Tag Archives: northern michigan

Here’s my first travel story in 2 years, not quite post-pandemic sadly: In and around Beulah/Crystal Lake, Michigan


Near Beulah, Mich., Arcadia Dunes on Lake Michigan are a less-touristed alternative to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore

This charming, lesser-known summer vacation spot is a Michigan classic

The Beulah area captures nostalgia for Michigan’s vacationland. 

By Betsy Rubiner Special to the Star Tribune

AUGUST 27, 2021 — 7:30AM


As I bicycled beside a shimmering lake in the northwest corner of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula, I was looking for the perfect photo op to capture the “Up North” spirit I loved as a Michigan kid.

“Stop! This is it!” I called out to my husband and 29-year-old son early in our ride on the Betsie Valley Trail.

Humoring me, my guys duly stopped to pose beside a white birch tree set against a dazzling backdrop of lake, land and sky in many shades of blue: the water’s glassy turquoise, the opposite shore’s navy blue and the powder blue of a cloudless sky in late July.

Here was the Michigan of my lost youth, yet I’d never been to lovely Crystal Lake, the state’s ninth-largest inland lake (about 8 miles long and 2 ½ miles wide) but a pipsqueak compared with nearby Lake Michigan.

During our last summer trek here, we stayed 20 miles to the north, near the gateway to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, with its 35 miles of giant dunes. So in March, when I started planning a post-pandemic (or so I hoped) vacation with our far-flung adult kids and first grandchild, I looked for a vacation rental near Sleeping Bear.

My search landed us in a white lakefront cottage with an alluring wraparound enclosed porch in the village of Beulah. Dating to the 1930s or earlier, the four-bedroom cottage was worn and musty inside. Outside, it was perfect, with a glorious Crystal Lake view and a huge fenced-in yard for our dog and Frisbee flinging. We happily spent most of our week outside.

Beulah proved a fine base camp for revisiting the national lakeshore and discovering other dunes, trails, beaches and villages. With a year-round population of about 200 that swells during the summer, Beulah was also refreshingly low-key. Tourists played pickleball in the park, swam in the clear water beside the sandy public beach and fished from the public dock. There was the occasional Jet Ski, pontoon boat or speedboat pulling a water skier, but the lake was not overrun.

On the 2 ½-block main drag, we found the obligatory ice cream/fancy coffee shop and gem store selling jewelry made with Petoskey stones (a beloved local fossil), plus Five Shores Brewing, offering live music on Friday night, and L’Chayim Delicatessen, serving real-deal bagels and a mean pastrami sandwich.

Another bonus: Beulah is the midpoint of the 22-mile Betsie Valley Trail. We frequented the mostly flat 10-mile portion stretching to the town of Frankfort on Lake Michigan. First we rode west on newly resurfaced crushed limestone along Crystal Lake, past cottages with patches of caramel-colored sand dotted with beach chairs, kayaks, inflatable floats, volleyball nets and docks, to a small nature area where I found my photo op.

We proceeded to Frankfort on a smooth paved trail lined with hot pink sweet peas and other wildflowers, passing through sun-dappled woods and green fields near the squiggly Betsie River, which widens into a small lake. We stopped in unassuming Elberta (pop. about 165) for peach ice cream at the funky Conundrum Café and admired the Life Saving Station, a restored blue-trimmed 1887 building with a cupola once used to spot distressed ships on Lake Michigan. (It now hosts weddings.)

Around Beulah

Although we swam in Crystal Lake, we showered soon afterward to prevent swimmer’s itch, a rash caused by parasites carried by waterfowl and snails. More often we chose Lake Michigan, which has a less-itchy reputation. Sandy-bottomed Esch Beach was our favorite, followed by the bigger, busier beach in the pretty village of Empire. The Frankfort beach was a close third, located near another popular photo op, the Point Betsie Lighthouse, built in 1858.

While we enjoyed Sleeping Bear’s Dune Climb and Empire Bluffs Trail, we appreciated the relative solitude of the less-touristed Arcadia Dunes. At the C.S. Mott Nature Preserve, we hiked a mile through the woods to Mount Baldy Dune, where, from 126 feet, Lake Michigan looked like a vast ocean.

We ate most of our meals outside at the cottage on a wobbly picnic table, enjoying the local bounty — fresh corn, tomatoes and blueberries; whitefish (grilled, smoked or mushed into an addictive pâté) from Frankfort’s Port City Smokehouse; and farm-fresh brats and burgers from the Market Basket grocery store/farm stand in Beulah.

Peach pie from the Elberta Farmers Market was the group favorite, followed by cherry pie from the Cherry Hut in Beulah, an endearing 1922 mainstay where waitresses in crisp blouses and cherry-red skirts serve cherry pie à la mode, cherry floats and cherry hot fudge brownies.

One night we splurged on dinner at the Manitou, a local favorite with a North Woods supper club vibe. I’m glad I booked ahead. At 5:30 p.m. on a Monday, it was packed with families and older couples, perhaps drawn by early bird specials of Great Lakes whitefish and yellow perch.

With the region located along the Eastern Time Zone’s western edge, our days were long and full, followed by our main evening activity — lounging in plastic Adirondack chairs and watching the sun sink below the horizon, the sky over the lake ablaze with color.

Getting there

Beulah is a 650-mile drive east of the Twin Cities around Lake Michigan’s northern end. Drivers can also take the four-hour S.S. Badger car ferry from Manitowoc, Wis., to Ludington, Mich. Delta Air Lines offers one direct flight daily between Minneapolis and nearby Traverse City, Mich., from May to late September.

Betsy Rubiner, a Des Moines-based travel writer, writes the travel blog TakeBetsyWithYou.

Near Beulah, Mich., Arcadia Dunes on Lake Michigan are a less-touristed alternative to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.





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Dune climb at Sleeping Bear, Cherry Republic/Glen Arbor, esch beach – Northern Michigan

Climbing up an enormous sand dune is tiring. But the view from on high of Lake Michigan to the west and Glen Lake to the east of Sleeping Bear National Park is worth the exertion. On a Wednesday the park was also not overrun with other tourists, even if it’s high season.

We also dropped by Cherry Republic, sort of a station of the cross in northern Michigan, to get some dried cherries and cherry jam. In the afternoon we discovered Esch Beach, south of Empire which turned out to be a keeper: sandier bottom than Empire Beach, beautiful setting with a high dune to the north, dog-friendly.

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M-22 to M-31 – fruit stands, Arcadia Ice, Pentwater – Driving Home from up north (Michigan)

We took M-22 south from Frankfort to head home, a scenic two-lane road hugging Lake Michigan and dotted with farm stands. We also passed Arcadia Ice where we had good ice cream cones yesterday after our bluff hike, M-22 led us to M-31, also more interesting that 131 through Grand Rapids which we took on the way up here as a detour due to road construction.

In Pentwater, a pretty town, we stopped to picnic in the small park along a marina in town and eavesdropped on that appeared to be the results of a fishing competition. (Someone won for “best of species.”) sorry to leave up north but hope to return (to a different rental house) maybe next summer.

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Empire Bluffs Trail – up north (Michigan)

we found more spectacular views from atop a ridge of dunes on the Empire Bluffs Trail and more people too, compared to yesterday’s hike at Acadia bluffs, where we saw a handful of other hikers. The weekend crowd appears to have arrived and it’s almost as hard to urn left onto two-lane Highway 31 as it is to turn left on the Sunrise Highway in the Hamptons.

The weather has gotten cold – 66 degrees at 4 pm – and very windy which ruled out a last swim in the lake but it’s fine for everything else outdoors, so no complaints. We visited a much better -appointed house in empire that may be available for renting next year. No lake view but no decrepit stairs or sleeping quarters, which rules this place out next summer. We do like being so close to the small village and it’s handful of shops and places to eat and drink. And of course this lawn and view and dog-friendly situation can’t be beat. (No dogs at the Empire house.)

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Empire Beach, Railroad Point Nature Area – Up North (Michigan)

A storm huffed and puffed last night but there was no blowing down this house, which has stood its ground for decades. For once I took comfort in how old this cottage is. I figured it had withstood many a storm blowing over the late. Fortunately there was not e wind than rain so the cottage didn’t get more musty and the sun was out by midday. We went to lovely Empire Beach about 20 miles north in the pretty village of Empire where I hoped to stay this year. A maybe next year.

Tonight my best friend from high school Polly and her husband Jamie who live in empire right now while their house in Glen Arbor is getting a makeover came over for a hike in the woods at Railroad Point Nature Center and then dinner of grilled whitefish (an Emma specialty) and white bean & avocado salad (a Noah speciality) and cherry pie. lovely get together up north!

Linus and dirck at the Frankfort playground

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Lils on Crystal lake, betsie river trail, l’chaim deli (you read that right), cherry hut – Beulah, Mi

JUST FYI: (This post is from a week ago…Wordpress is acting up.)

I may be allergic to something in this ancient musty cottage (my throat got clogged last night) but beyond that, we are sitting pretty, on the shores of Crystal Lake, a short walk to the town beach and small downtown which does, in fact, have a surprisingly good Jewish deli.

Our temporary home base.

We do most things outside in our enormous fenced-in yard (good for Millie the dog) and the wraparound screened in-porch with an odd assortment of ancient chairs and 3 folding beds (I may try one tonight instead of sleeping in the low ceilinged upstairs bedroom, reached by a small set of steep narrow steps that Millie and I have trouble navigating.)

Birch trees and lake along Betsie Valley Trail

Noah, Dirck and I rode on the wonderfully scenic and flat, crushed gravel Betsie Valley Trail, all along the southern shore of Crystal Lake past cottages, most modest and old, some new and fancy, but this town feels refreshingly less posh than Harbor Springs or even Glen Arbor. The weather is perfect, sunny, 80s, with a breeze. We rode almost to Frankfort on the trail from Beulah and also rode a few miles the opposite direction into the woods on a rougher gravel trail.

Lunch was excellent deli fare at L’chaim Deli in small, unassuming downtown Beulah. Pastrami on rye, Rueben sandwich, a bagel sandwich with artichokes and peppered feta (the Jerusalem). There’s a few interesting little shops including an old head shop feeling place with lots of stones and jewelry with local stones, not only petosky stones but a green stone found in nearby Frankfort and a blue stone found in nearby Leland. I also learned about a quintessential Detroit stone, “Fordite” (the Detroit agate) so-called because it was made from old congealed paint from auto factories.

I swam In Crystal Lake, walking a half block to the public beach. Warm, shallow, sandy bottom and some risk of swimmers itch, same as 10 years ago, so I showered right after getting out and walking back here. Then off to Frankfort for a swim in Lake Michigan, also sandy, shallow for awhile, calm. We went over to the Point Betsie Lighthouse, a pretty old white brick tower attached to redbrick living quarters. I’m told the Betsie stems from a mispronunciation of a French word.

I bought cherry everything at the old-fashioned Cherry Hut a few minutes away. The waitresses wear white shirts with cherry red shirts that flare out at the waist. Excellent cherry pie, cherry preserves, dried cherries, cherry danish and at a produce shop next door I got real in-season cherries, a dark wine red. tonight we grilled fresh white fish from the famous Port City Smokehouse in the nearby bigger town of Frankfort. Michigan sweet corn is pretty good too!


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Bus and trains from Chicago to Northern Michigan

A reader requested ideas on traveling by bus and trains to get from Chicago to Traverse City then  to Mackinac Island  and the Upper Peninsula, Michigan. I’m no expert but when I looked into the Chicago-Traverse City public transportation options a few years ago, renting a car seemed the best bet. A few other things:

– Remember the boat option, but again you’ll need that car. You can take a ferry (see ssbadger.com) from Manitowic, Wisconsin (about 1.5 hours north of  Milwaukee) to Ludington Michigan shore but you’ll land almost two hours south  of Traverse City.

–  When we compared the ferry/boat vs. driving around Lake Michigan option, we stuck with driving because as I recall the ferry/boat was pricey and didn’t save much time.

–  My dentist recently returned from a drive through the Upper Peninsula to Mackinac and then the Detroit area. She does NOT recommend the major road through the center of the UP. Apparently the view is limited to dense forest. She wished she’d taken a road hugging either coast, if there is a viable one.

– When in Mackinac, make sure to venture off the main drag of touristy shops (although you might want to get some Murdick’s fudge first) and wander up the hill to the Grand Hotel and to the wilder areas of the island to enjoy its natural beauty. You can  rent bikes to explore. (see: http://bikemackinac.com/)

– Around Traverse City, don’t miss Sleeping Bear Sand Dunes National Park. We also enjoyed staying in Glen Arbor and visiting Empire, Michigan (go to the Friendly Tavern) and the Cherry Bowl Drive-in Movie Theater in Honor, Michigan.


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One more Northern Michigan tip

A woman who runs a chocolate shop in Empire, Mi. recommended another website for renting places in that area – vrbo.com (which stands for “vacation rentals by owner” – she says it cuts out the middle-man/woman fee. worth a try although i was happy w/our visitupnorth.com rental.

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Sleeping Bear – Doing the Dunes

The breeze  died down yesterday morning and we were left with sunshine and a slight wind so perfect day to explore Sleeping Bear Sand Dunes National Park. We started at the Dune Climb – a wide wall of sand bordered by brush. At the top we kept climbing on narrow sandy trails until we got to a spot with a spectacular view of thepale turquise  waters of Little and Big Glen Lakes to the east and the dark navy blue waters of Lake Michigan to the west..

onto Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive (great name) just south – a seven-mile one way loop along the coast where we stopped for a picnic on Picnic Mountain and for another spectacular view – this time atop a high sand dune that dropped steeply into the lake. Lots of other tourists but not oppressive.

Thanks to my willingness to ask park rangers questions, we found a gorgeous beach that was somewhat hidden off a dirt road just south of the drive. North Bar Lake is more like a gentle little pond, separated from Lake Michigan by a tiny strip of sand. Perfect for families with little kids. My teens opted for the wild beach of lake Michigan where we body surfed in the big waves and hunted for petosky stones. no luck yet. water was remarkably warm – again.

Forgot to mention that we began the day at the Glen Arbor Farmers market which was small but good. Some good crafts too – made out of the raw materials of my youth. petosky stones and birch bark. Got good blueberries, tomatoes and corn.

we met my friend polly and her twins at Joe’s Friendly Tavern in Empire, which lived up to its name. Good burgers, fried smelt, sweet potato fries, oberon beer. like the town of Empire a lot. Then onto the Cherry Bowl, a drive in movie theater near the town of Honor. Chilly but lot of fun – real step back in time. kids were intrigued.

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leelanau pennisula

It was very blustery and chilly this morning with intimidating white caps on our sweet Big Glen Lake so it was a good day to explore the Leelanau Peninsula just east of Glen Arbor.

We started with Suttons Bay, which was a pretty place albeit a bit touristy. Tried to visit Tandem Cider for some hard cider but it was closed. Dropped by the Black Star winery to try some cheese and found we had to pay $1 for a tiny plastic container of about seven 1/4-inch size cubes of racellette. Not impressed. They could learn a thing or two from the cheese places in Oregon – including Rogue River creamery near Medford which are far more generous with the samples, friendlier and a result we bought cheese from them!

We drove on M22 north to yes, Northport, a slightly more real-feeling town, and just north to the lighthouse – which looked more like a house with an observation tower atop. For five of us, it was too expensive to go in at $4 per person plus the $8 to get into the park where the lighthouse sits but we walked around the rocky point where the waves were ferocious.

Onto Leland – at a good light whitefish sandwich at The Bluebird, walked around Fishtown, the collection of old fishing shanties that now have some shops including Carlsons where i got more smoked whitefish and a tile place with UP-themed tiles (yes, i bought one.)

Also bought a warm cherry and raspberry pie at Covered Wagon Market bakery en route to Suttons Bay- smells good and better taste great for price $13.99. They know a “fudgie” (the name my friend who has a summer house here calls tourists…although we haven’t gone to a fudge shop yet) when they see one.

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