If you want to build sand castles and climb huge sand dunes, there’s no better place than at Warren Dunes State Park. The park, along the shores of Lake Michigan in southern Michigan, is just a 90-minute’s drive from Chicago. It’s a great alternative to the better-known Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore because it’s quieter and just as fun.
I could hardly wait to get out of the car when we first saw the sparkling blue waters of the lake and the massive sugar-and-cinnamon dunes. However, my wife Emily waved a pink bottle of SPF 50 in my face, muttering some ominous things about dermatologists, radiation and the day star. Frustrated as I was at the delay, it was a good idea. The windswept sand dunes are dazzlingly bright, offer little shade and are as piping hot as the faded asphalt on the parking lot.
We then trudged up Tower Hill, a 250-foot-tall dune and the tallest in the park. For every two steps I took, there was one step sliding backwards in the soft sand. It’s a strenuous but excellent exercise for the glutes after a long car ride.
Stubborn patches of grass, stumps and spindly tree skeletons clung to the sandy blowouts at the top of the hill. We stood by a grove of shady trees and enjoyed the view where on a clear day you can see Chicago’s distant skyline. The top of Tower Hill is a terrific place to see a sunset or go star-gazing. When the conditions are right, it’s also a terrific place for people to launch their hang gliders, though I didn’t see any. We meandered along the top ridge of the dunes and saw how their steep backsides dropped down drastically into a thick tangle of trees. It was like looking down into some secret shady walled garden.
On the beach by the swimming area were kids flying kites while other people lounged under large umbrellas or sunbathed. Nearby are concessions, bathrooms, and an enormous inflatable slide. A red flag on a pole on the beach warned of strong riptides and undercurrents offshore. The beach extends two miles to the north, beyond the swimming area, into more rustic surroundings where dogs are allowed. Out here I saw a very muddy and smug Labradoodle furiously digging a hole to the other side of the world.
In all, we only saw the southern third of this 2,000-acre park. In the wooded sections there are some six miles of hiking trails, campgrounds, and even hunting areas. While on hot summer weekends the park gets full, it doesn’t feel crowded because the large dunes absorb the crowds and sounds easily. Even better, many of the other gems of southwest Michigan are near the park, such as winery trails, New Buffalo, and up further north, Holland and Grand Haven. This all makes Warren Dunes a relaxing getaway for daytrippers seeking summertime sand.
Warren Dunes State Park
12032 Red Arrow Hwy., Sawyer, MI 49125
$8.40 per car for out-of-state day visitors