If you are in the Midwest, a fantastic beach vacation can be found within a days drive to one of Michigan’s beach towns. We return year after year for a short beach trip to one of these charming destinations along Lake Michigan. I recently posted here about all about the wonderful family activities in St. Joseph, Michigan. Just 30 minutes north of St. Joseph and a 6 hour drive from our home base near St. Louis is the lakeside escape of South Haven. We’ve been hooked on the beauty and small town feel of South Haven since our very first visit way back in 2008.
Things to Do
Michigan is known for its sugar sand beaches and clear water. While the water is pretty chilly during our typical June visits, the kids don’t mind and eagerly splash right in.
South Haven proudly boasts seven public beaches and beach access points to find your spot in the sand. The most popular in town are North Beach and South Beach. These two beaches are separated by the Black River and convenient to downtown. Both have concession stands, playgrounds, and restrooms.
Parking in the beach parking lots is $10/day or $30/week for a weekly pass. The fees are only enforced from 9 a.m.-6 p.m. so you can slip in around sundown and park for free to watch the sunset. Free street parking is also available all day downtown if you don’t mind a short walk.
South Beach provides direct access to the historic South Haven Lighthouse and pier. This is a great spot for that sunset view. The South Haven Lighthouse is only one of three in Michigan that still has a catwalk structure.
If rock hunting is more your style, South Haven has a great beach for that as well. Pilgrim Haven Natural Area has a short and barrier free concrete walkway that provides access to the pebble beach. If you are lucky you might even find some beach glass or the elusive Petoskey stones.
The site also contains several short trails through the meadows and past Lake Michigan overlooks. Parking and admission are free.
Michigan Maritime Museum
The Michigan Maritime Museum in South Haven is composed of five separate structures hosting both permanent and changing exhibits. The kids will love the hands on exhibits while adults will appreciate the displays of maritime history and life saving on the Great Lakes. All ages will enjoy the variety of boats to see and tour. Many of the buildings are historic Coast Guard and Lifesaving Service structures.
Admission is $8 for adults and $5 for children. Kids under 4 are free. The museum is open 10-5 daily May-Sept and Thurs-Sat in the winter.
The museum also offers the opportunity to step aboard history be taking a boat ride on one their historic or replica vessels. The Friends Good Will is a replica 1810 top sail sloop that appears like something straight out of a book or movie. A variety of tours are available including a Pirate Chaser Sail geared toward children and a Sunset Sail that looks amazing.
Other boats available include a replica river launch to cruise along the Black River, a 1920s racing yacht, and a 1929 Chris-Craft Cadet. You can even ride a USCG lifeboat that was featured in the Disney film The Finest Hours!
Hit the Trail
There is no shortage of trails in the area for a walk, hike, or bike ride. The Kal Haven Trail is a great spot for all three. This 34 mile rail trail links South Haven to Kalamazoo. Near the South Haven trail head are several elevated boardwalks along the Black River perfect for wandering.
The Donald F. Nicholas covered bridge is also a popular spot along the trail. Located about 1.5 miles from the South Haven trail head, this bridge was rebuilt from a former railroad trestle.
Another option right in town is the South Haven Maritime Harbor Walk. The 3 mile walk runs between the pierheads of North Beach and South Beach and crosses the drawbridge downtown. There are kiosks and signboards along the way displaying the history and points of interest. The walk also features scenic views of the harbor, Black River, and lighthouse.
Located just 3 miles south of town, Van Buren State Park has one mile of sandy beach and high dune formations. Several trails wander through the woods and a spur connects to the Van Buren State Park Trail. The Van Buren trail is a 14 mile multi-use trail. The state park also features a campground. Entrance fee is $9/day for non residents.
Another option just outside town, the Black River Preserve contains several miles of trail through forest and wetlands. The site is great in all seasons from enjoying spring wildflowers to colorful fall foliage. The property also contains significant nesting and breeding habitats to make it a great spot for bird watching.
South Haven has multiple parks and playgrounds but the Kid’s Corner is our favorite. This wooden castle style playground features slides, tunnels, and swings. Parking is free and there is also public access to stairs leading down to the beach just across the street.
You can also cross the road from the playground and access stairs that lead right down to the beach.
South Haven just opened a new splash pad in 2020. The Friends Good Will splash park is located along the river channel near South Beach. This fun themed play area has water cannons, fountains, and more. It is open 10 a.m. – dusk. Restrooms are located adjacent to the play area.
South Haven has a charming downtown filled with so many great shops. We love stocking up on local goodies from the orchards or finding fun toys or souvenirs.
The climate of southwestern Michigan is perfect for growing delicious fresh produces. The countryside is full of u-pick orchards and farm markets offering fresh fruit and vegetables in season. One of our favorites is Crane’s Pie Pantry in Fennville. Crane’s Orchards features u-pick fruit, kids activities, plus a bakery and cafe. The cider floats and doughnuts are especially a hit. Another delicious option is Stokes Homestead Market. They have a large store, wagon rides, and other seasonal activities. The bakery and cafe are also a great spot for a meal or snack.
Where to Eat
South Haven boasts a wide variety of cuisine from casual to fine dining. There are a few spots that we tend to return to over and over for their great food and family friendliness.
The Golden Brown Bakery is a great choice for either breakfast, lunch, or a snack. They serve a large variety of delectable baked goods made from scratch.
Clementine’s in downtown South Haven is a very popular spot for lunch or diner. They have a huge menu in a stunning location. The restaurant is housed in a former bank building built in 1896 and features many historic details.
If you want something quicker and more casual downtown, Captain Nemo’s is a good choice for burgers, sandwiches, and ice cream treats.
Our kids favorite dining spot in South Haven is the 50s Diner Drive in. This classic diner features burgers, fries, shakes, and other classic drive in cuisine. You can eat in your car, on picnic tables, or inside. The biggest draw for the kids is that the kid meals are served in a fun car box.
For an after dinner treat, Sherman’s Dairy Bar is the place to go for ice cream. The ice cream is made the old fashioned way and is a richer and creamier ice cream than most anywhere else. The lines can get long on summer evenings, but it moves fast and is worth the wait.
We hope you decide to add this lovely destination to your list of places to visit. If you have been to South Haven before, feel free to leave a comment on your favorite spots. Stay tuned for more posts about even more must see destinations in the beautiful state of Michigan.