Though folks in the midwest (Chicagoland area) don’t have the mountains, glaciers, or Grand Canyons, there is no limit to what is accessible within a few hours of Chicago. As a matter of fact, with a little research and the willingness to deal with outbound traffic, there are endless opportunities for day-trips and long weekends spent in little corners of a midwestern paradise.
Just under two hours northeast of Chicago (or, actually a giant u-turn around Lake Michigan), lies the town of South Haven, Michigan. The town holds the distinction of our first “out of town” date many, many years ago. More recently, an amazing friend offered us the chance to use her home as a base for weekend getaways. Having now taken her up on the offer twice, once in the heart of Fall and once shortly after the ground thawed in Spring, we’ve have definitely uncovered the magic of southwestern Michigan. This post will capture a bit from both of our visits, mixing Fall and Spring.
The Kal-Haven Trail
We’re fortunate enough to have a week or two each year here in northern Illinois to enjoy the transition from summer to fall, as the trees put on a display before their winter slumber. I don’t think we were ready for the show diplayed along the Kal-Haven trail, which begin just on the outskirts of South Haven. The 30 some-odd mile trail, connecting South Haven to Kalamazoo, begins by intertwining with the Black River. The trail itself is flat and mostly paved, and on this mid- October morning, walkers, runners, and bikers drifted along the path. It never felt crowded or congested – simply well appreciated.
Less than a mile or so in, we were canopied by trees and were invited by a covered bridge to head deeper into the forest. We walked for several miles, the bright sun cascading through pockets between the trees.As we wandered on and on, we were treated to a full Fall display, occasionally within viewing distance of the winding river. After a few hours, we decided to head back to town – as we had left the town in the morning we had seen the Saturday Farmer’s Market setting up, and after walking several miles, our stomachs had started to grumble.
South Haven itself can get pretty busy – summers are crowded with Chicagoans making their way to Michigan, carving out their little place near the lake. The quaint downtown area closest to the shore is easily walkable in 45 minutes, offering up a host of restaurants, candy shops, and bakeries. Navigating the streets of South Haven as the tourist season was coming to a close wasn’t difficult, but the quaintness of the town was not as easy to appreciate as it would be a little later in the evening. After picking up some (read: a lot) of cookies from one of the local bakeries, a few scoops of ice cream, and a coffee, we decided to drive west of the town into the southern Michigan farmlands to find another place to pick up the trail.
We zig-zagged a good bit, occasionally crossing over the trail by car, as we sought out a place to park. We were probably about 12-15 miles out of South Haven before we found a space where we felt comfortable leaving our car. Parked alongside one of the only buildings in the area, we cruised through a few more miles of the trail. We hit the jackpot the weekend we made our way to the area- the fall colors dazzled in a way I only thought was possible in Vermont or New Hampshire. My hunch is at any other point of the year, this would be an amazing trail to bring a bike out to and ride out to Kalamazoo, taking in all of the scenery but moving at 12 mph. But for this weekend, our walking speed was the right pace to be able to take it all in.
The South Haven Pier
Without a doubt, one of the most magnetic pulls of the Michigan coast is not just the beauty of Lake Michigan, but the dozens of lighthouses that dot the perimeter of the state. The lighthouse at South Haven has that same pull. Located just downhill from the downtown area, the pier- extending out a few hundred yards into the lake, and punctuated by a stout lighthouse- is a site to take in both during the day and at sunset. Though the beach has its daytime crowd, the sunset over the lake is where the crowds build – if it’s possible, you want to walk your way down to the beach, as the parking lot feels small when the town collectively makes its way down for the nightly ritual.
After catching the sunset and the transition to night, lights along the pier guided our way back to land, and after a short walk back up the hill, a quick stop for a bite to eat at Maria’s A Taste of Italy for a cracker thin pizza was the perfect night cap. In season, there are plenty restaurants ready to fill the void in the belly after a day of walking endless miles.
Weekend Mornings in South Haven
We tend to start early, and by early, we’re out the door by 7:30 or so, and for our spring visit, this was early enough to grab a seat without a wait at one of the local breakfast joints. After some well-seasoned smashed potatoes at Phoenix Street Cafe, we wandered through the town a bit. Two shops worth visiting, Black River Books and Phoenix Records and Boutique, sit side by side on the eastern edge of South Haven. Both are independently owned and operated and contain selections nearly guaranteeing you will leave with a purchase. Upon exiting the stores, we wanted to get a jump on exploring out of the town and made our way 20’ish miles north to the greater Saugatuck area.
Saugatuck Dunes State Park has been one of the best gems within the greater Chicagoland area we have stumbled across. Like our Fall walk down the Kal-Haven Trail, perhaps it was just lucky timing, or maybe we simply were overexcited by our opportunity to be near the lake after our winter hibernation that made this so great. What I really think it was was the fact we thought we were going to be hiking dunes, but instead, we found ourselves hiking through pine forests within earshot of Lake Michigan. I cannot convey our love of this place in words – the only comparison I could make was that it was like a mini-Torrey Pines, the coastal state park north of San Diego. We hiked through the heavily scented woods for about an hour or so, before the trees began to give way to the sandy hills which, after a brief climb, we found ourselves overlooking the swell of waters below. When we revisit, this will certainly be tops on our list – we had no idea pine forests like this existed so close to home. The park has four trails, which means we have 3 more to explore – and right now it would get my highest rating of any park I have been to in the midwest.
A brief trek to Holland, about 20 minutes north from Saugatuck park is worth it for lunch – the downtown area has a bit of a college vibe due to the local school, and one’s choices for food and treats is greater than that in South Haven. We’ve stopped here a few times, though we have not made it up for their well-known tulip festival – something we hope to resolve in the near future.
The trip home from South Haven offers additional options – many of which we hope to entertain in future visits. On this particular trip, we made our way to a segment of the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, a park worthy of it’s own post… coming soon.