Adventure Guide: Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore

A ghost town in the off season, tropical hotspot in the summer, Sleeping Bear is mostly just home to me in all seasons. I ran down the dunes with my sister as a kid, and swam in the Platte River, and then out into the Lake. I have been there so many times I’ve lost count, and some of my favorite memories and places are in this park, and I hope I can help you find some favorite places too!

I’ve broken up this guide by length of stay as well as included an “adventure rating” so that you can accurately gauge what kind of adventure you are signing up for. The key for the “adventure rating” is at the bottom of this post.

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Sunset at Overlook Nine

Weekend at the Dunes

Adventure:

  • Empire Bluffs Trail: Around 2 miles round trip, this trail takes you to the top of Empire Bluff overlooking Lake Michigan. Located near the town of Empire, MI. This is my favorite hike in the park. Be sure to not hike down to the Lake—hiking down bluffs like this causes dune erosion, damaging an already delicate ecosystem.**
  • Pierce Stocking Scenic DriveIn the summer and early fall you can experience the Lakeshore by car as well as foot!
  • Hit the beach: Sleeping Bear is recognized for some of the world’s best beaches! With white sand and clear water, you couldn’t ask for more. Start at North Bar Lake, where younger kids can stay in the warmer water of North Bar, and move out to the big lake when ready. Empire Beach, Sleeping Bear Point, and the Platte River all offer great alternates. Rip currents area the real deal on the big lakes, so keep an eye out on windy days.
  • Hike the Dune Climb: The Dune Climb is a four mile round trip hike over hot dunes to Lake Michigan, where you can take a dip and hike back. Bring water, and shoes—it gets a little rocky as you get closer to the beach. You’re hiking through sand, up and down over dunes, which is very different than hiking over solid ground. It’s easy to get lost and it’s a harder workout than you might expect.
  • Sunset at Overlook Nine: Hike a short quarter mile from the overlook nine parking lot along the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive to a bluff 400 feet above Lake Michigan and the Manitou Passage. Learn about the Legend of Sleeping Bear and watch the sunk sink over the horizon line. Be sure to not hike down to the Lake—hiking down bluffs like this causes dune erosion, damaging an already delicate ecosystem.**

 Eat:

Stay:

  • Frankfort is a good place to base camp. Near both Lake Michigan and Crystal Lake, there are hotels, inns, and rental options.
  • Daisy Farm Campground is open April through November, near the Dune Climb and scenic drive.
  • Platte River Campground is open year round, with both RV and tent sites. Backpacking site also available.
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Late Fall at North Bar Lake overlook

Three to Four Days on the Lake

 Adventure:

  • Surf Lake Michigan: Visit Sleeping Bear Surf and Kayak to take a surf beginner surf lessons, or rent surf boards, paddle boards, or kayaks. A friend and I took a surf lesson there last August and it was a blast. The people are friendly, patient, and great teachers.
  • Hike Alligator Hill: Intermediate. As many as nine miles of trails are available, but I like to head out to the Island and Big Glenn lookouts, about four miles round trip.
  • Hike Pyramid Point: Beginner. About a three-mile loop in total, but the overlook of Lake Michigan is only a little over a half mile from the trailhead. Be sure to not hike down to the Lake—hiking down bluffs like this causes dune erosion, damaging an already delicate ecosystem.**
  • Visit Fishtown: North of the Sleeping Bear region is Historic Fishtown, where you can shop in small shanties, get the best smoked fish south of the bridge, and appreciate Northern Michigan’s maritime history. The ferry to North and South Manitou Islands leaves from Leland!
  • Star Gaze at the Dunes: Attend one of the National Lakeshore’s night sky programs to learn about the stars and see the milky way in the summer!

Eat:

Stay:

  • Leelaunau State Park Campground is a bit of a drive from the Sleeping Bear Region, but is less crowded in the peak summer months. Campsites are close to Lake Michigan, and the park is near Northport.
  • Traverse City also a drive from Sleeping Bear, but gives you access to the Grand Traverse Bay and the shopping/food scene of a bigger town.
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Empire Bluffs Trail

Week in the Lakeshore:

 Adventure:

  • Backpack the Manitous: Intermediate. North and South Manitou both offer backpacking loops, lighthouses, ghost towns, and wilderness.
  • Kayak/Tube the Platte River: Beginner. On a sunny day, rent a tube and tube down the crystal clear and sandy Platte into Lake Michigan.
  • Hike Clay Cliffs Natural Area: A lesser known loop with a Lake Michigan overlook and June wildflowers, this 1.5 mile trail is a great way to escape the crowds of the National Park.
  • Bike the Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail: Intermediate. While only sections of the trail are complete currently, the Heritage Trail allows bikers to access various attractions in the Sleeping Bear area without a car.
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Snow in the Lakeshore

Winter:

Winter sees a drop off in visitors to the Lakeshore as people either flee South or hibernate. What that really means is more Lakeshore for you!

  • Snowshoe the Scenic Drive: The whole scenic drive is about 12 miles, but it’s about a four-mile snowshoe out to Overlook Nine. Dress warm, and wear wool not cotton. Cotton doesn’t stay warn when wet.
  • Sled the dunes: Permitted at the Dune Climb when snow covered. It’s a long hike up, but a super fun ride down!
  • Snowshoe Empire Bluffs Trail
  • Cross Country Ski Alligator Hill
  • Freeze to Death: The best winter activity in the National Lake shore is probably to get frostbite or hypothermia. #PureMichigan
  • Platte River Campground is open year round, with both RV and tent sites. Backpacking site also available.

Notes:

*None of these are affiliate links; all are honest opinions based on my experiences in the area.

**Dune erosion: every time a person decides to walk down the dunes they take sand down to the waterline with them. In the summer, several hundred people do this a day. The result is the dunes get worn down, dune grass can’t grow to stabilize the sand, and wildflowers won’t take hold. It hurts the ecosystem you are there to appreciate.

***I don’t recommend taking out personal kayaks or kayaking without a guide on the Great Lakes. If you are not an experienced sea kayaker, then you need a guide. Experienced kayaker and sea kayaker are not the same thing. If you do not have a sea kayak, you should not be on Lake Michigan. There are absolutely some days when you can get away with it, especially in the summer, but that doesn’t mean it is safe always. People die every year doing this. I don’t want that to be you. More questions? Click here.

ADVENTURE RATINGS KEY:

No Rating: Assumes no level of physical ability.

Beginner: Perfect for families with younger children, or people looking for a nice starting point before launching into more physically exerting adventures. This rating still assumes a baseline level of physical fitness such as the ability to walk at least three miles, but otherwise assumes beginner level of outdoor experience.

Intermediate: Perfect for people who like spending time outside, and are excited about the idea of immersing selves in nature. Assumes some experience hiking, paddling, camping, or a flexible and positive attitude. Assumes no shoulder injuries and ability to lift at least 50 pounds.

Advanced: Perfect for people who have experience with outdoor recreation, and are prepared to tackle more strenuous hikes and adventures.

Where to next?

 

2017’s Greatest Misadventures: On the Water, Trail, and Road

2017 has been an eventful year for me. I had the opportunity to experience some really amazing things, from interning at the Kellogg Biological Station to playing around in the Blue Ridge Mountains and Glacier National Park. Social media tends to give the impression that all things—travel, our personal lives, camping—are always fun and easy, not ever super embarrassing.

I assure you this is false. For every awesome experience I had, a tent leaked, or I ended up leading a group friends down the wrong trail, or I made myself look like an idiot. (Okay, the last one happens more often than not.)

So, in order to fully appreciate 2017 in all her beauty and grace, I have complied a list of my most ridiculous, humiliating, and funny travel/outdoor stories and misadventures from 2017.

The time we ran for a flight

On the way back from a family trip to Whitefish, Montana, my dad, two younger sisters, younger brother and I all found ourselves running through the Salt Lake City airport to try and catch a flight back to Detroit.

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Me, my three younger siblings, and our dad shortly before our airport run (photo by mom)

Our previous flight out of Portland had been delayed, and we had about five minutes to make it across the airport once the plane landed to catch our next flight. We looked ridiculous (but like, relatable) running through the airport, and even more ridiculous when we ended up making the flight and all high fiving each other, but I don’t think I have ever been happier to be anywhere in my life than I was to be on that plane.

The time we could not find the trailhead, so we got lunch instead

In early January 2017, my sister Claire and I went out to go find and snowshoe the Brown Bridge Quiet Area near Traverse City, Michigan, but for the life of us we could not find the trailhead. Both Apple and Google maps sent us in the wrong direction, and I couldn’t figure it out from the map I had saved to my phone.

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Brown Bridge Quiet Area

Eventually, we found a trailhead that we thought (incorrectly) was the trail we were looking for, and snowshoed there for about 20 minutes before deciding it was too cold and we were lost. We packed up, and rather than workout, we opted for sandwiches.

The time I forgot my stupid camera battery

I think I reached peak self-loathing when I screwed my camera into my tripod at Torch Lake for sunset, went to turn it on and nothing happened. Because I had forgot my camera battery. On the table. Three hours south. For better or worse, I went without a camera for the remainder of that trip.

I missed out on a lot of photos by not having my DSLR, tripod, and telephoto lens, but I did pick up quite a few things about how to get the most out of a phone camera, and I got to hike a lot lighter had way more room in my pack for extra food.

The time some fisherman thought I wouldn’t know the difference between a bass and bluegill  

This one is my favorite.

I was out paddle boarding alone on a small lake near Bellaire, Michigan when I stopped to make small talk with some guys who were fishing. They were probably in their late 20s, and seemed nice enough.

I told them that if you go around the next bend, and then stick to the West side of the lake until it narrows, it’ll open up into a smaller cove that has lots of fish; not many people fish there, because it’s harder to find.

One of the men narrowed his eyes and looked at me. “Were the fish long and fat or short and small?”

I frowned for a second, not really sure what he was asking, until I realized he literally was asking if I knew that they weren’t fishing for bluegill. I tried not to laugh.

 Unreal, I thought to myself.

“There are large and smallmouth bass, and there should be some trout too. The DNR stocks the lake.”

The time I ate a fistful of Lake Michigan pebbles

I knew this one was going to be embarrassing long before I got anywhere near the water. My friend Kasidy and I had decided to try out Lake Michigan surfing through Sleeping Bear Surf and Kayak.

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The sort of pebbles I would be eating

I took one look at the nine foot boards, the two-foot surf, and the line of rocks just beneath where the waves were breaking, and could see exactly where this was going. We had a great day— both of us ended up getting up for more than five seconds at a time, and I took some of the least graceful falls of my life.

The best part of this was when I was sitting out in the water, straddling the board, I turned into a small—and I do mean small—wave. The wave pushed the board up under me and smacked me clean in the nose, cutting me off mid-sentence. Real cute.

Doing that stupid Dune Climb again

There is no hike in the world I have as deep a resentment for as the Sleeping Bear’s Dune Climb. It’s only about four miles out to the Lake and back, and it’s a sort of inaugural, very “Michigan” hike, but four miles up and down over hot sand is kind of the worst.

This spring, early enough that we thought maybe it would still be cool out (wrong), my good friend/roommate Hannah and I went out to tackle the hike and “initiate” her to Michigan. Han is an Illinois native, but she’s spent the last four years living in the good old mitten state.

Nothing super eventful or particularly embarrassing happened, I just included this because I want you all to know how much I hate that hike.

The time we couldn’t find parking in Glacier

There’s a pretty clear lesson here, and it’s two-fold. The first part is that you’re better off visiting national parks in the off-season; the second is do your research. When visiting Glacier National Park, my family spent almost two hours aimlessly driving the crowded Going-to-the-sun Road after trailhead parking in the Avalanche Lake area was too full—we got up earlier then next day, getting into the park at 7am instead of 11am, and had no trouble at all and the park nearly to ourselves.

The times we didn’t see stars at dark sky park

This was a regularly occurrence for my friends and I in 2016 as well as 2017. There have been several occasions where we have trekked out to the Headlands International Dark Sky Park and had clouds and no sky at all.

Clearly, we haven’t really learned any lesson here, because we keep doing it, but we always have a good time up on the beach.

The time we almost literally died

(This is an overstatement.)

This August, when on an early hike through Glacier National Park, my father, sister and I spotted a grizzly across the Lake from us. There were a few other people at the lake, and the bear was probably a hundred yards away, which was really too close.

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The freaking bear through a telephoto lens, before we realized it was a grizzly

We booked it out of there pretty darn quick. The bear probably wasn’t interested in us, and bears don’t really seek out humans, but grizzlies are fast, huge, and not something to mess with.

The time I sunburned exactly one shoulder

 I love kayaking, and being on the water period, and because of that I always end up staying out longer than I really planned to. On this particular occasion, my dad and I were out on Torch Lake one morning, and decided to paddle South to the mouth of the Torch River—about a 6 mile trip.

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Torch Lake and the tip of my kayak

I realized about halfway back that not only did I forget sunscreen, but because we headed back around noon, the left side of my body had been facing the sun the entire trip. I’ll leave the burn lines to your imagination.

The time we got followed

This misadventure is less fun, but still important.

Last March, my friend and I were hiking at Tahquamenon Falls State Park, when some men, probably not much older than us, caught up to us at an overlook started whispering to each other and looking at us. We didn’t think much of it at first, and quickly moved onto the next overlook to give them some space, thinking that they were waiting for us to leave. Rather than stay at the overlook a normal amount of time, they immediately followed us, continuing to whisper and look our way.

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Not pictured: creeps about to follow us back up here

Maybe they weren’t talking about us, and maybe they didn’t mean to follow us, but sometimes you just get a bad vibe, and better safe than sorry.

I pointed out their behavior to Estee and we turned and went back to the previous overlook. They followed again. At this point, we turned and walked quickly back to the car, the two men following us the entire way. The parking lot itself was crowded with other hikers and tourists, and they went to their own car. We hung out there for a while, waiting for them to drive off first.

There’s a lesson here, and it isn’t about us being paranoid, or about how women shouldn’t hike because it’s too dangerous. If you are a male, and you are interested in a female in any setting, be aware that while you may think behavior you exhibit is harmless, it can still seem threatening. This is not an attack. I’m telling you this because if you are actually interested in someone, you should respect them enough to not want them to feel threatened and behave accordingly.

As a general rule, talking to someone is 100% less threatening and creepy than following them.

The time I let the 15-year-old drive

On our way up to camp at the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, my brother reminded me that I promised he could practice driving once we got off the highway. He had had his learner’s permit for a while, and was objectively already a pretty good driver.

I handed him the wheel, and started going through our trail plans for later in the day.

“Hey when do I turn?” Joe asked.

“Um, it should be a right at the next intersection.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yeah, totally,” I lied.

So while I was deep in a trail guide, Joe made a right onto some small, flooded seasonal road. We hit a pothole and I looked up.

“Are you sure this is right?” he asked.

“Let me see the map.” It sure looked like this road got us where we wanted to go, and I was fairly confident my car could handle it.

We drove down the sketchy seasonal road for about five more minutes before it narrowed and I had Joe turn around and head back to the highway. After that, we abandoned iPhone directions and stuck to the Michigan road map.

The time I almost got frostbite

 The original misadventure, and the first post I wrote,  was probably the dumbest thing I did all year.

Rather than drive to the shoreline at the Headlands Dark Sky Park, Estee and I opted to walk a mile in. We had been out in the cold hiking all day, and weren’t too worried about the temperature. Nevertheless, we piled on a few blankets and extra layers.

Lake Michigan was frozen and beautiful, and the sunset was one of the best I’ve ever seen. My mistake was forgetting that once the sun goes down, the temperature drops quite a bit. That, and letting snow melt into my boots, soaking my socks. (I had a spare pair. Soaked those too.)

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Sunset at Headlands Dark Sky park, not featuring my frozen feet

I didn’t realize I couldn’t feel my feet until I stood up and we started to pack up for the walk back. Then my feet started to burn—not just tingle, and not even feel cold. My feet felt burnt, like I had accidently stepped in the campfire. Burnt and bruised—It hurt to walk, and we had a good mile to walk back to the car.

Lucky for me and very lucky for my toes, we ran into a nice couple who offered to drive us back to my car. I was in pretty bad shape; Estee had taken both my bag and hers, and was helping me walk; we were happy for the ride.

In hindsight, it’s kind of a funny story, though at the time I was mostly just embarrassed that I hadn’t planned better.

Since then, I’ve been more careful about the cold, but even more so about the wet; it’s one thing to be cold, but being wet can lead to hypothermia and frostbite a whole lot faster.

 

Got any misadventures, or just adventures from this year? I’d love to hear them! Write in the comments below or shoot me a message. Wishing everyone a safe end to 2017, and a great start to 2018! May you avoid all frostbite.

 

 

Trail Guide: Sleeping Bear’s “Dune Climb”

The Dune Climb is one of those hikes that everyone tells you is hard, and you believe them, but it still doesn’t stop you from going. The idea of climbing over the sand until you reach the water is too appealing to stop most people, especially since that first dune sticks out like a sore thumb when you’re cruising M22. And even if you’ve done the Dune Climb before, and actually know how long it is, odds are you’ll forget the next time you’re out there.

So what do you need to know before attempting of one of the more difficult hikes in Michigan?

Mileage: It’s 3.5-4 miles roundtrip, depending on which trail/ detours you take—but it’s over large dunes for the majority of the hike. The hike will usually take 2 to 4 hours, depending on skill level and time spent at Lake Michigan. 

What you should know: While you might want to start the hike off barefoot, you will want to bring a pair of shoes or socks for the section of the hike that is closer to the lakeshore—here there can be sharp rocks and even broken glass.

You will not be able to see the lake immediately. Not after the first dune, or the second, or the third. When you do finally see the Lake, you are about halfway there.

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After 1.5 hours of hiking, we finally reached the beach

If it is cool enough to have a comfortable climb out, it is probably too cold to swim in the lake. This is probably the biggest catch 22 of the hike—ideally, the hike would be cool and the lake would be hot, not the other way around. Unfortunately, the Dunes are about ten degrees hotter than the Lakeshore, so you could easily be hot hiking, but cold by the time you get to the water.

You will probably be sore the next day. Hiking up sand is a different type of work out than running or hiking.

What you should bring:

Water: this hike is hot, hard, and in the sun. I have done it without water before, but it was back when I was running cross country, and even then it was a mistake.

Shoes: you might want to take off your shoes at the first hill, but the second half of the hike is rockier, and sometimes even has broken glass.

Sunscreen: There is no tree cover in the Dunes—this entire hike is in the sun

National Parks Pass: To access the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, you will either need a National Parks Pass or a Sleeping Bear Dunes pass, both of which you can purchase at the entrance to the Dune Climb.

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Cairn at Lake Michigan

Is This Hike Worth It?

If your goal with this hike is to swim in Lake Michigan and experience some incredible views, this hike probably isn’t right for you. You can just as easily visit one of the many other trails or beaches in Sleeping Bear and get a much better result for less work.

However, if your goal is to get a good workout or check this one off your bucket list, I would absolutely recommend this hike!