I consider myself a beach snob who was first weaned on the white sands of Florida’s 30A and then graduated as an adult to the Caribbean and Mexico. After indulging in powdered sugar and turquoise water holding your gaze hostage on the palm-lined shores, the beaches of Lake Michigan looked like a joke.
I was wrong – Lake Michigan is not tropical, but the sand in the café-au-lait is soft and clean, the lake can look dazzling blue in the morning light, and the water is swimmable – refreshingly cold, but only when you first dive in.
The best part? It’s three hours away. You can spend a full day on a real beach without risking a rental home or hotel. I’ve just made my first round-trip across the border and can vouch for the express version of a Lake Michigan getaway. The trick is to pin down the details and maximize the time. Here is how.
Pick a beach in Berrien County.
Adjacent to the Indiana border, the southwest corner of Michigan offers several solid options. The New Buffalo Explored Beach Guide shares them with local expertise. We bypassed the next one New Buffalo Lakefront Parkbecause it didn’t look as postcard-perfect as others and we feared it would be too crowded as a popular stopover for Chicagoers. We were seduced by the beach-snobby option of renting chaise longues and umbrellas in a restaurant that has chair-style food and drink but doesn’t give us the flexibility to distance ourselves from other beachgoers to our liking. So we made up our minds Warren Dunes State Park, another 20 minutes away. It’s probably just as crowded in New Buffalo, but we knew there would be room to spread out. We also wanted clean toilets and a concession booth as we didn’t have a rental home to retreat to, and research has directed us there.
Townline Beach Union Pier would have been another great option. It’s a “street beach,” one of several at the end of a residential street. These beaches are public but not well marked and generally only used by locals and those with houses on this beach. Some beaches at the end of the road are just a stamp made of sand, and often there is no parking. But Townline has parking and a decent amount of coastline. It’s also just a few blocks from Union Pier’s small restaurants and groceries, a good replacement for a concession stand and restrooms. (Beaches at the end of the road don’t have lifeguards, however.) A late lunch of clams or crab cakes with caipirinha on the terrace of the historic Gordon Beach Inn is a great way to get out of the sun and use a toilet.
Weko Beach looks good too It has similar amenities as Warren Dunes (both also have kayak and paddleboard rentals) without the hilly terrain. Unlike Warren Dunes, Weko welcomes dogs.
Watch the weather.
Another advantage of the day trip is that If the weather is bad, you can cancel. If you book a spot, you are locked up.
Pack for a tow.
A major beach snob hurdle – walking to and from the car laden with chairs, fridges, and bags. However, there are ways to make it bearable. The first is a Beach chair with backpack straps. This leaves your hands free for one small cooler and a pocket with a towel, a book, sunscreen and snacks. That’s all you need Skip the umbrella– It’s not that hot in Michigan. You can also leave your cell and wallet in the trunk. The cell signal was not present at Warren Dunes.
There is no way around a tow. On the beaches at the end of the road there are long wooden stairs down to the sand, but only a short walk to a site. On a large public beach like Warren Dunes, the parking lot is right on the beach, but those beaches are big and wide so you can find your way to a secluded spot. At Warren Dunes, you’ll also need to walk up and down at least one sandy hill. It’s work.
We wish we had taken a noodle or a hose. The bobbing in the water quickly became boring. We ate and drank too much. Pack less (Prioritizing the water) and rely on the food trucks or restaurants within walking distance if you guess wrong.
Download a podcast series.
To pass (and justify) the six-hour round trip, Binge a podcast series You wanted to catch. Two when you don’t have a book to read on the beach. Wind of Change on Spotify is fantastic.
Wake up early.
We left at 6 a.m. and planned to arrive at 9 or 9:30 a.m. to secure parking. But reports of full lots by 10 a.m. were out. We could have arrived at 11am or noon and we were fine. However, those hours before the crowd arrived was great. The lake looks its most beautiful shade of blue in the morning sun, and nobody has yet had to turn on a bluetooth speaker. It was all breezes, splashing water and cool spots in the sand that disappeared in the afternoon. If you’d rather sleep than maximize rest, Departure at 8 a.m. and arrival around 11:30 a.m.. The water isn’t warm enough to get in before the afternoon anyway.
Skip a dinner.
Well, not really – just pack it up and leave it in the car during the day, along with wet wipes to freshen up and a dry change of clothes. Eight or nine hours with your toes in the sand is enough and you can get home between 8pm and 10pm. My companion noted that on the drive home she didn’t feel as gross as she expected – probably because Lake Michigan is fresh water, not salt water, and it never got hot on the beach. Everything was pretty perfect– As long as a driver is sober at the end of the day.