The Sleeping Bear Dunes, perhaps one of the most awe inspiring and beautiful facets that the great lake’s state has to offer. Established in 1970, this colossal park is much much more than just a great collection of sand. In fact, in 2011 the area actually won “The most beautiful place in America”, and it’s not hard to see why. A product of the Ice-Age glaciers that once covered much of North America almost 70 million years in the past, Sleeping Bear houses a landscape so dramatic it’s scarcely believable. The sands, some towering almost 500 feet above lake Michigan, gained their impressive stature as a byproduct of the glacier’s cataclysmic force. As sheets of ice over a mile thick crept slowly across the land, they pushed thousands of tons of rock and earth ahead of them, creating moraines upon which lake Michigan deposited it’s vast collection of silt and mud for millions of years. In effect, stacking sand upon ancient glacial hills, creating this indomitable landscape which now draws over 1,000,000 tourists a year.
The park encompasses over 70,000 square acres of land, and 35 miles of coast line. About half of this acreage is designated as the Sleeping Bear Dunes themselves, the rest of the park houses spectacular forests, marshes, and beaches. The park actually caused quite a stir when it was first designated as such, seeing as a good portion of the land was privately owned, and was taken by the government and turned public. The reasoning for this however, was the same as that for many places along the Pacific and Atlantic coast, in fact the Great Lakes shoreline is known colloquially as “the third coast”. The area was deemed too historic, and too beautiful to be left to private ownership, and so after a few years of deliberation, it was decided that the park be established, and the coast be protected. Today Sleeping Bear offers a wide variety of amenities, the foremost of which being hiking, camping, and swimming. Located on the very tip of the mitten (Michigan’s north-west corner), it can be a bit of a trek to get out there in the first place, but I promise you, it’s well worth it.
Before I delve into the day’s adventure, I thought I might share the story behind how the park got its name. Named for the Chippewa legend of the sleeping bear, the tale is of a mother bear and her two cubs, driven into Lake Michigan as they tried to escape a great forest fire down the coast. As they swam the cubs began to tire, they fell behind and ultimately drowned. After what we can only assume were many arduous hours, the mother reached the shores of the dunes, only to find that her cubs had not been able to keep up, and were nowhere to be seen. Distraught, she headed to the top of the highest bluff she could find (known as “the bear”), and waited for her cubs to appear. Impressed by her tenacity and dedication, the Great Spirit erected the two gigantic islands which can be seen from the coast of the park, one to commemorate each cub, and the mother was buried beneath the sands as the wind washed over her, where sleeps eternally.
Since then, “the bear” has greatly diminished in size, but can still be found along the coastline, and when viewed from the water, is said to resemble that of a sleeping bear. Though it’s exact location can be difficult to pinpoint from within the dunes itself, it is best recognized by the grassy knoll covering the small dune atop the bluff, and is still marked on some maps.
Whether you’re visiting the dunes to camp, hike, swim, or just take in the sun, the first thing you should do is stop at the aptly named “dune climb”. Clearly marked just off the road running parallel to the park, the dune climb takes you on a roughly 2 hour round trip across some of the largest sand dunes Michigan has to offer. The first thing you will see as you step out of your car and look west towards the coast, is nearly 400 feet of sand, towering above the lot, and typically covered in people of all ages, running, rolling, jumping, and flipping all across the face of this monumental heap. The trek up this first dune alone should serve as a warning of what’s to come, hiking through sand is taxing to say the least, and the 1 & 3/4 mile hike to the water can really take a lot out of you. Many people choose to simply spend the day on these first few dunes, which offer an ample supply of entertainment for those not wishing to tackle the hike across the sands.
It was cold when we got out of the car and looked towards the dunes, as Michigan so often is, luckily this played to our advantage, as after about 15 minutes of climbing, the chilly lake air was quite refreshing and more than welcomed. Standing atop the first dune you have an incredible view of the lakes and forests comprising the rest of the park, the dunes are flat and wide at the beginning, almost like someone took a beach and lifted it up into the sky, pictures truly can’t do justice to the magnitude and scale of the landscape, but they may give you some idea as to the amount of sand you should be prepared to find in basically every part of your body.
As we trekked onward towards the coast that we knew had to exist somewhere past the sand, we kept expecting to see it over each new crest or peak. Much to our dismay, all we found were more dunes, ever increasing in size and severity. After about 25 minutes of hiking across the flat, almost valley-like sands between the first few dunes, we finally came to what seemed to be the highest point along the trail to the water. Once again expecting to see water just over the horizon, we were greeted of course by more dunes, hidden sneakily behind the wall of earth we had just clambered atop of. These new dunes however, presented a rather odd, but familiar feature. Life. Lots of it.
Much like the Dunes of Saugatuck, which we visited early this May, life had found a way to prevail even here amongst the windswept ocean of sand lining the water. At first, it seemed to exist as a thin green crust, splattered haphazardly across the hills like some great Jackson Pollock, with bits of white and yellow peeping through the veil of grass, determined to make its presence known as best it could. As we continued however, the land grew increasingly more fertile, until it became nothing short of lush, the only sand present was that of the path, so continuously beaten by human feet that it had remained in it’s untainted and original state.
The plants here are odd to say the least though, almost coniferous in appearance, the grass if coarse and jagged, the trees are sparse, their branches sharp and lined with thorns. Even the shrubs seemed to resemble miniature evergreens, clinging to the walls of sand and dirt which lined large portions of the path, sometimes rising above eye level, giving the impression of walking through the strangest jungle you’ve ever seen. This abundance of greenery was accompanied by swarm upon swarm of insect, mostly gnats and the like, but I highly recommend you keep your mouth shut as you walk the trails to and from the water, or you may end up gaining a little unexpected protein along the way.
The amount of plant life covering the dunes closest to the water has also created something of a unique landscape in terms of it’s durability. The roots of these specially adapted grasses and shrubs have locked much of the dunes into position, shielding them from the vicious winds that roll off of Lake Michigan, another thing you should come prepared for. The hike was made infinitely more difficult by the fact that whenever we weren’t hidden behind the shelter of a large bluff or wall of sand, we we’re being blasted full force with wind’s upwards of 15-20 mph, which may not sound like much, but I assure you, when it’s carrying a wave of sand, leaves, and flies, it can be more than a little unpleasant. That being said, it was hardly enough to deter us from the trek we had set out on, the rolling hills of green and white provided ample distraction from the wind and insects, and you really only have this problem walking towards the water, once you put your back to it and begin the return trip, everything goes much smoother.
Once you enter the greener section of the dune climb, you’ve made it roughly half way to the water. Depending on your speed of travel and your desire to stop and see the sights, I would estimate another 20-40 minutes of hiking before you manage to reach the water itself. At this point in our hike however, we had already been told by multiple hikers that the path ahead was more than a little arduous, and that perhaps we should settle for the view atop the bluffs instead of continuing on to the water. This only increased our determination, and we made excellent time across the grassy waves of sand. Before too long, we could hear the sound of the waves, crashing listlessly up onto the speckled beaches of Lake Michigan.
Depending on where you emerge from the dunes, you will be faced with one of about three possible situations. The most common of these, is a low, shallow beach connecting the trail to the dune climb. Perhaps about 10 or so feet of feet of sand, much of which will be assaulted by the tide depending on the time of day. The other two possibilities are sheer cliff, with very few ways down to the water itself, or the long idyllic beaches most people picture when they think of a day in the sand and the sun. Only a few such beaches exist along the Sleeping Bear coast however, and most of them are further north, not reachable via the dune climb trails. Most likely you will end up as we did, walking along the darkly colored beaches with your feet soaked by the tide, reveling in the overwhelming sense of satisfaction, knowing you have just conquered the greatest and most taxing dunes Lake Michigan has at it’s disposal.
(Those black speks along what appears to be a trail are people by the way)
After our triumphant hike through the dune climb, we decided at the recommendation of one of the rangers, to inspect the scenic drive. Marked with a large NPS sign of it’s own, perhaps half a mile down the road before you reach the dune climb, the scenic drive is something everyone who visits the dunes should experience, without any doubt whatsoever. A winding one-way road will take you on a loop through some of the thickest forest the park has to offer, crisscrossed with trails and bike paths, each stop along the trail is clearly numbered and marked accordingly, allowing you to make use of the maps given out at any of the visitor centers within the park, most notably the historic village located in the park’s northern most section.
Comprised of 11 stops, the scenic drive can be enjoyed without almost any hiking or strenuous activity at all, making it perfect if you wish to end your trip to Sleeping Bear on a high note, but your quads are figuratively on fire from tackling the great mounds of sand you’ve spent the day tumbling across. The first few stops are mostly forest views and trail heads, giving you a sense of the diversity encompassed by the park, which most take for being primarily comprised of sand. This continues until you reach about the 6th or so point on the drive, where you can step out onto a series of bluffs which afford an amazing view out of the dunes themselves. It was an interesting feeling, looking out over all the terrain we had just crossed, and the trails we had blazed. The dunes stretch out as far as the eye can see, rolling out towards the horizon, their colors shifting across a spectrum of yellow and green.
However, it isn’t until you reach the final two points along the drive the you really get the full effect of this destination. The last two stops do require a small amount of walking if you wish to truly take them in to full effect, but there are boardwalks over the sand and paved areas through the forests, making them quite accessible with very little effort. After a few short minutes walking through the forest, we came out into the open atop one of the largest bluffs in the park, miles of sand could be seen before us, and as we turned to the left we were immediately stricken by the sight that befell our eyes. Lake Michigan, as much of it as you could possibly hope to see in a single moment, sprawled out beneath the sky for as far as you can see. The land simply seemed to disappear over the side of the bluff, right behind a sign warning of the potential 2 hour climb back to the top if you dared go down to the water. Deciding against this, we stood atop the bluff, resting on 500 feet of sand, where only a few steps forward would send us tumbling down into the water below. Rivaling the views from such places as Big Sur or the capes of North Carolina, it was at this point that I understood why this place was protected, why it was ripped from the hands of landowners and private corporations, why it had been designated at the highest possible level, as a national park.
Sleeping Bear has much more to offer than first meets the eye, and even more to offer than what has been described here, quite a lot more in fact. From it’s historic villages and sites such as Glen Haven and the Maritime Museum, to the imposing hikes of the dune climb and the many trails which snake throughout the park. It’s forests stretch out for miles, hiding lakes and marshes with their own unique ecosystems. It’s dunes draw millions every year, and campers come from around the country just to spend a few nights in the sand, resting beneath the milky way. If you are to go anywhere in Michigan, anywhere at all, I recommend it to be here, the dunes will give any hiker a run for their money, while at the same time providing unforgettable memories for any family. It’s trails and paths last for days, its views are unparalleled, and the story behind it is just as compelling. All in all Sleeping Bear is somewhere I will never forget, and not just because I plan to be back as soon and as often as I can. Really its because these are just a few of the reasons why it was voted as not just the most beautiful place in Michigan, but the most beautiful place, in the entire country.