Location: Empire, Michigan
Webpage: National Park
General Description: Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore covers a 35 mile long stretch of the eastern shore of Lake Michigan and contains a wide variety of natural habitats including sand dunes, forests, and ancient glacial formations. There are also historical and cultural attractions that include three life saving stations, lighthouse, Port Oneida Historic Farm District, and Glen Haven Village. Established in 1970, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore was highly controversial as it displaced a number of private citizens that had summer homes along the lake. The name derives from the Indian legend of a mother bear with two cubs being forced into Lake Michigan to seek shelter from a huge forest fire on the western shore of Lake Michigan. They were determined to swim across the lake, however, the bear cubs failed to make the journey, drowning in the lake. The mother bear waited on shore hoping and waiting for her cubs. Impressed by her determination, the Great Spirit, turned her cubs into North and South Manitou Islands and the mother became the Sleeping Bear Dune. The passageway between the islands and the shore have continued to be a major shipping lane between Chicago and Mackinac Straits, cutting two hours from the journey for the old steamships that were dependent on resupplying of timber for fuel along the way. Consequently, these relatively narrow straits are the site of many ship wrecks over the years leading to three Life Saving Stations and two lighthouses.
1) The Visitor Center is the beginning point for any visit to Sleeping Bear Dunes as there is an entrance fee for the park. The receipt is good for seven days, so plan on spending multiple days in the park and there is plenty to do. The National Pass or Senior Pass also covers the entrance fee and are displayed handing from your mirror. Outside of providing information and handling the entrance fee, there is not very much to the Visitors Center. There is a 15 minute movie that provides an overview of the park and what can be seen during every season of the year. There is a little information about the geologic history of the dunes, but most of the movie is a series of slides taken at different times of the year.
2) The are a LOT of hiking and biking trails throughout the park that range in length and difficulty. There are hikes across the dunes in deep sand and sun, through the surrounding forests, and around most of the many smaller lakes in the park.
3) There is a 7 mile one-way driving tour that loops with multiple numbered stops along the way. Most of the stops are just to pause and look at the different natural habitats along the drive, however, the main stop at the top of Sleeping Bear Dune is well worth the trip. At this point you are over 400 feet above Lake Michigan looking down a steep bank of sand dune down through the glacial till the last 100 feet. Although warned against it, many people attempt the walk down the face of the dune to the lake and struggle to make the hour long climb back up the sand. They routinely “rescue” people that cannot make the climb back up, for a fee.
4) The Glen Haven Village is the legacy of D.H. Day that originally created the village to serve the steamships with lumber cut from the nearby forests. Once this business began to decline he expanded into a canning enterprise, thus introducing cherry orchards that are still a major industry in the area. He also established a farm to grow corn and other crops, primarily in support of his very large dairy farm. Finally, he also attracted visitors to the area by offering dunemobile rides, the first campground in the region, and constructed the driving tour that is still used today. The campground he created became the first state park in Michigan before becoming the premier campground in the National Lakeshore, still bearing his name. Unlike nearly all the other coastal villages that were dependent on timber harvesting, he managed to keep Glen Haven Village a viable and productive community. Today its buildings provide a snapshot of life in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Many of the buildings are open to the public, especially the old cannery which is the home of a nice collection of boats.
5) Like Glen Haven Village, Port Oneida Historic Farm District provides a snapshot of life in the late 1800s. The District consists of 16 farms covering 3000 acres. Due to road construction the week we were there, we were not able to explore the farming district.
6) The most popular attraction is the Dune Climb, where visitors are welcomed to hike up the face of a large sand dune and slide, roll, or run back down. Families often make a day out of the experience by bringing picnic lunches while the children are sent running up and down the sand dune.