Three Counties: Berrien, Cass and Van Buren
Berrien County, with a population of 152,900+, is in the southwest corner of Michigan. It borders Indiana to the south and offers 42 miles of Lake Michigan shoreline to the west. In addition to Lake Michigan beaches, it has 62 scenic inland lakes and four major rivers. Its countryside is renowned for growing fruit, its vineyards and wineries. The county's major employers include the Berrien County government, D.C. Cook Nuclear Plant, Corewell Health, LECO Corporation and Whirlpool Corporation. This beautiful region attracts many second-home buyers and tourists, mainly from the Chicago area.
Cass County is home to 51,500+ people and is to the east of Berrien County. It borders Indiana to the south and is the smallest county by land area in the state. Dowagiac is its largest community. The county’s prairies, rivers and inland lakes have long supported agriculture, manufacturing and tourism. Historically, it was a stronghold in the anti-slavery movement and was on an Underground Railroad route.
Van Buren County has a year-round population of 75,500+. Of its 1,090 square miles, 44% is water, including 38 inland lakes and the Paw Paw and Black Rivers. This, combined with 10+ miles of Lake Michigan shoreline, makes the area a popular tourist destination for people living in Illinois, Indiana and Michigan. Agriculture supports much of its economy and it is nicknamed “Michigan’s Fruit Basket.” The county is number one in the nation for growing blueberries and is a stronghold in agri-tourism, too.
Major cities in Southwest Michigan include Bangor, Benton Harbor, Bridgman, Buchanan, Coloma, Dowagiac, Gobles, Hartford, New Buffalo, Niles, South Haven, St. Joseph and Watervliet.
How to get here
Major highways give easy access to Southwest Michigan: I-94, I-196, US 12 and US 31
Amtrak services Bangor, New Buffalo, Niles and St. Joseph
With the introduction of the West Michigan Pike in 1922, one of the first paved highways in Michigan, tourists could travel comfortably by car from Chicago to Mackinaw City. Known today as Red Arrow and Blue Star Memorial Highways, the creation of this trunk line led to many resort communities, parks and agri-tourism farms sprouting along Lake Michigan’s shoreline in Southwest Michigan. Today it is a popular route for motorcyclists as well as for fall color tours.
Top reasons to visit
Southwest Michigan is renowned for its soft, singing sand beaches, towering dunes and gorgeous sunsets along its Lake Michigan shore. In the spring, beachcombers can find treasured beach glass, crinoids and colorful rocks. Winter waves create crystalline ice sculptures along the coast and on the lighthouses in St. Joseph and South Haven. Six state parks plus county- and city-owned parks are open to the public all year around.
Southwest Michigan is home to St. Julian, Michigan’s oldest, largest and most-awarded winery, and Tabor Hill, the first Michigan winery to introduce European wine grapes to the state’s vineyards and wines. Today, the making of craft wines, beers, ciders and spirits is one of the fastest-growing industries in the region and draws thousands of tourists and locals year around to Southwest Michigan’s tasting rooms and festivals.
While this is a popular destination year-round for families (see “Imagi-cations for kids” below), this area offers volumes of special niche group stories as well.
- Romantic Vacations. St. Joseph was named “Michigan’s Most Romantic City” by the Detroit Free Press and “The Riviera of the Midwest” by the Fine Living Channel. The charm of this Lake Michigan resort city and the surrounding area make Southwest Michigan a popular honeymoon, babymoon, anniversary and just-for-the-fun-of-it destination for twosomes and groups of couples. Lodgings entice overnight stays with romantic packages and easy access to hours of fun. Most communities are walkable or bikeable; offer scenic beaches and rivers; outdoor recreation or indoor shows; art galleries and museums; talented chefs and more and more choices of craft wineries, breweries, cideries and distilleries.
- Girlfriend Getaways. Mothers and daughters, classmates, sorority sisters and friends are always looking for places to unite. In Southwest Michigan, they can fill a day or more with spa time, shopping, art gallery-hopping, antiquing, beach time, local foods and making crafts or art over a glass of wine.
- Man-cations. While these next few story ideas are applicable for girlfriends and couples, guy time is a growing niche among travelers. Share stories of fishing for tasty perch, salmon and walleye on Lake Michigan or nearby rivers. Challenge visitors to a 5-K or triathlon. Sail on the Friends Good Will, a replica of an 1810 top-sail sloop. Play pickleball or beach volleyball. Grill by the water using fresh fruits and vegetables picked up from a nearby farm or market.
- Golfing Trips. Whether your followers want to watch contenders in the biennial KitchenAid® Senior PGA Championship, learn the sport or challenge their games on championship fairways, Southwest Michigan has golf courses that fit their tee times and budgets. Most courses are open from May through October and offer the added benefit of some of the finest natural scenery.
Fall color tours bring thousands to Michigan to see our colorful leaf show between mid-September and the end of October. But in Southwest Michigan, that’s not our only show time. An equally beautiful and sweetly scented option is driving alongside miles and miles of grape vineyards and cherry, peach, apricot, pear and apple orchards. Only a few other places in the U.S. offer as many pastel-colored vistas as Southwest Michigan does from late April and late May. Enhance your stories with side trips to shop and dine in quaint towns; find new favorites at craft wineries, breweries and distilleries; walk beaches; catch a concert or theater performance; or see a lavender-and-pink sunset over Lake Michigan.
Every land has its makers. Crafters of wood. Forgers of steel. Ours are masters of wine, beer, cider and spirits. Over 40 makers have put down stakes in Southwest Michigan and their locations and festivals offer a wealth of stories. Here are some starters:
- Heritage Wine Tour
- Interview the makers at St. Julian in Paw Paw, Michigan’s oldest, largest and most-awarded winery. Learn how it kick-started one of the fastest-growing industries in Southwest Michigan.
- Tell the story behind how Tabor Hill’s founding vintner’s vision of growing European wine grapes transformed the quality and national respect for wines all over the state.
- Share the backstory of the Amish round barn (circa 1881) that now serves locally made wines, beers and spirits.
- Reveal how a grandmother’s recipes made one Italian restaurant, Tosi’s, a favorite throughout the region since 1948 and taste-test the restaurant’s contemporary menu selections.
- Wine, Chocolate and Other Pairings
- Set up a time to talk with our winemakers and chocolatiers about their crafts. Then share their pairing recommendations with your readers and viewers.
- Poll customers on their favorite candy and ice cream choices at Kilwins.
- Review wines that have a chocolate bouquet.
- Report on wine-making and wine-cooking classes. Have lunch or dinner with a winemaker.
- Create a designated driver itinerary with stops for root beer on draught, sparkling juices and flavored sodas.
- Introduce chef-recommended food pairings with local craft wine, beer, cider and spirits from taste tours along the Makers Trail. Help your readers or viewers become more confident entertaining their family and friends.
- Beer-illiant Brewery Tour
- Interview brew masters on the taste-distinguishing local ingredients added to their recipes.
- Search out the unusual: table-side smoked beer, ice cream and beer and an old police station or livery setting.
Dog friendly destinations
No need for your readers and viewers to leave their four-legged best friends at home. Many Southwest Michigan places from lodgings to beaches to u-pick farms are pet friendly. Stories that will catch dog owners’ attention will be ones about creating a craft wine or beer-tasting itinerary listed in our Pet Friendly Guide.
The area is friendly to horses, too. While visitors cannot hitch their steeds to a post at area wineries, an equestrian trail is available for a scenic ride along the Kal-Haven Trail Sesquicentennial State Park in Van Buren County.
Parents and grandparents catch themselves looking for boredom busters as winter, spring and summer breaks drain their list of how to enrich toddlers’ to teens’ imaginations. That’s not a problem in Southwest Michigan. Here’s your chance to introduce all ages to ideas beyond swimming in our fresh waters and building sandcastles on the beach (although those are great fun, too).
- Silver Beach Center
Open throughout the year, this family entertainment venue in St. Joseph features:
- The magnificent Silver Beach Carousel with its 48 hand-carved and painted figures, a rocking peacock chariot and a wheelchair-accessible sea serpent chariot. There are family games, a model electric train and Silver Beach Amusement Park Museum interactive exhibits and memorabilia. Seasonal decorations transform the building into a wonderland for all ages.
- Curious Kids’ Discovery Zone by Curious Kids’ Museum delights ages 3 to 10 years. It offers permanent and traveling exhibits that make it fun to learn more about science, history, language and social studies. It will keep children and adults entertained for two or more hours.
- Shadowland Ballroom and the boardwalk host family activities such as a LEGO Big Build by professional toy brick architects.
- Whirlpool Centennial Park Compass Fountain, located across the street from the Silver Beach Center, is one of Michigan’s largest, interactive splash pads. Pre-schoolers through young adults enjoy playing as the water sprays 35 feet into the air from early May to the end of September. The park is the site of family friendly concerts, outdoor summer movies and more.
- Curious Kids’ Museum
Perched along the bluff in downtown St. Joseph, this is the flagship location for learning fun for toddlers to middle schoolers. Hands-on education exhibits, family programs, workshops and camps spark imaginations, friendships and family memories throughout the year. Check their website for updates.
- Other Kid Favorites
- Kilwins Ice Cream/Fudge/Chocolate Shoppe in downtown St. Joseph invites families to watch how they make fudge on the cool marble slabs and bake waffle cones.
- Outdoor family friendly movies in Whirlpool Centennial Park are on Saturdays, mid-July until end-of-August. Bring your own chair or blanket and snacks to watch favorites on a big screen at dusk.
- Lake Michigan beaches are family destinations all year, too. These are popular places to splash in the clear, freshwater, launch kites; search for ancient crinoid fossils, beach glass and driftwood for art projects; or come in winter to see the wave-sculpted ice formations.
- Hiking is popular in nature preserves and parks. Families and youth groups can explore a variety of ecosystems, scale towering dunes, identify wildflowers and trees or go cross-country skiing during the day and night. Other affordable activities include mountain biking and disc golf.
- Bicycling and paddling are fun family activities from the spring thaw through fall. Bicyclists can stage along the bike/walking paths at Harbor Shores in Benton Harbor for scenic rides. If families don't transport their own kayaks, stand-up paddleboards or canoes, they can rent them from area shops. Classes are available for first-timers, too.
- Encourage families to see where milk comes from with a tour of the Baroda-based Shuler Dairy Farms, May through October. It’s a chance to learn more about the latest farming technology. An added enticement is the ice cream at the end of the visit. Or take them to our many welcoming farms to see where their fruits and vegetables grow, play outside, take hayrides and more.
- Family fun centers, such as Slackers Family Fun Center.
Southwest Michigan has a vibrant history dating back to the first tribal families that fished, hunted and gathered food in the region, followed by European explorers and pioneers who pushed westward from Detroit along its rivers, the Territorial Road or St. Joseph Trail. Southwest Michigan residents were part of the anti-slavery movement and the Underground Railroad from the 1820s to early 1860s, the European immigration years from 1870 to 1920 and the Great Migration of African-Americans from 1916 to 1970. We are also home to:
- America’s first manned airplane flight by Augustus Moore Herring, October 11, 1899, at Silver Beach. Because his motorized glider could only stay aloft for 30 seconds at a time, the Wright Brothers received the ultimate claim to first flight fame on December 17, 1903.
- The Benton Harbor House of David religious colony and amusement park is said to be the first place in Michigan to serve ice cream in waffle cones.
- The Upton Machine Co., now known as Whirlpool Corporation, began manufacturing electric motor-driven wringer washers in 1911.
- Dr. Liberty Hyde, America’s Father of Modern Horticulture.
To craft your stories, several museums and the St. Joseph lighthouse tours offer in-depth looks at our area's fascinating history. There are walking tours, an architectural research center and ancient artifacts from Bible lands.