Part 1 of this post detailed three natural gems located just north of the Indiana/ Michigan border: Fernwood Botanical Gardens, Grand Mere State Park and Galien River County Park. All three are deserving of a visit, but should you choose to extend your day-trip into a weekend, or are simply looking for additional outdoor activities, a trip a bit further north to the South Haven/ Saugatuck area may be just what is needed.
Just under two hours northeast of Chicago (or, actually a giant u-turn around Lake Michigan), lie the towns of South Haven and Saugatuck, Michigan. Each offer unique experiences and we have found the best times to visit are during off-peak season, October-May.
South Haven is the larger of the two towns and offers a wide variety of amenities, both downtown and in the more suburban outskirts. Both towns have a wide variety of independent stores, restaurants, bakeries and coffee shops. 2 of our favorites are Sherman’s Dairy Bar and the Blue Star Cafe and Diner, a small restaurant with a diverse menu, located between South Haven and Saugatuck in Douglas, along the Blue Star Highway. We have been to both multiple times.
Though we have had the good fortune to stay at a friend’s when we have visited the area, South Haven has a number of places to stay including Air BnBs. During peak season, you will want to book in advance, especially on weekends.
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 begins just on the outskirts of South Haven. The approximately 30-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 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 and grab a bite to eat.
The quaint downtown area, close to the shores of Lake Michigan, is easily walkable in 45 minutes. The town has a number of options for mid-day snacks and meals to help you reenergize for the rest of the day. Once ready, 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. 12-15 miles out of South Haven 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 a slightly faster pace. But for this weekend, our walking speed was just right 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 to choose from 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. Arriving at the park we expected to hike 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 pine-scented woods for about an hour or so, before the trees gave way to the dunes. After a brief climb, we found ourselves overlooking the swell of waters below. There are four trails in the park, and though this one had several ups and downs, the effort was completely worth the payoff. We look forward to additional visits. This park is a must-visit!
The trip home from southern Michigan offers additional options for stops. One we frequent often is the newly minted Indiana Dunes National Park, a park worthy of its own post… coming soon.