Imagine looking ahead and finding nothing but sand - a hilly landscape of hot, bright, grass-covered dunes that eventually spill into Lake Michigan. This 3.5 mile roundtrip dune hike is the first destination for most visitors to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in Michigan, and many come woefully unprepared. My friend River and I bolted up to the park from Bloomington, Indiana last weekend and spent a couple of days camping, hiking and exploring. This was the first stop on an epic cross-country trip in my rigged up cargo van, and I don't think I will experience places much more beautiful than this. We didn't even scrape the surface of the park, but we did do a couple of short hikes that kicked my butt. I'm a fairly seasoned hiker accustomed to some challenging walks, but these sun-baked dunes are hard work. Walking up some of them is like being on a never-ending stair stepper that slips and slides under your feet, so we were shocked to find so many hikers without water, hats, or snacks. As I huffed and puffed and clung to my water bottle for dear life, passersby who came ill-prepared would ask in that nervous laughing way, "so, how much further is the lake?"
Consistently rated as one of the most beautiful protected territories in the United States, the 111.2-square-mile glacially-carved Sleeping Bear Dunes lakeshore boasts incredible splendor: long, winding beaches, glacial moraines, sparkling lakes, and a plethora of fauna and flora. Wisconsin lies 54 miles west, on the other side of Lake Michigan, which just happens to be the fourth largest freshwater lake in the world. The enormity of this sometimes tempestuous body of water is humbling and combined with the dunes dominates the landscape. The park offers over 100 miles of hiking trails, where visitors will encounter the remnants of a time when an ice sheet one mile thick in places covered more than half of North America.
When you pick up your pass from the Philip A. Hart Visitor center in Empire, all kinds of reading material is available. In addition to learning about the various hikes and lookout points, these brochures offer suggestions to ensure your experience is safe and happy. “Friends of Sleeping Bear Dunes” also publishes small booklets about the surrounding barns and silos, which were a real highlight for me, the effects of climate change on the park, and the extraordinary geological processes that have resulted in such a magnificent and biologically diverse ecosystem, among others. Once we were suitably informed, we walked the 3.5 mile roundtrip Dunes Hiking Trail that goes from the popular Dune Climb to Lake Michigan and back. This was a physically demanding hike that was rewarded with storied views and a dip in the lake, but the 2.8 mile Sleeping Bear Point Trail further north (starting just west of the Maritime Museum) was by far the more lovely of the two. For starters, we were basically alone for the duration, but most impressive is the explosion of natural phenomena that greeted us, including a ghost forest, wild cherries, and numerous wildflowers that we identified with our handy brochure.
We camped at the Platte River campground on the southern edge of the lake. While it is the most expensive campground in the park, the amenities and overall atmosphere made it worthwhile for a special occasion. If I go back, I’ll opt for a more primitive site, which may require hiking in food, water, and other supplies. And I will also do more backcountry hiking. On this trip, we hit mostly touristy spots, including the incredible Michigan Lake overlook on Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive, where my most surreal-looking photographs were taken. As I sat at that spot a couple of hours before sunset, I found myself craving peace and quiet. None was to be had because there were just so many people, so if you visit Sleeping Bear Dunes, I highly recommend that you get away from the crowds. And do yourself a favor, bring plenty of water!
All photos via Tafline Laylin for Inhabitat