The Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore headlines itself “The best nature escape in the Midwest” and though I certainly have strong ties to the Dunes, I feel confident saying it’s top 5 at the very least.
The October 21, 1970 Act of Congress that established the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore declared that “…the Congress finds that certain outstanding natural features, including forests, beaches, dune formations, and ancient glacial phenomena, exist along the mainland shore of Lake Michigan and on certain nearby islands in Benzie and Leelanau Counties, Michigan, and that such features ought to be preserved in their natural setting and protected from developments and uses which would destroy the scenic beauty and natural character of the area.”
That amazing beauty and natural character has indeed been preserved … and then some. The Lakeshore has over 60 miles of Lake Michigan shoreline: 35 miles from Good Harbor Bay to just north of Point Betsie and almost 30 on North & South Manitou Islands. Much of this is wilderness and much more is very close to wilderness, accessed by a hundred miles of hiking trails and a large number of public beaches (if you can only go to one, try Otter Creek).
While that is no doubt a fun way to spend a day, the area offers so much more that it really makes sense to make it a weekend (or longer) affair. When asked, I usually spend 15 minutes sputtering “but don’t forget-”, but I will limit myself to 5 “must do” experiences.
The Manitou Islands are an incredible hiking and camping experience. In season (May – October) the Mishe-Mokwa and Manitou Isle ferries will take you to South Manitou and North Manitou. Camping is permitted in campgrounds on South and backcountry on North, and both islands offer sandy beaches and hiking through great woodlands and the remains of the once thriving first European settlements in this area. (view Manitou Islands slideshow and check out the Manitou Islands photo group on Flickr)
A day along Sleeping Bear Bay would consist of (in some order) checking out the Glen Haven Cannery Boathouse with its collection of historic boats, the Blacksmith Shop and the US Coast Guard Station Maritime Museum and spending time roaming the trails and shore of Sleeping Bear Point.
You can have a great time in a canoe or kayak on the Platte River. The lower Platte River is a leisurely and family friendly paddle. While the river can be a bit crowded at the height of the season, it’s a perfect place to while away a hot summer day with ample pullouts for picnicking and swimming. You can also paddle down the Crystal River or along the Lake Michigan shoreline. (Platte River slideshow in the Benzie County group)
An activity to fill a less than perfect day is to tour the cultural resources of the area. Within the park are the wide historic landscapes of farms and buildings on Port Oneida and smaller homesteads from the 1900s like Tweddle-Treat and others. In addition to the Park’s museums and visitor center, if there’s a “can’t miss” rainy day activity, it has to be the Empire Area Museum. Check the hours on their web site and then trust me when I say “Just go.”
Personally, my dream is to hike the 30-something mile Lake Michigan shoreline from Good Harbor to Point Betsie. Mile upon mile of pristine, sandy coast are at the base of bluffs and coastal dunes for much of the journey and you can go for hours without seeing more signs of civilization than the occasional bit of recent or historic debris or fellow hikers. For those who want something a bit less strenuous, there’s plenty of beaches that are perfect for a short walk, swimming or just lounging around.
More to say? Tons and tons I’m sure! Please add your observations, questions and links below!
Sleeping Bear Dunes Links
- Once upon a time, the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore web site was something of an embarrassment. It has become a tremendous resource.
- The Unofficial Sleeping Bear Dunes Home Page was created once upon a time and is now embarrassing. It does have a lot history and travel information, and I plan to have a word with the site’s creators and see if they can bring it into this century.
- Sleeping Bear Dunes slideshow from the Absolute Michigan pool on Flickr shows a wide range of what’s to be seen from some of Michigan’s finest photographers. You can also click on the photos and slideshow links above to get a taste of what is waiting for you in the Sleeping Bear.
- The Manitou Islands Tour of North Manitou & South Manitou Island was made by Manitou Island Transit, the ferry company that serves the islands.
- You can explore some of the villages and towns in the area through Absolute Michigan keywords like Glen Arbor, Empire, Leland and Frankfort.
- The Absolute Michigan Map of Michigan digs down to the Leelanau.com map and also the betsiebay.net map for locations of trails, beaches, boat launches and a whole ton more things to see and do!
- The Legend of the Sleeping Bear has been told a lot of ways. I like this one:
THE LEGEND OF THE SLEEPING BEAR
Long ago, in the land that is today Wisconsin, Mother Bear and her two cubs were driven into Lake Michigan by a raging forest fire. The cubs swam strongly but the distance and the water proved too much for them. They fell further and further behind and ultimately slipped beneath the waves. When Mother Bear reached the Michigan shore, she climbed to the top of a bluff and peered back across the water, searching vainly for her cubs. The Great Spirit saw her and took pity on her plight. He raised North and South Manitou Islands to mark the place where her cubs vanished and laid a slumber upon Mother Bear.