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Saugatuck, Michigan

Saugatuck, Michigan

weekend tripweeklong getawayMichiganbeachbirdingbikingboating/water sportsfishinggolfhikingpeace and quietshoppingstargazingwineries/breweries/distilleries

Colorful Adirondack chairs at the Dunes Resort
The Dunes Resort in Douglas, Michigan is touted as the largest LGBTQ resort in the Midwest. Photo by Erica Gunderson
Saugatuck, Michigan

The quirkiest attraction in Saugatuck is what locals claim is the last surviving chain ferry in America. There’s no steering mechanism; the operator cranks the hand-powered vessel along a chain on the bottom of the Kalamazoo River. If you’re itching to get on a boat, at one dollar per person each way (plus tip), it is probably the best deal you’ll find anywhere.

The beach at Saugatuck Dunes State Park is unique for a completely different reason: it has one of the least developed beaches on the shoreline. Its 14 miles of hiking trails, more than two miles of relatively secluded beaches, and 200-foot-tall dunes make it a favorite among bird-watchers who flock here in the spring and fall to catch a glimpse of migrating hawks, ducks, and shorebirds. But no matter when you come, if you’re headed for the beach, be prepared to hike. The parking lot and picnic area are more than a half-mile from the water.

Saugatuck Chain Ferry on the water
Oval Beach in Saugatuck, MI
Left: The Saugatuck Chain Ferry, which claims to be the only remaining chain-driven ferry in the country, is pulled across the Kalamazoo River. Right: Oval Beach in Saugatuck, Michigan. Photo by Erica Gunderson

Oval Beach is more accessible and developed than the state park, with a beach house, concession stand, and wooden stairs that help visitors get to the water. During high tourist season, visitors can also rent kayaks and, at times, even sailboats at Oval Beach.

Long ago Oval Beach had a much different vibe. As far back as 1897, it was a nude beach for men. Nude sunbathing continued nearby on a private dune until 2011, and while the level of openness and acceptance has changed over the years, the Saugatuck area has remained a popular destination for gay vacationers and artists. Nowhere is that more visible than at the Dunes Resort in Douglas, which opened in 1982. Original owner Carl Jennings told Michigan Radio that when it first opened in this conservative area of Michigan the resort was a target of bomb threats and vandalism. But over the years, the gay community has gained wider acceptance and become an integral part of the local community. Today, Dunes Resort is touted as the largest LGBTQ resort in the Midwest.

Vintage sign that says 'Discover a new life...vibrant, gay, relaxed'
A vintage sign touts Douglas as “vibrant, gay, relaxed” at the Dunes Resort. Photo by Erica Gunderson

Also in Douglas is the Ox-Bow School of Art & Artists’ Residency, which was founded in 1910 by two artists from the Art Institute of Chicago. Today, Ox-Bow offers a range of short-term classes. The old hotel that serves as Ox-Bow’s main building and the surrounding “campus” are wildly adorned with the artwork and graffiti of past students.

Located where the Kalamazoo River empties into Lake Michigan, there is an abundance of good fishing spots in and near Saugatuck, as well as more than a dozen charter companies that operate from the area.

There are several nearby trails to choose from for off-road and mountain biking, and the Blue Star Trail, currently under development, will soon allow people to ride on a mixed-use trail south to Van Buren State Park and north into Holland.

Saugatuck’s downtown area is filled with independent shops and galleries, and creative visitors can even try their hand at making beer at Saugatuck Brewing Company. The brewery provides the recipes, natural ingredients, equipment, and expertise, and patrons are invited to brew it themselves. However, you’d have to either stick around for a few weeks or come back for a return visit to taste the fruits of your labor (or more correctly, the barley, malt, and hops of your labor). The brewing process typically takes two to three weeks.