Stretching 35 miles along the northwest coast of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakefront encompasses 50,000 acres of unique “Third Coast” terrain, including the evocative dunes after which the park was named. If you spend any time in Northern Michigan, you’ll likely hear about this Great Lakes landmark, as well as “The Legend of Sleeping Bear.”
In the legend, a mother bear and her two cubs are forced to swim across Lake Michigan from Wisconsin after lightning sparks a forest fire. The mother bear encourages her young cubs to keep swimming through the night, but when she finally makes landfall in Michigan, she finds that the cubs have fallen far behind and cannot be seen. She climbs to a high bluff overlooking the water, where she falls asleep waiting for them. As she sleeps, the wind blows many layers of sand over her, forming a large dune atop the lakeside bluffs that looks like a sleeping bear. The Great Spirit then raised two islands within sight of the “mama bear dune” to commemorate the bravery of the cubs and the devotion of their mother.
The “perched dunes” of the federally protected lakeshore sit atop the steep cliffs towering above the coastline and were formed by the same glaciers moving south from Canada that carved the Great Lakes. Unlike more familiar shoreline dunes, perched dunes sit atop a plateau; wind and water erode the plateau, creating sand and gravel that is then blown to the top of the rise to form dunes. The Sleeping Bear Plateau contains a dune field roughly five miles long that was formed in this manner.
As far as things to do in and around the park, the Dune Climb is a popular challenge. It’s a 3.5-mile rollercoaster of a hike from the base of the dunes to beautiful blue Lake Michigan. For those who are up for a more difficult, less encouraged challenge, there’s always the 450 foot, very steep part of the dune near the Empire Bluff Overlook. It’s not illegal, just ill-advised. This part of the dune is currently eroding at a pace of about a foot per year (in part because of people climbing it), and is supposed to have been part of a peninsula that once extended two miles into Lake Michigan.
Sleeping Bear Dune National Lakefront was voted “The Most Beautiful Place in America” in 2011 by viewers of ABC’s Good Morning America, and it is much beloved by Mario Batali. For the record, there are bears there that are awake on a regular basis — black bears to be specific — as well as the occasional cougar, so campers should be vigilant.
Know Before You Go
Bring ten dollars, plenty of water, and comfortable footwear. Know your limits if you intend to do any climbing. You'll want to take pictures. Make sure you have some cherries while you're in Michigan.
From Traverse City, the closest city to the dunes, take M-72 West to Empire, then get on M-22 North and then M-109 North (S Dune Highway).
From the North or the South along the shore, M-22 will take you to Glen Arbor, at which point, in both directions, you will have to get on to M-109 to get to the dunes.