Return to Silver Lake Sand Dunes ORV park

            Ever since I visited Silver Lake ORV (off-road vehicle) Park 2 years ago, I wanted to go back. The first time I visited, I rented a Jeep Wrangler Unlimited and had a guide show me the ropes of off-roading and how to have fun in the sand (For more information about my first experience check out my blog post ). This time I brought my own vehicle to spend the afternoon in the sand. Silver Lake State Park has the largest deposit of freshwater sand dunes on Earth.  The state park has 450 acres of ORV scramble area. Silver Lake is also the only sand dunes east of the Mississippi River where you can drive a private vehicle on the dunes. Silver Lake is essentially a giant sand box for off-road toys. This makes it a very popular destination for off-roaders.

            For a long time, I have had a desire to own a Jeep Wrangler. Specifically, a TJ generation wrangler (1997-2006). Maybe, because as a kid the “Barbie car” Jeeps were popular or the popularity of Jurassic Park even though those were YJ Wranglers. To me it’s an iconic Jeep, with the classic Jeep look, with 2 doors and the legendary straight six, 4-liter engine. So as my last pickup truck lease was winding down, I was hoping to buy a TJ Wrangler. But I came to the realization that I use my pickup truck a lot and need to still have one for various reasons. For a car fanatic, there is so many cars and trucks to own and not enough time, money and garage/ driveway space. So, I bought a 2013 Ram 1500 Outdoorsman, crew cab with the Hemi, keeping Silver Lake and off-roading a reality. One day I will get a TJ Wrangler. 

YJ in the green on the left, TJ in the red on the right

            Before I took my truck to Silver Lake, there were a few things I needed. The first and most important item to get is a 10-foot safety flag and a mount for the front of my truck. This is required at the sand dunes so other people see you coming over the hill and you see them. I saw some innovators rap the base of the flag with a foam pool noodle to protect the front end of their rig. I didn’t need the noodle because my flag mount kept the flag away from the front of my truck. I was surprised how hard it was to find a flag and mount online. I ended up buying my flag and mount at a local off-road parts and accessory store near my hometown ($55 total total for both). There are two off-road stores near the entrance to Silver Lake that also sell them.

My truck in the parking lot ready to go in

If you don’t already have the Michigan recreation passport, you will need that because it is a state park. If you live in Michigan, the recreation passport is the best $11 you will spend this year, it gets you into every Michigan state park all year. If you are coming from out of state, they do offer day passes ($9 daily or $34 for the year). In addition to the recreation passport, you will need the Michigan ORV Sticker and ORV trail sticker ($36.25). The stickers can be ordered online on the DNR site or the off-road stores near the entrance to the park, or at the gate. Finally, I recommend you bring a portable air compressor. To go on the sand, you need to lower your tire pressure to 10-18 PSI. When you leave, you need to bring it back up, anywhere from 30-45 PSI depending on your vehicle. I did see that the off-road stores have “free air” available, but I imagine that it is busy and takes a while. It took my pump about 40 minutes to re-inflate all my tires back up to 45 PSI. Lowering the tire pressure is the easy part. I used a flat head screwdriver to press down the tire valve to let the air out.

Prep parking lot

            Once I had my truck ready to go, I headed for the entrance. At the guard shack, there is a crossbar that your safety flag needs to hit. They will also check for your ORV stickers and your recreation passport. I went on a Thursday and there wasn’t anyone checking when I went it for some reason, but later in the day, someone was there. I did see a park ranger truck as I went in and later in the day, I saw a county sheriff truck go into the park (with a safety flag of course). Now the fun begins as we pass the guard shack and begin our climb up the entrance ramp to the sand dunes. To me, it seemed like the entrance to Jurassic Park, with the anticipation building. The entrance ramp is a two-track sand path surrounded by trees on either side. When you get to the top, it opens up to only sand and immediately on your left is the famous “test hill,” the largest sand dune hill in the park. I believe it is called this because not everyone makes it to the top.  You have to have enough power, nerves and knowledge. A lot of people get stuck in the sand  three quarters of the way up. The only safe way out of that situation is to reverse back down the hill. When I went with the Jeep tour two years ago, I conquered “test hill.” This is where knowledge comes. Our tour guide told us to go at a slow to medium pace as we approached the base of the hill. Once the Jeep started to go up the incline, he said to push the accelerator down to the floor and hold it there until you get to the top. After getting up test hill there are a number of smaller hills making the whole experience like a massive sand roller coaster. There is also a trick for going down these large sand dune hills. Once going over the top, you want gravity to do the work for you. You don’t want to turn too much and you don’t want to brake until you get towards the bottom. If you turn too sharply or brake too hard, there is a good chance you will roll your rig down the hill. Test hill and the subsequent hills are one-way traffic only, to avoid collisions.  I didn’t take my truck up test hill because I had a lot of luggage and other stuff in the truck because we were traveling around Michigan.

            What we did first was head to the beach parking lot, where the sand dunes meet Lake Michigan. My wife and I had lunch on the beach because we had been driving all morning to get to Silver Lake. It’s a beautiful beach and a popular place for people to set up camp for the day.  We saw people drive in with pickup trucks with dirt bikes or ATVs in the bed and set up camp at the beach. Hanging out at the beach was something we didn’t get to do when we did the Jeep tour, because we only had the Jeep for 2 hours, and we spent all of it driving around.

Lake Michigan Beach

            If test hill is too much for you, there are other smaller hills you can climb. There are trails through some trees and there is a flat drag race area. There are also some circular pits you can mess around in, I recommend vehicles with short-wheel bases do that (Jeeps, ATVs, dirt bikes, and side-by-sides), not pickup trucks.

Sand drag-race

            There is plenty of fun and adventure to be had at Silver Lake ORV park. Silver Lake is a great place to see trucks and SUVs in action. You are guaranteed to see Jeep Wranglers and most current pickup trucks. I love seeing the old Chevy K5 Blazers and Ford Broncos (is that OJ?). I also love to see people’s creativity customizing their vehicles. There were a few vehicles that made me say, “What are you doing out here?” I did see a current Ford Explorer driving around, which surprised me because it seems more like an oversized station wagon than an off-road vehicle. The weirdest vehicle I saw was a 25-year-old Toyota Corolla. I talked to the owner about it, he said he put a turbo on the original four cylinder engine (probably wouldn’t make it out there otherwise), put sand tires on the front because it is a front-wheel-drive car (regular tires on the back) and he took the front doors off. He said they probably weren’t going to do test hill, but they did make it to the beach.

Toyota Corolla with orange front rims

            One last warning I have to give is that there are some risks involved in driving off-road. You can break your vehicle. After bouncing around in the sand for a while, a bracket holding my exhaust together came apart. I was climbing a hill and then all of a sudden, my engine got really loud. My truck sounded like a 1970’s American muscle car. Thankfully, nothing major broke like, my tires, driveline, or anything that would prevent me from driving the three and half hours home. I think the bracket was starting to go anyway, my truck has over 100,000 miles and some of the other brackets were rusted as well. The bill for a new bracket installed came to $55, not too bad all things considered.  All I can say now is that I can’t wait to go back again.     

You can see the Jeep tour in the background at the top of the hill (red Wranglers)
Drive through the trees
Enjoy the crystal clear (and cold) water of Lake Michigan
First generation Ford Bronco (left) and first generation Chevy K5 Blazer (right)
Massive monster truck. Ford Excursion
The new Jeep Gladiator
Awesome sand rail
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