SLEEPING BEAR DUNES NATIONAL LAKESHORE
Benzie County lays claim to the southern tier of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, a 71,000-acre Great Lakes national park with 35 miles of pristine Lake Michigan mainland shoreline, dozens of sugar-sand beaches, 100 miles of mainland trails, 21 inland lakes, two islands for exploring and camping, and preserved historic sites from the region’s farming, fishing and lumbering past. Folks who live here don’t take this national treasure for granted, so it was a delight—but no surprise—when, in 2011, viewers of Good Morning America voted the park Most Beautiful Place in America.
More than 15 miles of trail carve through dunes and forests at this stunning and diverse preserve, which straddles Benzie and Manistee counties and overlooks Lake Michigan. Nearby working farms have also been permanently protected as a way of preserving the area’s agricultural heritage and expanding the types of landscape here. The park is part of the Sleeping Bear Birding Trail, which spans a migratory flyway along the lakeshore and provides excellent bird-watching opportunities. A favorite spot for hiking, mountain biking, and general nature-watching, too, with trails winding through fields of wildflowers and rare grassland habitat. Home to Old Baldy, a 400-foot perched dune that affords breathtaking views over Lake Michigan.
A four-season resort and spa in Thompsonville, an inland village nestled in Benzie’s beautiful hills. Folks flock here from all over the Midwest, all year long, but Crystal Mountain is loved by locals, too, who can take advantage of ski season passes, midweek deals, and the fact that the resort is on the regional Bay Area Transportation Authority bus line (skiers who arrive by bus are reimbursed with a meal ticket voucher). In the 2014-2015 season, Crystal expanded to 50 runs, on top of 30km of cross-country ski trails, 80 acres of valleys for snowshoeing, ice skating, dog sledding, snow castle building, even fat-tire snow biking. Crystal is also an ever-expanding summer destination, with two golf courses, an alpine slide, hiking and mountain biking, disc golf, kids’ summer camps, a new elevated rope and zip line course, and lots more. Summertime also brings an annual concert series held at the outdoor amphitheater at the Michigan Legacy Art Park, a 30-acre wooded preserve on the resort’s property with walking trails leading to sculptures and other works of art. A year-round treat: Crystal’s award-winning 18,500-square-foot, LEED-certified Crystal Spa, which offers a full compliment of services and sets the bar high for sustainability in the spa industry.
The county that gave birth to Michigan’s salmon industry is naturally home to some of the best fishing rivers in the state, and they are equally lovely for serene and scenic paddling. The shallow, crystal-clear Platte River makes for a gorgeous canoe trip, as it weaves through Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore before ending at Platte River Pointe on a sandy Lake Michigan beach. The lower Platte has a gentle current, making it ideal for family canoe or tubing trips; the upper Platte, meanwhile, is a fast-water trip built for more experienced paddlers. The Platte’s annual Coho salmon run starts around Labor Day each year; the best time for steelhead is March and April. Another hallowed river here is the Betsie: Nearly its entire 50 miles, from its origin at Green Lake to its terminus at Betsie Lake, are navigable by canoe. Conditions range from swift water to tranquil marshlands, with tons of wildlife- and bird-watching opportunities. September and October bring the King salmon run.
Kayaking, canoeing and tubing the Platte River, Benzie County.
Betsie Valley Trail
This 22-mile non-motorized path traverses parts of the scenic former Ann Arbor Railroad corridor and is a great spot for leisurely biking and walking. The trail stretches eastward from Frankfort (on the county’s western Lake Michigan edge) inland to Thompsonville, threading through the lovely Pere Marquette State Forest and along the waters of Crystal Lake, the Betsie River, and Betsie Lake. The six miles between Frankfort and Mollineaux Road is paved; from Beulah to Thompsonville, the trail is compact aggregate and open to snowmobiles between December and March.
Benzie is home to swaths of state forest land, public parks and preserves, and there are some stunning hiking trails to be found here. Two of the county’s most popular hiking trails—Platte Plains Trail and Old Indian Trail—are within Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore and lead hikers to the Lake Michigan shore. Lake Ann Pathway is a locals’ favorite, open year-round for single-track mountain biking, hiking and cross-country skiing. The trails loop through Pere Marquette State Forest, skirting along a section of the Platte River and serving up beautiful views of little lakes, wetlands and bogs. The Platte River Springs Pathway is another gem: This short but rugged trail, which starts in the Platte River State Forest Campground, includes fording a small river and climbing around bluffs—the kind of adventure you might imagine on a remote trail out west or way up in the U.P. (but in this case just minutes from a good post-trail meal in downtown Honor).
Point Betsie Lighthouse
Built in 1858, this white-brick, red-roofed beauty is the oldest standing structure in Benzie County and one of the most photographed lighthouses in the U.S. It marks the entrance to the treacherous Manitou Passage, a once-booming shipping channel during Michigan’s lumber-era heyday. The lighthouse has been beautifully restored and is open for tours from May through October, but the beach it stands upon is open year-round and is a gorgeous spot for sunset-watching, swimming and picnicking. It’s also a great place to rock pick and hunt for Petoskey stones, and the onshore winds have made it a favorite destination for kiteboarding.