Where Can I Walk on the Beach in Michigan?

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Have you ever reached the end of a public beach and wondered if you could keep walking?  Michigan is surrounded by the beautiful Great Lakes, their beaches attract millions of people each year. But lakefront property in Michigan is largely privately owned and “No Trespassing,” which causes many people to wonder: where Can I walk on the beach?

The short answer is that individuals have the right to walk the Great Lake shorelines in Michigan, but this right has limits. In the notable 2005 case Glass v Goeckel, the Michigan Supreme Court took on this question and held that the public trust doctrine applies to the Great Lakes, which means that walking along the shoreline is permitted subject to the ordinary high water mark. However, to further understand the scope of this right--and its legal basis--requires a deeper analysis of the public trust doctrine and Michigan case law.

Owners of lakefront property on Lake Michigan have something called “riparian rights” and “littoral rights,” which in Michigan means those rights associated with the ownership of the banks or shores of rivers, streams, seas, and their coasts.[1] While riparian and littoral rights are often used interchangeably, riparian rights generally relate to rivers and streams and littoral rights generally relate to seas and their coasts. [2] Moreover, in Glass v Goeckel, the Michigan Supreme Court stated that large bodies of water are natural resources that belong to the public, and thus, are protected by the public trust doctrine.[3] The public trust doctrine provides the state with the duty to protect the public’s interest in natural resources including Lake Michigan and the other Great Lakes.[4] Under the public trust doctrine, the state has the authority to protect these lands in trust for certain public uses, even if these lands are privately owned.[5] So if individuals have the right to walk the shoreline of the Great Lakes in Michigan, what is the scope of this public right and how far does it extend?

The scope of this right is based on the ordinary high water mark (OHWM). While Court notes that the exact location of the OHWM is difficult to ascertain, it defined the OHWM as the place on the shoreline where “the presence and action of the water is so continuous as to leave a distinct mark either by erosion, destruction of terrestrial vegetation, or other easily recognized characteristic.”[6] Generally, this means the wet sand area. The Court noted that there is no strict boundary between private and public lands, rather both may exist simultaneously on the shoreline between the OHWM and the water’s edge.

The public’s right to walk the shoreline is not absolute. As the Michigan Supreme Court explained: “By no means does our public trust doctrine permit every use of the trust lands and waters. Rather, this doctrine protects only limited public rights, and it does not create an unlimited public right to access private land below the ordinary high water mark.”[7] Though ordinary passage along the shoreline is protected, you should not overstay your welcome.  Walking the wet stand area of the beach is fine; playing a game of beach volley ball probably crosses the line.

In sum, you have the right to walk the shorelines of the Great Lakes as long as you are below the ordinary high water mark.  Go higher than that, and you’re trespassing. While private lakefront property owners do actually own the land down to the water’s edge, they are still required to accommodate public trust rights below the OHWM. The public trust doctrine guarantees the  right to walk along that sweet spot between the water’s edge and the ordinary high water mark.

[1] Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Act, Section 324.30101(s).

[2] Glass v Goeckel, 473 Mich. 667, 672; 703 N.W.2d 58 (2005).

[3] Id.

[4] Id. at 673.

[5] Id. at 673.

[6] Id. at 691.

[7] Id at 697.

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