Sand dunes season opener Thursday.

March 30, 2021

– Silver Lake State Park photo

Sand dunes season opener Thursday.

Around the County is a presentation of Peterson Farms, Inc., www.petersonfarmsinc.com.

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 2021 season Thursday, April 1.

Over 1 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. “It’s getting busier and busier,” Johnston said. 

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

The campground opens for the season Thursday as well. “Semi-modern” sites are available early in the season with electricity available but no running water until 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.

Even with last year’s shortened ORV season due to COVID-19, the park attracted 1.6 million visitors, said Johnston. Due to the pandemic, the ORV area did not open until June 13 — two and a half months later than normal.

“We had a record number of visitors even with a shortened season,” said Johnston. “We came in with tremendous numbers. Even the surrounding businesses did well.”

The park manager strongly advises people to make preparations before visiting the park by researching the state park website. Camping reservations can be made online as well. For questions not answered on the website, call the park at 231-873-3083.

– Silver Lake State Park photo

One major change this year is that drag racing will not be permitted on the dunes, because it is against the law. “There has been an increase in popularity of drag racing, and we can’t look the other way any longer,” said Johnston. “It has been deemed illegal by a state law, MCL 257.626a.”

Read the full language of the statue here.

“In conjunction with our non-profit partner, Silver Lake Recreation Association (SLRA), we have been working over the past several months to help resolve some challenges,” the state park website announced. 

“The DNR has applied for a permit to continue working with SLRA to groom the ‘test and tune’ track, more commonly known as ‘South Flats.’ The department was informed by the Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) that grooming activities require a permit. We are in the process of applying for that permit, which means that grooming of the ‘test and tune’ track has been suspended. We remain hopeful that grooming will resume once approvals are in place with the assistance of SLRA. 

“Over the past several years, the areas groomed by SLRA have become popular. As a result of a smoother surface, there’s been an increase in the number of people lining up side by side, sometimes more than two vehicles, and accelerating in a manner consistent with drag racing. Per Michigan statute (MCL 257.626a), drag racing is not allowed on land open to the public. We have had discussions with local law enforcement agencies regarding concerns this activity has caused.  

“Recognizing there is a demand for racing activities, the DNR is looking into the potential of working with a third-party group to manage a newly defined ‘test and tune’ area. Details are still being developed, but the idea is to try and find a way to allow these activities in a safe and legal manner. If we are unable to find a third-party vendor, our plans are to groom the area for purposes of ‘testing and tuning,’ not racing.  

“It’s always our intent to provide safe recreation opportunities on public lands. We will continue to work with SLRA, EGLE, law enforcement agencies and our visitors, partners, and stakeholders to ensure that Silver Lake State Park ORV area is managed within the context of the law and associated regulations. More information will be made available soon and opportunities to provide feedback will be provided.”

“Be patient as we work through this,” said Johnston.

The Lake Michigan water level is down significantly from last year’s record-high level, so there is more beach area and the ORV boundary was extended farther west.

– Silver Lake State Park photo

Alcohol is prohibited in the ORV area and within a quarter mile of its boundaries at all times. It is also prohibited throughout the entire park May 15 to June 10.

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, Johnston said. However, parking at the welcome center was recently 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.

Beginning on Thursday April 1 through Sunday April, the Welcome Center will be open from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. for permit sales,” the state park’s Facebook page announces. “The gates at the ORV area parking lot will also open at 8 a.m. on these days but remember that access into the dunes does not open until 9 a.m. The intent is to allow visitors who need a parking space to have one without filling the lot with dune-ready vehicles. If you are driving a dune-ready vehicle in, we recommend not entering the parking area before 9 a.m. and add to any traffic congestion. After opening day and weekend, the opening of the ORV area gates will return to the regular 9 a.m. time.”

The path leading up to the dunes was widened to accommodate two lanes, Johnston said. “This helps them get in the dunes more efficiently.”

Seven rustic bathrooms/vault toilets are available on the dunes. A food vendor will also be on hand. Light House Grill at Hideaway Campground will serve up burgers and other menu items for hungry dune enthusiasts. 

Masks and social distancing are required in all state park buildings due to COVID-19 protocols. Johnston said he is relieved none of his staff contracted the virus last year. “I was really thankful that we dodged a bullet.” However, if people refuse to abide by the rules, the risk to staff increases, which could ultimately result in the park temporarily closing to allow workers to quarantine. 

The challenge this time of year is having enough staff, Johnston said. The state park is currently accepting applications for seasonal employment.

At this point, the manager is unsure what will happen with annual events that normally take place at the park due to COVID-19. Presently, no more than 300 people are allowed to gather for outdoor events pursuant to state rules.

The pedestrian area of the Silver Lake Sand Dunes

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. It’s like parachuting – there are certain 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. “There has been an explosion of side-by-sides and Polaris RZRs,” he said.

There have been as many as 140 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.”

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