Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore was our primary destination on the shore of Lake Michigan.  As you know, I’m all about collecting the national park stamps and I didn’t have any of the National Park site stamps in Michigan except for River Raisin.  When we put together the trip, my priority was getting the stamps at all the National Park sites in Michigan.

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is known for its sand dunes.  The park gets its name from one dune in particular—the Mother Bear. Perched along the edge of the large dune that towers about Lake Michigan, this dune, at one time, resembled a sleeping bear. The Ashininaabek (Ojibway) used the Mother Bear as a landmark and tell a story about how she came to be there.

Sleeping Bear Dune is the dark blotch in the middle. You can see the two Manitou islands in the background.


Once, long ago, in the land called Wisconsin across the great lake, there was terrible hunger and many people died. A bear and two little cubs were trying to leave that place and come around the lake where there would be more food.  They walked for many days on the beach together, but after a while the two little cubs began to whimper with hunger, and so the bear decided to swim across the rest of the lake.

They waded into the water, one cub on each side of the bear, and they swam off into the lake a long way. After a while the cubs began to get very tired, and so the bear said, “Try hard, the land is not very far.” And very soon they did come in sight of land.  But gradually the cubs got weaker, and only ten miles away, one cub sank into the water. Soon after, the other also drowned.

The mother bear’s heart was broken, but she could do nothing. She waded ashore and lay down, looking out on the water where her cubs had died. Eventually, both of them came to the surface as two little islands, and so the bear still lies there atop the dunes, looking after her children.

Sign with Visitors Center in background

The first place we went when we drove into the park was the Philip A Hart Visitors Center which is located in the middle of the park in Empire.  We talked to a ranger about the various hikes and sights in the park and then watched the movie.  The new park movie is “Water, Sand, and Sky” and features an Ashininaabek family as they tell the legend of the dunes.  The movie also talks about how water, wind, and sand move from year to year so that the park is constantly changing.

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Seashore charges an entrance fee, so Tom showed his Senior Pass which was good for all five of us throughout the park.  Eric Shaw decided he needed a pass like that also, so he bought one that he and Sandy can use on travels without us.  Sandy wanted to get one too, but she isn’t old enough yet.  You must be 62 or older for the Senior Pass and a lifetime pass costs $80.  When I am selling them, I tell people “The Senior Pass is good as long as you are.”  Sandy had to settle for buying a magnet, which is the souvenir that she buys for all her travels.  Eric groans about it because he says he can’t see the refrigerator.

Starting the Dune Climb
In the middle
At the top
But wait, there’s more!
Cottonwood Trail
I am the little red dot
View from the top of the dune

The first place we headed after the Visitors Center was the Dune Climb.  This is the most popular hike in the park.  As the name suggests, the Dune Climb is a climb up a dune.  The ranger at the Dune Climb warned us several times that it was a very strenuous hike.  Me must have thought we looked too old to do it.  The complete Dune Climb is four miles.  We weren’t intending to do the entire thing – just climb up the most popular section next to the parking lot.  Eric and Bob decided to sit it out and wait for us and the rest of us started climbing.

If you have ever climbed a dune, you know that you go two steps forward and slide back one step.  It is exhausting to get your feet out of the sand and make any progress.  We climbed and climbed, with several breaks to “look at the view.”  Eric took pictures of us as we progressed.  When we finally made it to the top of the dune, we thought we would be able to see Lake Michigan.  Nope.  Instead, we saw more sand dunes.  Not as steep as the first one but more climbing in the sand than we wanted to do.

Still going

Tom is one of those people who always wants to see what is around the next corner.  He was sure that if we just walked a little bit more, we would be able to see Lake Michigan.  We climbed to the top of the next dune and saw – another sand dune in front of us.  Instead of continuing to climb, we asked some of the hikers coming back what they could see.

One couple told us that if we hiked up the sand dune to our left, we could see Lake Michigan, so we headed that way.  Tom and Sandy made it all the way to the top, although they were scrambling on their hands and knees because the final climb was so steep.  We had another woman following us up the dunes.  She said it was easier to climb in our footsteps.  The three of them took several pictures of themselves and Lake Michigan from the top of the dune.

Sandy and Tom at the top with Lake Michigan in the background

Coming down a dune is more fun that climbing up.  Basically you just slide down, so that part was easy.

The Dune Climb is what Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is all about.  Lake Michigan has wonderful, sandy beaches.  The beaches, however, are often fronted by tall dunes, making it difficult to get down to the water.  For the most part, we had to content ourselves with just looking at the water from the tops of various dunes in the park.  There are miles of hiking trails in Sleeping Bear Dunes and all of them involve sand.  Lots and lots of sand.

Anyone up for more?

The Dune Climb is not the only thing we did in Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.  Tomorrow I will tell you more about what we saw and did on our visit.