Standing on a giant, sandy dune at the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, I turned to my husband and said, “Somewhere below is Lake Michigan.”
We stood a few feet from the edge, looking down into a foggy abyss. The thick fog only allowed me to see a few feet ahead, removing most of the dune and the deep blue lake from my field of view.
The funny thing is, a few weeks prior, I mentioned that I wanted some photos with fog since I don’t have many in my collection. Someone heard my wish because the fog rolled over the lake and stayed around the Lake Michigan Overlook for most of the day.
While it wasn’t exactly what we’d pictured for our Sleeping Bear Dunes day trip, Mother Nature created a dynamic landscape that almost seemed unworldly, strongly reminding me of the movie The Mist. Needless to say, I took many photos capturing this ethereal beauty, and my only regret is that we didn’t have more than one day to explore, take pictures, and hike the dune trails.
Where Exactly is Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore?
Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is part of the National Park Service. You’ll find the park along Lake Michigan’s shoreline in northwestern lower Michigan at the following GPS address:
9922 Front Street, Empire, MI 49630 (address to the Visitor Center)
Traverse City is the closest city to Sleeping Bear Dunes, about 25 miles east of the park. Due to its proximity, it’s easy to take a day trip to Sleeping Bear Dunes from Traverse City, and we did exactly that.
The Lakeshore encompasses over 71,000 acres, including the North and South Manitou Islands. While the park is accessible by bus, car, or plane, a ferry is needed to access the Manitou Islands. The islands are popular in the summertime for camping and hiking.
All Geology and a Bunch of Sand
You might wonder how all this sand got here in the first place. The landscape you see today at the Lakeshore goes all the way back to the Ice Age thousands of years ago. The retreating glaciers eroded the surrounding land, carving out flat areas while picking up sand and rock debris.
Over time the debris formed a ridge, leading to the creation of two moraines. A moraine is where a glacier dumps a whole bunch of rocks and sediment. The combination of wind and erosion from ice and waves created dunes in lower elevations.
Moving glaciers left sand in higher elevations, forming perched dunes well above lake level. Sleeping Bear Dune is an example of a perched dune, once standing over 200 feet tall. Sadly, erosion has brought it down to just over 100 feet.
The landscape is forever changing at the Lakeshore, making it a unique place to visit and photograph.
Things to Know Before Your Sleeping Bear Dunes Day Trip
Admission to the Lakeshore isn’t free. You can find admission prices and information on the National Park Service website. The Lakeshore covers a wide area with multiple entryways, but you will need a pass for each entrance.
Not all the facilities and services are open year-round. Some have seasonal open and close dates. For example, the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive for vehicle traffic usually opens around early May to the end of October. It is best to check their website here for operating hours and seasons.
Unless you are on a tour or bus, the best way to get around Sleeping Bear Dunes in a day is by vehicle or motorcycle. However, there are some people who bike or hike through the Lakeshore. Just keep in mind that you may not see many highlights in one day if you are on foot or bike.
Many hiking trails offer incredible views, such as Sleeping Bear Dune Heritage Trail, Cottonwood Trail, Sleeping Bear Point Trail, and Empire Bluff Trail. A complete list of trails is on the National Park Service’s website, or you can grab a trail map at the visitor center.
Also, don’t forget to bring sunscreen, a hat, good hiking shoes, and plenty of water!
The Route We Took for One Day at the Lakeshore
Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive
It’s impossible to see all of Sleeping Bear Dunes in one day, but we tried to visit some of the main highlights. After a quick stop at the Visitors Center to purchase park passes, we took South Leelanau Parkway (M-22) to South Dune Highway (M-109) to reach the entrance of Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive.
Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive is a lovely 7.4-mile drive that winds through a beech-maple forest, dunes, and a small covered bridge. The drive also takes you to popular overlooks, including Lake Michigan Overlook and Glen Lake Overlook. Some people stop to hike the trails or eat lunch at one of their picnic benches.
Glen Lake and Lake Michigan Overlooks
Our first stop was the Glen Lake Overlook. Usually, the view of the blue lake is spectacular. However, with the atmospheric conditions, I didn’t really feel inspired to take a photo with my film camera. As I sit here typing this, I now feel a pinch of regret that I don’t have at least one picture.
After a few minutes of taking in the panoramic view, we returned to our car and drove further through the forest. Our next stop was an overlook of the dunes. The fog lingered, but at least we could see the sandy dunes in the distance.
Continuing from the Dune Overlook, we made it to the Lake Michigan Overlook, which I was most excited to see. However, as I mentioned, I didn’t “see” anything besides fog, sand, and people. We returned later in the day, hoping to see the lake 450 feet below, but our hopes were dashed when the fog greeted us again. I was slightly frustrated then, but now I love the images I took and wouldn’t change a thing.
The Dune Climb
At about midday, we arrived at the famous Dune Climb. Many years ago, I tried to climb to the top of High Dune on First Ridge at the Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado but only got about 3/4 of the way up. Due to this, I was skeptical about my ability to reach the top of the Dune Climb in Michigan. But luckily, it’s less than half the height of High Dune, and I achieved my goal!
Standing at around 284 feet, the Dune Climb is a favorite amongst children and families. It took us about 10 to 15 minutes to climb, and seeing the fantastic views at the top was worth every effort.
Before heading back down, we decided to rest for a few minutes, taking photos of the wind-blown sand, vegetation, and people climbing and running up and down the dune. I held my film camera tightly to my chest, hoping my clumsy self wouldn’t accidentally drop it into the sand. Why I didn’t bring my camera bag for this hike is a good question.
D.H. Day Farmstead
One of the good things about the Dune Climb is that you don’t have to walk far to reach your vehicle since the parking lot is right there at the bottom. After dusting off our feet, we hopped into our car and continued northward into the park towards Glen Haven, a small port village in the Lakeshore.
But before we reached the community, we had to stop to take a photo of the giant white barn and outbuildings in the grassy field. The 400-acre farm once belonged to D.H. Day, well-known for his prized cattle and 400 hogs.
Unfortunately, we stopped near the barn shortly after 1pm. The lighting conditions for photography weren’t ideal, but I captured some photos nonetheless.
Plus, the fog had finally lifted! I hope to return to this spot one day to capture a sunrise or sunset.
Maritime Museum and Boathouse
We continued our journey, past the road that takes you to the D.H. Day Campground to reach historic Glen Haven. Since we were pressed for time, we didn’t stop in the tiny village. Instead, we proceeded to our last two planned stops at Sleeping Bear Dunes: the Maritime Museum and Boathouse. I saw the museum on the national park map and knew I had to make time for it.
The Maritime Museum is small but filled with information, including shipping in the Great Lakes and the history of the U.S. Coast Guard. We spent about 45 minutes here soaking in the fascinating history.
If you visit Lake Michigan on a good, calm weather day, it’s hard to believe sailing on this lake is often tumultuous. There are approximately 1500 known shipwrecks that occurred in Lake Michigan alone and around 6000 in the Great Lakes! Rescue operations were often underway to save those from capsized ships.
At the boathouse, next door to the museum, you can read about life-saving efforts made for these distressed ships in the early 1900s. They even have the ramp with metal rails used to push rescue sailboats into the water. I can’t even begin to imagine how frigid the water must have been at certain times of the year!
We continued down the path from the boathouse and were rewarded with a nice view of the blue Lake Michigan, with water so clear that I saw pebbles underneath.
The fantastic view at the lake was a nice way to end our day trip to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore!
Have you taken a Sleeping Bear Dunes day trip before? If so, please comment and share your experience below!
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