As I bicycled beside a shimmering lake in the northwest corner of Michigan's Lower Peninsula, I was looking for the perfect photo op to capture the "Up North" spirit I loved as a Michigan kid.
"Stop! This is it!" I called out to my husband and 29-year-old son early in our ride on the Betsie Valley Trail.
Humoring me, my guys duly stopped to pose beside a white birch tree set against a dazzling backdrop of lake, land and sky in many shades of blue: the water's glassy turquoise, the opposite shore's navy blue and the powder blue of a cloudless sky in late July.
Here was the Michigan of my lost youth, yet I'd never been to lovely Crystal Lake, the state's ninth-largest inland lake (about 8 miles long and 2 ½ miles wide) but a pipsqueak compared with nearby Lake Michigan.
During our last summer trek here, we stayed 20 miles to the north, near the gateway to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, with its 35 miles of giant dunes. So in March, when I started planning a post-pandemic (or so I hoped) vacation with our far-flung adult kids and first grandchild, I looked for a vacation rental near Sleeping Bear.
My search landed us in a white lakefront cottage with an alluring wraparound enclosed porch in the village of Beulah. Dating to the 1930s or earlier, the four-bedroom cottage was worn and musty inside. Outside, it was perfect, with a glorious Crystal Lake view and a huge fenced-in yard for our dog and Frisbee flinging. We happily spent most of our week outside.
Beulah proved a fine base camp for revisiting the national lakeshore and discovering other dunes, trails, beaches and villages. With a year-round population of about 200 that swells during the summer, Beulah was also refreshingly low-key. Tourists played pickleball in the park, swam in the clear water beside the sandy public beach and fished from the public dock. There was the occasional Jet Ski, pontoon boat or speedboat pulling a water skier, but the lake was not overrun.
On the 2 ½-block main drag, we found the obligatory ice cream/fancy coffee shop and gem store selling jewelry made with Petoskey stones (a beloved local fossil), plus Five Shores Brewing, offering live music on Friday night, and L'Chayim Delicatessen, serving real-deal bagels and a mean pastrami sandwich.
Another bonus: Beulah is the midpoint of the 22-mile Betsie Valley Trail. We frequented the mostly flat 10-mile portion stretching to the town of Frankfort on Lake Michigan. First we rode west on newly resurfaced crushed limestone along Crystal Lake, past cottages with patches of caramel-colored sand dotted with beach chairs, kayaks, inflatable floats, volleyball nets and docks, to a small nature area where I found my photo op.
We proceeded to Frankfort on a smooth paved trail lined with hot pink sweet peas and other wildflowers, passing through sun-dappled woods and green fields near the squiggly Betsie River, which widens into a small lake. We stopped in unassuming Elberta (pop. about 165) for peach ice cream at the funky Conundrum Café and admired the Life Saving Station, a restored blue-trimmed 1887 building with a cupola once used to spot distressed ships on Lake Michigan. (It now hosts weddings.)
Although we swam in Crystal Lake, we showered soon afterward to prevent swimmer's itch, a rash caused by parasites carried by waterfowl and snails. More often we chose Lake Michigan, which has a less-itchy reputation. Sandy-bottomed Esch Beach was our favorite, followed by the bigger, busier beach in the pretty village of Empire. The Frankfort beach was a close third, located near another popular photo op, the Point Betsie Lighthouse, built in 1858.
While we enjoyed Sleeping Bear's Dune Climb and Empire Bluffs Trail, we appreciated the relative solitude of the less-touristed Arcadia Dunes. At the C.S. Mott Nature Preserve, we hiked a mile through the woods to Mount Baldy Dune, where, from 126 feet, Lake Michigan looked like a vast ocean.
We ate most of our meals outside at the cottage on a wobbly picnic table, enjoying the local bounty — fresh corn, tomatoes and blueberries; whitefish (grilled, smoked or mushed into an addictive pâté) from Frankfort's Port City Smokehouse; and farm-fresh brats and burgers from the Market Basket grocery store/farm stand in Beulah.
Peach pie from the Elberta Farmers Market was the group favorite, followed by cherry pie from the Cherry Hut in Beulah, an endearing 1922 mainstay where waitresses in crisp blouses and cherry-red skirts serve cherry pie à la mode, cherry floats and cherry hot fudge brownies.
One night we splurged on dinner at the Manitou, a local favorite with a North Woods supper club vibe. I'm glad I booked ahead. At 5:30 p.m. on a Monday, it was packed with families and older couples, perhaps drawn by early bird specials of Great Lakes whitefish and yellow perch.
With the region located along the Eastern Time Zone's western edge, our days were long and full, followed by our main evening activity — lounging in plastic Adirondack chairs and watching the sun sink below the horizon, the sky over the lake ablaze with color.
Beulah is a 650-mile drive east of the Twin Cities around Lake Michigan's northern end. Drivers can also take the four-hour S.S. Badger car ferry from Manitowoc, Wis., to Ludington, Mich. Delta Air Lines offers one direct flight daily between Minneapolis and nearby Traverse City, Mich., from May to late September.
Betsy Rubiner, a Des Moines-based travel writer, writes the travel blog TakeBetsyWithYou.