Sleeping Bear Dunes National Park

Saturday, August 7th

My mom and I stopped by our favorite regional coffee chain Bixby for a coffee fix before hitting the highway a day trip to stunning Sleeping Bear Dunes National Park.

I fell in love with the scenery of Sleeping Bear Dunes after seeing photos on a National Park travel page.  The images of clear pristine waters, windswept rugged bluffs and pristine sandy beaches cast a spell on me.  While we didn’t initially have Sleeping Bear on our itinerary, when I realized it was only around six hours from Chicago – my mom and I decided to take the detour.

Named by GMA (ABC News) as the ‘The Most Beautiful Place in America,’ Sleeping Bear Dunes is a mix of mystery, legend and out of this world beauty.  Situated on the northeastern area of Lake Michigan, Sleeping Bear Dunes is known for miles of sand beach bluffs that tower 450 feet.  The water is so clear – it looks tropical.  It is hard to fathom the hidden treasures and beauty that northern Michigan provides nature lovers.  Words will not do it justice.

The three-hour drive north from Grand Rapids to Sleeping Bear Dunes, was breathtaking hill country and rambling farmland.  It reminded me of my time visiting Canada -hinting at our high latitude and northward journey. 

We kicked off our Sleeping Bear adventure with a brief stop in the city of Traverse City, which is known as ‘The Cherry Capital of the World,’ (Although Door County, WI may disagree 🙂 ). For ice cream lovers – the original Kilwin’s is based out of Traverse City. I love their Traverse Cherry Ice Cream.

Stomachs grumbling, we grabbed a hearty meal at Cracker Barrel to fuel the rest of the day.  Fun fact – I used to work at Cracker Barrel in college and as we don’t live super close to one, it is always enjoyable to eat at a CB while traveling.

After lunch, we drove forty minutes west from Traverse City to the laid-back town of Empire – a gateway to the national park.

I recommend starting your journey at the visitor’s center, which provides a wealth of information about the park, ecosystem, tourist information and the history of the area.

A brief video retells the myth of ‘The Sleeping Bear’ artistically with images of the lake.  The Legend of the Sleeping Bear is sad and yet reminds you of the fierce beauty of the land, from extremes of summer, winter, wind, erosion – the dance of time and space.

“The Legend of the Sleeping Bear” (from NPS brochure)

Once, long ago, across the great lake in Wisconsin (Lake Michigan), there was a terrible hunger and many people and animals died.  A bear and her two little cups, desperate for food, left that place to swim the long distance to the other side of the lake.

After a while the cubs became very tired and so the bear said: “Try hard, the land is not very far.” But the cubs could not make the journey – falling into the sleep of death in Lake Michigan.

The bear’s heart was broken, but she could do nothing.  She waded ashore and climbed the bluff to lie down, looking out on the water to be near the spirit of her cubs.  The cubs, though lost to the lake, resurfaced as two little islands, and so the bear still lies there now – looking after her children.”  The little bears are neighboring Manitou Islands you can see from ‘The Sleeping Bear’ Dune.

The park rangers recommended we start our tour by driving the scenic Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive.  This stunning 7.4-mile drive loops through the confluence of the park’s forests, dunes and seashore. You can take a virtual tour here.

Each mile invited us deeper into the unique scenery from the serene vista of neighboring Glen Lake, which parallels Lake Michigan to the pinnacle of our day – The Sleeping Bear Dune.

We struggled to find a parking spot at this popular vista but were able to squeeze into a spot last minute.  Camera in hand my mom and I trekked into the sandy bluff into what felt like a scene from Narnia or a fantastical land – clear deep water – tropical water if you will, cradled by the protective dunes of the Sleeping Bear.

One thing I still struggle to fathom is the drop of the dune.  I’m from NC and have visited some of the tallest dunes in the world, and yet nothing compares with Sleeping Bear.  It is an almost vertical rise.  I watch with trepidation as brave duners tiptoed down the sand mountain to the beach below.

“God truly touched this place,” my mom and I discussed – truly moved by the scenery and peace of the rugged terrain, crystal clear waters and sound of the wind and crashing waves.

After the scenic drive we toured the park’s several historic districts. 

Glen Haven Historic Village gives visitors a taste of what life was like in a shipping/fishing village.  Living on the edge of the Lake has always been difficult and beautiful.  The winters are hard, but the work of fishing, industry has always been vital in the region.

Glen Haven played a role in Northern Michigan’s economic eras of lumbering, agriculture and tourism.  It was a stop for ships to take on fuel wood, it provided food, lodging and services to travelers along Lake Michigan.  Its economic evolution can be traced to visionary businessman David Henry Day, who pioneered sustainable forestry.

The beaches at Glen Haven are perfect for a dip in the pristine waters.

The nearby Port Oneida was settled by German and Prussian immigrants.  Today it is the nation’s largest publicly owned historic agricultural landscape.

With a few more hours of daylight, we continued up the park corridor, on the edge of Lake Michigan driving north on Highway 22 to the tourist town of Leland.

Leland is the gateway to the park’s Manitou Islands – offering ferry services to North and South Manitou Islands.  I wish we had time to take the ferries, but we had to stop and admire the island view from the mainland.

Leland is a cute town that has lots of fun tourist shops and good restaurants.  We weren’t hungry otherwise I would have stopped there for dinner.

Continuing up the coast, outside of the park boundary – my mom and I continued to drive until the road ended at the tip of the Leelanau Peninsula.  The road dead ends into gorgeous Leelanau State Park.

The State Park is fabulous, offering tourists 1500 acres to explore.  The park’s highlight is the Grand Traverse Lighthouse and Museum.  The lighthouse has its roots to the mid-1800s with the present structure dating back to the 1890s. It is preserved by the Grand Traverse Lighthouse Foundation.

They have an amazing website with virtual tours and lots of historical facts.  Instead of taking up space here to recount the history – please check out their website and offer support if you can

Leelanau is the Native American word for ‘A Land of Delight’ and what a delight this park is.  I recommend the excursion if you are in the area. 

My mom and I enjoyed relaxing on the edge of civilization, sitting by the lighthouse, listening to the waves gently tap the shore. 

Just after six, we parked in the nearby village of Northport.  The town is known as one of the prettiest in Michigan.  The community of over 600 year-round residents has a long shoreline of two and half miles on Grand Traverse Bay. 

Northport is highly walkable and has a great historic self-paced walking tour, where you can see quaint and grand historic homes and businesses dating to the 1850s. 

“According to this brochure, Northport was originally settled by the Ottawa and Chippewa Indians.  Among the first non-Native inhabitants of Northport were Reverend George and Arvilla Smith in 1849.  Coming with them from Ottawa County were fifty Native Americans.  It was a community of faith and endurance. The town’s population boomed in the 1850s as word grew of the beauty and natural resource of the land.”

“It is a gorgeous village, lost in time,” My mom noted as we ambled down the quaint streets.

We were starting to get hungry and decided we should eat something before the three-hour drive back to Grand Rapids. Unfortunately, area restaurants had long wait times (2 hours) due to the summer rush.

We capped off our stay in Northport with delicious homemade ice-cream and a quick shopping trip at local souvenir shop.

The drive south as dusk emerged was amazing.   We meandered down the coast of the Grand Traverse Bay to Traverse City.  Night fell just as we left Traverse City.

I wish I had a week or more at Sleeping Bear Dunes but even the quick trip was worth it.  It truly is one of the most scenic areas in America.

Tomorrow our trip concludes with a drive to Chicago and the airport, but as I recapture my trip diary now – I am still haunted by the scenery of Lake Michigan.  It has stolen my heart.

Thanks for joining me on this Lake Michigan adventure.

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