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Visit a gorgeous Lake Michigan beach. Hike up tall and speed over sand dunes. Take boat rides on the Kalamazoo River and Kalamazoo Lake. Stroll through a cute downtown filled with art galleries. Eat six pizzas for dinner and four pies for dessert. Those are just some of the fun things to do in Saugatuck and Douglas Michigan on a family vacation.
The writer was hosted.
Saugatuck and Douglas are two charming family-friendly small towns in Western Michigan that have long been a playground for Chicagoans wealthy enough to afford a summer home on Lake Michigan.
But, lucky for those of us who aren’t wealthy enough to have two homes, you don’t need to be a homeowner to find enough fun things to do in Saugatuck and the surrounding area to keep a family happy during a week’s vacation.
During a whirlwind 48 hour getaway just before Memorial Dayin 2021, my best pal Ami and I got a chance to sample some of the fun things to do in Saugatuck, try some of the best Saugatuck restaurants and spend a long evening watching the sunset from the screened-in porch of our cute cottage at Old Pike Cottages. (More on that in a minute.)
Here are some of the best outdoor activities and other things to do in Saugatuck and the surrounding area.
Saugatuck Dune Rides
This dune ride is a blast. If you have ever taken a Duck boat ride (I’ve done that in the Wisconsin Dells and Mobile Alabama), you’ll understand what the dune ride experience is like, minus the water, of course. This is a fun, bumpy ride with zippy hang-on-so-you-don’t-slide-out turns interspersed with silly jokes and rapid-fire commentary from a charming handsome young driver.
We boarded a modified pickup truck — the windshield is gone and the back is outfitted with four rows of seats — along with 14 others, including 8 kids ages 5-14. Our driver, Frosty said he got the old truck up to about 35 miles per hour over some of the dunes — a speed that is required both so we wouldn’t get stuck and “because it’s more fun that way.”
Our 40-minute adventure included lots of time spent zipping up and around the sand dunes past signs that said things like “Do Not Enter” and “Bridge Out.” There were several stops for fun commentary from Frosty into the area’s geology, history, vegetation and wildlife.
This is a Saugatuck must-do activity, so it sells out quickly. The company opens bookings a week ahead. Tours leave every half hour from 10am to 5:30pm. If you can’t get a slot on the day you’ll visit, check back regularly. People sometimes cancel — that’s how we got to ride the day we were in Saugatuck.
SheBuysTravel Tip: There is only one seat belt that fits across the entire length of the seat, so plan to hang on to little ones. The youngest in our group, a small 5-year-old, was wedged into the seat between her big brother and big sister. I’m convinced it’s the only thing that kept her from flying out as we bounced over the dunes. Also, if you have any issues with motion sickness, plan to eat AFTER your ride!
Spend Time on the Water
There are any number of ways to do this. After all, the town is built along the Kalamazoo River and Kalamazoo Lake (which is really just a wide spot in the river). We had time to try only two: The Star of Saugatuck sternwheel paddlewheel boat and a sunset cruise aboard the Flying Dutchman pontoon boat.
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Star of Saugatuck II
This charming sternwheel paddleboat is a throw-back to a simpler time. A big red wheel powers the boat down the river and out onto Lake Michigan. It was windy the morning we rode, which made it hard to hear Capt. Caleb’s dulcet-toned narration. But he was happy to repeat the information when I asked.
The 90-minute cruise passes multi-million-dollar waterfront mansions, a long stretch of forest that camouflages the Art Institute of Chicago’s Ox-Bow School of Art and the lost city of Singapore that was buried by sand dunes blown by the wind.
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The windy conditions meant that we were not able to cruise along the Lake Michigan shoreline for a view of Big Red, the lighthouse at the nearby Holland, Michigan, harbor.
SheBuysTravel Tip: Currently, Star of Saugatuck ticket sales are available only on the day of the cruise. Bring cash if you want to purchase snacks or drinks on board. And go early. It can be tough to find a place to park during the busy summer months when the town’s population can swell 10-fold.
The Flying Dutchman
Like so many Saugatuck activities, The Flying Dutchman is a family affair. Capt. Nick and his dad retrofitted the pontoon boat to accommodate up to 25 passengers. It’s a BYO cruise, so you can pack a picnic lunch and bring your own drinks to keep the kids snacking and happy during the two-hour cruise.
And don’t worry if the clouds roll in over Kalamazoo Lake. The night we cruised, the clouds parted just as we hit the final leg of the Kalamazoo River to reveal a spectacular sunset.
The pontoon leaves from a dock outside of downtown, which means you have to drive there. On the plus side, there is plenty of parking available.
SheBuysTravel Tip: If you take the sunset cruise, bring along windbreakers and/or a blanket. It gets chilly on the water after the sun goes down!
Other Boating Options
The Serenity Tall Ship offers afternoon sails, sunset cruises and private charters. It docks near The Flying Dutchman, so parking is not a problem.
Retro Boat Rentals in downtown Saugatuck offers some truly charming options, including a pink power boat that seats four and brightly colored “donut” boats that seat up to 10. The boats are electric and travel the no-wake lake and river at just 4mph.
Retro also rents Duffy boats and pontoons.
The Saugatuck Chain Ferry is the shortest of the rides, but it’s a must-do if you visit during the summer months. This human-powered ferry has been operating since 1838. The ferry is a 250-foot ride across the channel from downtown Saugatuck to Oval Beach pulled by a hand-cranked chain.
The chain ferry operates from Memorial Day to Labor Day and hadn’t started operating when I visited in late May. I definitely want to ride it when I return. I met one of the chain ferry captains who said he lets passengers help him crank the ferry across. It’s a favorite for kids.
SheBuysTravel Tip: The ferry is not licensed to run after dark. So if you take it over to the beach, be sure to get back in time!
Lounge on Oval Beach
Oval Beach is clean and expansive. It’s not surprising that Oval Beach has been named one of Condé Nast Traveler’s Top 25 Beaches in the World, National Geographic Traveler’s Top Freshwater Beaches in the USA and MTV’s Top 5 Beaches in the USA, or that Saugatuck was named the “Best Beach Town in the Midwest” for 2021 by Midwest Living magazine.
Parking is a challenge in this beach town. There is some paid parking near the beach. Or you can get there the hard way, by hiking up the 282 steps to the top of Mount Baldhead and then walking down the sand dunes to the beach. We opted to drive.
You also can take the Interurban Shuttle Bus to the beach and back to your car or hotel. That’s the really cool on-demand public transit system in Saugatuck. Just call and the bus comes within 15 minutes to pick you up and take you where you want to go, all for a buck (50 cents for kids 11 and younger). What a deal! You also can schedule pickups for an appointed time if you don’t want to wait the 15 minutes.
SheBuysTravel Tip: The bus takes cash, so be sure to keep some quarters handy. If you don’t have exact change, the extra cash can be applied as credit for future rides.
Hiking and Biking
Getting outdoors is always one of the best things to do in the Saugatuck/Douglas area.
We spent some time at Saugatuck Dunes State Park, where there are four hiking trails ranging from 2.5 to 5.5 miles along with 2.5 miles of secluded beach and wooded dunes. You can walk the trails in summer or strap on cross country skis for a winter outing.
The park is also home to the Felt Mansion, a stately 1920s house that is part event space and part historical museum. The locals say it’s haunted.
Biking is easy in downtown Saugatuck. Or you can get adventurous and ride the bike trail from Saugatuck to Douglas alongside the Blue Star Highway or take the 24-mile round trip Beeline Trail between Saugatuck and Holland. You can bring your own bikes or rent them in town. We had planned to rent bikes from Big Lake Outfitters, but uncooperative weather prevented that outing.
Strolling Downtown Saugatuck
This charming downtown is dotted with art galleries, small retail boutiques and kid-friendly restaurants overlooking the water. You’ll find flights of craft beer, flights of pizza and — best of all — flights of pie in and around Saugatuck. During the summer months, live music is everywhere.
The Saugatuck Center for the Arts offers summer concerts and shows. But even if you don’t make one of the performances, walk over for a look at the outdoor sculpture garden. It’s tough not to smile as you wander among the whimsical totem poles.
Eat Some Great Food
All of our culinary exploration is outlined in this post on Saugatuck restaurants.
But my must-try spots include the Root Beer Barrel (a kitschy outdoor spot with some super creative hot dog concoctions), Mitten Brewing Company (try the pizza flight to taste six of its artisan pizza designs), and Crane’s Pie Pantry in nearby Fennville that sells the pie flight. Really. Who doesn’t want to eat ALL of the pie options for dessert?
Taste Some Wine
The Fenn Valley Vineyards in nearby Fennville include wineries with tasting rooms.
But wine tasting isn’t the only thing to do in Fennville. You can sample the spirits from distilleries too!
Parking in Saugatuck
We had no problem parking anywhere on our mid-week, pre-Memorial Day visit. But every local warned about the parking challenges of visiting Saugatuck on a weekend in the summer.
The town’s solution: free parking at the high school (401 Elizabeth Street) and a free shuttle ride to downtown Saugatuck. The chain ferry is one of the stops in town.
Where to Stay in Saugatuck
This beach town is home to any number of cute and unique places to spend the night, including tiny houses on the water and a boat that is a bed and breakfast. There are places to stay right on the water, like the Ship-N-Shore Motel Boatel at 428 Water St., near the Star of Saugatuck dock. And there are charming bed and breakfasts just off the water on Butler Street.
Those are all in the bustling heart of downtown Saugatuck. You can find cheaper rentals and chain hotels along Blue Star Highways outside of town.
Or you can do what we did and have the best of both worlds — a quiet, laid back stay just a short walk from the heart of Saugatuck — by staying at the Old Pike Cottages.
Old Pike Cottages
Five of the seven cottages were built in 1939 to house travelers making their way along the West Michigan “Pike.” One of the nation’s first “tourist” roads, the Pike was designed to serve Chicagoans who wanted to escape the city’s sweltering summers with a visit to the West Coast of Lake Michigan.
Today, the cottages are fully modernized, sweet and charming. We stayed in the Durant (all of the cottages are named after cars of that early era). Our two-bedroom includes a luxury bath, one king bedroom and one queen, a sitting room with flat screen TV, mini fridge and microwave.
But the best feature is the screened-in porch overlooking the marina and Kalamazoo Lake. My friend and I spent a lovely evening on the porch chatting as we watched the sunset. The only thing missing was a sleeping couch so I could spend the night listening to the water and basking in the lake breezes.
Amenities of Old Pike Cottages
The property has a nice heated pool and large hot tub, an outdoor gathering space with tables and gas grills and a large community room with a full kitchen and fireplace.
Each of the cottages is a little different — some have larger porches, one has a set of bunk beds — so it’s easy to find the right one for your family. There’s also a huge 5-bedroom house under construction that will be available for rent upon completion.
As I explored the property, I could easily envision the resort as a family reunion spot, with plenty of space to get together and private cottages to spend time apart.
It was such an easy 10-minute walk to downtown Saugatuck that we abandoned plans to call for the Interurban bus.