Sand Dunes of Silver Lake, Michigan

Katie Linsky Shaw
Photographer based in Asheville, North Carolina
The following is a post from a travel blog documenting my family's current adventures. 

On the western coast of Michigan sits a sandy parcel of land unique to this forested, northern state. The enormous sand dunes of Silver Lake State Park attract visitors to its 450 acres inside the 3000-acre park for dune buggy rides and to explore this unusual, natural phenomena.

The sand dunes are a result of massive ice sheets that covered the area millions of years ago. Simply put, glaciers transported sand and other materials to the area and winds from Lake Michigan formed the dunes. What remains is a beautiful, otherworldly site of steep, white sand hills bordered by Lake Michigan on one side and Silver Lake on the other end. It's a fascinating area providing an exciting excursion for families, especially those traveling with teenagers.

We reserved off-road vehicles through Silver Lake Buggy Rentals for a two-hour adventure. Our sons were in one vehicle and my husband and I took the other. (Licensed teenagers can drive the two-seater dune buggies or rovers. The four-seater Teryx requires drivers to be at least 21.)

We originally reserved the buggy-style vehicle simply because it was the cheapest option. But after reading that buggies only have two-wheel drive, no reverse and can’t make it over the highest hill, we decided to upgrade to the rover. Smart decision. The four-wheel drive rover was so much more powerful but small enough to comfortably maneuver. (We met a couple who opted for the buggy and had to forgo all the steep, fun hills.)

The owners at Silver Lake Buggy Rentals were extremely kind and knowledgable. (They even let our cat sit inside the shop while we rode. Baxter thanks you.) Vehicles are rented starting at two-hour time slots and can be kept up to six hours.

The course runs alongside Lake Michigan so a day could easily be spent riding the dunes and sun-bathing or swimming. We chose the two-hour slot which was plenty for our family.

It’s a frightening experience when you first take off. My husband was driving and a lot more comfortable. We were buckled in, but helmets weren’t required.

The first, tallest hill is daunting. We parked at the dune’s edge with a line of other drivers watching vehicles attempt the climb. One made it, another didn’t. Those who can’t make it over go in reverse or roll down the hill in shame. Kidding. We might have done that once. Maybe.

We took off on our first attempt at the “big one,” I screamed (I think it helped), and we made it. And then we did that five more times! The acceleration, my screaming and the giant, childlike smile on my husband’s face made for an adrenalin-junkie’s dream afternoon.

After an hour of riding, I knew I had to give it a go or else my alter ego who’s convinced she’s Evil Kneival would be pissed. So I jumped in the driver’s seat. I was convinced I’d only drive on the flat dunes for a short time, but after getting the feel of the sand, I was off. And unstoppable!

I floored it over the top of the highest dunes still screaming for what I was convinced was added acceleration. My husband laughed and I felt like a roving, rebellious renegade ready to take on the world. (I love alliteration. And now, acceleration!)

By the end of the two hours, we were sunburned with sand in our ears and ready to hit the real road on the way to our next adventure. We drove up to Silver Lake that morning from South Haven and were leaving that same day to drive to Mackinaw City. But we did notice a nice campground near the dune buggy rental business for those who want to stay overnight.
So a few quick tips for a fun, successful sand dune experience…

1. Bypass the cheaper buggy and rent the rover or something bigger with four-wheel drive for the best experience.
2. Use sunscreen!
3. Bring sunglasses. Eye protection is required. Sunglasses are sold in the shop.
4. Try to schedule for a day other than a weekend. We were there on a Monday and it was perfect. The weekends get super busy and can feel a little dangerous with that many people riding on the dunes.
5. And finally...scream as you climb the hills. I'm convinced it helped!

The sand dunes of Silver Lake, Michigan are the only sand dunes east of the Mississippi River where visitors can drive private vehicles on the 450 acres.

Vehicles can be rented through Silver Lake Buggy Rentals for up to six-hour time slots.

Buggy rental includes lessons on driving and a tour of the dunes at the beginning if requested.

Teenagers with a valid driver's license can operate one of the two-seater buggies.

The rover vehicle has four-wheel drive and reverse making it an easier drive on the dunes unlike the cheaper buggy which only has two-wheel drive and no reverse.

On the largest hills, vehicles can only go in one direction. Signs alert drivers of the danger.

Individuals can bring their private vehicles as long as they have an ORV sticker and 10-foot orange flag.

Some individuals drove their private vehicles through the wet areas but rental companies advise against it.

The sand dunes of Silver Lake, Michigan provide an exciting challenge for families traveling with teenagers.

For those not comfortable driving a vehicle, Mac Wood's Dune Rides offers escorted tours on extended buggy vehicles.

Eyewear and sun protection are a must on the dunes.

It's best to visit the dunes during the week when crowds are smaller. Overcrowded weekends can be overwhelming for new drivers.

The Silver Lake sand dunes are bordered by Lake Michigan. Drivers can park along the shore for a break from the lake.

The sand dunes are bordered by Lake Michigan and Silver Lake.

For those preferring not to drive or ride, a pedestrian area allows visitors to safely experience the dunes away from the vehicles.

The sand dunes of Silver Lake, Michigan are open to drivers April 1 - October 31.

Public Story
Sand Dunes of Silver Lake, Michigan
Copyright Katie Linsky Shaw 2022
Updated Sep 2021
Topics Editorial, Family Travel, Landscape, Photography, Teens, Travel