Grand Rapids, Mich. to Traverse City, Mich.
I don’t know if I’ve ever mentioned it before, but we are early risers — often, super-early risers. It’s not that we plan to get up early; heck, we don’t even set the alarm, but we always seem to wake up at the crack of dawn (or before) raring to go. Thankfully, most places we stay have early breakfast hours, so we don’t have to wait too long to grab a bite before hitting the road. This day was no different, and the continental breakfast at the CityFlats was quite enjoyable.
Once fed, we grabbed our bags, stowed them on the bike and pulled out of the parking garage into sunlight. We had three lighthouses and lots of dunes to see, and we were ready to get started.
Our first stop was the Grand Haven Lighthouse, a quick ride back to the lake mostly on I-96. We realized as we merged onto the interstate to head west that it was rush hour in the city. The traffic was uncomfortable at best. You could really feel that Monday morning grind hitting everyone as they were competing for the spot they wanted in each lane. Anxious about it all, I failed to give Wally enough heads up on our exit to safely make the move. We agreed it would be better to turn around at the next opportunity and call it good. It turns out, that was the only directional snafu we had on the trip — well, other than those created by MapQuest.
We soon found ourselves on the open road once again. I didn’t realize it at the time, but once we arrived at the opposite shore of the lighthouse we were seeking, it became clear that there were a few glitches in our directions. But, as we always say, “That’s part of the adventure of riding!”
It worked out that the lot we parked in was part of a little waterfront complete with restrooms. OK, it would be more fair to call them outhouses. At the time, I could have cared less what they were other than a welcome sight after we failed to find an option on the way in.
We wandered down by the water to snap a quick photo and stretch our legs. The area was well kept and provided a nice setting for our photo session. Knowing we were only about 35 minutes down US-31 from our next stop, we didn’t dally long, especially since we we’d do plenty of walking then.
Not too far down the road, I requested we stop because I was getting chilly and decided there was no sense in being cold on vacation. We happened upon a rest area pretty quickly, and we both put on our leathers to keep out the brisk air. I knew it was a spectacular decision the minute we got back out on the highway. Ah, warmth.
Finally able to take in the scenery without the phrase, “I’m cold,” running nonstop through my head, I tried to take it all in: the fresh air, the appearing/disappearing lake shore, the humming engine, the beckoning road ahead. I couldn’t believe I was on Day 3 of a motorcycle trip and LOVING it! What an amazing experience it was turning out to be.
Our directions again kept us on the back roads, and we completely missed the town of Ludington. Actually, we went around it to get to Ludington State Park, home of Big Sable Point Lighthouse. We paid the park entrance fee of $9 and made our way down the road to where the park’s newspaper paper/visitors guide suggested to park.
I wasn’t prepared for what Ludington State Park had to offer. The seemingly endless ribbon of road hugged the shore closely, with beautiful white sandy dunes filling the space between. Every so often, you could see a tent campsite along the water’s edge. It almost made me wish we could carry a tent on the bike — almost.
Having easily found the parking lot, we stowed our leathers and headed off down the path to Big Sable … the 1.8 mile path. Here is some important advice if ever you visit the landmark yourself:
- Wear tennis shoes. Yes, it may be a hassle, but make sure you change out of your motorcycle boots into walking shoes. It will make the trek through the sand (not deep but still sand) much easier and save the wear on your boots. That’s right, the walk is cross country mostly on sand. There is a bicycle rental, but I couldn’t imagine trying to ride one in some of the deeper areas.
- Dress in layers. Over the course of the 1.8 mile hike, you’ll warm up quite a bit, even on a chilly day. You’ll want to be able to shed some of those layers along the way, which bring us to the next item.
- Wear sunscreen. This one can be easy to forget since you’ll most likely start the walk with long sleeves on. But the moment you find yourself in a tank top like I did, you’ll be glad you took the precaution because the sun bounces right off that white sand you’re walking on.
- Bring water. The gift shop sells bottles of water for $1 each, which is really reasonable for the captive consumers they have on their end of the path. But, you’ll wish you had some way before you get there, so be sure to stash one on your bike for the walk.
Before you know it, you’ll come around a corner and you’ll see the great black-and-white tower before you. It does seem like a really long way to go just to see a lighthouse, but trust me, you’ll be so glad you made the trip.
A few yards from the lighthouse, there’s a small outhouse building, very similar to that at Grand Haven, which again was a welcome discovery.
As we walked inside the lighthouse base, we noticed a tour group watching a history-of video and nodded at each other in silent agreement to make sure we did that, which, as it turns out, is exactly how the tour starts.
There was no question we would pay the $5 entry fee. I mean, we didn’t go all that way just to look at it!
The video was really interesting and informative. We’re both sort of history geeks, so we were letting our nerd flags fly that day. After the video, one of the volunteers told us about the care and maintenance of the lighthouse, including how it has been upgraded over the years. He even showed us one of the bulbs they currently use in the lighthouse. It was only the width of my pinky and just a bit shorter, and it projects light out something like 17 miles with help from the lenses. That’s right, 17 MILES!
After the history lesson, we were freed to climb the 130 steps to the top of the 112-foot tower. I will be honest here: I am seriously afraid of heights. I wasn’t always but have definitely developed the phobia as I’ve aged. I was petrified while climbing those stairs, but climbing them wasn’t an option. I had to do it for me … and man, was it worth it.
A volunteer was waiting on the deck at the top to congratulate us on the climb and give us stickers announcing the feat. Then, we started looking around. With my body plastered against the outer wall of the lighthouse, I oozed all the way around the deck, stopping here and there to snap a picture or take in the view. Wow, what a view!
Then, it was time to climb back down. Easier said then done. See, there’s these, well, hatch-like doorways you have to pass through as you move from one section of the lighthouse to the next. They’re not quite as big as you’d like them to be while maneuvering on stairs, so it’s a rather awkward experience, if not scary when factoring in the height you’re at and fall you could take.
Of course, I made it, and we made our way outside to take a look around the waterline before heading back toward the bike. Like most trips, the walk back went much faster than the one out. After a quick pitstop at yet another outhouse conveniently located by the parking lot, we were on our way to stop number three with thoughts of lunch weighing heavily on our minds.
In Manistee, just before we’d veer off 31 in favor of M-22 N, we spotted an A&W. Ah yeah, can you say, “rootbeer float”? With good reason, we were ravenous and our food — a couple burgers, fries, rings, two waters and a float — was gone in no time. It was the perfect option for that very moment. Renewed, we headed on our way, excited to be embarking on a different, less-traveled, meandering two-lane road.
We wiggled our way up the coast, winding around lakes and marveling at the otherworldly scenery around us. The dune-y areas really seemed like something from another planet. We rode through forests and refuges, lake towns and luxury neighborhoods.
As we neared Frankfort and its lighthouse, the skies started to look a little different. When we finally made our way through the quaint town to the lake front, I checked the radar. Sure enough, a storm was headed our way. I did some quick calculations and figured we could stay ahead of it and make our next stop if we didn’t hang around too long. Needing to stretch a bit, we took 10 minutes to walk down toward the water and snap a photo before calling it good. We didn’t want to get wet if we didn’t have to.
Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore was about 45 minutes away, a journey comprised of more dunes and more fancy homes. At times, it seemed the towns never ended, with house after house lining one side of the road and lake on the other.
It was this stretch that I had my biggest scare on the bike to date. It was something I never imagined would ever really be a problem: I fell asleep. That’s right, asleep. See, I can’t wear sunglasses under my helmet because they don’t really fit on my ears (that’s why I wear contacts on the bike). With the sun reflecting off the dunes, my eyes were starting to bother me. Closing them stopped the slight sting, so I decided to rest them a bit while we were going along. The next thing I knew I was not just opening my eyes but waking up. I probably had been out for about five minutes, which frightened the bejeezus out of me because I could have fallen off. I quickly said something to Wally, who seemed just as horrified at the situation. We kept each other company talking until we got to where we thought we were going.
We definitely found the dunes, but we never really found a parking area or anything that resembled an entrance. However, we did see a bunch of people climbing one particularly large dune. That’s when we realized we could never climb them without digging through our stuff to uncover our tennis shoes. Plus, we were in jeans — not really great dune-climbing attire. The long day was starting to wear, and we still wanted to make it back to the hotel before the rain set in. We stopped and took a good look at the giant sand mountain then turned around and headed back to the turn to Traverse City.
As you can see from the map, we took a pretty direct path to Traverse. We had planned to weave our way there across the peninsula, but with the iffy weather, we decided to take M-72 pretty much straight east. It was easy to tell we were moving away from the lake. The countryside slowly changed from sand to soil, with more grass, trees and farms. It was hard to believe we were nearing a pretty large tourist destination with how rural it all felt. Wally kept commenting how he wished we had the room to stop at one of the many, many roadside stands selling produce, especially his favorite and the local specialty, blueberries.
Once we arrived in town, the traffic got crazy again … and tourist traffic at that. We appreciated that our hotel was on the main drag, so we didn’t have to navigate too much on the crowded roads before finding the West Bay Beach Resort, a Holiday Inn property.
This resort was our big splurge for the trip. A room with a view of the lake, a super-nice restaurant and a beachside bar, plus the requisite pool and hot tub. And, we found out pretty quickly that the place is motorcycle friendly, too. In fact, when the attendant noticed my helmet during check-in, she suggested we park in the alcove by the front doors (another bike was on the opposite side of the door) so that it would stay dry with all the rain coming. We have to say that our bike looked quite happy in its temporary garage.
We quickly changed clothes and grabbed some laps in the pool between rounds of stretching in the hot tub. You can’t believe how much that combination helps relieve the pain in your lower back and tail bone. Thoroughly relaxed, we took our dripping wet selves outside to the beachside bar. I really needed a drink, and a couple mimosas were exactly what the doctor ordered. Unfortunately, we only had the chance to enjoy a couple drinks outside when the storm finally rolled in. The staff quickly buttoned up the bar, and we headed up to the room to shower before dinner.
On that particular night, the bar had a singer/guitarist for entertainment, and he was good. Not great, but enjoyable for the evening. He played old and new favorites and seemed to be a local crowd favorite. While he played, we explored a few different appetizers as a form of self-made tapas dinner. I especially liked the Charcuterie plate with select meats and cheeses, walnuts, herb spread and confit duck. I. Love. Duck. So, I was über-excited when I saw it in the plate’s description. It, like everything we had, was excellent.
Careful to not drink too much, we called it a night earlier than we wanted but later than we should have and hit the sheets. Unlike most trips, I was asleep almost as soon as my head hit the pillow, dreaming of the next day’s big challenge … er, adventure.