Scenic Byway

Beach towns preserve Old West Michigan Pike’s rich history of motor touring
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Explorers on the West Michigan Pike will want to stop in Grand Haven to see the captivating South Pierhead Lights. // Photo by Bob Peskorse

If you think about it, Detroit automotive pioneer Henry Ford actually helped launch the Pure Michigan marketing campaign more than 100 years ago. After he built his first car in 1896, motor touring quickly became one of America’s favorite pastimes, and visitors flocked to the Great Lakes State in their new cars to discover its natural beauty and waterfront charms. Even locals began branching out to explore more of their home state.

As car ownership skyrocketed, conversations soon turned to building a scenic trunkline along the Lake Michigan coastline to connect New Buffalo, near the Indiana state line, with Mackinaw City some 400 miles to the north. Excited supporters talked about the boon a well-built road would be for the waterfront communities along the way. To help the cause, the slogan “Lake Shore All the Way Chicago to Mackinaw” was introduced to lure more vacationers from the Windy City to Michigan. In 1911, the hard work of building a touring route began.

The first promotional West Michigan Pike tour in 1913 started in St. Joseph, with the hope of ending in Mackinaw City. However, according to the history book “Vintage Views Along the West Michigan Pike,” once the caravan of cars reached Petoskey, they split up, with one group driving north to Pellston and the other heading around Little Traverse Bay to Harbor Springs. The next day they reunited in Petoskey — a happening town even back then, with a population of about 4,800 residents compared to roughly 5,800 by current counts.

While the caravan never made it to Mackinaw City, the point had been rendered that this was, indeed, a viable project. The work continued and the West Michigan Pike was finally completed in 1922. It became part of the federal highway system in 1926 and was renamed U.S. 31; today, it connects northern Michigan with southern Alabama.

Time Travelers: Fast-forward 90 years to 2016, when the Michigan Beachtowns Marketing Group, consisting of seven southwest Michigan visitor bureaus, succeeded in having a specific stretch of the old West Michigan Pike from New Buffalo to Silver Lake/Hart (south of Ludington) designated as a Pure Michigan Byway. It was a long process, but well worth the group’s collective efforts as the southwest region gained another valuable marketing feature to showcase Pure Michigan’s sunset side.

Communities involved in the Beachtowns group include St. Joseph/Benton Harbor, South Haven, Saugatuck/Douglas, Holland, Grand Haven/Spring Lake, Muskegon, and Silver Lake Sand Dunes/Hart.

While each of these communities oozes with its own distinct personality, they all share three amazing traits: sugar-sand beaches, towering sand dunes, and majestic Lake Michigan.

“A City Built on Timber” is located in Muskegon at the entrance to Heritage Landing. Sculpture by Erik and Israel Nordin. // Photo courtesy of Muskegon County Convention & Visitors’ Bureau

Hop into your favorite vehicle and explore the beautiful little coastal communities you can visit along the celebrated West Michigan Pike. To help you plan your trip, here’s a collection of my Beachtown favorite attractions.

Silver Lake Sand Dunes/Hart: With 2,000 acres of sand dunes, beaches, and the Little Sable Lighthouse, you’ll definitely want to stop at Silver Lake State Park. If you’re not up for climbing one of the magnificent dunes, check out the Mac Woods Dune Rides, a 90-year-old tourist attraction. A knowledgeable driver will take you on a fun-filled, seven-mile ride through the dunes. You’ll also want to swing by John Gurney Park in Hart, one of the first overnight car parks on the West Michigan Pike.

Muskegon: To truly get a flavor of the West Michigan Pike, a must-see is a Pike marker located in Muskegon. These markers guided early travelers along the Pike, but very few remain today. In stark contrast, you’ll also want to check out the City Built on Timber sculpture at Heritage Landing, site of the 2016 West Michigan Pike Pure Michigan Byway designation ceremony. This contemporary sculpture honors Muskegon’s history as a lumber town.

Grand Haven/Spring Lake: Make sure you visit Grand Haven State Park, historically known as The Oval. Weather-permitting, take a walk on the pier adjacent to the state park — home to Grand Haven’s brilliant red lighthouse and matching red foghorn building (built in 1875). If you’re in town at dusk, head to the musical fountain at the Lynne Sherwood Waterfront Stadium, where you’ll be treated during the summer to a light and water show that’s synchronized to music (depending on COVID restrictions).

Holland: For a change of pace, tour DeZwaan, the only authentic imported Dutch windmill in the United States. Brought over from the Netherlands in 1964, this 260-year-old grain-grinding working mill sits on 36 acres of beautifully manicured grounds bursting with more than 100,000 tulips each spring, and stunning annuals and perennials in the summer. A guided tour includes the mill’s fifth floor, where you’ll see the huge grindstones and learn how the winds blowing off Lake Michigan are harnessed to grind locally sourced winter wheat into flour.

Saugatuck/Douglas: The must-see “Pike stop” here is the award-winning Oval Beach. Accolades include Condé Nast Traveler’s “Top 25 Beaches in the World,” National Geographic Traveler’s “Top Freshwater Beaches in the USA,” and MTV’s “Top 5 Beaches in the USA.” Climb the dunes, pack a picnic lunch, or grab a bite at the beach’s concession stand. Don’t forget to catch a jaw-dropping sunset over Lake Michigan before heading into town for the night.

South Haven: Walk the length of the wharf to the South Pier Lighthouse. This iconic landmark boasts a vibrant red base and a 1,200-foot catwalk (one of only four in Michigan). Built in 1903 to replace the original 1872 lighthouse, the steel structure was electrified in 1923 with a 200-watt bulb that still operates. The lighthouse is the city’s most recognizable symbol, so plan to take some photos in front of it as the sun dips below the Lake Michigan horizon.

St. Joseph/Benton Harbor: Be sure to check out Silver Beach in downtown St. Joseph. This county park has a beautiful Lake Michigan swimming beach, beach wheelchair rentals, barrier-free walkways, a concession stand, grills, picnic tables, a playground for the kids, and beach volleyball courts. Adjacent to the beach is the Silver Beach Carousel. You’ll definitely want to take a spin! The carousel recorded its one-millionth rider in 2017.

While those are just a sampling of top picks from my many years as head of the Holland Visitors Bureau, I’m always discovering something new when I cruise old West Michigan Pike country. It’s rejuvenating to travel the back roads, and so much easier today than it was back in the early 1900s.

With that in mind, I invite you to think about leaving your worries behind and grabbing someone special to “Take the Lakeshore All the Way.” Just like those motor touring adventurers of the past, make your own memories by experiencing the stunning beauty and diversity of these coastal West Michigan towns. You’ll be delighted by what you find beyond the mile markers.

PLAN IT!

Michigan Beachtowns
michiganbeachtowns.org

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