There are plenty of Lake Erie getaways you can take from Cleveland. But if you want to explore a little further afield and go somewhere that feels more like an oceanside beach town that’s not actually on the ocean, then you need to know about Ludington, Michigan.
Being our neighbor to the northwest, Michigan offers up a bunch of fun weekend getaway options from northeast Ohio. But if it’s a true beachy getaway you’re craving, then heading across the Mitten State to Lake Michigan is what you want to do.
Why visit Ludington, Michigan?
Ohio has plenty of beach towns – as does Michigan. So what makes Ludington such a good long weekend trip option from Cleveland?
A few reasons:
- It’s drivable (roughly 6 hours from Cleveland), but still far enough away that it feels like you’re going on a “real” trip.
- Ludington sits on Lake Michigan (the only Great Lake fully within the United States, did you know?), and has a huge, accessible (and free) sandy beach right near downtown.
- Downtown Ludington feels like a true beach town – it’s got the historic homes, shops and restaurants, and water views – but is obviously a lot less crowded than if you drove to the ocean.
- It may be cliche to say, but there really is something for everyone in Ludington, whether you’re planning a solo trip, couples getaway, girls’ weekend, or family vacation.
- There are some great locally-owned places to stay like refurbished vintage motels and beautiful bed and breakfasts. I love a spot where chain hotels aren’t the most popular option!
If you’re intrigued to learn more about planning a trip to Ludington, read on!
Note: This post is brought to you as part of a paid partnership with Pure Ludington. As always, though, my opinions are my own and based 100% on my own experiences!
How to get to Ludington
Ludington is a small city of less than 8,000 people that sits on Lake Michigan, near the mouth of the Pere Marquette River in Michigan’s Mason County. (For those who know Mitten Geography, Ludington sits just above the pinkie knuckle of the Michigan Hand Map.)
The city is best reached by car, with U.S. Route 10 leading straight into downtown. From Cleveland, it’s all highway driving and takes roughly 6 hours to reach Ludington.
On your way, you’ll pass through Toledo, either Ann Arbor or Kalamazoo, and Grand Rapids.
A long weekend in Ludington itinerary
If you’re planning a long weekend trip, I recommend driving to Ludington on Thursday and coming home on Sunday.
And here’s exactly how I would suggest planning your visit:
As I mentioned above, it’s a good 6 hour drive from Cleveland to Ludington, and that’s if you only make a quick stop for food/bathrooms. If you’re making more stops, then I would allow more time!
Having said that, if you leave the Cleveland area in the morning, you can definitely make it to Ludington by the late afternoon. Which will give you plenty of time to maybe take a walk down Ludington Avenue or South James St (the main roads through town), stop at the beach, and find a good spot for dinner.
Evening: Waterfront Park
Before sunset, take a stroll through Waterfront Sculpture Park located next to Ludington’s main harbor and marinas. The park is home to 9 large bronze sculptures that depict different scenes and icons from Ludington’s history, has a nice playground, and has a concert pavilion where you can often catch free live music during the summer months.
Waterfront Park also offers up great views of the SS Badger carferry when she’s in port. The SS Badger sails back and forth across Lake Michigan between Ludington and Manitowoc, Wisconsin during the summer months. The ferry is super historic (a National Historic Landmark, in fact!), being the last coal-fired passenger vessel operating in the United States.
This park is a great place to stretch your legs after a long day in the car.
And some good dinner options for tonight close to Waterfront Park include Ludington Bay Brewing Co, Jamesport Brewing Company (the pecan-crusted perch here is excellent!), or Crown and Cork (which has a patio with marina views).
Friday: Ludington highlights
Let’s explore the best things to do in Ludington today!
Morning: Maritime Museum
After enjoying breakfast at your accommodation, start your day with a visit to the Port of Ludington Maritime Museum (open Tuesday-Saturday from early May through late October).
This 3-story museum resides in a former U.S. Coast Guard Station that’s now listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Inside, exhibits cover everything from Lake Michigan’s carferries to the Armistice Day Blizzard of 1940 to mysterious Great Lakes shipwrecks. On the second floor there’s even an interactive exhibit where you can try your hand at “piloting” a carferry into port – it’s harder than it looks!
Note: If you’re traveling with young kids, the Maritime Museum might not be very exciting for them. But luckily Ludington has another option: Sandcastles Children’s Museum, which has more than 30 hands-on displays and can definitely keep younger kids entertained for hours.
Late morning: Stearns Park Beach
From the museum, it’s a short walk or drive to Stearns Park.
Lake Michigan has some great beaches, and the public beach at Stearns Park is a good example. This wide, sandy beach is ideal for wading, has wheelchair-friendly accessible walkways out into the sand, and is free to visit – including parking!
Start your time here with a walk on the beach (or maybe a swim if it’s warm enough!). There are benches along the upper part of the beach, or you can of course bring your own blankets, chairs, umbrellas, etc.
From the beach, you can also walk along the 1/2-mile concrete pier/breakwater out to the Ludington North Breakwater Light. This 57-foot-tall lighthouse dates back to 1924, and offers up views of Lake Michigan from an observation deck at the top (which is open Memorial Day through Labor Day).
The views from the top on a clear day are fantastic, but the walk out along the breakwater is also worth doing on its own.
And if the water isn’t quite warm enough for swimming, there’s also a playground, skate park, and mini golf course right next to Stearns Park.
Lunch: Beachy classics
There are restrooms and concession stands at both the northern and southern ends of the beach at Stearns Park, and the concession stands actually serve really good food. The Sandbox at the southern end of the beach offers a menu of delicious sliders, plus beachfront picnic tables.
Afternoon: Shopping downtown
If you went swimming earlier, you might need to make a stop back at your accommodation to clean up/dry off. But after that I recommend heading back downtown for some shopping.
There are lots of unique shops in Ludington that you won’t find anywhere else! Shop for vintage threads at Sexy Nomad, design your own t-shirt at Gordys Skate Co., make your own candle at House & Harbor (you’ll need to reserve this in advance), and pick up some sweet treats at Kilwins.
The downtown is very walkable, and there’s plenty of free parking on the main streets, as well as larger (and still free!) parking lots just behind the main stretches of shops.
Dinner in town
For dinner tonight, you can try out one of the following:
- Old Hamlin (a classic, but note that they close at either 7 or 8 p.m.)
- House of Flavors (good for food AND has an ice cream shop)
- Table 14 (for upscale fine dining; you’ll need a reservation here)
Or try any of the restaurants previously mentioned that you haven’t tried yet.
Evening: Beach sunset
After dinner, head back to Stearns Park Beach to watch the sun set. Because this Ludington beach faces west, you can watch the sun set “into” Lake Michigan.
Saturday: Ludington State Park
After a full day in Ludington proper, you can spend today exploring nearby Ludington State Park.
Ludington State Park is a unique and beautiful state park that’s bordered by Lake Michigan to the west, smaller Hamlin Lake to the east, and is cut through by the Big Sable River. The park costs $11 per day for anyone with out-of-state license plates.
The fee is worth it, though, as you can easily spend a whole day here – just be sure to pack your swimsuit, sun protection, and bug spray!
Pro tip: Bring a picnic lunch with you if you don’t want to have to drive back into Ludington for lunch!
This morning, I recommend starting off with a hike. The best trail (in my opinion) is actually a combined loop of the Lost Lake Trail and Island Trail, which takes you around Lost Lake and beside Hamlin Lake. The trail is roughly 2 miles round trip starting from the Hamlin Lake Beach parking area, and is mostly on hard-packed earth and wooden boardwalks. (There is some slight elevation on uneven terrain on the far side of the lake, though.)
On this hike, you get beautiful views of Hamlin Lake and the surrounding forest.
If you’re up for another short hike this morning, you can also check out the Skyline Trail. This trail is shorter (just a half mile), but involves lots of wooden stairs. It’s worth it, though, and offers up some excellent views of the Lake Michigan shoreline and over sand dunes, with a spot to run down a dune if you choose.
Late morning: Paddling Hamlin Lake
You can head back to Hamlin Lake after your hike(s) to get out on the water. During the summer months, you can rent canoes, kayaks, paddleboards, pedal boats, and more to explore Hamlin Lake and the Big Sable River.
Hamlin Lake is warmer and more protected than Lake Michigan on the other side of the park, meaning it’s the perfect place to get out on the water. You can pay for rentals at the Hamlin Lake Concessions building right next to the beach parking lot.
While you’re out on the water, definitely look out for wildlife like birds. Bald eagles even call this part of Michigan home!
Afternoon: Beach time
You can’t visit this park without visiting the Lake Michigan beaches! The lake is usually comfortable for swimming by late summer, and the beach near the historic Beach House is a favorite spot for swimming and sunbathing.
The historic Arts-and-Crafts style Beach House was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1935, and serves as the park’s visitor center with educational programs and displays during the summer months. There’s also a concession stand here, too (between Memorial Day and Labor Day), in case you didn’t bring a picnic lunch.
Late afternoon: Big Sable Point Lighthouse
There’s one more absolute must-do in Ludington State Park, and that’s making the walk out to the Big Sable Point Lighthouse .
This iconic lighthouse dates back to 1867, and is surrounded by sand dunes and Lake Michigan. The walk is longer (about 4 miles round trip), but the trail is flat and very easy to follow.
From early May through late October, you can climb 130 steps to the lighthouse’s watchtower room for excellent views over Lake Michigan. I actually walked out for sunset, which meant I missed out on climbing the lighthouse – but it was still well worth it!
Dinner at Stix
Depending on what time of year you visit, you may want to have dinner either before or after the walk out to Big Sable Point Lighthouse. Either way, I recommend having dinner at Stix, which is just a couple minutes down the road from the state park.
Stix is a full entertainment venue, offering an upscale restaurant, bowling alley, and outdoor beer garden. The beer garden is especially noteworthy; it has its own bar, a BBQ food truck, tons of seating options, fire pits, lawn games, and outdoor stages for live music. And it’s family-friendly, too.
I ate indoors at Stix and then went outside to enjoy a drink in the beer garden, and it was a great way to end my day.
And if you don’t want to spend the whole day at Ludington State Park? Take a couple hours and visit Historic White Pine Village, located a short drive south of Ludington. This replica 19th century pioneer village consists of 30+ historic buildings (many of them original) filled with authentic artifacts that showcase the area’s history.
Sunday: Time to head home
You really only have half a day today if you’re planning on driving home this afternoon.
I recommend having a relaxing morning in Ludington – or maybe make one last visit to the beach!
Early lunch: The 10 Spot
On your way out of Ludington, you can stop at the local food truck park called The 10 Spot. A food truck by The Brunch Babes (of Food Network’s Great Food Truck Race fame) is usually open for all your weekend brunch needs.
If they’re closed, though, there are several other local food trucks to choose from.
Afternoon: Go wine tasting
If you’re not traveling with kids, then one last stop you can make is at a local winery (because, just like in northeast Ohio, this part of Michigan is home to wineries!).
I visited Pere Marquette Winery, a family-run winery known for its Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc, Chardonnay, and Cayuga grapes. They make a range of tasty wines that span the color and flavor gamut; for summer, I liked their Cayuga White and Any Day Rose.
Tastings are reasonably priced, at $10 for 5 tastes, or $16 for a flight of 4 wines.
Other area wineries you can check out include North Branch Winery in nearby Scottville, and Fox Barn Winery in Shelby. Just note that most tasting rooms don’t open until noon – and of course always taste responsibly!
And then just like that it’ll be time to head home after an excellent weekend in Ludington.
Where to stay in Ludington
Ludington has several unique, locally-owned accommodation options, ranging from nostalgic family-run motels to cozy B&Bs in historic homes. Three that I’d recommend are:
- Summer’s Inn – This family-run, adults-only motel has touches that make it feel like much more than just a motel. The rooms have been refreshed but still retain their mid-century vibes, breakfast is cooked to order each morning, and there’s even a private garden with a koi pond for guests to enjoy.
- The Lamplighter Bed & Breakfast – Located in a beautiful historic home, the Lamplighter is such a relaxing and welcoming place to stay. The rooms are very comfortable, the outdoor space is super relaxing, and the home-cooked breakfasts and nightly fresh-baked cookies are incredible!
- Nader’s Motel & Suites – This family-owned and operated spot is just a block north of Stearns Park Beach, and is a good family-friendly option in Ludington. They offer a wide variety of room types, along with in-ground pool, shuffleboard court, fire pits, and bicycles for guests.
When to visit Ludington
Ludington is a year-round destination, but there are some warm-weather attractions that are ideally suited for the summer months. If you want to do the exact weekend itinerary laid out above, then you’ll want to visit from May through September.
It’s an excellent fall destination, too, though, with Ludington State Park, Cartier Park, and the nearby Manistee National Forest all offering up great leaf-peeping. (In fact, a Michigan fall road trip is one of my favorites I’ve ever done!) Similar to northeast Ohio, fall colors in this part of Michigan usually peak in the first half of October.
And you can of course visit in the winter, too. Ludington offers everything from snowshoeing to sledding to cross-country skiing in the winter – Ludington State Park even does cool lantern-lit snowshoe hikes.
No matter when you visit, you’re bound to have a fun trip!
Who’s ready to plan a visit to Ludington?
Want more day trip and weekend trip ideas from Cleveland? Check out more ideas here!
Amanda was born and raised in northeast Ohio, and has always been a fangirl of her home state. Now, she’ sharing her love of the Cleveland area with the world, highlighting all the best things to do, see, and eat in the CLE. She’s been running Cleveland Traveler since January 2019.