Autumn Along the Western Michigan Shoreline Offers a Vibrant Tapestry of Fall Colors and Roadside Attractions.
Each fall, Western Michigan ignites in a spectacle of blazing autumn hues, turning a lakeside driving tour into a technicolor adventure. Taking a high-speed ferry across Lake Michigan, we hurried to catch nature’s show.
Sunrise over Lake Michigan arrives as a rosy thread – the barest suggestion of morning piercing a dark horizon.
Behind you, Wisconsin twinkles in predawn shadows, a sputtering ribbon of lights. Before you, the rippling waters of Lake Michigan yawn as far as the eye can see. Somewhere in that vast darkness lies the Western Michigan shoreline. Beneath you, the pleasant hum of one of America’s fastest ferries, a cargo of cars, trucks and trailers resting heavy in its belly.
Lake Michigan is, for all practical purposes, a landlocked ocean; with a surface area of 22,300 square miles, it’s the largest fresh- water lake in the United States and the fifth largest in the world.
You can invest the hours and gasoline to drive around it, or you can cut across it aboard the Lake Express High Speed ferry — a 2 1/2 hour ride that connects Milwaukee, Wisconsin to Muskegon, Michigan, allowing you to load up your trailer — if it meets size requirements — and leave the driving to someone else. So we decided to try it, taking the $18 million ferry from Southeastern Wisconsin for a color tour of Michigan’s West Coast in all its fiery fall glory.
The ferry runs from late April through early November, weather permitting. We chose a 6 a.m. departure from the Milwaukee terminal. Reservations are strongly recommended.
On Lake Michigan, most commercial vessels travel at speeds around 10-20 knots. The Lake Express cruises at a brisk 35 knots, but still offers a relatively stable ride.
As sunrise illuminated the view — a glistening carpet of blue water — it was hard not to think of the rush- hour traffic we were missing around Chicago, along with too-narrow tollbooths, waits at the gas pump and long hours at the wheel. The ferry service even offers car rentals, for those who want to simply leave their rig ashore and hop across the lake for a quick bit of exploration.
The trip was as fast as promised. In a little over two hours, we were cruising into the Muskegon terminal. It wasn’t even 9 a.m., and the northwestern Michigan shoreline stretched temptingly before us in its autumn splendor.
Our goal was to amble north from Muskegon on U.S. 31, diverting to smaller roads that hugged the shoreline as much as possible in our trek toward Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.
Into the Heart of Fall Color
Autumn wields a broad brushstroke along the Western Michigan shore, leaving a rich palette of pigment in its wake.
Generally, the season peaks in stages, starting in mid-September in the Upper Peninsula and moving south. In Western Michigan, your best bet is early to mid-October. With nearly 150 different species of trees, Western Michigan presents a vibrant fall portrait, so be sure to pack a camera.
The intensity of color — especially deep crimson and flaming orange hues set against lush evergreens — was nothing short of breathtaking. Little wonder that locals insist Michigan boasts one of the best fall shows in the country.
The great news is that Western Michigan offers plenty of sites for fall camping that take you into the heart of that woodland color, with convenient access to the Lake Michigan shoreline for late-summer strolls.
Case-in-point: Muskegon State Park, where you’ll find a blend of thickly forested dunes and sandy shoreline. The terrain is hilly, wooded and serene, with over 240 campsites complete with toilets and bathhouses, available May through October.
The park provides access to over two miles of Lake Michigan shoreline, 12 miles of marked hiking trails, and a lighted boat launch at Snug Harbor, where you can even rent fishing tackle.
Winter visitors will also enjoy five miles of marked cross-country ski trails and the nearby Muskegon Winter Sports Complex for ice-skating and an Olympic-quality luge run. For information, call (231) 744-3480; for reservations at any Michigan state park, call (800) 44PARKS.
If sand dunes make you feel the need for speed, you’ll want to be sure to check out Silver Lake State Park, off State Park Road. Just take the Hart or Shelby exits off U.S. 31 and follow the signs.
Sometimes compared to a desert, Silver Lake is Michigan’s only coastal state park that allows off-road vehicles (ORVs) — in this case, a sweeping 450-acre dune setting.
The park uses a voucher system on weekends and holidays; during peak season officials will distribute over 2,000 vouchers a day. Vouchers are available near the ORV Area entrance. Campsites come with hook-ups, toilet buildings and showers. For information, call (231) 873-3083.
Scenic Dunes, Singing Sand
Browse travel literature and you’ll find references to Lake Michigan’s “sugar sand” beaches. That’s no exaggeration. The sand is soft and off-white, dubbed “singing sands” because of the squeaking noise made when you stroll across it — blame it on the high quartz content.
One of the best places along the shoreline to take advantage of the perfect merger of sand, forest and inland lakes is Ludington State Park, an absolute gem of a facility for camping and recreating. To find it, take U.S. Highway 10 west through downtown Ludington toward Lakeshore Drive and head north.
Situated between Hamlin Lake and Lake Michigan, Ludington State Park offers the best of all worlds — shore access with scenic sand dunes and Big Sable Point Lighthouse, as well as inland ponds, marshes and dense forest. The park provides 18 miles of hiking trails and a canoe trail, with boat rentals available at Hamlin Lake.
Anglers line up shoulder-to-shoulder along the Big Sable River, just below the Hamlin Dam, for the right to haul out salmon and steelhead — a popular spectator sport as well. With three great campgrounds and many conveniences, it’s no mystery why this place ranks as Michigan’s most heavily visited state park. Over 340 campsites offer clean, spacious settings with electrical hook-ups and bathhouses.
Everyone we met — from first timers to repeat visitors — could only rave about the park. Take Raymond and Judy Pfeifer. This fall, the Michigan couple hauled their fifth-wheel back here for their seventh consecutive visit.
“We love the quiet,” Raymond acknowledged. “And we have seven miles to ride our bicycles, with hiking all over the place. I love to go salmon fishing, too.”
“Plus the people are nice — we like Ludington as a town,” Judy added and fall is their favorite season. “It’s our October trip,” Raymond said.
“In the summertime, we don’t even try to come up here, it’s too busy,” he confided. “Even now, things will start filling up by Friday — wait and see.”
Park rangers confirm that the campsites fill quickly all year long, so reservations are a must. For more information, call (231) 843-8671.
Fall in Western Michigan means more than foliage.
You can’t drive far without spotting u-pick orchards, farmers’ markets, cider mills and produce stands complete with baskets of famed Michigan apples and jugs of tart cider. Boasting some 60 varieties of apples, Michigan is the nation’s #3 apple producer. This fruit is memorable.
Go ahead. Treat yourself; you’ll never taste anything fresher.
Steering north, the fall color intensifies with each passing mile. We eventually chose Highway 22 for more scenic shoreline views and were pleased with the smooth ride.
By the time the setting sun was casting pastel shadows, we were there — Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. The park covers a 35-mile area, including beaches, dunes, forests and North and South Manitou Island. Its name was reportedly inspired by a Chippewa legend:
“Once, a forest fire on the western shore of Lake Michigan drove a mother bear and her two cubs into the lake. After miles of swimming, the cubs began to falter. When the mother bear reached the Michigan shore, she fell into a deep sleep. The exhausted cubs drowned, but the mother bear stayed atop a high bluff in hopes that they would appear. Moved, the Great Spirit created two islands — North and South Manitou Island — in the cubs’ memory. Winds buried the sleeping mother bear atop the dunes where she is said to remain to this day, a patch of dark sand high upon a bluff.”
Wind-swept beaches, towering dunes and dense forest make this landscape memorable. For a taste of the scenery, take the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive, located off Michigan Highway 109, which winds through 7.4 miles of dunes and woods, with panoramic views and great fall color. Brochures are available at the entrance for self-guided tours.
Consider stretching your legs at the famed Sleeping Bear Dune Climb — a 150-foot sand slope with steep 80-degree inclines. The climb is strenuous and best tackled before afternoon heat sets in, but kids love it and great sunsets are your reward. Don’t forget your water bottle.
A few miles north, in Glen Haven, you can check out the history of the notorious Manitou Passage at the Sleeping Bear Point Coast Guard Station Maritime Museum or grab a hearty lunch at Joe’s Friendly Tavern, in downtown Empire.
For a great family-oriented camping experience, be sure to visit the D.H. Day Campground, a rustic, wooded setting open for camping from April through November on a first-come-first-served basis.
The campground, which provides access to Lake Michigan, features 88 sites with vault toilets, water spigots and a sanitation station. Generator use is restricted to the first loop. During summer months, you’ll find nightly ranger-led campfire programs at the amphitheater. In addition to a park pass; visitors pay a small nightly fee — a bargain for the forested serenity and wave-swept shoreline. For information, call (231) 326-5134.
For more modern amenities, try the Platte River Campground, 10 miles north of Frankfort off Highway 22. Open year-round, it offers pull-in and pull-through RV sites with electrical hook-ups and a sanitation station, as well as pay showers.
Questions? Contact the park at (231) 326-5134. Reservations can be made by calling 1-800- 365-CAMP.
For more information on Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, call (231) 326-5134 or check out www.nps.gov/slbe.