Take a morning hike along one of these trails, then pass the afternoon lounging at the gorgeous Northern Michigan beach your trail is paired with.
Thorne Swift Preserve
You don’t even have to get in the car for this one. Hike the mile or so of easy trails and then head straight to the water.
This sweet Lake Michigan beach is a bit of a secret, tucked away in a pretty 30-acre preserve near Harbor Springs. It’s just 300 feet of frontage, but on most days you’re likely to have it all to yourself. Bonus: There’s also 1.5 miles of easy hiking trails and boardwalks through dunes and cedar swamps, and an interpretive nature center the kids will adore. On Lower Shore Drive, off M-119 four miles north of Harbor Springs. 231.526.6401, landtrust.org.
Petoskey State Park
Park the car for the day- Petoskey State Park’s got a trail system and expansive beach. If you can’t imagine leaving after that sunset, you can always pitch a tent.
This expansive beach on Little Traverse Bay is a slice of heaven smack between Harbor Springs and Petoskey, making it ideal for a swim after shopping in town. Play a game of volleyball in the sand courts, or take a short hike along the park’s trail system for the incredible views atop Old Baldy, a stable dune just behind the beach. 180 campsites. On M-119, four miles northeast of Petoskey. 231.347.2311.
Tip of Old Mission Peninsula– Lighthouse Park or Pelizzari Natural Area
The moment you embark on M-37 it is as if you have entered paradise. Orderly vineyards, unbelievably blue waters, rustic hilltop barns. Keep going and it only gets better. At the tip there are pristine trails and dreamy stretches of beach.
The gentle meeting of land and inland sea at the tip of Old Mission Peninsula once led a New York Times writer to mistakenly wax poetic about Lake Michigan’s unique “tidal flats.” Of course, we don’t experience tides on the Great Lakes, but this magical area, home to a lighthouse, beach and lovely trail network, is a spot you’ll return to over and over again. At the northern terminus of M-37.
Pelizzari Natural Area
Try a hike through Pelizzari Natural Area, where easy to moderate trails wind through a mix of meadows, woods and a lovely stand of old hemlocks; swimming at Haserot Park, a fantastic (and seldom busy) beach; and picnicking at the kid-friendly park on beautiful Bowers Harbor. (Find provisions, plus ice cream, antiques and souvenirs at the funky Old Mission General Store. 18250 Mission Rd., Village of Old Mission, 231.223.4310.)
Leelanau State Park (north of Northport)
Over eight miles of shady trails to explore at the northernmost point of Leelanau Peninsula and secluded Lake Michigan beaches worth seeking out.
Pitch a tent at one of the 55 rustic campsites, rent a mini cabin, or make a day out of exploring the 8.5 miles of hiking trails at this state park, its lighthouse museum and hidden beaches near the north tip of Leelanau Peninsula. No pets are allowed on the shoreline, because the area is a prime nesting ground for the tiny, rare piping plover. Spot them (from a distance)—and find blissful solitude—at secluded Cathead Bay, reached by a ¾-mile walk from the parking lot, over forested dunes nearly as enchanting as the sandy cove beach. This summer, a traveling exhibit of 100 aerial lighthouse photographs debuts in the Fog Signal Building.
Grass River Natural Area/ Alden
Hike through seven miles of trails at Grass River Natural Area and then make the short, ten-minute drive south to set up shop at Alden’s hardly busy public beach on Torch Lake.
A 1,400-acre Antrim County oasis and self-proclaimed “eco-guardian project,” Grass River offers visitors a peek into the upland, wetland and aquatic ecosystems of the Chain of Lakes. Seven miles of easy walking trails meander along meadows, woods and streams; one section of trail includes a wheelchair-accessible “perception pathway” for visitors with special needs. The interpretive center offers lots of classes and guided hikes, such as the weekly 1 p.m. “Sunday Stroll”—a leisurely walk led by a naturalist. 6500 ALDEN HWY., BELLAIRE, 231.533.8576, GRASSRIVER.ORG.
Among the select few public access sites on Torch Lake is this cute little patch of frontage and sandy-bottomed swimming spot in Alden, next to the pier. You won’t find volleyball nets or lifeguards, but you’ll likely have it all to yourself—and you’ll be just seconds from the shops and eateries downtown. With the shoreline here facing straight west, this is the perfect place for a sunset dip. Find it in downtown Alden at the sharp dog-leg on South East Torch Lake Drive (County Highway 593). VISITALDEN.COM.
Jordan River Pathway/ East Jordan
Perhaps more suitable for an all-day hiking adventure and sunset swim, Jordan River Pathway boasts an eighteen-mile-long trail system that ventures deep into the wild. For a hike that will only take up the morning hours, try the Deadman’s Loop. It rewards you with picture-perfect views at the top overlook. When the hiking’s all said and done, drive twenty minutes to East Jordan’s Elm Pointe to take that much-anticipated dip in Lake Charlevoix.
This rugged 18-mile trek winds through the wildly scenic Jordan River Valley, an 18,000-acre swath of state-owned forestland. The tract has dramatic elevation changes and is home to the pristine Jordan River. This is a great destination for a weekend backpacking trip; stay overnight at Piney Bridge Campground, a rustic camping spot with 15 hike-in tent sites located about halfway along the trail. For an easy day hike, try the three-mile Deadman’s Loop. Find the main trailhead off Deadman’s Hill Road, six miles north of Alba on US 131. State Recreation Passport required. 989.732.3541, MICHIGANDNR.COM.
Elm Pointe, formerly the pioneer homestead of the Monroe family, is one of East Jordan’s loveliest parks. Monroe Creek winds its way through the 11 acres of parkland, which includes beach frontage and a picnic area on the south arm of Lake Charlevoix. The historic Monroe home still stands on the property (available as event space for weddings and gatherings), as does the East Jordan Portside Art and Historical Museum, open (with free admission) on weekends in June and Thursdays through Sundays from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. in July and August. 1787 N M-66, EAST JORDAN, EASTJORDANCITY.ORG.
Sleeping Bear Dunes
To name only one beach and trail combo worth visiting inside the national lakeshore would be doing the place injustice. Do some exploring, and you’ll stumble upon your next favorite spot.
When Leelanau County locals want to show off their region, they bring guests first to the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, most often starting at the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive, which weaves through the dunes. A one-time logger, Pierce Stocking used to walk the spectacular bluffs and wanted to share the beauty with others. He envisioned a clever route that let the geographic drama gradually unfold.
A pull-off early in the route offers a distant view of the ethereal blues of the Glen Lakes; another pull-off delivers undulating dunescape with towering ridges. But we’re betting it was at the Lake Michigan overlook where Good Morning America viewers cemented their decision to name this park the Most Beautiful Place in America. Here, the dunes drop 450 feet steeply down into glittering Lake Michigan, and all the cameras come out—though few can capture the top-of-the-world feel.
Marvel at the tiny specks of people on the beach below, then work your climbing muscles at the Dune Climb—the main attraction for kids (of all ages) who love scaling its heights, then tumbling back down the soft sand.
The park’s beauty and fun unfold elsewhere, too, in ways both subtle and spectacular. Follow hiking trails to pinnacle overlooks—Empire Bluffs and Pyramid Point among the favorites. Canoe or kayak through the park on the gorgeous Platte or Crystal Rivers. Or travel back in time with a stop at Glen Haven, a tiny preserved town of museums and an old-time general store, adjacent to the beach recently named most beautiful on the Great Lakes. Fit it all in by setting up camp at popular D.H. Day Campground on the mainland, or escape to one of the rustic hike-in campsites on North or South Manitou Islands.
To visit the islands, buy ferry passage from Manitou Island Transit at the Fishtown Pier in Leland and map your daytime or overnight adventure: climb a lighthouse tower, hike to a shipwreck that pokes above the waves, wander the beach for hours. Visitor Center, corner of M-22 and M-72, 231.326.5134, nps.gov/slbe.
Ludington State Park Beach
Take your pick of sandy dunes or sheltered trails. Rejuvenated after a swim in Lake Michigan? Walk the seven-mile stretch of shore from the state park’s public beach house.
To find enchanting trails along rivers and lakes, you can’t beat this 5,300-acre park with exploration options aplenty. For a family-friendly hike, try the half-mile long Skyline Trail, running over a boardwalk toward memorable views of Lake Michigan and grassy dunes. Ten rustic sites have been set aside for backpackers wanting the solitude of a hike-in spot. 231.843.2423. visitludingtonstatepark.com.
After a hike, lay down towels at Ludington State Park Beach.
The sugary sands stretch for nearly seven miles at Ludington State Park, which encompasses 5,300 acres of scenic dunes, beaches, cool, dense forests, and marshes teeming with wildlife. Bonus: The park will be adding a second-floor veranda to its public beach house—certain to be a choice spot for sitting, reading, or day-dreaming as you gaze at Lake Michigan’s clear blue waters and listen to waves lapping at the shore. VISITLUDINGTONSTATEPARK.COM.
Whaleback Natural Area and Leland’s North Beach
Park the car at Whaleback Natural Area just south of Leland for a short, shady hike to the Lake Michigan overlook.
After a quick hike up to the Lake Michigan overlook at Leland’s Whaleback Natural Area, climb in the car for a quick drive through town to North Beach.
North Beach is a favorite for those who like to walk for miles, stopping along the soft sand path to collect a Petoskey stone or locally prized Leland Blue. (Stay along the water line to avoid trespassing.) Find books, picnic fare and sand toys in downtown Leland. Take North Street west toward the lake, and then follow a short trail to the beach.
Hike up Empire Bluffs, a favorite West Shore climb, and then drive to neighboring Empire. Its Lake Michigan beach calls for family picnics and napping atop a pillow of sand.
Turn onto Wilco Road, south of Empire, where you will find the trailhead for Empire Bluffs. Only a 3/4 mile climb, the top overlook is stunning. Look north to see the sandy cliffs of Pyramid Point, and on a clear day, you’ll even be able to make out the silhouette of South Manitou.
After the photos and climb down, take a short drive to Empire’s favorite beach.
Enchanting dune bluffs rise to the north and south of this wide swath of sandy beach, making it one of the area’s most popular. The amenities don’t hurt either. A restroom, playground, picnic tables and grills help families out. When the big lake’s too chilly to dive into, cross the parking lot to the small inland (and warmer) South Bar Lake. Follow signs from downtown.