Southwest Michigan’s Blue Star Memorial and Red Arrow highways wind their way along the Lake Michigan shore, forming a dark ribbon of asphalt from Saugatuck to the Indiana border. The two roads join to form a single scenic route that snakes around the remnants of ancient sand dunes, tunneling beneath mature maples and offering the occasional spectacular glimpse of sparkling Lake Michigan.
You’re unlikely to drive faster than 55 mph in this corner of the state, but why would you want to? These scenic highways promise a trip through lakeshore communities where life revolves around leisurely days on the beach, where sunsets last an hour before finally flaming purplish-orange beneath Lake Michigan’s surface, and where roadside stands still sell their produce — pyramids of ruby tomatoes and peaches, armloads of sweet corn — on the honor system with a coffee can for a till.
There’s no hurrying a drive along southwest Michigan’s Red Arrow and Blue Star Memorial highways — and that’s precisely the reason to go.
SAUGATUCK’S LAKE MICHIGAN MUSE
The Blue Star Memorial Highway leaves the expressway behind with one broad bend on an exit ramp near Saugatuck. The community best known for its artistry earned its pedigree in the early 1900s when the Art Institute of Chicago arrived to launch its summertime Ox-Bow School of Art. Saugatuck and its sister town of Douglas remain worth a detour for their prized galleries. The walls are hung with maritime-themed watercolors, ceramics and jewelry made of beach glass at galleries such as Roan & Black, Armstrong De Graaf, Water Street and J. Petter.
“We live in Denver, so we are glad to get away from the big city,” Paula Pardo said of her regular visits to southwest Michigan with her husband Roy, her children and grandchildren. “Saugatuck is an artsy, crafty area of the state and country, but it’s really the beach that draws us. We have four grandsons, and the beach is perfect for them.”
Pardo isn’t alone in her twin attractions to beach and art. It was precisely the natural beauty of the Lake Michigan shore that inspired the arrival of those Chicago artists. At Saugatuck Dunes State Park, it’s easy to imagine the landscapes of a century ago since, save for a few hiking trails, they simply have not changed.
Fourteen miles of footpaths snake through Saugatuck’s inland dunes, through stands of white pine where the forest floor lies softly with a carpet of fallen needles. Visitors meander along the Livingston Trail loop, soaking up the natural beauty of the woods. Or they follow the shorter Beach Trail directly to Lake Michigan and the promise of a cool dip on a sweltering hot day.
COTTAGE LIVING IN SOUTH HAVEN
“I live on the South Side of Chicago, where it seems everyone has a place in southwest Michigan or knows someone who does,” Terri Colby said. “You grow up knowing about this area as a place to go during the summer.”
The Chicagoan traces her summertime treks to the 1980s when her parents first rented and later purchased a house in South Haven. In the ensuing years, six Colby siblings, 11 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren have spent time at the summer cottage “as of this writing,” she said via email, implying a love affair not likely to end anytime soon.
A wealth of cottage rentals and B&B establishments — Martha’s Vineyard, Yelton Manor and the Carriage House among them — have perfected the home-away-from-home ambiance even for visitors limited to a weekend away. After morning coffee in the garden and a breakfast of locally grown blueberries and fresh-baked scones, travelers pedal their bicycles along the Kal-Haven Trail, a former railroad bed. They poke around in local antique shops and walk the pier out to the South Haven lighthouse, a walk bordered with overflowing flower beds and park benches built to encourage daydreaming. And at day’s end, it’s back to the inn to catch a sunset from a wicker chair on the porch.
“I live on the South Side of Chicago, where it seems everyone has a place in southwest Michigan or knows someone who does. You grow up knowing about this area as a place to go during the summer.”
“South Haven’s small-town atmosphere is a draw. And there are first-class restaurants that make everyone happy. But if I had to answer in two words,” Colby said of her family’s decadeslong attraction to southwest Michigan, “it would be ‘Lake Michigan.’”
BEACH TRADITIONS IN ST. JOSEPH
The Blue Star wends its way southward toward St. Joseph, a stretch that begs road trippers to open their sunroofs and roll down their windows. Here, the air is perfumed with the heady scent of lilacs in June and with white pines in July and August. And when the road lies especially close to Lake Michigan, there’s an added freshness to the air.
St. Joseph’s beachfront has long drawn travelers to this stretch of Lake Michigan. Back in the late 1800s, families spent their days on St. Joseph’s shore, whiling away the hours at the Silver Beach Amusement Park. Bumper cars and carnival games, ice cream and a lakeside ballroom kept travelers on the water until sunset, when with hair blown into tangles and noses sunburned, they headed to their beach cottages and inns.
The amusement park officially closed in 1971, but Silver Beach’s 1910 handcarved carousel still spins on St. Joseph’s most popular strand, set within the Silver Beach Center. The facility also is home to the Curious Kids’ Discovery Zone, a branch of the Curious Kids’ Museum, with interactive water features, virtual reality play and a climbing wall. A splash zone sits immediately outside the Silver Beach Center and a boardwalk leads to Lake Michigan, where sunbathers can splash alongside St. Joseph’s duo of white lighthouses.
RED ARROW FRUIT AND WINE COUNTRY
The temperate climate and cool lake breezes that make southwest Michigan so appealing to summer travelers also have made this region prime fruit-growing area. “I loved to pick fresh strawberries or blueberries from the farm,” Pardo said of her childhood visits in southwest Michigan. “Picking the fruit with my grandparents was really special.”
An abundance of fruit-themed festivals — South Haven’s National Blueberry Festival, Coldwater’s Strawberry and AppleFest, Coloma’s Glad-Peach Festival, which includes locally grown gladiolus in the celebration — emphasize the point. But Michigan’s fruit belt also has established itself as a center for quality Michigan wine grapes, evidenced by the tidy vineyards that border the hillsides along the Red Arrow Highway.
While wineries such as Hickory Creek and Lemon Creek have made waves with their Michigan-grown cabernet sauvignon, merlot and malbec, most vintners in southwest Michigan specialize in delicate cool-climate whites: dry rieslings, spicy gewürztraminers, mineral-rich pinot grigios and ice wines.
The annual Lake Michigan Shore Wine Festival takes place in mid-June at Warren Dunes State Park, an opportunity to sample vintages from dozens of Lake Michigan wineries. And in addition to wine tasting, visitors enjoy live music and a spectacular Lake Michigan sunset from the festival’s location in the state park.
WARREN DUNES AND THE BORDER
Especially popular with visitors from Chicago and northern Indiana, the Warren Dunes in Sawyer often serve as out-of-state travelers’ first introduction to Michigan’s spectacular beaches. The park’s 6 miles of wooded hiking trails lure visitors into the cool pine forest. Three miles of golden sand and a dune formation rising 260 feet above the lake cause them to linger.
It is, after all, Lake Michigan that keeps long-time visitors like Colby and Pardo returning to southwest Michigan each year.
“One of my favorite memories is lying in bed at night listening to the water lapping up on the shore while trying to go to sleep,” Pardo said. “I still love that sound and when I hear it, it takes me back to those wonderful memories on Lake Michigan.”
“Memories of floating in Lake Michigan’s cool waters on a hot summer day are a touchstone for me,” Colby said. “I can still see the clouds moving slowly overhead. And it makes me feel lucky to be able to regularly experience such a great slice of natural beauty.”
Amy Eckert is an award-winning travel writer and author based in Holland.