Michigan's Prime Destinations:
Sleeping Bear Dunes National Shoreline
The legend of Sleeping Bear Dunes comes from a Native American tribe that once lived upon the land bordering what is now Lake Michigan. According to the Native Americans, the name of the dunes comes from a story of a mother bear and her two cubs who were living in famine on the Wisconsin side of Lake Michigan. The mother and her cubs would walk along the shore and stare across the water at the great state of Michigan, which was considered to be the land of plenty. In order to survive, the mother decided their only hope was to swim across the lake over to Michigan, a long and dangerous journey. When they were only 12 miles from the other side, the mother realized that one her cubs had drowned, and in her grief she struggled furiously to save her remaining offspring. But as they neared the shore, only two miles away, she looked back only to see her other cub was also lost. She reached the shore alone and laid to rest on a clearing facing the lake. As she gazed over the water, the Great Spirit Manitou, in honor of her lost cubs, brought forth two islands to mark their place of resting and created a mountain of sand to mark the resting place of the mother bear. Though the dunes are eroded, many believe that Sleeping Bear Dunes resembles a sleeping bear, still gazing out over the water.
Sleeping Bear Dunes National Shoreline is a 35 mile length of beach on Lake Michigan’s eastern coastline as well as the North and South Manitou Islands. It is located near Traverse City, Michigan, one of the state’s northern-most cities. It is a popular tourist destination in the summer, but also enjoys high-demand in the winter because of local ski resorts and its on-site cross-country skiing.
One of it’s more unorthodox offerings, is a sport known locally as Dune Jumping. True to its name, dune jumping involves climbing to the tops of dune cliffs and then launching off of them only to fall into the soft sand below. This is a great activity for people of all ages, and some people even attempt to do tricks while in the air. However, for safety purposes, before you decide to make a dune jump, look at your landing zone and make sure that there aren’t any people standing in the way of your fall.
For those looking to explore the sandy destination, here is an list and description of the most notable trails and dunes:
- Old Indian Trail – This 3-mile trail that runs along the southern side of the park. The trail was formed from Old Indian Trail and thus is named for the path Native Americans used to go to and from their fishery camps on the lake. This is the least crowded of the trails and allows for a nice private walk that offers spectacular views.
- Platte Plains – Includes several loops that total 14.7 miles in length. The trail is often used for cross-country skiing in the winter and has both flat and hilly sections. It also offers three different views of Lake Michigan and offers access to Otter Creek, Otter Lake, and Bass Lake. Another water feature is the Platte River which is a popular choice for canoeing.
- Empire Bluff – This short trail (only ¾ of a mile) starts as a walk through the woods and leads to a bluff with a looped boardwalk overlooking Lake Michigan and Empire Beach.
- Windy Moraine – A 1.5-mile loop located across from the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive that climbs up to the top of and descends from a 300 foot high ridge. Though it doesn’t boarder the lake like the other trails, in the early fall months the trees are rich with the colors of the slowly turning leaves.
- Shauger Hill – A 2.1-mile foot path that splits off of the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive and passes through a beach-maple forest, red pines, and beautiful clearings. Like the Old Indian Trail, the route is less traveled than others and can provide an excellent getaway for those interested in avoiding the summer crowds. During the spring and summer months, it is known for its vast variety of wild flowers and abundant growth of morels (wild mushrooms).
- Cottonwood – This 1.5-mile trail also comes off of the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive. This trail provides hikers a little bit of everything including views of the lake, specifically Sleeping Bear Bay; views of the surrounding dune-scape; and plenty of ridges to dune jump from.
- Alligator Hill – This hill is the best cross-country ski area in the park and is a whopping 8.3 miles long. It includes three loops for beginner, intermediate, and experienced skiers but is also a popular summer destination for hikers. It is named for a long ridge and bluff at its southeast corner that resembles an alligator’s snout from the top of the highest dune.
- Sleeping Bear Point Trail – This is tallest sand dune and has two entry points, one of which boarders the edge of Empire Beach on Lake Michigan. On the opposite entry point, located at an inland trailhead, hikers climb from dunes surrounded by “ghost forests,” trees that were killed by migrating dunes and bleached white by the sun. The entry point on the water-front, is also known as the 450, because from the shore it is a steep 450 foot climb to the top of the dune. From the peak, visitors can easily view the Manitou Islands, Wisconsin, and the entire length of the beach. It is consideredto be the best location for Dune Jumping on both the inland and shore-side dunes. On the top of the 450, tourists are often seen running, or rather falling, down the mountain as they drop up to 10 feet with every step. Recently there has been some limitation for tourists who want to climb the 450 because of concern for eroding the hill as the sand moves downwards from people climbing it.
- Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive - This is a 7.5-mile loop that overlooks the scenery atop the dunes. This drive offers a variety of views since it intersects with many of the hiking trails.
Adventure-seekers from the all over will love this great vacation spot. If you love hiking, camping, and other outdoors activities, Sleeping Bear Dunes is an experience all its own and will be well worth the trip because of its amazing geological features.