Riding the Dunes

WRITER | JULIE FORD
PHOTOS | JACKIE LATIMORE / SILVER LAKE BUGGY RENTALS

Dotting the shorelines of Michigan’s Great Lakes are the world’s largest freshwater dunes. With 275,000 acres of diverse, windswept topography, this landform phenomenon is unique to the state of Michigan and was formed about 16,000 years ago by the glaciers. Of the 21 sand dune viewing destinations, Silver Lake State Park is the only dune area where visitors can experience the feel of sand under the tires of a personally owned or rented vehicle.

The 3,000-acre park comprises both dunes and forest, with four miles of lakeshore in Oceana County between Muskegon and Ludington. Nearly 2,000 acres are reserved for foot traffic, and 450 acres offer the extraordinary thrill of an off-road-vehicle (ORV) dune-riding adventure!

Enthusiasts may drive various types of vehicles on the dunes, from ATVs to SUVs. The term “dune buggy” is generally used to describe an open-chassis vehicle with large, wide tires, often modified from an existing vehicle. A sand rail resembles a go-kart and is constructed using a tubular open-frame chassis, and “buggy” is a general term for a small motorized vehicle with an open top.

Visitors can bring their ATVs, motorcycles, and vehicles to Silver Lake State Park’s Off-Road Vehicle Area from April 1 through October 31 during posted times after obtaining a Recreation Passport, ORV license, and following the vehicle regulations and requirements (michigan.gov). As this is one of Michigan’s recreation hotspots with over a million visitors riding the dunes each year, planning ahead is key. There are just 220 parking spots for visitors towing ORVs, and park authorities have instituted a voucher system to manage the long lines, especially on weekends and holidays. Those who plan to ride the dunes with the vehicle driven to the park bypass the need for a parking spot and can spend more time on the dunes.

For those who would like to skip the lines altogether, renting an ORV from local outfitters in Mears is an option. At Silver Lake Buggy Rentals, visitors can rent two- or four-seat buggies manufactured by the company or four- or five-seat all-terrain Kawasaki Teryx® vehicles.

“Riding a sand rail is a must on the ‘bucket list,’” says Jackie Latimore, assistant general manager at Silver Lake Buggy Rentals, noting the dunes are the only drivable dunes east of the Mississippi. “We have returning customers who book their entire vacation around going to the dunes every year.”

Latimore explains that once customers check in, they watch a safety video and are transported with their vehicle of choice to a designated entrance area to the Silver Lake State Park dunes that avoids the park’s lines. Once buckled in, additional safety checks are made, and then the fun begins! For added safety, several fellow employee guides are on the dunes to monitor activity and provide help if needed.

With plenty of camping and lodging around the Silver Lake area, making the annual trek to the Silver Lake Dunes might be the ideal family getaway year after year. “Our three families would meet, and each take their 40-foot motor home to Silver Lake State Park to camp and ride the dunes,” recalls Stacey Tyler of Battle Creek, who says riding the dunes has been a memory-making family affair for 36 years. Tyler laughs as she describes her favorite experience. “The most fun ever was flying off the top of Michigan Point and landing on the other side of the dune. I caught 50 to 60 feet of air, and it was a blast!” Tyler adds that her favorite dune buggy was a fuchsia pink “bathtub” body design with baby pink sparkles. “I loved waving to everyone at the Silver Lake Whippy Dip as I drove by.”

Another way to enjoy the dunes by vehicle is to take a 40-minute tour with Saugatuck Dune Rides in Saugatuck. Since 1954, a variety of multi-passenger open-air vehicles have toured countless visitors through the perennial vegetation, wind, and sand of this harsh environment. The once-bustling town of Singapore, now a ghost town, is a favorite topic of discussion along the tour. Mac Wood’s Dune Rides in Mears also offers a 40-minute ride along seven miles of trail with panoramic views of Lake Michigan and the Silver Lake Sand Dunes.

“To us, Silver Lake Buggy Rentals isn’t just a business. It is about being able to give the public the opportunity to try a different type of experience – one that is hard to put into words.” Latimore adds, “It is breathtaking each time I visit the dunes.”