Story and photos by Mike Bennett
The world is a book, and those who do not travel only read one page. St Augustine
This story starts out 30 years ago, when as a teenage boy, I read an article in a popular ATV magazine featuring the sand dunes of Silver Lake, Michigan. In the days before the World Wide Web, printed stories and word of mouth were how we found out about new places to ride. The pictures were stunning, and it was certainly different than the terrain I was used to riding in Ontario, Canada. I made a promise to myself that one day I was going to experience those 2000 acres of sand on the beautiful shores of Lake Michigan.
I finally did make the trek to Silver Lake with my family in 2010, wheeling our lifted Jeep Wrangler Unlimited. We had an amazing time exploring the dunes, but at a slower pace than I would have when I was in my teens, piloting a Quadracer 250. We loved the town and filled our week camping, playing on the beach, swimming, boating, exploring historic lighthouses and spent some part of every day in the dunes.
We enjoyed the area so much that we all agreed we wanted to go back someday. You see, this desire to return to Silver Lake produced a bit of a conundrum for our family. We pride ourselves in never vacationing in the same place twice. Life is short, and we want to see and experience new things, so while this desire existed, we carried on with new adventures.
That all changed in January 2018, when the Michigan Department of Natural Resources opened 6300 miles of state forest roads to ORV users. This new development meant we could visit the dunes again, and explore the beauty of the excellent trail network of the Northern Lower Peninsula.
We immediately began planning a two-week motorsports adventure. We decided to split our vacation in half, and the first week was all about the dunes in Silver Lake. Week two would see us exploring the trail system and newly opened forest roads of the Lower Peninsula, using Alanson as our base of operations.
Our Law Enforcement Maverick X3 Max build dubbed the Guardian, was loaded into the race trailer and we set out first thing on Monday morning. The drive, including the border crossing and a bit of site seeing along the way, took us about 10 hours, and we arrived in Silver Lake mid-afternoon.
Silver Lake – 43.40.21 N 86.30.53 W
The town was just as we had remembered it, with all kinds of cool, off-road toys driving around and parked in every lot. It was great to be back. We grabbed an early dinner and checked in at the Sierra Sands Family Lodge.
Colby caught on quickly to the whole sand boarding craze, and reached maximum velocity on the 100-foot-high dunes.
Having been to Silver Lake before, we were aware of how busy things get on the weekend. Our plan was to hit the dunes daily for the next 4 days, and avoid some of the crowds later in the week.
During the summer months the park is open at 9 am, and we were one of the first vehicles through the gate and purchased our permits for the week. For out of state residents, you will require the following for entry to the park in a UTV – Michigan ORV Permit, ($26.25) Michigan ORV Trail Permit, ($10.00) and a Silver Lake State Park Recreation Passport ($9.00 per day or $33.00 for the annual pass).
In addition to the above, we had to purchase a second $33.00 Recreation Passport for our tow vehicle to park in the lot and unload the UTV. The parking fills up quickly, even during the week, and it is a bit of a chore to navigate the lot with a full-size truck and race trailer. The Park is aware of this and is constructing a second lot further up the road, but all of this could be alleviated by passing a by-law allowing licensed OHV travel on the area’s roadways. We spoke to several business owners and they are working diligently trying to make legal road travel a reality.
The X3 was unloaded from the trailer, we affixed our dune flag to the front bumper, and drove up to the gate where park staff checked our vehicle. Our Yoshimira exhaust was checked for a spark arrester and then tested, making sure we were under the mandated 94 dBa.
Once you pass the gate, the single lane, one-way access road takes you to the northeast corner of the OHV area. From this point, you can decide to head down into the flats towards the beach area, or turn south and try your luck with Test Hill, the first of the larger dunes.
The largest dunes run north to south and are one-way traffic only to prevent head on collisions, as vehicles crest the 100-foot plus hills.
The remainder of the OHV area allows you to play around without directional restrictions, just remember to always be scanning for the tips of other riders’ flags as you enjoy the naturally undulating terrain.
The beach is beautiful, with a shallow sandy bottom which is perfect for little ones or tossing around a football. As a bonus, with all the vehicles backed in to the rope line, it is an ever-changing car show, with one-off rigs coming and going throughout the day.
One of our favorite spots during the week was the drag strip located in the center of the dunes. All you have to do is line up and wait for others to take up the challenge. It was a blast racing our heavily modified X3 against other SxS’s, sand rails, trucks, Jeeps and quads.
We had an amazing time during our week in Silver Lake, and the area once again left us with the desire to come back in the future.
Sierra Sands Family Lodge was our host during our time in Silver Lake. The family run facility is without a doubt, one of the most motorsport friendly hotels we have ever stayed at. Located about a mile from the dunes, the hotel is within walking distance of restaurants, attractions and Silver Lake itself. The hotel features a heated pool, hot tub, fire pit and best of all, large vehicle parking!www.sierrasands.com (231) 873-1008
Alanson – 45.26.39 N 84.47.12 W
When researching the trail portion of our trip, we kept coming across the name Dave Jabrish and his web site – www.fishweb.com The site is a must visit before planning any off-road trip to Michigan. Fishweb has all the information and links you will need including trail maps, local dealers, lodging and events. In addition to OHV content, Dave has the 4 seasons covered with resources for fishing, golfing, paddling, hiking and snowmobiling.
After talking to Dave and pouring over the trail maps, we chose Alanson as our base of operations for the week. Alanson is situated on the banks of the Crooked River, a major link in the inland Waterway of Northern Michigan.
While we love spending time on the trails, we always like to take in a little bit of the local history and attractions when we travel. Alanson is a short 30-minute drive to Mackinac City and 15 minutes from Petoskey. We took advantage of this during our stay, visiting historic Mackinac Island, and chartering a fishing vessel on Little Traverse Bay.
We stayed at Staffords’s Crooked River Lodge – www.staffords.com/crooked-river-lodge/ just outside of town, and enjoyed all the amenities including the large, trailer friendly parking lot. The resort is in the heart of ATV country with several trail heads within a 30-minute drive, allowing us to spend more time on the trails.
For our first ride, we hooked up with Dave and some friends for a day on the Indian River OHV Route. Local knowledge is hard to beat, and these fine folks made sure we didn’t miss a thing along the way.
The areas we rode during our stay provided a great balance between tight bush and open fire roads, and visitors can easily pick the trails that best suit their vehicle and riding style. The area is dotted with lakes and rivers that make a perfect lunch stop, and we really enjoyed both the wooded sections as well as the rolling farm land, all of which can be experienced in a single day’s ride.
It is obvious from the trail head parking lots, excellent signage and trail conditions that the fine folks in the Lower Peninsula are serious about their off roading. With the support of the local businesses, volunteers and the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, this ORV paradise can, and will, only get better.
In fact, Michigan has so much to see and do, we may just have to break our own rule for a third time by coming back yet again!