Dr. Beach has opined what many of us already knew: the Great Lakes beaches of the United States and Canada are hidden gems, and the ones at Sleeping Bear Dunes and Pictured Rocks national lakeshores are crown jewels.
Stephen Leatherman, aka "Dr. Beach", professor and director of the Laboratory for Coastal Research at Florida International University, is a man with a dream job. For the past several decades he has travelled all over America evaluating hundreds of recreational beaches.
Introduced in 1991, Dr. Beach's annual list of America's Top 10 Beaches is now eagerly awaited and widely-cited. The release of the list is a media event. On the strength of this record, Professor Leatherman has been dubbed "America's Foremost Beach Expert."
Communities and businesses associated with Dr. Beach's top picks (this year it's Siesta Beach in Sarasota, Florida) are naturally ecstatic, and the runners-up are mighty happy too. This wonderful publicity, especially for the country's lesser publicized beaches, doesn't just confer respect and bragging rights. It also boosts visitation and brings in more tourism dollars.
(For a complete listing of past top-rated beaches (1991-2010, annually), visit this site.)
Dr. Beach's evaluations (using 50+ rating criteria, especially water quality, sand quality, and safety) and resulting ratings have always been limited to ocean beaches. That is, they have been until this year.
At the urging of many Great Lakes communities, tourism interests, and concerned citizens, Dr. Beach has finally compiled and released a list of the best beaches in the Great Lakes region. This region includes not just the Great Lakes shorelines of eight Midwestern states, but also the Canadian province of Ontario (which borders on all of the Great Lakes except Lake Michigan).
Much to the delight of national park boosters everywhere, national lakeshore beaches in Michigan account for two of the top three beaches on the list, including the coveted #1 spot. Dr. Beach's first-ever Great Lakes list, Five Great Great Lakes Beaches, puts Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in the number one slot and Sand Point Beach at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in the number three slot.
The rest of the Great Lakes beaches list consists of #2-rated Presque Isle State Park on Pennsylvania's Lake Erie shoreline, #4-rated Bayfield Main Beach in Ontario (on Lake Ontario), and #5-rated Oak Street Beach on Chicago's Lake Michigan waterfront. Dr. Beach gave honorable mention nods to two other Lake Michigan beaches -- North Beach in Racine, Wisconsin, and Grand Haven State Park in Michigan's Lower Peninsula.
No one familiar with Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore could be surprised about the lofty ranking of the park's beaches. Within the authorized boundaries of the park there are many miles of beautiful Lake Michigan shoreline graced with wide, clean, sandy beaches and no obtrusive development. The park's enormous shoreline dunes (among the world's largest) and numerous inholdings create access problems in many areas, but visitors who do make the effort can stroll along beaches that are uncrowded and drop-dead gorgeous. Gregarious beach users and families with small children might prefer the public beaches at Empire and Glen Haven, which offer parking, boat launching, and other conveniences.
The existence of numerous inholdings along Sleeping Bear's shoreline creates some significant complications for beach users. Although Michigan law provides for public use of all beaches, including those on the shorelines of privately owned property, there are some important restrictions and related difficulties. Basically, when on private land the public may legally use only the narrow strip of beach lying between the water and the normal level of the water or the upper limit of the swash area (which is intermittently covered by water). The landward edge of this legal use area is often difficult to discern, and some beach users pay little heed to it.
Unlike the case with Sleeping Bear Dunes, finding Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore on this list can be expected to yield more than a few raised eyebrows. Pictured Rocks is situated on Lake Superior in Michigan's sparsely-settled Upper Peninsula, where it is renowned for strikingly beautiful sandstone cliffs towering several hundred feet above narrow benches lashed with very cold water. However, a little known fact is that excellent white sand beaches exist in several places along the park's lengthy shoreline, and several of these places are considered "swimming beaches."
In the case of the park's Sand Point Beach, offshore islands protect a small sandy beach from the big lake's notoriously large waves and the relatively shallow emerald-green water warms to summer temperatures that are not as shockingly cold as the Lake Superior norm. Dr. Beach says he had a "refreshing" swim at Sand Beach on an August day. Most people who dip a toe there would be inclined to beat a hasty retreat. That said, the beach is gorgeous and the sunsets are memorable.
Postscript: Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore has a de facto clothing optional beach. Nudity is officially banned in the park, but LE rangers "look the other way” if nude beach users are discreet and there are no complaints from “textiles” about the presence of “naturals.” Dr. Beach does not report that he visited a clothing optional beach during his evaluation of Sleeping Bear Dunes, but I'll wager that he at least knows where it is.