West Michigan Pike still a tourism-rich route

Much of the original West Michigan Pike follows Lake Michigan and its beaches.

Too much. That’s the appeal and challenge when taking a vacation across the great lake of Michigan. Deciding which lighthouses and head lights to visit is the least of it.

Consider the breadth of western Michigan’s shoreline attractions, especially for people who love the outdoors: thousands of acres of parks, mazes of hiking and biking paths, many inlets to kayak or canoe and miles of sugar-sand beaches.

For foodies, the allure extends to hundreds of roadside markets, wineries and outdoor artisan/produce markets (at least weekly) in downtowns. One example: About 60 farm markets operate in Berrien County, at Michigan’s southwestern corner.

There is no way to do or see it all.

“A land of countless lakes and streams swept by the cool breezes of Lake Michigan” and “a summer paradise where hundreds of resorts offer a cherry hospitality to tourists” is how a 1915 promotion summarized the west Michigan coast.

Travelers maneuvered with horse and buggy, then roadsters and touring cars to explore the shoreline. They broke wheels, got stranded in ruts and packed rolls of chicken wire to escape from mud or loosely packed sand.

What was a highway back then? Four inches of sand, topped with four inches of gravel, spread nine feet wide. It was enough to average 14 mph.

The trip was no picnic, and travel by train or steamboat was a more prudent way to travel until the West Michigan Pike project built 500 miles of paved highway from Mackinaw to Michigan City. “Lake Shore All the Way” was the slogan, and some of the route is U.S. 31 today.

The work began 100 years ago, and now the small communities along 150 miles of the state’s southwestern coast are whooping it up to celebrate the Pike’s centennial. Populations are 1,000 (Saugatuck) to 40,000 (Muskegon), and attractions tend to be less known than the well-marketed Mackinac Island, Traverse City and Leelanau Peninsula wine area.

Be aware that “less known” can mean “less expensive.” Regardless of where you pitch a tent or spread a blanket, the lake views are plentiful and often free. You don’t need to land on a crowded beach unless that’s the way you want it, and it’s not hard to find a place to sip something cool while watching the sun melt into the water.

It’s also not hard to find a perch fish fry.

What are some of the more unusual reasons to visit? Here are a few things that caught my attention.

St. Joseph – Box Factory for the Arts, where fancy boxes were designed and made, in 1995 turned into an arts complex that includes 36 unusual studios for artists. Add galleries, a stage for performances and gift shop stocked with art produced within 60 miles. It’s meant for meandering.

Benton Harbor – Mary’s City of David, founded in 1902 as a self-sufficient Jewish community, until 1973 operated a resort on 140 acres. Drink from artisan springs after a weekend, guided tour of the property, which seems frozen in time.

South Haven – Innkeepers at much-lauded Yelton Manor B&B encourage a little snooping by placing treats – chocolates to popcorn to just-baked cookies – in more than one lounging area. A visit during the National Blueberry Festival, Aug. 9-12, requires a three-night minimum stay.

Saugatuck – The area’s smallest tourist community packs in the most boutiques and dining options, plus an 1838 chain ferry that still moves visitors across the Kalamazoo River. Sign up for David Geen’s Hungry Village Tours for a taste of the diversity, which includes a nine-item vegetarian barbecue menu at The Hickory Pit, whose Kentucky owner also serves traditional meat entrees.

Holland – An underground snow-melt system extends the festive, outdoor and downtown farmers’ market season until mid December. Nearby is CityFlats Hotel, which earned gold certification for eco-progressive practices. Shady Tunnel Park, on the outskirts, bores through a sand dune to a pretty but less-frequented county beach; visitors are welcome to borrow life vests for children.

Spring Lake – Dog lovers head to Old Boys Brewhouse, named after a much-loved and dearly departed chocolate lab, where Kanine Krunchies as well as beer is produced. Nearby is the self-service Ferrysburg Dog Wash Center and Grand Haven’s Arf Walk, a public art project with 4- and 2-foot-tall pooch sculptures all around town.

Grand Haven – Inside city limits is Grand Haven State Park, among the state’s smallest; RVs to tents inch right up to the sandy beach. Handicapped accessibility means availability of a big-tire wheelchair to maneuver sand and two floating wheelchairs that provide access to water – first come, first served.

Muskegon – Kids to adults learn to luge, during any time of year, at Muskegon Winter Sports Complex, inside Muskegon State Park. Action happens on a 850-foot track in winter, and the luge has wheels instead of skids in summer. Downtown, John McGarry III is a master storyteller whose museums depict exquisite lumber baron architecture, the average family’s Depression-era home and the surreal tale of a native son whose military service gained accolades in both Russia and the U.S.

Silver Lake – Zoom over 2,000 acres of sand dunes, either with a vehicle (dirt bike to dune buggy) you rent or a ride you take (family-owned Mac Woods Dune Rides began in 1930). Add a way-tender lunch from Frickin Chicken Shack. Silver Lake RV Rentals will deliver your unit to a local campsite, in case you don’t want to mess with driving one.

Ludington – From five flavors of ice cream in 1948 to almost three dozen today, House of Flavors serves cool treats in a 1950s diner that is next to the dairy plant where 5,400 gallons of ice cream are produced per hour. Can’t get much cooler than that.

For details about the shoreline attractions and communities of southwest Michigan, consult beachtowns.org, which also contains information about the West Michigan Pike’s history.

The 2011 “Vintage Views Along the West Michigan Pike: From Sand Trails to U.S. 31,” by M. Christine Byron and Thomas R. Wilson, provides a pictorial history and unusual facts about the Pike’s birth and heyday. The cost is $35 from Arbutus Press; learn more about arbutuspress.com.

Cut driving time by hopping a ferry between Manitowoc and Ludington (on the historic S.S. Badger) or Milwaukee and Muskegon (on the slightly speedier Lake Express). Both vessels accommodate vehicles ($148 per car on the Badger, $165 on Lake Express); these roundtrip rates don’t include passenger transport (an extra $39 to $165; cost depends upon age).

To save money:

– Bring bicycles and backpacks instead of a vehicle with luggage.

– On the S.S. Badger, book a 48-hour getaway at $89 per adult, roundtrip. You can’t take a vehicle, but Ludington offers parks to dining within a walk. Some lodging operators offer pick-up.

– When arriving on the Lake Express, rent a car in Muskegon for about $35 per day or $175 per week. Port delivery is available.

For more: ssbadger.com, 800-841-4243; lakeexpress.com, 866-914-1010. Reservations are advised.