This is the latest post about running + camping in our beautiful state. I’ve also posted about running and camping on the sunrise side, and also combining volunteering at a Glen Arbor race with a tent-pitching excursion in Empire.
The last time we visited the Silver Lake Sand Dunes area, on the west side of the state and about two and a half hours south of us, my now-husband and I had just met. We’d been dating a month or so at most, and I had an assignment from the local newspaper to cover the Hootie and the Blowfish concert in the small town of Mears. (I can’t seem to recall where exactly this outdoor concert took place, but I remember not knowing much of anything about this lakeside village.) Joe agreed to come along for the adventure. I wrote up the concert review—I’m pretty sure I still have the yellowed newspaper clipping stashed somewhere—and we look back on that summer night as when we fell in love.
Some 17 years later, we found ourselves back in the area, this time with our three kids for a weekend of camping at Silver Lake State Park. This campground is one of several in the bustling dunes area that clearly is a hot spot for summer travelers like us. We thought it would be fun to go back to this part of the state for obvious nostalgic reasons, but also because we’d heard Silver Lake is a great state park given it’s on a beautiful inland lake not far from Lake Michigan and, of course, there’s these amazing sand dunes.
We’d known about the off-road vehicles that are allowed on these dunes, but it definitely was a sight to see in person—everywhere you looked were Jeeps, buggies and other 4X4 vehicles zigzagging around the area. Each vehicle was equipped with a towering orange flag off the front, signaling they were heading for the dunes. We didn’t plan the trip thinking we’d do any dune riding ourselves, but our first night there we picked up some brochures and decided we’d look into it for the next day.
More importantly, however, was the run. When and where would I run—a pretty critical question when you’re traveling to a new place, right?
While some Michigan state parks have robust trail systems, Silver Lake State Park isn’t one of them. But, I knew that wouldn’t stop me from finding a good route to run—there’s always places to run, you just sometimes have to seek them out. And in fact, I found a great westward route from the park to Little Sable Point Lighthouse, just under three miles away. This gave me a great out-and-back, nearly 6-mile run Saturday morning.
And though the diesel-driving, four-wheelin’ party atmosphere initially got me thinking I just might be the only person on foot out on the roads, I quickly realized this assessment was dead wrong. There were runners everywhere, both Saturday and Sunday mornings. Lots of walkers, too. Everyone seemed to have the same idea of running from their campsite (or cabin or cottage or hotel) toward the lighthouse.
I set out around 9 a.m. Saturday, a little later than I’d planned (temps were in the high 70s and it only got hotter), but that’s the way it goes sometimes when you’re camping. We’d arrived early evening the night before and after loading up on extra ice and firewood–we loved the Parkside Store, just beyond the state park ground’s–we were up late sitting around the campfire and roasting marshmallows. Morning came quick and early.
But I fell into a nice rhythm not long after starting out on the run. The route is flat, a straight-shot for at least a mile and a half along Silver Lake, before it turns to the right. At this point, you’re treated to a more serene landscape of tall trees and a meandering river. The first mile or so takes you along the lake and offers gorgeous views of the white-sand dunes, but it’s also a busier stretch with lots of cottage rentals, a buggy tour business, and parks.
The sun was beating down pretty strong, so I dodged back and forth across the road to run in the shade whenever possible. I followed the few lighthouse signs dotting the route until I came upon a more residential area and, finally, a beach access parking lot. At this point you turn left and it’s a short distance to the lighthouse parking lot. While several runners ran near me during the first couple of miles, I ended up by myself once I reached the lighthouse, which I later learn was restored in 2005 and opened to the public a year later. I definitely wanted to see the beach, so I made my way onto one of the dune-grass-lined sand paths. It was all part of the workout–the hill was sandy and steep–but at the top was a sweeping view of Lake Michigan. I swear I breathe easier every time I come upon a Great Lakes beach.
I spent a few minutes sitting on the beach and walking around the lighthouse before heading back to the parking lot. [By the way, there are two outhouse-type bathrooms next to the parking lot, and though they’re outhouses, these were actually decent. Clean. They even had a lighthouse picture hung on one of the walls.]
The run back was quiet and nice–definitely hotter as the temperatures had continued to rise–but I felt strong and good. I couldn’t wait to get back to the campsite and eat a big breakfast.
We spent the rest of the day exploring the area, and decided to go for it and try four-wheeling the dunes. We stopped at a few rental places and settled on renting a Jeep for three hours from Parrott’s Landing. They were very friendly and helpful, and their gift-and-rental shop bathrooms were impressively clean (these are things you notice as a mom of kids who inevitably need to use the bathroom whenever you stop someplace). The cherry-red, open-top Jeep we rented was perfect for our family of five–Joe drove, I sat in the passenger seat, and the three kids sat comfortably in the back. I tried sitting in the back for awhile, too–definitely bumpier!–and Joe and Emma also took a ride together while the boys and I sat on the beach.
Sitting on the beach on the other side of the dunes was one of my most favorite parts of the day. We’d packed snacks and drinks, carried them in the back of the Jeep, and after playing around on the dunes for awhile, we headed to the beach where lots of other ORVs were parked. The beach is expansive, so there was plenty of room to stretch out and relax. It was in the 90s, and it was incredibly hot out on the dunes. Jumping into the cool waters of Lake Michigan was heavenly.
After returning the Jeep later in the day, we decided to check out some of the other touristy spots, including an ice cream-and-popcorn shop and an arcade-zip-line-go-cart center. We ended our day back near the lighthouse, at a little eatery called Lighthouse Grill & Gift Shop. After a late dinner there, we headed down to the lighthouse to catch the sunset. Our kids dove into the water while we sat on the sand watching the water shimmer with hues of orange and pink from the setting sun.
Compared to our other camping trips so far this summer, Silver Lake State Park is a decidedly busier spot. It was fun to try something different, and we talked about how fun it would be to visit again with some friends and their kids. It’s definitely a high-energy place. The campground itself has some great sites, and I think next time we’ll try to snag a spot right along Silver Lake.
Our next camping trips will take us into the Upper Peninsula, including a tried-and-true favorite spot and a couple of new-to-us places. My next race: the Tahqua Trail Run, a 10K race at Tahquamenon State Park, in early August. Looking forward to it!
Who else has camped at Silver Lake? Have you tried four wheeling on the dunes? Ever run the route to Little Sable Lighthouse?