Article by Terry Richard | The Oregonian/OregonLive | Dec. 29th 2015
“Lake Michigan and its bays are renowned for being the most scenic of the Great Lakes, with turquoise-colored waters similar to the Caribbean because of sandy bottoms and varying depth levels of the water. You almost expect to see palm trees, though a visit during winter would dispel that notion…”
Out on the west side of the county, most people don’t even know where the bear sleeps, or that it’s a national park. But, wow, Sleeping Bear Dunes can offer a similar outdoor adventure experience as the best parks of the West.
Sleeping Bear Dunes is a national lakeshore, not a “national park,” but nevertheless is part of that national program administered by the brown-hat rangers of the Department of the Interior.
When Sleeping Bear Dunes was carved out of the Michigan landscape in 1970, much of the land already had uses that predated park status. It was a lot easier to bestow the title of national lakeshore on it because it gives managers more flexibility to mesh federal, state and private lands into a workable park.
Sleeping Bear Dunes covers 71,000 acres on the Lake Michigan shore of Michigan’s lower peninsula. As a point of reference, Sleeping Bear Dunes is across the great lake from Green Bay in Wisconsin and sits quiet close to the 45th parallel of latitude, which also runs through Oregon at Salem and Lincoln City.
The gateway city is Traverse City, with air service from Detroit, Chicago and Minneapolis year round and other major cities during the busy summer tourist season.
Unlike Wisconsin, which gives up most of its sand to the winds, Michigan collects that sand and has miles of gold sand beaches on the east shore of Lake Michigan. The highest dunes are at Sleeping Bear, though they are “perched dunes” because they sit atop a 450-foot high ridge above the lake
that was left behind by the glaciers of the last ice age.
Just inland are huge swaths of sand in this part of Michigan, not unlike the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area on the central Oregon coast. But unlike in Oregon, the dunes of Michigan’s national lakeshore are limited to non-motorized recreation, though you can take a dune buggy tour beyond the boundaries.
In addition to the dunes, the national lakeshore is known for two islands that helped give the landscape its name. As the native legend goes, long ago a great fire was burning on the Wisconsin side of the lake, causing a mother bear to flee across the water with her two cubs. She made it to the Michigan shore and sat down to await their arrival. Alas, they never made it, instead becoming islands out in the lake where they drowned. The mother bear never gave up her vigil as she cast her gaze westward to North Manitou Island and South Manitou Island.
Erosion over the years changed the profile of a bear asleep on the shore, but the two islands are still there to explore. Both were inhabited by pioneer settlers long ago, but life was so difficult that everyone either moved to shore or were buried on the islands.
The National Park Service acquired most of the islands’ acreage as part of the national lakeshore. A seasonal passenger ferry transports day trippers and overnight backpackers to the islands from the mainland port of Leland. The only long-term inhabitants on the islands are national parks staff,
though in winter they are not occupied.
Lodging in historic buildings that were preserved on the islands is limited to official visitors, but that doesn’t stop a steady stream of overnight visitors during the busy June to September season. Walk-in campgrounds are less than a half-mile from the ferry landings on both the North and South Manitou Island, or you can hike further for more privacy in other campgrounds, or look for you own campsite on the north island. South Manitou still has one of the best preserved lighthouse of the several hundred that line the shores of the Great Lakes.
A visit to the islands can provide unimaginable quiet, the darkest night skies in the American Midwest and easy, mostly level, walking to pocket beaches, a lake and sand dunes. The only similar experience in the Pacific Northwest would be to visit one of Washington’s uninhabited San Juan Islands, though there would not be public ferry service to get there.
The mainland farms and towns around Sleeping Bear Dunes are amazingly tidy, with none of the urban blight in evidence you would expect in the factory zones in the industrial southern part of the state.
In 2011, viewers of ABC’s “Good Morning America” named Sleeping Bear Dunes the “Most Beautiful Place in America.” Visit and it’s easy to understand why. Lake Michigan and its bays are renowned for being the most scenic of the Great Lakes, with turquoise-colored waters similar to the Caribbean because of sandy bottoms and varying depth levels of the water. You almost expect to see palm trees, though a visit during winter would dispel that notion.
The area has dozens of inland lakes that send crystal clear rivers flowing gently through the landscape. There are even enough rolling hillsides to allow for a few downhill ski areas, though they would only qualify as the bunny hill in the West.
The Leelanau and Old Mission peninsulas, just north of Traverse City, are Michigan’s wine growing region. Mainly known for cool weather German varietals, Michigan’s wine isn’t widely known, but is very popular locally and gets consumed without having to travel far.
In addition to the two Lake Michigan islands, the national lakeshore has two auto campgrounds, wilderness designated by Congress, outstanding dune and lake vistas from Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive and an historic shipping port and U.S Coast Guard station at Glen Haven.
Adjacent sites include the historic fishing port of Leland, from where the ferry to the islands runs; the prettiest small town park you will ever see at Empire; and the Betsie Point Lighthouse, where Lake Michigan does its imitation of the Pacific Ocean when winds crash waves 10 feet high on shore.
This year will be a good time to find a new adventure in a U.S. national park. May it be as pleasant as what waits at Sleeping Bear Dunes, which will be celebrating it’s 100th year!
If you go:
Sleeping Bear Dunes Air: Traverse City’s Cherry Capital Airport has regular service on Delta Airlines to Detroit and Minneapolis and on American Airlines to Chicago. Air fare is around $500.
Lodging: Traverse City, population 15,000 but 10 times larger in the commercial area it serves, is one of the busier vacation destinations on the Great Lakes. It has all types of lodging and related services; Traverse City Tourism, 800-872-8377, traversecity.com.
The dunes: Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore headquarters at Empire is 25 miles west of Traverse City. The lakeshore goes 25 miles north from there, to the ferry port at Leland, or 15 miles south through the park’s Platte River section. Small towns next to the park’s districts offer a variety of services and lodging. Besides hiking, main park activities are paddling the clear rivers, sun bathing on the beaches and biking the long distance Sleeping Bear Heritage multi-use path; 231-326-5134, nps.gov/slbe.
The islands: Spending a night or more on North and South Manitou Islands ranks among the great national park experiences in America. Book passage with Manitou Island Transit, 231-256-9061, manitoutransit.com.