Probably the most famous aspect of the park. The large parking lot allows you to get up and close with an enormous dune - and see if you can make it to the top. Climbing up a sand hill is no easy task - it takes a lot of power and in the hot sun (and hot sun) can be grueling.
What makes this a huge tease is once you get to the "top" - you realize you aren't at the top after all! There's a plateau before you can continue your climb to overlook the lake. We didn't make it any further than the plateau - it's exhausting work! Be sure to have plenty of water.
The best part is the run down the hill - what goes up, must come down :)
After the Dune climb, we decided to tackle one more trail. Actually, just a part of a trail as we were going to head to the first fork in the road and drift down to the beach.
You'd think we would have learned how difficult it was to walk in sand by this point, but alas. Again, there was plenty of poison ivy to keep you honest in sticking on the trail - the trail grades up fairly quickly, and then you have a very steep climb in sand over a ridge, and from there it is downhill to the lake. The beach at the lake is pretty rocky, but you'll have the opportunity to take off you shoes and cool off your heels if you are so inclined.
Unfortunately, what goes down on and out and back means a brutal uphill climb going back. The loose sand makes this for quite the workout. Be sure to bring water along on a hot day.
After all was said and done, we were pretty beat by the end of this shortened trail. Taking the full loop is supposed to lead to some really cool features, but by this part of the day, we just couldn't take the sand hiking anymore :)
Continuing north, the next main attraction is the scenic drive. You turn off route 109, and after verifying (or paying) the park entrance fee, you're on your way around this 7 mile route (most of it is one way.)
After crossing under a covered bridge, the first overlook is the Glen Lake overlook, where you can take in the beauty of the lake to the east of the drive. The next major stop is the Dune overlook - where you can head over to a wood overlook and get a view of several key features including the North and South Manitou Islands, Pyramid Point, Sleeping Bear Bay, the Sleeping Bear Dunes, and Glen Lake. No hiking here, but there are opportunities coming.
There are several smaller pullouts and stops, but the next major one is the Lake Michigan overlook. A fairly short, but steep climb over the dunes will take you to a magnificent view of the lake. From some vantage points, the dunes look as if they fall straight down into the lake - it surprised me how many people wandered towards the lake despite some of the warning signs.
There are a few more overlooks as you wrap up the drive and visit the rest of the park.
As expected, speed limits are slow throughout the drive, and when you figure in the time to do a few of the stops, this will take over an hour to do the seven mile trip. Well worth the time for some awesome scenery.
After departing from the visitor center, we were off to find our first hike of the day - Empire Bluffs. Perhaps the most difficult part of this was finding the trail head - we got turned around in the tiny town twice before finally trusting our gut and finding the right road.
At the beginning of the trail, you can pick up a pamphlet to read about a couple of features along the trail - I liked it because it helped give us some idea of how far we had gotten. Although there is a ton of poison ivy along the trail, the trail itself is fairly wide. It's not the flattest trail in the world - you will have a mix of climbing and descending both directions. The trail itself is 1.5 miles round trip.
At the end, your reward is some spectacular views of the lake and the dunes along them. With its relative shortness, and not too difficult altitude changes, this is a highly recommended hike.
This trail is an interesting hike that gives a good glimpse over the great dunes of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. The trail begins, like so many others, from the scenic drive that rings the northwestern side of the park. It winds down slightly, then cuts off to the right across the dunes. It is a faint trail, but with few trees it is easy to stay on track and not get lost. And except for the first few hundred yards (and last few hundred), you're largely walking through the sandy expanses of the dunes. That is what makes it a moderate hike, since walking through sand is always tougher than just grinding out a trail. I recommend taking off the shoes and let your toes wiggle as you hike. It is a much more enjoyable feeling, and your exercise level goes up as well.
At the apex of the hike is an overlook where you can see the Great Dune, and watch others try to hike up that direction. In the distance Glen Lake and Lake Michigan are visible as well, it makes a scenic panorama. And there are 2 park benches if you wish to sit and eat a snack and relax in the shade of some of the trail's namesake trees. Then keep winding around until you reach the beginning.
Trail Length: 1.55 mi
Time: 1-2 hours
There is a traditional drive through the park, which hits the highlights. It is not too long, and is a good way to breeze through the park if you are short on time. It passes several overlooks, where you can see the immense sleeping bear dunes, as well as the beech forests which form the land to the east of the lake. Stop and take a walk if you like; the scenic drive also leads you to several of the trailheads which wind through the lakeshore.
The bluff, which was previously written about by basstbn in his tip titled "playing on the sand dunes", is a hard but awesome thing to climb. There are two ways to get to it. The average person takes the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive to the stop where the bluff is located. They then climb down the bluff and climb back up it. I start at North Bar Lake. I walk down the shore until I get to the bottom of the bluff (about a mile long). I then decide to take the steep and rough climb to the top. Usually this an activity that I participate in with my family members. We are kind of dorky and usually decide to time ourselves. It says that it should take 45 minutes but we usually finish it in anywhere from 18-22 minutes! When we get to the top we walk around enjoy the beauty of the Sand Dunes, Lake Michigan and if not too hazy the Manitou Islands.
It might sound crazy but I love climbing the bluff. If you are into something that is a challenge this might be a good activity for you.
Also, this year when I climbed the bluff upon getting to the top I realized they have signs suggesting not to climb it because it is not safe because it is so steep and because of the erosion that is causes. They are only suggesting not climbing it - this does not mean it is not allowed! As for safety - I have always felt safe during the climb! If you are starting from the top and have doubts about making it back up then I would reconsider!
Port Oneida today is a rural farm district from the 'turn of the century'. The 19th to 20th century. The buildings date from around 1900 and represent the countryside in the early 20th century. There are the Baker, Burfiend, Busch, Eckhert, and Olsen Farms. Along MI 22 you'll see the cemetery, school and additional farms. The actual port consisted of a dock, which still exist. You'll need to stop at a park information center to get detailed information, but a drive along the backroads is a enjoyable without knowing the specifics.
Don't miss Pyramid Point. A trail leads out to the point from trailhead parking lot. Once out there, you'll be high above the lake and Good Harbor Bay. If the wind is out of the north, the sand will scour any skin left uncovered.
Glen Haven is located at the north end of Glen Haven Road. This is west of Glen Arbor. Here you'll find a restored hotel and shops. Further along, the boat house has been restored and displays water craft used by the Coast Guard and locals over the century. You'll see how rescues were handled.
If the day is quiet and there is little traffic, you'll find the beach an enjoyable addition.
Take the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive. It is a twisted road that climbs up and down the dunes. Take is slow and enjoy the views. Oh, the views are at the view points with pakring lots. The rest of the drive is deep in the woods. That's right, these are dunes. Over time, open dunes will blow away in the wind. Slowly, dune grasses take root. These slow down the sand movement and allow other plants to take root. Soon, larger and larger plants are growing and the dunes become stable hills of sand deep under the roots of towering oaks, maples and beeches.
The Coast Guard station is at the end of the lake front road from Glen Haven. In reality, it is not on the lake. There is a row of dunes between you and the lake. This short drive will bring you into the windswept sand fields with it's barren look and a feel that you're heading into a vast unknown region. At the end of the road, you'll come to a parking lot and the Coast Guard Station. It is still manned and you'll be able to see equipment and buildings.
This area is Sleeping Bear Point. It is known to 'sluff off' every 20-30 years. Sand is blown across the lake and it builds up on these dunes. At first the 'angle of repose' or how steep it is, is low. Over the years, the angle gets steeper until there is too much weight for the sand to remain standing. Down it goes. The only problem is that much of this action is underwater where it can't be seen. That means that you can never be sure when the entire face or shelf will slide under the waves. The current coast guard station, once sat further west, but it was moved to this location for better protection or better lake access. If you read the signs, you'll find out when they moved the station and when the shelf (just like the current location), 'sluff off' into the lake.
The Dune Climb is located on MI 109, near Glen Lake Beach. Here you'll be able to climb the face of a dune. Nearly 10 stories high, the dune face is only the first level. There is a shelf at the top and a short distance back, it continues another hundred feet. Few visitors try the second face as the first is enough work.
Just south of Empire on Wilco road (easier to find from MI 22 than from in town) is the trail to Empire Bluff. The walk takes you through a lush forest with squirrels and wildflowers. It's about a mile each way, but at the end, you come out on to the very edge of the bluff. From here, you gaze down across the lake. To the south, range more sand bluffs. To the north is the gap where the town of Empire lies. You can see South Bar Lake. Far to the north lies the Manitou Islands.
Nancy and I were pretty weary. It had been a long day, and the hiking about on the hot sands had drained us of a lot of energy and we were dreading a long drive back to our lodging; however, I think we were on the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive when I got this photo of a covered bridge. I'm hopeful somebody more knowledgeable than I will correct me if I'm wrong.
There are some areas within the park where it is permitted to play on the sand dunes; the photo shown here is not one of them. In fact, we watched a couple of young men at the bottom of this extremely steep dune trying to climb back up to the top. At every step up, they slid back. We wondered if they could ever climb all the way, but didn't have time to stick around and watch, for this dune is hundreds of feet high!
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