By Mike Norton
With 181 miles of shoreline on Grand Traverse Bay and Lake Michigan and 149 inland lakes, the Traverse City area is blessed with dozens of gorgeous beaches, from the endless golden sands of Sleeping Bear to the rock-strewn shoals of the Old Mission Peninsula. Even if we’re just talking about the public beaches in Traverse City itself, the choices can still be daunting (After all, there are two bays to choose from — urban West Bay with its parks and paths, and resort-oriented East Bay with its hotels and cottages) and each has lots of beaches to choose from.
It all depends on what you want to do and when you want to do it. Looking for a family beach with a playground, bathhouse, picnic tables and a lifeguard, a sociable beach where everybody seems to be showing off the latest swimwear, or a long lonely stretch of sand where you can walk for an hour without seeing another person? Traverse City has all of those, and more.
Here are a few of the best:
1. Clinch Park: It’s hard to beat a beach that has over 1500 feet of sandy shore with picnic tables, lifeguards, restrooms and a miniature steam train. Prized for its proximity to downtown shops, restaurants and parking, Clinch Park is the most popular of Traverse City’s many beaches. And although the area closest to the restrooms can get particularly crowded on hot midsummer afternoons, all you have to do is wander down the shore a little ways to find a quiet spot closer to the mouth of the Boardman River
2. Haserot Beach: Tucked away in the tiny village of Old Mission, Haserot Beach is still pretty much a neighborhood hangout on weekdays, but on weekends it can get pretty crowded – especially for a beach that’s 20 miles from town! The attraction? A south- facing beach in a sheltered, crescent-shaped harbor that starts getting sunshine as soon as dawn breaks over the horizon.
3. Bryant Park: This most easterly of Traverse City’s West Bay beaches, boasts an elaborate playground, lifeguards, restrooms and lots of grills and picnic tables shaded by tall pines, Bryant Park offers relief from the afternoon sun and a fine swimming beach where children can be easily supervised. It’s also, hands down, the best place in town to sit on the beach and watch the sun go down.
4. Good Harbor Bay: The Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is crammed with wonderful, lonely beaches where you can walk for miles without seeing another person, but many of these isolated spots are hard to reach by car. An exception is Good Harbor Bay, where there are lots of places to park along the road and walk out to the beach. Once you’ve arrived, you can walk as far as you like, and the view is excellent.
5. Lake Township Beach: At the mouth of the Platte River near Honor, this beach opens onto Platte Bay and is beautiful in its own right. But an added benefit is the river, which rushes down through the sand dunes on its way to the lake. Kids of all ages enjoy floating on the stream and letting the current carry them out to the lake, then getting out and doing it all over again. There’s a nice picnic ground with modern restrooms, too.
6. Elk Rapids: The village of Elk Rapids has two fine beaches on East Grand Traverse Bay. One is near the town’s quaint River Street shopping district, with a great playground and fine views of the Old Mission peninsula across the water. The other is a 13-acre county park on South Bayshore Drive with wooded nature trails, a bathhouse, playground, picnic area, tennis and basketball courts and a fine strolling beach along the bay.
7. Peterson Park: When you visit this isolated park near the tip of the Leelanau peninsula, you begin at the top of a high bluff with splendid views of Lake Michigan and descend a steep set of stairs to reach the water. But bring shoes or sandals! This beach isn’t made of sand, gravel or pebbles – it’s composed entirely of rocks. Fist-sized, grapefruit-sized, watermelon-sized, in a bewildering and fascinating range of types and colors, all left by ancient glaciers and rolled to clean smoothness by the endless action of the waves.
8. West End Beach: A small, quiet beach at the end of Division Street on West Bay, with restrooms and a small parking lot, this can be a fine place for morning sunbathing and swimming, and is popular among families with small children. But its most unique feature is that much of Traverse City’s frontier waterfront was located just west of the beach — you can still see the jagged stumps of old wharves and piers out in the water, which frequently washes up bits of sand-frosted glass and smoothed bits of planks from long- ago sawmills.
9. Volleyball Beach: Just west of Clinch Park and the Open Space, Traverse City’s newest beach came into being only a few years ago when several old buildings were removed from the waterfront. It takes its name from the beach volleyball courts located here (which hosted the 2005 World Cup beach volleyball tournament, in case you were interested) and is especially popular with the young, lean and well tanned, even those who don’t play volleyball.
10. East Bay Park: At the city’s eastern edge in a quiet residential neighborhood, sheltered by lots of majestic pines, rests East Bay Park. Here there are extensive picnic areas, restrooms, a nice play area, a lifeguard station and a shallow sloping beach. But the best advantage is that there isn’t very much automobile traffic nearby, and the water is extremely shallow for quite a long way.
11. Traverse City State Park: At the foot of Three Mile Road, this park offers 700 feet of splendid sandy beach near the mouth of Mitchell Creek. Since it’s a state park, visitors must purchase a vehicle permit – but there’s also a roomy bathhouse and changing room and a well-maintained picnic area. Although this is the last public beach at the southern edge of East Bay, no one minds if you wander farther along what was once billed as Traverse City’s “Sugar Sand Miracle Mile.” Now home to several handsome upscale resorts and condo developments, it remains a wonderful place for an early-morning run or an evening stroll.