With 21% of the world’s fresh water, the longest freshwater coastline in the world and zero sharks, it’s no surprise that Michigan is home to some spectacular and unusual beaches.
These beaches reflect the state’s dramatically varied coastlines, from wild and rugged rock-strewn Lake Superior haunts to romantic Lake Michigan sunset vistas to bustling family-friendly city beaches.
Many of the most popular and scenic beaches in Michigan are on state-park land, and vehicles entering require a recreational passport to access.
1. Ottawa Beach, Holland
Best beach for lighthouse lovers
There are more than 120 lighthouses in Michigan, and the iconic Big Red is one of the most photographed, especially from Ottawa Beach.
The beach has spectacular views as the sun dips below the horizon of Lake Michigan and paints the sky in scarlet almost identical to the lighthouse. Just across the road, the stair climb at Mt Pisgah rewards your efforts with a breathtaking view of Lake Michigan and Big Red on one side and inland Lake Macatawa on the other.
Detour: Holland was founded by Dutch immigrants in the 19th century and celebrates its heritage with windmills, theme parks and an annual Tulip Time Festival.
2. Silver Lake State Park, Mears
Best beach for adrenaline junkies
Silver Lake State Park permits access for cars, motorcycles, ATVs and bikes to freewheel across 450 acres of sand dunes. Aside from the 450 acres of the offroading section, Silver Lake State Park has another 1500 or so acres dedicated to a picnic area, swimming area and other more sedate beach activities. Families can take a 40-minute “dune scooting” tour of the Lake Michigan shore.
Planning tip: Check the Michigan Department of Natural Resources website for registration requirements for off-roading.
3. Beulah Beach, Beulah
Best beach for families with small kids
Just 25 miles from popular tourist destination Traverse City, Beulah Beach is a welcome respite from the crowds at Lake Michigan’s more popular beaches.
The quarter-mile, whisper-soft sand beach at Beulah is the result of an ill-fated attempt in the 19th century to connect the aptly named Crystal Lake to its neighbor lakes. This dropped the water level about 20ft to reveal a gorgeous, gentle slope of beach that’s perfect for families, with a well-marked swimming area.
Detour: If you have some spare time, check out the town of Beulah for antiques, Michigan cherry products and a beer at recently opened Five Shores Brewing.
4. Empire Beach, Empire
Best beach for rock collectors
The small town of Empire, Michigan, sits right at the midway point in Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore and is a gateway to the 200-mile stretch of pristine dunes. Empire’s town beach has a small parking lot and a playground with picnic tables, alongside a stellar view north to the dramatic promontory arcing out into the lake. Dogs are allowed on leash in the park and on the beach.
Empire Beach is one of the best public places to search for Michigan’s unique Petoskey stone, a fossilized coral popular among collectors. Kids love searching the rocks at sunset for these and for local agate and quartz.
5. Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore
Best beach for scenic vistas
Sleeping Bear Dunes features towering bluffs, the largest freshwater sand dunes in the world and otherworldly “ghost forests” – the sun-bleached skeletal remains of pine forests that have succumbed to the dunes’ shifting landscapes. Scattered throughout the Lakeshore area are small beaches and picnic areas (the latter, for the most part, quite well-marked).
One popular activity at Sleeping Bear is the Dune Climb: scrambling up the shifting, sliding, soft sands as you puff and pant your way up a 284ft slope.
6. Headlands International Dark Sky Park, Mackinaw City
Best beach for stargazers
On the straits between Lakes Michigan and Huron, this rough sand beach is home to bald eagles, white-tailed deer and the occasional black bear. As an International Dark Sky Park, the park is protected from light pollution. When the Northern Lights dance their way across the skies in blazing sheets of green and amber, those lucky enough to be here can catch fabulous views.
Entrance to the park is usually free, but there is an occasional fee during meteor showers or special events. The park is open 24 hours.
Planning tip: Park with headlights facing away from the lake and tape a small piece of red plastic over your flashlight or cell phone light to keep others’ views unobstructed.
7. Twelvemile Beach, Grand Marais
Best beach for getting away – really far away – from it all
On the far northern side of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Lake Superior is a world all its own – more an inland sea than a lake – and Twelvemile Beach is a perfect spot to take in the majestic view of both wild waves and Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. The beach is accessed through the campground, via a wooden staircase.
8. Port Crescent State Park, Port Austin
Best beach for paddle sports
The 3-mile stretch of Port Crescent State Park is popular with paddlers, because the gentle Pinnebog River flows for 5 miles into Lake Huron through the park.
Visitors can float lazily along on inner tubes, or paddle the serene waters while spotting osprey, deer and bald eagles. For the more adventurous, nearby Turnip Rock – a 7-mile round trip from Port Crescent – catches the sunrise streaks of vermillion and violet over Lake Huron, and there are plenty of sea caves to paddle in and out of.
9. Belle Isle Park, Detroit
Best beach for city slickers who love good music
Situated as it is on a river rather than a lake, the city of Detroit doesn’t have much in the way of sandy beaches. But what it lacks in size, Belle Isle's beach more than makes up for in personality. The island has been the go-to spot for sunset cruising, family reunions and summer fun for generations of Detroiters, and its small but popular beach is sheltered from the shipping channel’s strong currents.
Belle Isle beach is a boisterously fun hangout. There are often small groups kicking back with a cooler full of beverages, and you’ll more often than not catch snippets of Motown pouring from boomboxes. If you stick around until sunset, you can savor unparalleled views of the Motor City’s skyscrapers from the beach.
Local tip: On sunny summer days, the island reaches vehicle capacity before noon, so it’s best to go early, arrive by bike or hop a ride on the shuttle bus from the mainland.