Things To Do In Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore

4:58 AM

‘And we were flying..scared with trepidation, in the air with sand dunes straight down to the water beneath our feet unstoppable. Out of control’. We ran as fast as we could, to the point of tipping over people at beach, almost stopping into the water. It was when we were told by people ‘If you happen to run, run zig zag’. 

Sleeping Bear Dunes Michigan, won the title of America's Most Beautiful Place in 2011.
The left view from Overlook 9.

When I heard this experience from a colleague of my hubby, I was like how could I miss not being there as long as I am still in Midwest (Look at the map below midwest comprises of many places of which I have only been to parts of Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, Ohio). It was my last week in Midwest and Michigan was one place I hadn’t explored at length but yes a past few days had been eventful, we went to Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore and Porcupine Mountains which is in Upper Peninsula Michigan and now we were destined to venture into 2 dunes of lower peninsula Michigan.

Img Source:

 In 2011, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore tucked away in the northern corner of Michigan lower peninsula, won the title of ‘Good Morning America’s most beautiful place in America’. 

Watch me in this vlog as I take you live from the venue for the glimpse of my experience.

So US has moving Dunes?

These dunes are one of the most active / migrating dunes in the world  and are always moving.

 And I wasn’t yet aware of it until I researched my bit. Situated near Traverse City, the hidden gem that hosts monumental dunes, the one of its kind, with jaw dropping views from where the top of the dune to Lake Michigan is approx 450 feet is spectacular. Till now, I never knew US has dunes.

The right view of Overlook 9

On reaching there, I couldn’t believe that the dunes were so so steep and so much fun to explore. The drive from Milwaukee, Wisconsin was long. So as we drove from Milwaukee to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore which took us 7 hours; we passed through Holland, Silver Lake Sand Dunes, Muskegon, Manistee, Bear Lake and etc. We stayed in a motel at Manistee because in that area, the motels were inexpensive.  We would talk about my stay and Silver Lake Dunes in next blogpost.

There are also ferries from Milwaukee that goes to Michigan but I found them to be very expensive. Lake Express is a 2.5 hour express ferry from Milwaukee to Muskegon and costs approximately $90 per person one way. SSBadger is another ferry that starts from Manitowoc Wisconsin to Ludington Michigan and costs $66 one way.

So why is Sleeping Bear Dunes called Sleeping Bear?

 The legend of Sleeping Bear Dunes is that ‘A long time ago, in Wisconsin shoreline, a mother bear and her two cub were driven into Lake Michigan by a raging forest fire. The bears swam for many hours but eventually the cubs got tired and lagged behind. Mother bear reached the shore and climbed to the top of high bluff to watch and wait for the cubs. Too tired to continue, the cubs drowned within sight of the shore. The great spirit manitou created two islands to mark the spot where the cubs disappeared and then created a solitary dune to represent a faithful mother bear.'

 Sleeping Bear Dunes is in Empire, Michigan and venturing by the foot would require a complete day at leisure with no time boundation. As curious as you would be to know, we had the same doubts. Not adequate information is available online as in what are the ways to go down the dunes. And I was looking for that same experience my hubby's colleague had and I found barely any mention anywhere except from trip advisor forum where someone had suggested a similar experience could be had with Overlook 9. So with that in mind, we reached the Visitor Center.

  • Always visit Visitor Center first, their guides assist you with the maps, and how to proceed forward with the area.

Just before the Visitor Center is Grocer's Daughter Chocolate, Empire which is famous for home made craft chocolates. We didn’t had the time to try or to stop by, but if you have, make a visit.

  •  I suggest arriving Sleeping Bear Dunes earliest possible in the morning as in as soon as it opens because blazing sun and sand does not match specially if you want to experience something as running barefoot in the sand. 
  •  There are many interesting trails , events and activities in the park. Be sure to grab brochures at the Visitor Center.

Two ways to the dunes - Dune Climb and Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive

There are two popular ways you could experiences dunes with Lake Michigan and both are strenuous. What rangers do suggest is doing the dune climb of 3.5 miles in hilly, no shade, all sand strenuous hike of 3-4 hours by following the blue tipped post marked trail. The parking is just alongside the beginning of the dunes. However what we chose to do was probably lesser time consuming and more sight worthy but highly steep one - not at all mentioned by the rangers to do - in fact they suggest to just watch from the Overlook 9 bluff , but we found us running down by Pierce Stocking Overlook 9 as few others and that is also where most vlogs are shot.

 Now the reason why its not mentioned by rangers for running is because this part has continuous erosion that’s why its so steep, and hence by running we could risk more erosion which can cause injury. That's what warning board just there says, Don’t risk erosion, injury or rescue fees(rescue fees is around 500$ as we heard from someone) not to mention 2 hours it takes to get up. 

With sand and water beneath my feet.

The turquoise water of Lake Michigan, USA

Please don't carry anything in your hand but do carry water and shoes in a light school bag on your back if you are going solo, 
in case you need it. Water would be almost an essential.

Here are a few suggestions I would recommend. 

  • Keep your arms free - you need both your arms coming up. 
  • It's best if you have someone with you running together for four reasons - if you plan to film yourself or want someone to take your picture, it'll be easier, secondly, you wouldn't get bored and tired alone and third, you might need a lot of motivation when coming up, when two people do that together it helps, and forth, just in case if you need rescuing. 
  • The lighter you feel going down, the heavier it is coming up. In that case, you can carry bottles of water and shoes in your bag or a belted pouch. You will definitely get thirsty in sun. 
  • Apply lots and lots of sunscreen.
  • Go down or Walk up barefoot, if the sand isn't that hot, It's more gripping without the footwear.
  • It looks very easy from top up but its very exhausting climb up.
  • The sand at the dune climb is soft and has better grip whereas the sand at the Overlook 9 slips a bit due to steepness and erosion as you go down. Its a great fun nonetheless. 

There were few people who were going down and we chose to do the similar. The most popular route to drive that takes us to several overlook points are Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive. And some of the points of view are:

Point 1: A covered bridge with National Park Service Overhead.

Point 2: Glen Lake - You could see the little Glen lake (12 feet deep) and the big Glen Lake(130 feet deep) from here.

Point 3: Dunes Overlook - This is in the middle of about 2600 acres area of Sleeping Bear

Point 4: Cottonwood Trail - It’s a trail of about 1.5 mile loop which may be strenuous due to sand but has plants and animals

Point 5: Dune Ecology

Point 6: Leaving the sand dunes - Wind action on the basswood trees.

Point 7: Beach Maple Forest

Point 8: Change over time - The journey from glaciers to the fertile woods of today

Point 9: Lake Michigan Overlook - A vast majority of visitors take the view from the bluff but this is where we ran down. From the bluff, its exactly 450 feet down, and if the visibility is good you will see south Manitou island. These almost straightforward dunes (steep) is unlike any dunes you may have seen.

Point 10:The iconic landform that gave this national park its name and for which the legend is told lies about one mile away, along the edge of the bluff.

Point 11: North Bar Lake

Point 12: Pine Plantation

When we were there on 10th July weekend, Dune Climb Concert was also going to be on 12th July from 7-9pm. 

  • As you proceed further, make your date with the historic Glen Haven Village. Be mindful though that in this village everything closes at 5pm.
  • If you are hungry, have food at Art's Tavern, Glen Arbor where we had fish fry and our lunch. There can be waiting time there, and also if there are lot of people in the restaurant the service could be a little slow. But its a very cute place with an adjoining art shop.

The Historic Glen Haven Village: The Rescue techniques by US Coastguard

We visited the blacksmith's shop, the cannery boathouse and the Maritime Museum.

Now this boathouse has active volunteers explaining us how the US coast guard used to work in the early 1900's. It's quite interesting you see, when Breaches Buoy Drill was the mechanism used.

A breeches buoy is a rope-based rescue device used to extract people from wrecked vessels, or to transfer people from one location to another in situations of danger. The device resembles a round emergency personal flotation device with a leg harness attached. It is similar to a zip line.The breeches buoy was usually deployed from either ship to ship, or ship to shore using a rocket, kite system or a lyle gun(here canon was used), and allowed single person evacuations. A line is attached to the ship, and the person being rescued is pulled to shore in the breeches buoy which rides the line similar to a zip line. Here, the Lyle Gun was used to fire a rescue line from shore more than 400 yards to a ship in distress to retrieve crew stranded on the ship.During summer at 3:00 PM each day, there is a re-enactment of the breeches buoy rescue drill.

If you wish to watch the whole process, this youtube video shows the yesterday year practices of Breeches Buoy drill:

US Life saving Captain and Crew

The shores of Great lakes, Michigan are unlike the east coast where there are gentle slopes. Here it goes out to 20 feet and then where the sun shines and you see deep blue that could drop to as low as 70 feet. 97% of the saving that was done was done by Breaches Buoy drill and seldom done by boat. The captains(also called the keeper) had the instructions that if you hit something, start taking water from the vessel to save not lives, but cargo consisting of many things including iron ore, grain etc. To save life the process of Breeches Buoy was used.

Shipwrecks however was common in the Atlantic coast. There were many(around 60) life saving stations in the Great lakes - one was at Point Betsie(19 miles off Sleeping Bear) and another at Manitou Island. Manitou passage was heavily used but was prone to storm and shipwrecks due to treacherous waters.  Each station had a keeper (captain) and surfmen selected based on capability to row boat in the storm.  In the boat house, the rails to get the rescue boat out to sea is still there. There are a few original vessels out here. Also the building is such that tandem joints are used and that is without nails.

Until 1931,there was no electricity. So sometimes they would get up in the dark, run down and tell the captain and the captain would say yes, and initiate the Breach Buoy Drill. All 7 would push n pull the breach buoy. From 1871 - 1916, there were 9763 incidents and 55669 lives were saved, and around 275 were lost. Those 275 were also lost not everytime they couldn't be saved by the drill but what followed afterwards. These rescuers would wrap them in a blanket and then the county people would come. There they could die of injury or hyperthermia.

The volunteer also joked that

That may be the first Canon ever developed to save lives but not take lives.

In the marine museum, 7 surfmen and Captain/keeper and his family lived. One half was where Captain lived and another were Surfmen lived.

This is where Surfmen stayed.

This is where Captain(keeper) stayed.

An age old method similar to zipline.

The Historic Glen Haven Village: Watch the Blacksmith demonstration

There are many ghost towns in the south of Empire which was once fueling ports. This one remains others don't. During the industrial revolution,  the Blacksmiths shop was repair shop for the operations of steam ship. We were shown a demonstration on how to make a hook by heat and cool method, hammer and thongs. The equipment used for burning,  came from an old steam ship. He also showcased the cutting edge technology of 1900's costing just 7 dollars 15 cents for that time, that drills the hole. You can also watch the process on my vlog.

Driving to Traverse City : The Cherry Capital of the world

Traverse City , is also called the Cherry capital of the world for a reason ;)

Our day was about to end. Before the sunset, we thought why not drive down to the Cherry Capital of the world, Traverse City. If you have time and if you are in Traverse City do pay a visit to the nearby Cherry Farms for Cherry picking. We arrived after 6pm, so the Cherry picking farms were closed but we had arrived during peak cherry picking season i.e this year it was mid of July. You would find most farms just before you enter Traverse City or driving up in the peninsula. We had arrived when we saw the cherries ripen on the trees in plenty at many places from our car but sadly, we didn't get to pick them.

However, that didn't disappoint us, because we went to Cherry Republic which has all things cherry. They have cherry salsa, to cherry chocolates, to cherry jams, to cherry wines etc etc and their tagline itself says

'If Disney did cherries the result would look like Cherry Republic'.

Between guys, ever since I have come to New Jersey its been a week already, I miss the cherries of Wisconsin and Michigan. They were a delight.

Mackinac Island: No motorized Traffic Island

Further up from Traverse City is Mackinaw City from where you can take a ferry to Mackinac Island. Mackinac Island is where no motorized traffic is allowed.The three modes of transport on the island are horse-and-carriage, bicycle, and 'shank's mare' i.e your feet . Take or rent a bike if you want to roam on your own, but the carriage ride stops at all major attractions. Connecting the lower (Mackinaw City) and upper peninsula (St. Ignace) Michigan is Mackinac Bridge which is the 5th largest suspension bridge in the world.

Have you ever been to a dune in US? Share your experience guys, and I'd be delighted to hear.

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  1. Interesting place... let the bears sleep I would say but a very sad story of the cubs

    1. Thanks Prasad. Yes, these places are indeed the hidden gems of US :) and the story is sad yes.

  2. What a beautiful park. The story of the mother bear is so touching...

    1. @The Untourists: Thanks :) I loved it too..

  3. Thanks for writing such a good article, I like your style of writing and knowledge. I also want to introduce one more travel blog know as travelwithrohit, a personal collection of my best experiences, favourite places in India and around the world, along with random thoughts and opinions.. Kindly give us your valuable feedback & Idea


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