Hidden gems among Michigan beaches

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Stunning setting: The waters in the Grand Traverse region of Michigan sparkle with the shades of blue found in the Caribbean. | Supplied photo

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Sweeping strands of sugar sand, towering dunes, thick forests and rocky cliffs line America’s “Third Coast,” the 3,200-mile freshwater shoreline of Michigan’s two peninsulas shaped by the Great Lakes Erie, Huron, Michigan and Superior.

From the beachtowns along the southern Lake Michigan shore to the Lake Superior coast in the far north, countless beaches offer a variety of waterfront spots to suit swimmers and sunbathers, rockhounds and sandcastle builders, surfers and sunset-watchers.

Some of Michigan’s beaches have been cited on “best of” lists by those who know, including Dr. Beach, aka Stephen Leatherman. Other sandy stretches are waiting to be discovered. Here are three with something special:

Southwest Michigan

The ribbon of sand stretches for three miles along Lake Michigan at P.J. Hoffmaster State Park, a 1,200-acre retreat nestled in an impressive freshwater dune system. Located about 180 miles north of Chicago between Grand Haven and Muskegon, half the fun is getting there on a leisurely drive along U.S. 31, also known as the West Michigan Pike, an early automobile tourist route (you can download the 1915 visitors guide to driving “Michigan’s Summerland” at the Michigan beachtowns website, below.)

In addition to its beach, Hoffmaster has a campground, picnic area, concession store and the Gillette Sand Dune Visitor Center, with exhibits about the natural sand ridge and hill formations shaped by thousands of years of wind and waves.

A 10-mile system of foot trails loop through the varied dune habitat, from the forested backdune to the beach. Tackle the challenging Dune Climb Stairway, with its two observation decks, for expansive views of the sand and sparkling water. Then toast the setting sun with Michigan wine you picked up in one of the beachtowns en route.

P.J. Hoffmaster Park:

www.michigan.gov/hoffmaster

6585 Lake Harbor Road

Muskegon, MI

(231) 798-3711

Entrance to the park is by Recreation Passport. Cost for non-residents is $8 per day, $29 per year, and it allows entry to all Michigan state parks and recreation areas.

Muskegon, MI: www.visitmuskegon.org

Michigan beachtowns: www.beachtowns.org

Northwest Michigan

The waters of the Grand Traverse region — the “Little Finger” of Michigan’s Mitten — have been called the freshwater version of the Caribbean thanks to sugar-sand beaches and remarkably colored waters that range in hue from turquoise to aqua to sky blue, sapphire and emerald. With 35 miles of Lake Michigan beaches within Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore alone, it’s difficult to choose a favorite. Even Dr. Beach lumped them together to declare the entire lakeshore No. 1 among Great Lakes beaches. But Good Harbor Beach (County Road 651 Beach) on Good Harbor Bay is a relative secret. Located 22 miles north of Glen Arbor, about halfway between the towns of Glen Arbor and Leland, the Good Harbor stretch of sand at the end of County Road 651 comes with views of Pyramid Point to the west, the ancient glacial moraine called Whaleback, and North Manitou Island. Facilities are minimal; there are restrooms and picnic tables, but be sure to pick up food and beverages en route (note: no glass containers allowed) and plan to stay for the spectacular sunset.

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore:

www.nps.gov/slbe

Philip Hart Visitor Center is on M-72 in Empire, MI

(231) 326-5134

Park entrance pass is $10 per vehicle, good for seven days. Annual pass is $20.

Traverse City, MI: www.traversecity.com/

Upper Peninsula

Lake Superior, the largest and northernmost Great Lake, also has the coldest water temperatures and most rugged shoreline of the five inland seas. But along the 42 miles of coastline within Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, from Grand Marais in the east to Munising at the western end, there are sandy beaches and soaring sand dunes in addition to the namesake colorful rock walls at the water’s edge.

Sand Point Beach, at the tip of a spit of land on Munising Bay, is a standout for its white sand and welcoming waters. Protected by Grand Island just offshore, the shallow water is clear, calm, and relatively warm. Dr. Beach ranked Sand Point No. 3 among Great Lakes beaches, citing its clear and emerald green waters.

You’ll want to pick up provisions from Munising before following H-58 east to Sand Point Road and the largely undeveloped location. There are restrooms and the half-mile, accessible Sand Point Marsh Trail, where you might spot beavers at work in the wetlands. But mostly you’ll enjoy the solitude and memorable sunsets over Munising Bay.

Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore:

www.nps.gov/piro/

Visitor Center: (906) 387-3700

Admission is free

Munising, MI: www.munising.org/

Michigan Travel Information: www.michigan.org