Once again traveling up the west coast of Lake Michigan, our next stop was Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore which is located at the base of the finger in the extreme northwest of lower Michigan. Sleeping Bear Dunes has 35 miles of lakeshore along Lake Michigan and its many beaches, historical sites, and hiking trails are a major draw for tourists. There are a lot of campgrounds, lodges, etc, in the area to support the tourists and all of them are EXPENSIVE! We were lucky to get a reservation at Indigo Bluffs RV Resort, which was 3 miles away from the Visitors Center to Sleeping Bear Dunes, and the only thing that was available over the weekend was one of their “premier” sites. This cost us over $60 a night, which is the most expensive fees we have ever paid. I suppose it was worth it, although the site itself was not all that impressive. It was a pull-through site with full hookups and a concrete porch out front. However, the site was relatively small with very little room between the porch and the next site. It was by far the busiest campground we have stayed in for a while during the week and by the weekend it was packed. It may have cost us a couple hundred more to stay there, but the proximity to the National Lakeshore was great!! This was obviously “the place to be” in Michigan for the summer. I have to admit that the additional distance north made a difference in the temperatures, which stayed out of the 80s all week.
On Tuesday, we headed west 3 miles to the Visitors Center of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore to gather information about hiking trails and points of interest. After collecting the information we were looking for, watching their 15 minute overview of the park, and finding out our Senior Pass would cover the entrance fee, we were ready to go. It was obvious it was going to take more than a day to do everything we wanted to do, so we decided to start slow and look for a hike away from all the tourists. We drove south to the extreme end of the park to a trail through the upper Michigan forests. It was a 2.5 mile loop trail, with a short side trail to get our first look at Lake Michigan from the top of a sand dune. We decided not to walk through the beach sand the additional 1/4 mile to the lake itself as we would have other opportunities later in the week. The temperatures stayed in the upper 70s, so the hike was very pleasant, but after hiking up and down the small dunes along the trail, we had had enough for one day. We did try to get to beach area of the nearby campground, however, cars were already overflowing a good mile behind the parking lot for the beach once we got there. Therefore, we headed back to the campground to wait until another day.
Wednesday was predicted to be stormy (and it was) so we decided to see if we could find the Leelanau Sands Casino. As I mentioned previously, we were located at the base of the finger that extends north into Lake Michigan and the casino was at the tip of the finger on the east side. So we traveled north along the west side of the finger and then cut across it to the other side, traveling through some beautiful forests, orchards, and lakes. To our surprise, the Leelanau Sands Casino is a small casino located with a nice view of Lake Michigan, which was stormed tossed with the incoming weather. As we arrived before lunch on a weekday, the casino was nearly empty. This was great, since it meant it was quiet and we had our pick of the slot machines. Unfortunately, the slot machines were very tight, so it took only a couple of hours before we were finished losing about half of our usual stake. As we were leaving the weather finally hit and we were drenched getting to our truck. On the way back to the campsite we were using the GPS to find a grocery store. One of the drawbacks to this part of Michigan is that the majority of the population are tourists or summer only residents. The winter are simply too severe to support local businesses. This means all the grocery stores are little more than country stores and did not carry much of what we were looking for. We did locate a small store with a VERY small parking lot and purchased just what we had to have. Once again it was a fairly early return to the campground where we watched it rain off and on all day. Thankfully, no severe weather like we are used to this time of year in the south.
Thursday was another beautiful day with temperatures in the low 70s, so we headed out for another day in Sleeping Bear Dunes. This time we started out with the 7 mile driving tour, which is a one-way drive through the forests and dunes with numbered stops. There is a brief description of each stop in the Sleeping Bear publication we picked up in the Visitors Center. Unfortunately, for most of the stops this was about it. I was disappointed there were not short trails at each of the stops to get off the road and take a look. There was only one stop where this was possible and it made the entire trip worthwhile!! The tour climbs up the backside of Sleeping Bear Dunes where you can hike across the top of the dune to two great overlooks of Lake Michigan and North and South Manitou Islands. As you walk up the final piece of the back of the dune you are hit with an amazing view. At this point you are over 400 feet above Lake Michigan and in front of you is a VERY steep drop down to the lake. For the first 300 feet it is all deep sand and the final 100 feet becomes more rocky with glacial till that lies beneath the sand. The shear magnitude of the drop to the lake is awesome. Although warned not to do it, many visitors attempt the climb down to the lake. While the trip down the steep slope of sand would be terrifying enough, the climb back up would be impossible. Most people take over an hour to make this climb back. Those that cannot make the climb can be “rescued” by boats stationed at the base of the dune for a hefty fee. We obviously did not even consider the attempt. Instead we made the walk along the top of the dune to another overlook of the two islands. Walking over a half mile in these deep sands was enough of a challenge for us, but it was certainly worth the effort. We did stop at each of the numbered stops along the drive and took short walks either into the woods or along the road.
Since this drive took only about an hour to complete, we still had most of the day ahead of us, so we drove on to Glen Haven Village. Along the way we went by the Dune Climb area, which is one of the most popular spots for tourists outside the many beaches. At this location, visitors are welcome to attempt to climb up a 100 foot dune and then slide, roll, or run back down. It looks like they were having a lot of fun, but it was not for us!! We did get out to take some pictures and laugh at their antics. From their we drove on around to Glen Haven Village. This is the historical village founded and ran by D. H. Day, who is a famous in this part of Michigan. In the late 1800s, he purchased the land and timber along this part of the coast to cut lumber, primarily to be used as firewood by the steamships. There were small villages all along Lake Michigan at the time for the same purpose. With the decline of timber harvesting, nearly all of these villages are now gone, however, D. H. Day did everything he could to keep Glen Haven a viable community. His attempts even extended to his harvesting practices, where he paid his loggers a better wage, had better living conditions in and around the village, and even was the first to practice single tree harvesting instead of the preferred clearcutting of the day. When timber harvesting began to dry up he diversified. He used the cleared land to grow crops, primarily corn and hay, to support of his extensive dairy enterprise. He also imported cherry trees, built a cannery, and bought ships to transport his produce to markets in Chicago. In the 1900s he expanded even further to create a tourist trade with a lodge, the first public campground in the area, and a fleet of dunemobiles outfitted with huge rubber tires for the dunes. He even constructed the driving tour to the top of Sleeping Bear Dune that we had explored earlier. Through his work on the State Park Commission his campground even became the first state park in Michigan. Of course, it is now part of the National Lakeshore, but it still bears his name. All in all, his legacy to this part of the state was huge, the impact still evident today with the many cherry tree and other orchards and the huge interest in tourism. Consequently, many of the original buildings in Glen Haven, are now tourist attractions including the General Store, the blacksmith shop, and the cannery which today is a museum with an impressive collection of small boats that have been used through the years in Lake Michigan. The lodge also still stands, however, it is not open to the public unfortunately. After exploring the village and boat museum, we ate lunch on one of their picnic tables. I was also able to finally get close enough to Lake Michigan to touch it!! We discovered that every Thursday afternoon they have a demonstration of the Lyle gun on the beach. After a fun presentation with kids in the audience simulating firing the gun to demonstrate the life saving technique of stringing a line and pulley to a ship in distress. It was an impressive system that we had seen before used along the Atlantic Coast. After this demonstration by the kids, they then loaded up and fired a Lyle gun shooting a weight attached to a line out about 200 yards into the Lake. Although we had seen the land demonstration before, this was the first time we had seen an actual Lyle gun in action. After this long demonstration which lasted nearly an hour, it was getting late in the afternoon, so we headed back to the campground for the evening.
On Friday, it was back to Glen Haven Village to explore the Life Saving Station that had been moved close to the village from its original location out on the point. This location was much better for the Life Saving activities, however, once this was abandoned the site was slowly being covered up with sand demonstrating these dunes are still in motion. They therefore moved the building to a more protected location, which explained why their rails used to move the large boats to the water did not come close to reaching the lake. They have a nice display of the life saving equipment in the shed which would have held their boats. The most interesting item was a small boat that could be pulled through the water using the same system of ropes they showed the day before with a pair of shorts attached to a life preserver. This small boat had a cover that would be sealed to keep the occupants from drowning. However, this cover also made it airtight so they had a limited amount of time to get them to shore before they suffocated. As far as the volunteer was aware, this boat was never actually used. The life saving stationhouse also had some very nice exhibits about the life and duties of the men manning the station. I was a little disappointed that there was not more information about the uses of each room in the house. They even had one of the rooms upstairs laid out as a replica of the ship’s wheelhouse with pictures around the perimeter of a stormy sea. Why they would do this is not clear, except as a way to highlight the ship instruments.
After exploring the Life Saving Station we proceeded on to the other historical area, Port Oneida Historical Farm District. This is suppose to have multiple farms from the late 1800s and early 1900s to explore, however, there was road construction that all but blocked the road to Port Oneida. As this was the only way to get there, we decided to instead find another short hike further to the north. We found a small picnic area on the shores of Lake Michigan for lunch that was away from the crowds and then another 2 mile hike looping through the natural forests near the lake. It was a pleasant way to spend the afternoon.
After our experience with the crowds during the week at Sleeping Bear Dunes, we decided not to push our luck over the weekend. Since the farming district was the only other place we wanted to explore, we decided to forego the opportunity and just stay in the campground over the weekend. On Saturday, we did make the trip over to Traverse City to a Walmart, but other than that we just stayed put. Sunday was again spent in the campground doing laundry and cleaning the RV. Thus ended a great week in northern Michigan enjoying yet another great national park!!