Photo: Courtesy of Nina Kokotas Hahn
Haven’t yet taken a summer vacation? This four-day road trip along Michigan’s west coast will take you far away from it all without having to go too far at all. Designed around beloved spots on the central to northern coast—Grand Haven, Frankfort, and Sleeping Bear Dunes—this trip delivers unexpected beach adventures, local brews and eats, and some of the best scenery in the state.
Day 1: Grand Haven
Drive time from Chicago: 2.75 hours
Hit the road early for Grand Haven, the central coast beach town that borders both Lake Michigan and the mouth of the Grand River. Arrive in time for a long afternoon at the state beach park, where deep and wide stretches of sand, clear waters, and a walkable lighthouse pier feel more like a seashore that a lakefront. Check in later at the pretty, 20-room Harbor House Inn (114 S. Harbor Dr., 616-846-0610; from $170), situated just above the river channel and city boardwalk. Mosey one block away for dinner outside at the waterfront Snug Harbor (311 S. Harbor Dr., 616-846-8400). On your way back, line up for ice cream at the old-school Dairy Treat (218 S. Harbor Dr., 616-846-2470) before stopping at the channel to catch the kitschy waterfront musical fountain show (at 10:10 p.m. every night).
Day 2: Frankfort
Drive time from Grand Haven: 2 hours
Homemade cinnamon bread is the star of Harbor House’s free and lovely breakfast; enjoy it out on the big porch before heading to Frankfort, a lesser-known beach town in the northern crook of the state’s shoreline. On your way out of town, pick up a jar of blueberry salsa at Blueberry Haven (213 Washington Ave., 616-935-7562) on Main Street; if it happens to be Sunday, check out the Sunday Art Market at Chinook Pier, too. Just before Frankfort, stop at Arcadia’s Inspiration Point, a roadside lookout, for a taste of what’s to come; at 1,300 feet, Arcadia boasts the highest point on Michigan’s west shore and the staggering views from here rival northern California’s finest. Golf buffs should stop—and maybe play a round—at the equally scenic, seaside-links-inspired Arcadia Bluffs (14710 Northwood Hwy., 231-889-3001).
Once in Frankfort, check in at Harbor Lights Resort (15 Second St., 800-346-9614; rooms from $145), where sand from the beachfront drifts out to the parking lot. One of Michigan’s most robust beach towns, Frankfort delivers a perfectly-scaled mix of lakefront fun, shopping, and dinning. Cool off with a swim, walk a block to Main Street to shop for curated finds at Betsie Bay Furniture (311 Main St., 231-352-4202), then grab dinner and suds brewed on site at Stormcloud Brewing Company (303 Main St., 231-352-0118), new in July.
Day 3: Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore
Drive time from Frankfort: 35 minutes
Another perk of staying in Frankfort is its proximity to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, located northeast in a corner of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula. Fuel up first at Crescent Bakery (404 Main St., 231-352-4611) with from-scratch baked goods and excellent local joe from Leelanau Coffee Roasting Co. Once you arrive at Sleeping Bear, get oriented at the Philip A. Hart Visitor Center (and also learn the park legend of a mother bear and her two cubs) and start with the 7.4-mile Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive. You won’t believe the views at the Lake Michigan Lookout from 450 feet above the clear blue lake and down an incredibly steep and sandy bluff; dare to run down (easy) and climb back up (Herculean). Families will also like the Empire Trail hike and Maritime Museum. In the early evening, drive to Good Harbor Bay to search the rocky shores for the region’s legendary Petoskey stones, fossilized coral from 350 million years ago that still washes up on the shores.
Day 4: Holland, Fennville, and home
Drive time from Frankfort to Chicago: Just under 5 hours
On your way back to Chicago, stop midway in Holland and Fennville. The Dutch town of Holland offers a gently urban experience with its many shops and restaurants, including the two-story New Holland Brewing Co. (44 E. 8th St., 616-355-6422) and Kilwins (62 E. 8th St., 616-393-8961) for fudge and ice cream. Next stop is Fennville, where you should pick up a short-term souvenir—a fresh fruit pie (cherry is amazing) from Crane’s Pie Pantry (6054 124th Ave., 269-561-2297).