You know how you get all choked up during those Pure Michigan travel commercials? It’s not just clever advertising. Motoring along the state’s western beach towns makes for a dreamy vacation awash in sand dunes, farmers markets and festivals, wineries, cideries and breweries, plus once-in-a-lifetime sunsets.
Launch this Midwestern beach towns road trip in Chicago or anywhere in the loop.
Chicago, Illinois to South Haven, Michigan
2 hours, 122 miles via I-94 E
Since it’s such a quick drive on this first leg of the trip, plot a course to stop somewhere in “Harbor Country,” where you’ll discover small beaches enjoyed by locals and visitors. You can sail off of I-94 at exit 23 to get onto 63 (Red Arrow Highway) for Weko Beach Park in Bridgman.
Adjacent to Warren Dunes State Park, park at Weko ($10 vehicle day pass) and walk along the beach to experience both, a nice way to stretch the legs and snap your first beachy pictures. If you’ve packed sandwiches and snacks, this is a sweet place to refuel.
Tabor Hill Winery has a tasting room in Bridgman if you’d like your first sip of Michigan wine, or drive 10 minutes north on Red Arrow Highway to Stevensville’s Watermark Brewing Company. Sit outside with one of their distinctive brews and order Venezuelan, Cajun, Mexican or barbecue bites from the rotating list of food trucks.
It’s 11 minutes on Lake Shore Drive to St. Joseph, located in the largest non-citrus fruit growing area in the United States. See the North Pier Lighthouse and walk along Silver Beach, a family favorite for decades. If you haven’t eaten yet, Silver Beach Pizza, housed in an historic Amtrak Depot, has really good pies and even better views of the beach. Expert tip: In summer, reservations can be made up to two weeks in advance if your heart is set on noshing with views of Lake Michigan.
You are motoring through Southwest Michigan’s agricultural belt, so keep your eyes peeled for billboards touting winery tasting rooms, breweries, farm stands and U-Pick farms. Fresh blueberries, available from July to September, are a big deal at this edge of Michigan’s mitten, so do your skin and intestinal tract a favor and pick some up at any of the hundreds of family farms that grow the colorful orbs.
In addition, Michigan’s sweet and tart cherries taste nothing like those that are delivered by trucks from who-knows-where to your local grocer.
It’s just 30 minutes along M-63 and I-196 to fetching South Haven that boasts a boatload of maritime history, boutiques, indie eateries, arts and a shoreline that can keep visitors entertained for days. Explore the exhibits or take a boat ride at the Michigan Maritime Museum (it’s easy to find – just look for the Friends Good Will tall ship – a replica of a merchant sloop that sailed the Great Lakes in the early 19th century).
Plunk down the beach towels at one of the many beaches, or book a fishing charter adventure on Lake Michigan with an experienced guide. Scout art galleries and antique stores until it’s time to eat.
Clementine’s, ensconced in the old Citizen’s Bank building, circa 1896, is a must for its renowned 6-or-12 inch stack of spectacular onion rings and lightly dusted, pan-fried “mess of perch.” Two Chicago sisters launched Golden Brown Bakery Cafe more than 80 years ago, and today, you can still get made-from-scratch bakery items, as well as breakfast and lunch plate specials ranging from $5-$8.
There’s a long scroll of good eating and drinking venues in South Haven, and Wednesdays and Saturdays, purveyors at the Farmers Market sell Michigan savory pasties, locally-roasted coffee and baskets of fresh produce.
All that sun and strolling will wear you out. Consider glamping in furnished safari tents among 75 acres of trees and meadows (just 10 minutes from town); stay in cabins, vacation homes and tent sites at Kal-Haven Outpost; or relax at inns, resorts, hotels, B & B’s, lakeshore cottages and condos.
Sleepy Hollow Beach Resort (with a storied century-long history) offers cottages, A-frames and townhomes that present as Art Deco on the outside, but sport pure sailing vacation decor on the inside. Amenities include a heated Olympic-sized pool; tennis, basketball and shuffleboard courts; volleyball, badminton and pickleball; a putting green; complimentary bikes; and a terraced beach with stair access to the lake.
Wherever you snooze, check the sunset schedule because you don’t want to miss South Haven’s nightly kaleidoscopic display.
South Haven, Michigan to Muskegon, Michigan
1 hour and 20 minutes, 68 miles via I-196 and US-31
This route along Highway 31 hugs Lake Michigan and winds through the beach communities of Saugatuck and Grand Haven.
if you don’t mind seasonal crowds and like to poke around in shops and art galleries (it’s called the “Art Coast”), by all means stop in Saugatuck. The popular town has six public beaches and plenty of places to picnic. Parking is at a premium, but if you want to try a late breakfast or lunch in Saugatuck, Penny Royal Provisions, Grow Cafe and Uncommon Coffee Roasters offer both.
Travelers craving a nature encounter should fly by Saugatuck, follow I-196 N/US-31 N to Blue Star Hwy/Holland St/Washington Rd and take exit 41 for Saugatuck Dunes State Park. It covers 1,000 acres on the shore of Lake Michigan with coastal dunes over 200 feet tall.
Four hiking trails of various lengths – that all end with views of Lake Michigan and secluded beaches – are worth the $9 out-of-towner vehicle fee (and the sweat conquering the rise and fall of the sandy trails). Novice hikers and lazybones should choose the eminently doable, three-quarter-of-a-mile “Beach Trail.”
Get back onto I-196BL E/US-31 N for a 40-minute drive to Grand Haven where you can have a bite and a brew. Downtown’s The Copper Post works just fine with smash burgers, hand-breaded Michigan smelt and suds from Grand Armory Brewing right around the corner.
Saunter on Grand Haven’s boardwalk which checks in at 1.5 miles from downtown to Lake Michigan, and you’ll be rewarded with views of two crimson lighthouses. Beachfronts in the area include Grand Haven City Beach, North Beach Park, Kirk Park and Grand Haven State Park (the world’s largest Musical Fountain is nearby offering nightly performances through the summer).
Eight miles north of Grand Haven via US-31 N, P.J. Hoffmaster State Park near Muskegon is a real find. Campers will go for the 297-site modern campground, visitors can learn about the area at the Visitors Center, and anyone with a pulse will be wowed by lofty Lake Michigan dunes. Ascend the Dune Climb Stairway that leads to the top of a towering sand dune with an observation deck and views of the dunes and Lake Michigan.
Return to US-31 N for a 15-minute drive to Muskegon, the largest Michigan city on the lake’s western shores. At first glance, it looks fairly industrial compared to previous beach towns. However, Muskegon’s downtown is undergoing a revitalization (locals say Dr. Rolf’s is a sure thing for good barbecue) and there are also miles of beaches.
Attractions include the USS Silversides Submarine Museum; Michigan’s Adventure (the state’s largest amusement park); tours of the colorful Hackley and Hume homes for those into Victorian architecture and late 19th century interior decorative arts; and The Muskegon Museum of Art which is featuring female artists this year.
The Deck is a rocking eatery with live music, smokers working overtime flavoring turkey legs, brisket and pork, and tons of patio seating right on the beach of Pere Marquette. Beach volleyball and striking sunsets are both fun to watch.
Expert tip: Parking at Pere Marquette is pay to park and the parking prefects aren’t shy about writing tickets. The Deck chops $5 off your bill when you show part of your paid parking slip.
Watch boaters pull into the dock as you devour seafood, salads and sandwiches at Dockers Fish House and Lounge. If you stay at the boutique, The Pidge Inn, you can walk across the marina to Dockers or walk to Pere Marquette beach in 12 minutes. The property is the closest Muskegon hotel to Lake Michigan and it’s a gorgeous little number offering understated luxury accommodations awash in seaside blues, postcard views of the marina and Muskegon Lake and outdoor space with every room.
A few of the nine rooms have lofts with two XL twin beds that are accessed by ship ladders and most have kitchens or executive kitchenettes. Before you call it a night, scan Muskegon CVB’s breakfast blog to settle on where to get a hearty morning meal before the one-hour drive to Ludington tomorrow.
Muskegon, Michigan to Ludington, Michigan
1 hour, 60 miles via US-31
If you’d like to stop in between for a visual and physical jaunt, head to Silver Lake State Park, just south of Ludington. Take exit 144 from US-31 N. The 1874 Little Sable Point Lighthouse offers a paved trail so you can approach and climb the tower and witness arresting views of the evergreen forest and 70-foot sand dunes.
Ludington has endless opportunities for outdoor recreation, so you may want to stay a few days to work off some pandemic pounds or merely forest bathe. Climb to the top of two area lighthouses, including 100-foot-tall Big Sable Point Lighthouse in Ludington State Park, one of the state’s top parks. You’ll experience some of Michigan’s best fishing, canoeing and kayaking, SUP boarding, biking and hiking here.
Twenty-eight miles of sand-filled shoreline awaits in Ludington, and the public beach at Stearns Park has been named the #1 beach in Michigan – plus locals love it for watching sunsets over Lake Michigan. It’s walking distance to downtown’s galleries, shops and restaurants. Get a cone from local favorite, House of Flavors (Blue Moon is the signature flavor out of 40 choices), a short walk to Waterfront Sculpture Park where you can watch the S.S. Badger arrive at 7 pm nightly.
Where to eat? The aforementioned House of Flavors also serves breakfast until 2 pm alongside old-timey diner plates like meatloaf, roasted turkey with trimmings and a roster of sandwiches and salads. The new Crown and Cork has waterfront views and American classics. Stop for a drink at gastropub Jamesport Brewing Co (the cheddar ale soup is nice on a chillier day) or Ludington Bay Brewing, which also serves pizza and pub grub.
Lay down that weary noggin at a mom-and-pop motor lodge, historic B&B, vintage resort or a national chain. Hobby Crest Resort on Hamlin Lake has nine renovated and restored cottages, each with unique décor and water views. No two rooms are alike at the renovated ’50s motel, Ludington Beach House, which is one the closest lodgings to Stearns Park Beach and Ludington North Breakwater Light.
Historic lumber baron homes-turned B&Bs punctuate Ludington Avenue, including the Lamplighter Bed & Breakfast dating to 1894, the 1878-era Ludington House B&B and the handsome Cartier Mansion with jaw-dropping custom woodwork and fixtures preserved from its construction in 1905. Book a room in the Mansion or one of the adjacent Carriage House suites (Ralph Lauren would approve of the Stable Suite’s leather and wood, fireplace, luxe bathroom and bedside truffles).
Expect an impressive multi-course breakfast – including baked bananas foster oatmeal and 21-spice sausage – early evening bites and sips, and a perfect location near beaches, downtown and boarding the S.S. Badger.
All aboard the S.S. Badger from Ludington, Michigan to Manitowoc-Two Rivers, Wisconsin
Humans, pets, bikes and vehicles have been sailing on the seven-story tall ferry for more than 60 years, gliding between Ludington and Manitowoc in about four hours. The last coal-fired passenger steamship in operation in the country, it provides a trusty and affordable shortcut across Lake Michigan. You’ll spot lighthouses, gulls and the colors of the lake transforming from navy blue to Caribbean teal.
One-way passage for people costs between $25-$69 (kids four and under sail free); vehicle passage is $75; bikes and motorcycles ride for $6-$39. Bring your pooch for no additional charge, as long as they’re in a well-ventilated portable kennel on the car deck or transported in your vehicle.
Once your car is parked on the Badger by an attendant, you cannot access it, so bring a jacket and/or blanket (it’s 10-15 degrees cooler on the decks) and something physical to read would be smart (you’ll have just an hour of internet service on each end).
You can nod off in a deck chair, wander the ferry, explore the small maritime museum, play a round of bingo, watch a movie, play a board game or purchase drinks and snacks in the Badger Galley. Boarding and disembarking is a streamlined process and you’ll even gain an hour of vacay since Wisconsin is on Central time.
Forests of evergreen, oak and birch; rivers and lakes; Lake Michigan beaches; artful enclaves and rustic towns full of friendly, salt-of-the-earth people; plus oozy cheese curds, fish fries and brandy Old Fashioned cocktails. On, Wisconsin!
The twin towns of Manitowoc and Two Rivers are nestled on the coast of Lake Michigan offering visitors 17 beaches, three lighthouses and a six-mile paved Mariner’s Trail to bike, hike or run along the lake and connect the two communities. It’s the longest continuous scenic view of the lake in Wisconsin.
Point Beach State Forest in Two Rivers is home to six miles of sandy beach, campgrounds and the 1853 Rawley Point Lighthouse, one of the most photographed lighthouses on Lake Michigan.
Anglers may want to visit Two Rivers’ Rogers Street Fishing Village and Great Lakes Coast Guard Museum, listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Browse displays of shipwrecks and commercial fishing exhibits explaining the 175-year history of fishermen confronting the wiles of Lake Michigan. This Smithsonian Affiliated Wisconsin Maritime Museum features the fully restored World War II submarine, WW2 USS Cobia.
The most popular beach in these parts is Two Rivers’ Neshotah Beach attracting swimmers, volleyball buffs, kayakers and beachcombers searching for sea glass. If you head a quarter-mile south toward the Two Rivers break wall, you’ll discover the brand new North Pier Beach.
Hikers may want to tackle a segment of the 1,000-mile Ice Age National Scenic Trail. Manitowoc-Two Rivers claims 24 miles of the trail which connects Point Beach State Forest and Woodland Dunes Nature Center.
If you’re famished after disembarking from the S.S. Badger, walk a few blocks south to the Fat Seagull, a family-owned bar and grill that’s all Wisconsin. Friday Fish Fry is a state habit, and the perch and walleye at the rustic spot are spot-on. An impressive lobster bisque is made fresh every Friday with plenty of lobster and a welcome tab – only $6 for a bowl. Choose among 17 draft beers to escort your sandwich, burger or meal.
Look for the colossal cow on the front lawn of Cedar Crest Ice Cream and you’ve landed at one of the state’s favorite’s treats. Choose among 32 hand dipped flavors of ice cream, sherbet or frozen yogurt that emerges fresh from the adjacent manufacturing plant. Cheese, please? The sixth-generation family-owned Pine River Dairy lauds its 12-year-old super sharp cheddar. Lap a 25-cent hand dipped ice cream cone while deciding among 250 varieties of cheese.
If you’re looking for an authentic Wisconsin supper club experience, H & C’s Elbow Room or Harborside would be your ticket. Or try Green Street Food & Spirits, a compact bar (that fills with happy imbibers shortly after opening) and restaurant that has homey Wisconsin vittles at low prices. Menu items include homemade chicken dumpling soup, roasted chicken and pork chops (all appear to be a thing around these parts), rainbow trout and lake perch, hot turkey with mashed potatoes and gravy – all satisfying and very affordable.
Request a lakeside room when booking The Lighthouse Inn that overlooks Lake Michigan in Two Rivers. Village Inn on the Lake also has rooms with lake views. The Manitowoc-Two Rivers area has a number of mid-priced chain hotels, too, but for something really different, consider sheltering aboard the USS Sobia WWII Submarine on the Manitowoc River that can be rented for overnight stays.
Manitowoc, Wisconsin to Sheboygan, Wisconsin
35 minutes, 30 miles via I-43 S
Scenic route: 40 minutes, 26 miles via Lakeshore Drive and Lakeshore Road
Get a grab-and-go breakfast from Wrap It Up in downtown Manitowoc that also serves robust coffee from Milwaukee’s Colectivo for this quick drive, or head right into downtown Sheboygan’s Paradigm Coffee and Music for baked goods, quiche and Colectivo coffee.
After caffeination, stroll down 8th Street to peek into shops of small-town entrepreneurs like Freaktoyz (playthings of your youth), home goods stores and a chocolate shop. Duck into the new Sheboygan Area Visitors Center (South 8th Street & Riverfront Drive) for any guidance and make a note to come back for a wiener at Sparky’s Hot Dog Stand right across the street. Sparky (who was born on the Fourth of July) has been a Sheboygan institution for more than 20 years.
Walk under the bridge to Sheboygan’s Riverfront, where you’ll find original and recreated fishing shanties which now house a bakery, English pub and boutiques along the bank of the Sheboygan River.
If you stay at Harbor Winds Hotel, you’ll have direct access to the boardwalk. Or stay at at sprawling modern hotel property overlooking Lake Michigan, the Blue Harbor Resort, with suites, villas and an indoor water park.
Dumper Dan’s Fishing & Lodging is also on the riverfront offering charter fishing trips and condos to rent. Use the full kitchen in your GrandStay Hotel suite to cook up that just-caught salmon or walleye – it’s just a couple blocks from the lake and North Side Municipal Beach.
In addition to being fun to say, Sheboygan is an appealing Midwestern town: it has been dubbed “The Malibu of the Midwest,” and water sports are serious – not just kayaking, sailing and paddle boarding, but kitesurfing, windsurfing and the surfing around which the Beach Boys made a career.
Because of Sheboygan’s geography jutting into Lake Michigan, when the winds are 20-25 mph, surfers ride some sweet sculpted waves. Peak surf season is late August through March and EOS: Paddle, Surf and Explore provides rentals and private lessons. Kite surfers gravitate to South Beach, and North Beach is the surfers spot.
Golfers go for the great courses – how about one of the best championship courses in the United States, the Straits at Whistling Straits®, home of the 2021 Ryder Cup? There are city parks for casual strolls, in addition to Kohler-Andrae State Park, one of the last natural preserves along the Lake Michigan shore. Count on campgrounds, eight hiking trails, sand dunes and miles of beach.
Then, there’s the art. Each year, exhibitions at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center are a meditation on a specific theme (in 2021, it’s “Return to the Real”). The brand new Art Preserve is an experimental space that houses the Arts Center’s collection of artist-built environments. Most of the artists are self-taught, so expect the unexpected (like towers built from chicken bones). Reservations are required at both of these stunning facilities.
When it comes to food, you have to have at least one in the “Bratwurst Capital of the World.” These brats are fried (never grilled), circular like a burger and burrowed on a round Sheboygan hard roll like those fermented and baked on hearthstone at City Bakery since 1939. The Charcoal Inn is renowned for its bratwurst sandwich (a single is under $5).
Sly’s Midtown Salooon (sic) is a friendly dive bar that opens at 7 am for breakfast, and locals love its grilled brat plate – a double brat sandwich with potato salad and baked beans for $8. If you brought a cooler, get some ice packs, get to Miesfelds Meat Market, home of the Grand Champion Bratwurst (grandpa’s 60 year-old secret spice recipe), and buy some to tote home.
Sheboygan, Wisconsin to Port Washington
35 minutes, 31 miles via WI-23 to I-43 and WI-32
Port Washington has the look of New England but it’s all Midwestern friendliness. The popular tourist and shopping destination is slower-paced, so it’s a perfect last stop on the loop. Port Washington, #1 in trout and salmon catch, boasts a scenic harbor, 1930s lighthouse on the breakwater and a walkable historic maritime downtown with shopping and dining.
If you want to learn more about it, take some time at the Port Exploreum Museum, a history and maritime museum with interactive exhibits, as well as a children’s maritime experience.
One block from the marina, rent bikes at Zuzu Pedals and find the trailhead of the Ozaukee Interurban Trail just two blocks away from the shop. If you have the will and the hamstrings, you can visit the towns of Mequon, Thiensville, Cedarburg, Grafton and Belgium with woodlands, wetlands, farms and waterways along the journey.
Before dropping off the bikes, stop at Port Washington’s newest park, Coal Dock Park, with access to Lake Michigan, the bird sanctuary and South Beach.
There are a number of casual eateries and bars on Franklin Street, slinging burgers, wings and drinks. For elevated food in a lower level space, try The Steerage Dining Saloon. The basement bar and restaurant evokes the good times passengers could muster in the steerage section of a ship, despite the third-class accommodations (remember Jack and Rose in the 1997 film, “Titanic?”).
Impressive items emerge from the scratch kitchen: traditional clam chowder with a hint of lemon and teeming with clams; Scotch eggs; a chunky smoked salmon spread served with crostini; cioppino with cod, shrimp and mussels; and flavorful hot sandwiches on griddled Sheboygan hard rolls (“The Uncle,” pot roast-y beef with cheddar and horseradish cream is a sure thing). There are winning desserts, such as bittersweet chocolate pudding and lemon butter cake soaked in cream, too.
Inventors Brewpub, on the site of the 1847 historic Lakeside Brewing Co., has outdoor seating with views of the park and the lake, but they don’t take reservations. Eats complement suds: poutine, burgers, wraps and, naturally, a Friday Fish Fry.
If you want to be near everything, The Harborview, adjacent to the Port Washington Marina, is your sweet spot. Ask for a lake view corner room on the fourth floor for the best views.
Port Washington, Wisconsin to Chicago, Illinois
2 hours and 15 minutes, 117 miles via I-43 and I-94
Be sure to shake the sand from your bags before hauling them through the door.