Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Michigan

The National Park Service has done it again.  They have managed to protect one of America’s most amazing places.  Seventy-one thousand acres of beauty, in fact.  Last year, ABC’s Good Morning America dubbed Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore “America’s Most Beautiful Place.”   The park is guaranteed to awe and amaze visitors that come to marvel at it’s towering dunes, crystal clear waters, soaring pines, rich maritime cultural history, and serene lakes.


Let’s pause for a minute to thank President Woodrow Wilson who signed the National Park Service into existence in 1916.  Pause!  Now let’s move on to marvel in the splendor of Sleeping Bear Dunes NL and one of Michigan’s treasured National Parks.

The park was established in 1970 and what a treasure to have so much land.  Even better is that almost half of the park is designated as “Wilderness” under the Wilderness Act of 1964 which is defined as “an area where the earth and community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain” and “an area of undeveloped Federal land retaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation, which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions”.

What’s in a name?  Sleeping Bear Dunes NL has a history dating back to the Native American people.  Folklore has it that a mother bear and her cubs were driven from the Wisconsin shoreline into Lake Michigan by a raging forest fire.  The young cubs tried to keep up with the mother but lagged behind.  Tired, the mother bear finally reached the shores of a tall sandy bluff and looked out to wait for her cubs.  The cubs never made it.  They drowned in the long crossing.  Today, “Sleeping Bear” is a 460-foot dune that marks where the mother bear looks into the lake over two smaller islands – her two bears – known as North and South Manitou Islands.  Love that story.

We originally were going to spend four days in the area but quickly extended our stay so we could enjoy the park to the fullest. We were there in late May so the summer tourists had not arrived in droves that are sure to come.  This meant that many times we were the only ones on the hiking trails and alone at scenic overlooks.  A “must-see” in the park is the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive. This seven-mile loop guides visitors through woodlands to sandy cliffs with amazing views looking over the blue waters of Lake Michigan and out to the Manitou Islands.


A popular activity at the park is a hike up the Dune Climb.  Most places that have dunes readily request that you “keep off” the dunes for ecological reasons.  But here is one place where you can climb up and roll down a massive sand dune.  This is great exercise that offers awesome views.  Note the tiny rectangular thing in that parking lot that is a school bus.

One Saturday we visited the historic town of Glen Haven which was celebrating the beginning of summer with their annual “Glen Haven Days” that amounts to maritime history 101.  This tiny village was home to several hundred people that were employed by one very busy entrepreneur by the name of D.H. Day.  Mr. Day had his hand in the shipping business, logging, cherry farming and canning, and taking tourists on automobile dune rides.  Today, the restored 1920’s era town is under the care of the National Park Service who interprets life from a different time.  The buildings house a general store, blacksmiths shop, and cannery/boathouse.

The U.S. Coast Guard had a presence here and played a crucial role of saving lives in the treacherous waters of the Manitou Passage where shoals and submerged rocks proved deadly for mariners.  The old station house is now a museum with interesting exhibits and demonstrations.


Sleeping Bear is nestled along the tiny towns of Empire and Glen Arbor.  Both are quaint, small, and swell during the summer tourist season.  There is a smattering of shops, eateries, and galleries but don’t expect more than an hour or so to stroll through the town streets and see all they have to offer.  (If it’s a bigger town you want, head west 25 miles to Traverse City.)  One place we did spend a bit of time (on multiple occasions) is at the Cherry Republic whose flagship store is in Glen Arbor.  Everything cherry is here . . . wine, barbecue sauce, chocolate covered cherries, cherry sausage, dried cherries, cherry chocolate covered pretzels . . . I think you get the point.  After sampling over two dozen of their products in the store, we headed to the building that had the wine tasting, and finally to the ice cream shop for some more cherry goodness.


Sleeping Bear Dunes NL is really a “must-see” if you are coming to northern Michigan.  We enjoyed the peaceful walks in the woods, marveling at the beautiful lakes, spectacular views, and learning about the areas rich history.


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