Dunes open for the season Saturday

March 2, 2023

– Silver Lake State Park photo

Dunes open for the season Saturday

By Allison Scarbrough, Editor.

GOLDEN TOWNSHIP — The only place of its kind in the US east of the Mississippi River, the Silver Lake Sand Dunes open for the 2023 season Saturday, April 1.

Over 1.5 million people visit the scenic and unique park every year, said Silver Lake State Park Manager Jody Johnston. That total includes visitors to the campground, the Little Sable Point Lighthouse and the ORV area.

“As far as an ORV park in the dunes, this is the only place east of the Mississippi,” said Johnston.

– Silver Lake State Park photo

Even though early spring weather in Michigan is not usually ideal for outdoor activities, the park manager expects die-hard “duners” to make the trip. “It’s like the opening day of deer season.” 

Because April 1 falls on a Saturday, the opener will likely be busier than if it fell on a weekday. The weather forecast calls for a high temperature of 52 degrees and a low of 29 with a 60 percent chance of snow.

The campground opens for the season April 15. 

Hours at the ORV area through April 30 are 9 a.m. to 8 p.m., and on May 1, the hours extend until 10 p.m. through Sept. 15. The dunes remain open for the season through Oct. 31. “From Fool’s Day to Ghoul’s Day,” the dunes are open.

Traditional events return this summer, such as the Jeep Invasion, Heroes on the Dunes and Fourth of July Fireworks. 

Social media has increased the dunes’ popularity, said Johnston. “People are really sharing the times they have here and the scenery through pictures. I think that increases the popularity of visitation — another reason why we’re so busy here.”

Recently-added recreational activities make the dunes a year-round destination with horseback

– Silver Lake State Park photo

riding during the month of November and fat tire biking Dec. 15 to March 15. 

Horseback riders are required to pre-register, because it is limited to 100 riders per day. Reservations begin Sept. 1. “It is very, very popular,” said Johnston. “They ride on the lakeshore.” Equestrians are required to clean up the manure. 

The park manager strongly advises people to make preparations before visiting the busy park by researching the official state park website rather than posting questions on various social media pages. Camping reservations can be made on state park website. For questions not answered on the website, call the park at 231-873-3083. Messages can also be sent to the Silver Lake State Park Facebook page.

Department of Natural Resources staff has previously closed off an area of the dunes to protect an endangered species’ nesting site temporarily. It is required by the US Fish and Wildlife Service to safeguard the Great Lakes Piping Plover nests. The DNR is required by several rules and laws — including the Endangered Species Act — to protect the birds.

For those who are not interested in cruising through the dunes on an ORV or dune buggy, there is also a pedestrian area at Silver Lake Sand Dunes.

“We need to continue to accommodate that, but it’s too early to tell if they’re going to nest there,” said Johnston.

Alcohol is prohibited in the ORV area and within a quarter mile of its boundaries at all times. 

Flashing lights on vehicles other than hazard lights are not permitted. The blinking lights cause confusion for other dune users who often mistake them for emergency vehicle lights.

Unlicensed ORVs can operate on Fox Road from the Collin Hansen Welcome Center to the ORV entrance, which is a change that was implemented in 2019, Johnston said. The change came about due to limited parking in the ORV area. Because it is situated in a critical dunes area, the state park cannot expand the ORV parking lot, he said. However, parking at the welcome center was expanded. All permits are sold at the welcome center, which cuts down on time spent waiting in line to get into the dunes, he said. There is an air station at the welcome center, so people can air up after using the dunes. Tire pressure should be reduced at least 15 pounds, so vehicles sit better on top of the sand, Johnston said.

If your vehicle is dune-ready, state park officials are asking dune riders to not sit in the ORV parking lot to wait for the dunes to open at 9 a.m. due to traffic backups.

Duners must make sure their vehicles are in compliance with ORV laws by having adequate muffler systems.

Rustic bathrooms/vault toilets are available on the dunes. A food vendor will also be on hand this summer. Light House Grill at Hideaway Campground will serve hungry dune enthusiasts. 

One of the challenges this time of year is having enough staff, Johnston said. The state park is currently accepting applications for seasonal employment. The pay rate for seasonal workers recently increased to $15 per hour.

Johnston advises dune riders to expect changes in the terrain from last year due to winter winds shifting the sand.

“Go slow and make a couple laps to become familiar with the terrain,” he said. “Look out for the guy not looking out for you.”

The shifting sand affects the terrain “day-to-day and week-to-week,” so it’s a good idea to familiarize yourself each time you go to the dunes to ensure safety.

“We’ve had some serious accidents. There are inherent risks involved.”

With more types of vehicles these days capable of riding on the dunes, such as SUVs and ATVs, there are more inexperienced operators. 

“People should not drive above their abilities or their vehicles’ abilities. That leads to a lot of accidents.”

There have been as many as 140 reported crashes on the dunes in one season, he said, but that number also includes non-injury crashes. “For the number of people there, in my opinion, that is a pretty low number.”

What began as an experiment last season to expedite dune riders entering the dunes is now a permanent feature. “This spring, we will have a dune-ready express lane. It is very similar to what we did last year with the experiment, but this will be better because we will have a lane set up.”

To be considered dune-ready, vehicles must have proper tire air pressure of 15 psi or lower, properly mounted orange dune flag, seats and safety belts, ORV permit, ORV trail permit and state park recreation passport, not be towing another vehicle, etc.

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