An hour outside of Traverse City, Michigan, the cherry capital of the world, lies magnificent, towering sand dunes unlike anywhere else in the United States. Good Morning America voted Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore the “Most Beautiful Place in the United States”, and the 72,000 acre preserve is home to some of the largest sand dunes in the world. My husband and I recently spent a day climbing the massive sand dunes at the Dune Climb, hiking along the winding sand paths that stretch for miles in every direction, and standing atop some of the highest and largest sand dunes in the world, all while overlooking gorgeous Lake Michigan.
Formed by glaciers that moved slowly across the land, pushing sand up high onto plateaus as they passed at a snails pace over thousands of years, these beautiful sand dunes make for incredible hiking, camping, and lead down to Lake Michigan, where sailing, kayaking, canoeing, and swimming have been traditional past times for hundreds of years.
Quick Facts About Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore
Established: October 21, 1970
Total Area: 72,000 acres
Highest Sand Dunes: 460 feet, 40 stories, or 140.2m
Hike Length: At Least 6 Miles (9.65 km) round trip
Hike Difficulty: Intermediate – Advanced
Cost of Rescue Services within the Preserve: $3,000 USD per person
The National Lakeshore preserve of Sleeping Bear Dunes was established on October 21, 1970, as a way to ensure the preservation and protection of these magnificent sand dunes from loggers, foresters, hunters, and overfishing. Today, the sand dunes serve as educational and recreational reminders of the impressive and enduring power of nature, and why it should be protected and preserved for us, and for future generations.
Prior to the creation of the National Lakeshore park, Northern Michigan was home to Chippewa and Ottawa people for thousands of years, where they lived, hunted, and fished the lands without disrupting the delicate balance of nature, unlike the European colonizers who immediately exploited the incredible wealth of natural resources and seized it from the indigenous people, upon “discovering” this area. The protections put in place in 1970 prevented the land from being ruined by those who wanted to exploit such remarkable natural resources and natural beauty, and turned control of the lands over to the people of Northern Michigan.
The name of Sleeping Bear Dunes comes from a Native American legend of the Ojibwe, also called the Chippewa people, that tells of a mother bear and her two cubs who tried to escape a raging forest fire that drove her and her cubs into Lake Michigan. They attempted to swim to the shore of a nearby land that looked much closer than it really was. Sadly, the legend says that her two cubs became too exhausted from the seemingly never-ending swim to carry on, and they drowned. When the mother bear reached the shore, she sat waiting for her cubs to reach her, and not understanding that they were gone, she looked out at the water waiting for them day and night, never giving up hope that one day they would find her, until she was covered by sand and fell into an eternal slumber.
Her tremendous love for her cubs, and her dedication to them impressed the Great Spirit (also called God or referred to by some as the universe itself), who created nearby South and North Manitou islands in their memory. With this, the mother bear was once again reunited with her children, forever, in the form of Sleeping Bear Dunes, and the two islands that now rest nearby, under her protection.
We began the 6 mile round trip hike around Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore by typing “Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Maple City, MI 49664” into our GPS. We couldn’t find a more specific address, but it took us to the massive sand dune trail head, which is about 10 stories high, and began the hike. We walked through the sand barefoot, like most other hikers, and after the first three miles or so of hiking up and down the steep, sandy dunes, our feet and toes began to ache, but we pushed on, and it wasn’t too painful.
The hike was slow going, and most people who began around the same time we did turned back before we made it to the unbelievably blue waters of Lake Michigan. The 3 mile hike to the beach would normally have taken us about 30-45 minutes at a normal walking pace, but because of the steep incline of the hills and the backsliding of our feet in the sand dunes, it took us twice as long as we expected.
There are no restrooms along the route to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, nor are there any along the 35 miles of lakeshore that the park stands upon. This also means that there are no sinks or places to refill water bottles along the way either, so be sure to bring at least 1L of water per person hiking the trail. There are signs around the park that state that if you fall down the dunes towards the lake in areas where the dunes are too deep to climb back up, or if you pass out from the heat of the sun, it costs $3,000 USD to be rescued via helicopter and brought back to safety, which doesn’t include any medical care a person may need as a result of injuries. Suffice it to say, I don’t recommend taking the hike lightly, because it is a bit challenging, particularly for those who aren’t used to strenuous exercise or high temperatures.
After reaching the waters of Lake Michigan, we went for a swim in the crystal clear waters to cool off, because at this point the ambient temperature was about 95°F (35ºC), and we were quite tired from the difficult hike up and down the towering sand dunes in the high August heat. We relaxed in the shade for a bit until we were mostly dried off and had rested up, and we headed back the way we had come. I have lived in Michigan nearly my entire life, and I can’t believe it took me so long to get to Sleeping Bear Dunes, it was such an incredible place to see.
Be warned, we accidentally took a wrong path on our way back, and ended up a bit lost. There are dozens of winding hiking paths that intersect, cross, and run parallel to the main hiking paths, and they all start to look the same in the shifting sands, particularly when there is no other people, nor many good markers around. This added an extra hour onto our return hike, which was unpleasant in the heat, and could have been dangerous if we weren’t used to strenuous hiking in high temperatures. If hikers stray off the main path too much, they should keep a look out for ground bees living in the sand dunes, as we saw dozens and dozens of them flying around when we were lost, which was a bit scary because I am very allergic to bees. Had I known there were so many bees out beyond the main trail, we would have been much more careful about staying on the correct path!
I recommend bringing the following when hiking Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore
Sun protection (hat, sunglasses, sunscreen, etc.)
At least 1L of water per person hiking the main path
Hiking boots (if you don’t want to walk barefoot in the sand)
A way to secure keys and valuables so they aren’t lost in the sand (backpack, fanny pack, etc.)
The hike was so beautiful, and the waters of Lake Michigan felt positively magical after the long, hot hike to the beach. It’s a great hiking experience for outdoor lovers who are adequately prepared for the trek. I will also point out that beyond the first 2-3 high sand dunes, we didn’t see a single person under the age of 15 or so, which means this hike is likely not appropriate for young children or inexperienced hikers. The sand dunes are also not handicap accessible at all, unfortunately, and those with mobility issues won’t make it much farther than the paved paths around the parking lot. There wasn’t much information I could find online about what to expect when hiking this incredible place for our first visit, so I hope this helps prepare other hikers to have an excellent and respectful time at the dunes.
See More by Annie Fairfax
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