Michigan probably isn’t at the top of your list of dream-vacation spots, but Sleeping Bear Dunes is a Great Lake State destination that might surprise you. Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is a national park that encompasses 35 miles of Lake Michigan shoreline in the northwestern part of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula. And in case you need a reason to put Sleeping Bear Dunes on your to-go list, I’ll give you three.
Reason #1: To hike some monster dunes
There is much to see at Sleeping Bear Dunes, including some beautiful flora and fauna. But the most impressive sight is definitely the dunes themselves. Rising up high into the horizon, the Sleeping Bear Dunes are some enormous piles of sand. If you’re brave enough and have plenty of energy, you can take a three-and-a-half-mile hike across Sleeping Bear Dunes to the shore of Lake Michigan. Just be sure to allow several hours for your round trip, and take along plenty of water. The Sleeping Bear Dunes have a way of making you mighty thirsty.
When my family and I visited Sleeping Bear Dunes in July 2006, we stupidly didn’t read the handout given to us by the park ranger. From the base of the Dune Climb, the area of the Sleeping Bear Dunes park where you begin your hike, it appears that you can simply climb up one hill of sand (albeit a rather large one) and you’re done. But according to my husband and son, (I waited at the base with my toddler) Sleeping Bear Dunes just keeps going and going. Although they didn’t take any water with them, they survived the entire trek to the lake and back. Three hours later they returned, exhausted and near dehydration, but raving about the gorgeous view of Lake Michigan they had seen. (I wasn’t nearly as thrilled.)
Reason #2: To see beautiful, blue Lake Michigan
My wait was worth it, though, when I got to see Lake Michigan’s splendor during exploration of another part of the Sleeping Bear Dunes national park: Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive. There are several lookouts on this scenic drive, which is about seven-and-a-half miles long. At one, you get a lovely view of Glen Lake, but the Lake Michigan Overlook is amazing.
The first thing I saw at the overlook was a sign that warned people not to attempt to climb down the extremely steep, 450-foot sand bluff to get to the shore. Of course, when you look down that sandy incline, you see people doing it anyway. But if you walk a little farther up the path, you’ll find a wooden platform you can walk out on to take in the view. I’m a Texas girl, and they say everything is bigger in Texas, but apparently lakes are the exception. I’ve never before seen a lake so expansive that it looked like an ocean. It was right at dusk when we visited, and with the sun setting on the water, it was breathtaking.
Reason #3: To tour the quaint villages nearby
While the Dune Climb and scenic drive were the best parts of our day at Sleeping Bear Dunes, we also enjoyed the drive on M-22 from Empire, Mich., where you’ll find the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore welcome center, north to Leland, Mich. The road follows the Lake Michigan shoreline and winds around through some very pretty countryside.
On this route, you can stop in Glen Haven, a tiny logging village that has been restored. It is actually part of Sleeping Bear Dunes national park. In Glen Haven, you can tour the Sleeping Bear Point Life-Saving Museum, see a blacksmith at work, and shop in the General Store.
Farther north on M-22 is the town of Glen Arbor. This is a good place to eat lunch. We found several restaurants and decided on the outdoor deck at Boone Dock’s, where we had some tasty sandwiches. Glen Arbor is also a good place to pick up souvenirs. (Speaking of souvenirs, if you want Sleeping Bear Dunes items, plan to visit the park’s welcome center in Empire before closing time: 6 p.m. in the summer and 4 p.m. the rest of the year. Or, visit the gift shop at the base of the Dune Climb.)
If you continue north on M-22, you’ll arrive in Leland, Mich. This picturesque little town is just as prepared for tourists as Glen Arbor, with shops and restaurants on a lake harbor. In one of the harbor stores (look for the Manitou Island Ferry Transit sign), you can book ferry passage to the Manitou Islands, where you can spend the day. For more information, visit the Manitou Island Ferry Transit’s Web site at www.leelanau.com/manitou.
For more information about the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, visit the park’s Web site at www.nps.gov/slbe. Although the Dune Climb is open 24 hours per day, 365 days each year, other Sleeping Bear Dunes attractions’ hours change with the seasons.