To most, the name “Saugatuck” may seem completely foreign, you might not even place it in the states if asked to locate it. However, ask a Michigander, and you’ll discover some of the state’s most prominent dunes. Michigan’s many dunes are primarily located along it’s western border with Lake Michigan, the strong westerly winds from the lake blowing massive heaps of sand into the great piles we see today. Over time as the dunes built up, the oldest ones started to become part of the permanent landscape, covered in topsoil and plant life. Locked into position, the dunes support what can almost be described as a shell of earth, a thin slice of life that has deigned to integrate itself into the sandy hills. It is this phenomenon which makes Saugatuck worth the visit, a rather twisted mixture of rough forest trail and unforgiving dunes, some 200 feet tall, it can give any experienced hiker a run for their money; while simultaneously offering more direct and scenic trails right to the beach. With over 1000 acres of land and roughly 2.5 miles of shoreline, spending a day here is easy, even if you don’t get lost. Not that we did..
You may notice that it appears to be a rather dreary day out in these pictures. That’s because it was. While dunes in the summer are great, like a beach had a baby with a funhouse, personally I’ve always found Michigan’s terrain to compliment a more brooding sort of weather. When we arrived, we were the only ones in the park. It was a bit cold, maybe 50 degrees or so, it had just been raining not 30 minutes before. You could still smell the storm on the air. The trail towards the first marker (See the map at the bottom), took us through the heart of the forest laying atop the dunes, evidence of which could be seen all about us. The paths especially, which are comprised of sand and not dirt, as one might expect in a forest. This made hiking considerably more difficult than initially expected, but it was nothing compared to when we broke through the forest into the first set of dunes. Nestled sporadically throughout the park, these sand pockets were a rather odd sight at first. Unable to see past the looming mound of sand before us, we assumed we had reached the waterfront, or at least the dunes leading up to it. After clambering to the top we discovered we were very much mistaken, as our view gave way to nothing but more forest below us. This intermittent terrain creates a problem you should come prepared for. The sand. In your shoes. We’ve all experienced it, its just part of life at the beach. But, have you tried hiking with it? After a while I wasn’t even wearing shoes, I was just wearing the beach.
We reached the waterfront after about 30 or so minutes of simply ‘going west’, enjoying the dramatic changes in terrain as well as scenery. Taking the direct trails, you can get to the beach in about 10 to 15. If you do plan to take a more scenic route, or even go hiking for extended periods of time, be aware that there is a season for ticks, it varies depending on the year but usually peaks around the height of spring to the middle of the summer. Just pack some bug spray and be vigilant.
Upon coming to the crest of the final dune, I was nothing less than humbled as I looked out upon Lake Michigan under its moody grey dome. An emotion I experience often in nature albeit, but for those of you who don’t mind a little bit of damp and cold, there’s certainly something to be said for experiencing Michigan in it’s more natural setting; Inclement weather. Granted most of the time its not so much wet as cold, but hey no one’s keeping score. On the plus side, after the unexpectedly taxing hike to the water, we had both long forgotten about the chill, and were more than ready to begin exploring the aforementioned miles of beach. Typically well populated during the summer, our lack of aversion to the weather granted us a rare opportunity to see the park laid bare. A pleasure that can be yours as well should you decide to visit in the earlier months of spring. The beach is surprisingly nice, ranging from wide open areas of soft sand, to thin strips of land wedged between the tide and sheer cliffs of dirt and roots. The water however, is magnificent. It moves like a living being, not as violent or imposing as the ocean, but rather more rhythmic and pulsating. Like clockwork it deposits fresh layers of silt unto the beach, creating a captivating gradient that spans the length of the waterfront. It can be wise to keep an eye on your feet, for fear of becoming so lost in the waves, you step full force into the oncoming tide.
The trek back from the beach took us to the northerly most point in the park, before we headed south again eventually meeting up with the trail around marker seven, and heading back down along through six and four. Water is a must for this hike, especially if you’re doing it in the summer. The dunes can be very unforgiving, and the descents can be quite treacherous, often times the grade on both sides of a dune will be close to 40%, and hills that steep aren’t just physically taxing, they also make you look ridiculous as you try to climb them. Trying to waddle up a sheer cliff of sand makes for very amusing entertainment after the fact if you catch it on video, I assure you. Jokes aside, the terrain can be dangerous, rolled ankles come out of this place like hotcakes, so be careful going off trail. But when all is said and done, Saugatuck can provide a great adventure for any group or individual, whether you’re looking to soak in the great lakes, or tackle some of the roughest dunes western Michigan has to offer. Certainly not the biggest or most impressive of Michigan’s dunes, but Saugatuck offers a unique look into the exceeding diversity of terrain our country has to offer. Worth the visit any time of the year for any and all who truly want a taste of the great lakes state.
Here’s the map for those interested: