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!

Wilderness State Park and Winter Shoreline

We left Alden a little before noon on a relatively spontaneous drive north towards the Straits of Mackinaw early this April. Wilderness State Park sits on the tip of the mitten, and is one of the largest undeveloped tracts of land in the Lower Peninsula.

That is part of the draw for me—the undeveloped land. That, and there is very little online about the park, and miles of under-trafficked trails. I’ve got a thing for obscure places, and sights that haven’t graced my computer screen. There is no thrill in seeing a place in person that I have seen over and over on the internet. This isn’t to say that I don’t want to see those well-photographed places— but they don’t give me the rush that exploring does.

For me, this was the draw of Wilderness State Park. There is no iconic place to capture, no roaring waterfall or scenic overlook. There isn’t even an easily accessible lighthouse.

There’s only miles of untouched shoreline, and loop upon loop in the woods, and I wanted to know what that looked like.

We parked at the farthest west parking lot we could find and hiked along the beach from there. The Lake Michigan ice had begun to melt, and small icebergs floated in the clear water. The ice melt this year was much sooner than it had been in the past, and the look of the ice in the sandy waters came as odd to me.

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Ice melt in Lake Michigan in early April

It’s only just this year that I have made a trip out to the Lake in the winter, and the last I saw it, it was frozen enough that we couldn’t see the sand. The sun was out when we went, so the water was clear and inviting; an odd juxtaposition to the chunks of ice.

The coastline in Wilderness State Park reminds me of Maine, or Canada, or some other east coast beach. It’s easy to forget that the lake isn’t the ocean, with its tide pools and bug horizon line, and the outlines of pine trees.

We had walked for maybe a mile when I saw blue ice— blue ice is created high density and compression, and is usually found in glaciers, but sometimes on the Great Lakes.  This particular patch of blue ice looked accessible, piled up on the shore past a small tidal stream. So naturally, I took off my hiking boots and socks and slung them over my shoulder while my friends watched somewhere between skeptically and judgmentally as waded barefoot across the rocky calf-deep melt water.

I should mention that this is normal for me. If ever there is clear, sandy water no matter the temperature I, or at least my feet, will be in it. About a month ago, I did it at Esch Road Beach. It was cold, but worth it.

I quickly jammed my feet back into my hiking boots on the other side of the stream, and hiked out to the blue ice.

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Blue Ice on Lake Michigan

Whether because of the harsh lighting, overhyped expectations, or just lack luster photography, my photos of the blue ice didn’t turn out how I had hoped. I had a good time getting out there, though, and it was pretty in person.

We hiked further west from there, eventually flopping down at a small bay and chatting. It was cold out, but mostly only when the sun went behind the clouds and the wind picked up. While we sat it was sunny and sandy.

After, we only walked a little farther along the beach from there before headed back to the parking lot and driving pack down Wilderness Park Drive. Before we left, we did a loop in the woods on Big Stone Trail out and around Goose Pond.

We walked for a good four hours and didn’t even touch a quarter of the trails and land available to explore in Wilderness State Park, but that’s sort of exciting. There’s more to explore, and I’m sure I’ll head back soon!