Michigandering: Riding Western Michigan on the Cheap

Little Point Sable Lighthouse
Last day of summer, last ride of summer: Enjoying the peace and views at the Little Point Sable Light on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan. Photos by the author.

My friend, Rick, lives near Chicago, and I live in Ohio. When we decided to squeeze in one last motorcycle excursion last fall and meet halfway in Michigan, we opted for the less glamorous shores of western Michigan. A campsite accommodating two tents for two nights only set us back $61. No luxury accommodations required, no fancy touring rigs. Rick would be taking his first out-of-town trip on the 2001 Kawasaki KLR650 he bought for $1,500 and spent a few hundred more upgrading, while I would meet him on my 2009 Kawasaki Versys, nicely broken in at 67,000 miles. The end-of-summer cheap bastards Michigan tour was underway.

Of course Rick immediately put the “cheap” part at risk by booking a cruise. Opting to avoid the unlovely traffic on Interstate 80 around the southern tip of Lake Michigan, he rode north to Milwaukee instead, and caught the Lake Express ferry across to Muskegon, Michigan. At least he didn’t pay extra for the onboard movie, so I grudgingly admitted he kept to the spirit of the thing.

Many expenses were spared on this tour. A pair of well used Kawasakis—a KLR650 and a Versys—got the job done.

On the last full day of summer, we start our loop at the Side Street Café in Fremont, Michigan, the sort of breakfast spot we both favor on the road, probably like a lot of Rider readers. My coffee cup is never empty as we linger alongside the chattering retiree crowd, men at one table and women at another, well after the nine-to-fivers have gone to work.

We aim north on Michigan State Trunkline Highway 37 through the Huron-Manistee National Forests. The diversity of motorcycling means we can all find something we like, whether that’s a feet-forward cruiser or a tucked-in sportbike, and roads are the same way. M-37 impressed some riders enough to move them to add it to those “good roads” lists you find floating around the Internet. And it does provide for a relaxing, relatively low-traffic ride through the national forest and surrounding small towns. You won’t find any curves tight enough to scrub the sides of your tires, however. In our case, it is an opportunity to let breakfast settle before facing any exertion that might lead to indigestion.

Silver Lake State Park
Post-Labor Day at Silver Lake State Park, it’s easy to imagine you’re lost in the Sahara. Mid-summer, the park is full of off-road vehicle riders enjoying the dunes.

It’s a long way up north to our turnaround point, Traverse City. Why Traverse City? Not a single justifiable reason other than neither of us had been there before. Supposedly, the city is known for the hundreds of millions of pounds of cherries produced in the region annually and the big festival the city hosts to trumpet that feat. During our casual visit, what struck me most is that this is a boat town.

Hard on the bay from which it gets its name, the city has a large marina and a sandy beach, which is mostly deserted on our post-Labor Day weekday visit. Beyond the bay, though, is the Boardman River Canal running through downtown. I think it would be easier to live in a downtown apartment and park your boat at your curb than to find an equally close parking spot for your motorcycle.

Traverse City Michigan
In Traverse City, boat parking is easier to come by than motorcycle parking.

Time for the return leg of the ride, however, which is the real attraction: following the coast of Lake Michigan. So we head west until we reach water.

Sticking to the coast involves navigating a series of roads big and small, starting with M-22, which rewards us with a generously sized pull-off that offers sweeping views of the lake from a bluff. Boardwalks lead to even higher vantage points. Not surprisingly, we’re not the only ones, on two wheels or four, taking advantage of the sights. Two friends on Harley Electra Glides seem to have settled in at this beautiful spot for a daylong conversation.

Michigandering
Waterfront living is the attraction in many small towns dotting the Michigan shore.

One of the things I love about the Great Lakes, at least in the summer, is the cool, clean taste of the breeze off the water. Cool, because these deep bodies of water (especially Superior, farther north) hold on to some of winter’s cold all summer long, and clean because unlike the ocean, this is not saltwater. Ocean views are stunning and all, but an hour by the sea can leave you feeling like you can almost hear the pitting popping out on your bike’s chrome bits like zits erupting on a teenager’s chin the night before prom.

While M-22 provides some sweeping curves and periodically rewards us with a lake view, to continue making progress south we have to hop onto four-lane U.S. Route 31 for a while before we can return to the shore near the town of Pentwater. The most memorable stop, however, comes a bit farther south as we hug the shoreline on County Road B35, a.k.a. Ridge Road, and roll into the vacation town of Silver Lake—memorable for two very different reasons.

Michigandering
A sunny day, a cool breeze off the lake and the knowledge that winter is coming encourage one last trip.

First, even though it’s a beautiful, warm day not that late into September, it might as well be mid-winter in Silver Lake. Labor Day is in the rear-view mirror, and the town has rolled up the sidewalks. The hotels are shut down. The restaurants, pizzerias and ice cream shops are closed. Boat and bicycle rentals, shuttered. Hardly a soul in sight, like some epidemic rolled through party town, leaving it evacuated and off-limits.

Being the only people in sight works to our advantage as we roll down the waterfront to the natural attraction for which Silver Lake is known.

Michigandering
Three cylinders and 1,300cc of not-so-raging power.

The 3,000-acre Silver Lake State Park includes around 2,000 acres of dramatic sand dunes, and 450 of those are set aside for off-road vehicle use. It’s so popular in the summer, a long list of rules is required to keep everyone from flying into each other, but in keeping with the eerie emptiness of the town, Rick and I are the only people around. We ignore the “No Parking” signs and the instructions for the OHV parking lots to get views and photos of the dunes. In the empty silence, if we look in the right direction, we could pretend to be alone in the Sahara.

If Silver Lake is the most memorable stop, the Little Point Sable Light is the most scenic. South of Silver Lake, I dive right on a whim when I see a sign for a lighthouse, and Rick banks the KLR right behind me. The road dead-ends at a parking area and we climb a grassy dune to be rewarded with an endless view of blue water and a long strip of sandy beach deserted except for one relaxing couple and a few seagulls. The 1874 brick lighthouse towers over the scene, the lone manmade thing in sight.

The sun angles low toward the water and we still have a few miles to ride back to camp, through woods that will soon be dark for sure and deer-infested most likely, so lingering is limited. But the view is maybe the best all day and the swish of wind through the dune grass and the melancholy weakening light make a fitting finale for an end-of-summer ride. Cost of admission: none at all, except maybe a bit of sand in my boots. Warms a cheap bastard’s heart, it does.

Michigandering
A map of the route taken, by Bill Tipton/compartmaps.com.

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