Long ago, in the land now known as Wisconsin, a mother bear and her two cubs were driven into Lake Michigan by a raging forest fire. After miles of swimming, the two cubs began to lag behind. When mother bear reached shore she climbed onto a tall bluff to await her two babes but the weary cubs never appeared, having drowned in the lake. Mother bear fell asleep waiting for their safe arrival. Impressed by her faith and determination the Great Spirit created two islands, North and South Manitou, to honor the cubs, and the winds buried the sleeping bear under the dunes, where she waits to this day. ~ Chippewa legend of the “sleeping bear”
Powerful earth-moving forces of ice, wind, and water, most occurring during the Ice Age, swept glaciers down from Canada, creating the diverse tapestry known today as Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. This 35-mile stretch of land along Lake Michigan, in the Leelanau Peninsula (the “little finger” in the Michigan mitten), is dotted with “perched dunes”, formed by glacial sands deposited on plateaus high above the shore.
Where shipping and commerce fueled this region in the 1800’s, today tourism has stepped in, and there is much to tantalize vacationers year-round, given the pleasant summer climate and 80” of snowfall each year. A dramatic National Lakeshore tops the list, but not to be overlooked are miles of sandy beaches to explore, wind-swept bluffs rising 450’ above Lake Michigan, lush forests to hike in the summer and cross-country ski in winter, crystalline inland lakes to canoe and kayak, miles and miles of paved trails to bike, picturesque lakeshore villages to enchant – the list goes on and on. It’s no wonder Good Morning America named Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore the “most beautiful place in America” in 2011.
Indigo Bluffs Motorcoach Resort and RV Park is where we chose to stay and although the RV Park was a bit crowded, it still had a peaceful feel to it. Those who travel in a Class A can get a bit more pampering next door at the Motorcoach Resort.
With so much to offer in the area, our first stop was the Philip A Hart Visitor Center, where we grabbed some hiking maps, watched a short film, and peppered the rangers with questions about area activities.
Here are a few highlights of our week:
1/ Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail
A 10-mile bike trail (each way) that continues to grow, with plans to extend it another 17 miles. This beautifully paved trail currently connects the village of Empire to the artsy town of Glen Arbor. Parking is available off-road near the trailhead or you can leave your vehicle 2 miles away at the visitor center, which we did. Stop to explore historic Glen Haven along the way and take the one-mile dune hike to Sleeping Bear Overlook, for some great views of Lake Michigan. The Heritage Trail is groomed in the winter for those cross-country ski enthusiasts.
2/ Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive
Named after a local lumberman who helped to build this road, this 7.5 mile drive takes you through beech-maple forests and some spectacular lookouts, the most popular being Lake Michigan Overlook, where an observation tower sits 450′ above the lake level. Many hopefuls come here to experience a special sunset or tackle the steep dunes. We were among them but Mother Nature did not cooperate during our stay.
3/ Dune Climb/Dune Trail
I had to join the throngs and do the Dune Climb, a very steep climb through loose dune sand that will leave you a bit breathless, as will the run back down. The Dune Trail can be taken from the crest of the Climb, the most strenuous hike in the park, 3.5 miles through loose, shifting dunes.
4/ Alligator Hill Trail
No alligators to be found here but 8 miles of beech-maple forests through rolling hills and views of Lake Michigan and the Manitou Islands make up for the lack of reptiles.
5/ Port Oneida Historic Farm Tour
Although NPS is in the process of preserving this area dotted with turn of the century farms, it still makes for a picturesque bike ride down lazy country roads, while you inhale the sweet fragrance of hay and wildflowers strewn across the meadows.
6/ Traverse City
This pristine city on the shore of Lake Michigan is the largest producer of tart cherries in the country and the annual Cherry Festival was in full-swing when we arrived. We did manage to sneak in and score some grass-fed Michigan jerky (yum) and avoid the carnival scene. Traverse City also offers four bike trails, kayak launches, several vineyards in the surrounding countryside, seasonal farm stands, and a wide assortment of brew pubs. We stopped by the North Peak Brewing Company for a sampler…very tasty!
We find ourselves back in northern Michigan again almost three years since we began this roving lifestyle, having watched the fall colors change our last time through. I had forgotten how striking the landscape – carpets of wildflowers, undulating sand dunes, crystalline turquoise waters, and air so fresh it is intoxicating.