Northern woods. But this place has the kind of beauty that causes even locals and longtime visitors to lose their breath. Whether it’s your first trip or your hundredth, make this the summer you discover a new side of Sleeping Bear: like finding a secluded swimming spot (see the tucked-away beach at the end of Peterson Road) or climbing to a new vantage point (try the lookout from the top of Empire Bluff Trail, pictured). For something really special, head out to Good Harbor Beach around dusk, when campfires pop up along the darkened shoreline like a string of twinkling lights. Lying back in the sand and watching the stars emerge is a Sleeping Bear experience few seek out, but one you’ll never forget.

[10 Favorite Places in Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore]

EAT: Three words: Village Cheese Shanty. At the height of summer, there’ll probably be a line, but the pretzel-bread sandwiches at this Leland stalwart are worth the wait.

STAY: Sleep in the heart of Sleeping Bear at rustic D.H. Day Campground; or, if you’re looking for something plusher, find comfy suites plus a spa, golf and other amenities at The Homestead.

PHOTO BY: Angela Brown

Vacation Destination: Omena

In the catalog of favorite Northern beach towns, teeny Omena is often overshadowed by its Leelanau County brethren: Suttons Bay, Leland, and Glen Arbor. But this picturesque village on meandering M-22 offers a quiet counterpoint to the summertime bustle of bigger burgs. Our picks for a lazy afternoon: Follow Omena Point Road around the arc of Omena Bay to find the pretty public beach; peruse fine works by regional artists at Tamarack Gallery; sip wine in Leelanau Cellars’ laid-back tasting room; head inland to spy historic barns and cruise the ubiquitous fruit stands alongside the bucolic county roads.

EAT: The bay-front patio at Knot Just a Bar is a fine spot to indulge in cocktails and regionally inspired fare.

STAY: Just up the hill from town, Sunset Lodge B&B offers well-appointed rooms, fantastic breakfasts and captivating views over the bay.

PHOTO BY: Angela Brown

Vacation Destination: North Breakwater Light, Ludington

Ludington is one of the North’s best little beach towns, and Stearns Park—the city’s largest in-town beach—is the heart of the action, with a skate park, mini-golf and 2,500 feet of sandy shoreline. But despite the modern amenities, the main attraction remains the historic North Breakwater Light: a 1924-built, pyramid-shaped marvel that was recently voted one of the top 10 must-see lighthouses in the entire country. On balmy summer evenings, nothing beats a stroll along the half-mile break wall out to the light—except, perhaps, a climb to the top of the light’s tower on one of the daily lighthouse tours (tour schedule online).

EAT: A scoop of hand-dipped, homemade ice cream from ’40s diner House of Flavors is the stuff of summer dreams.

STAY: Ludington’s darling Parkview Cottages boast original knotty-pine interiors and fieldstone fireplaces—and they’ll put you just a half-block walk from Stearns Park.

PHOTO BY: Todd Reed

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