The Not-So-Level Sands of Nearby Michigan

A view through trees up a dune at Warren Dunes State Park.
A view through trees up a dune at Warren Dunes State Park.

A view through trees up a dune at Warren Dunes State Park.

Growing up in Connecticut, residing decades in Boston, I always felt close to the ocean. The Atlantic. When the wind was right, rain approaching, I could smell the salt. Minnesota, for all its 10,000 lakes, felt far from the great salt waters, but a trip to Mother Superior opened my eyes to another kind of Great; here was Homer’s “wine-dark sea” writ upon fresh water. 

Another watery epiphany struck on a trip to the eastern shores of Lake Michigan, at the Warren Dunes. Some 70 miles beyond Chicago, you can take a road trip or fly into South Bend, IN, and rent a car. It’s a 45-minute drive to New Buffalo, MI, where we stayed in the dockside Marina Grand Resort. The Michigan Shores area has been a mecca for tourists since the 1850s, so today there are more things to tour, eat, and experience than will fit into a single visit. 

After an evening relaxing on our private balcony, watching the setting sun cast reflections of the moored boats onto the Marina, we set out for the Dunes. That’s a short eleven miles north along the shoreline to 12032 Red Arrow Highway in Sawyer, to the Warren Dunes State Park. While I found the usual horizontal swathes—some three miles—of white beach, I was awed by the unexpected verticality of this sand. I lingered, taking photographs, and noticed as other visitors appeared, many immediately raced towards the first slope, scrambling up its side as though accepting a silent challenge. 

The Dunes can rise to a height of some 260 feet. Some have names; the tallest, Tower Hill, alongside Mt. Edwards, Fuller, and Pikes Peak. Nature has cunningly arranged for them to have a consistent 30-degree pitch; inviting, but deceptively difficult for human feet to maneuver in sand. While luring the unwary tourist, the sand has another, more sinister agenda; it works relentlessly to gain dominion over the surrounding forest. The glinting slopes may look more like snow, but the quartz grains gain ground with every lap of the waves. 

Prevailing westerly winds impart tremendous energy to Lake Michigan’s waves; they, in turn, move heavier grains toward the shore, especially during lake storms. Afterwards, as the grains dry, the westerlies blow the sand further inland, encroaching upon the forest, creating new or augmenting existing dunes. Nature, to misquote Tennyson, is red not only in tooth and claw, but leaf and grain. The trees persist, in an eerie co- existence. 

Baroda’s Round Barn offers grapes, grains, spirits, and much, much more.

Many Atlantic beaches offer surrounding woods, and miles of pristine beach. Crane Beach in Ipswich, MA, boasts five miles of trails and an abundance of protected wildlife—deer roam the shores in winter—but while nearby Castle Neck boasts the North Shore’s largest pitch-pine forest, the trees and the sand know their place. 

You can camp in the State Park, but there are so many things to do and see in the general vicinity that a hotel can provide a central base from which to venture. If you decide to travel close to home this year, the Michigan Shores area offers something for all seasons. Just 15 minutes beyond the Dunes is Baroda (pop. 873) and the Round Barn, located on the original 1912 Round Barn Estate. There, they will ply you with “grapes, grains, and spirits,” plus tastings, “Shake and Stir” workshops, and food, all in a lovely pastoral setting. 

A stone’s throw in any given direction will lead to live theater, restaurants, pubs, antiques, art galleries, bike, kayak and paddle board rentals. The Third Coast Surf Shop will teach you ride the Lake waves, or keep your feet dry on terra firma golfing at Harbor Shores in Benton Harbor. Evening activities may start by dining at a wide variety of area venues, Timothy’s Restaurant in Union Pier to name but one. Surfeited, relax at a performance in Three Oaks at the Acorn, featuring live theater and concerts in a renovated corset factory—with bar. Night owls on the prowl can roost in New Buffalo’s Four Winds Casino, where the still keen-eyed will notice its glittering, vaulted dome echoes the more austere, yet imposing, pentangled supports of the Round Barn’s cap. 

Watch evening fall and boats bob from your Marina Grand Resort balcony.

The Warren Dunes were the height of my visit, but the Michigan Shores truly offer something for everyone. Gather fellow travelers on your balcony, raise a post-prandial glass to the moon, the bobbing boats, and friendship. Then plan your return visit. 

The Acorn
107 Generations Dr.
Three Oaks, MI

Four Winds Casino
11111 Wilson Rd.
New Buffalo, MI

Timothy’s Restaurant
16409 Red Arrow Hwy.
Union Pier, MI 

The Round Barn
10983 Hills Rd.
Baroda, MI
[email protected]

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