Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore Empire, Mich. Visited: May 19, 2004 NPS Site Visited: 45 of 353 NPS Website; Local Website
WHAT IS IT? 450-foot high dunes that stretch for miles along the coast of Lake Michigan. The Park also includes two offshore Islands available for wilderness excursions if you can find a boat.
BEAUTY (6/10) Our NPS campsite was yards from the Lakeshore. To our surprise, Lake Michiganís variations of blue are stunning. They change in hues from a sparkling turquoise to a glistening navy throughout the day. Near to dusk the both the lake and the sky melded into a cream-colored oneness. Between North and South Manitou Islands, the horizon was lost. It was one of the most beautiful sunsets we have ever seen.
The Sleeping Bear Dunes NL can claim neither the sunset nor Lake Michigan. Its centerpieces are the substantial lakeshore dunes. Dunes do not rank high on our beauty scale. Sleeping Bear was no exception. Park photographs and literature show interesting ghost forests or dead trees that reveal themselves as the sand shifts. We took a number of hikes around the dunes and could not spot the phenomenon.
HISTORIC SIGNIFICANCE (2/10) Very little to speak of. The slow creep of sands erosive powers is historical notable but hardly unique to Sleeping Bear. The Site includes a Maritime Museum that presumably speaks of the history of Lake Michiganís fishermen and/or water-based lifesavers. We would not know because the Museum is open only from Memorial Day to Labor Day.
CROWDS (4/10) We visited Sleeping Bear Dunes NL early in the week in mid-May. There were not many fellow tourists. We had no problems securing a tremendous campsite. The scarcity of people did bring problems. Only one of the Siteís Visitor Centers was open, the instruction pamphlet boxes at the head of trails were empty and Rangers were at a minimum.
Signs at the campground gave us the indication that post-Memorial Day the Site gets very crowded. Byzantine rules mandated how, when and why people can claim the first-come first-serve campsites. As a result, the mainland campsites do not seem to be a very inviting place come summer.
EASE OF USE/ACCESS (2/5) Only the main Visitor Center was open. And it closed at 4:00 p.m. We arrived at 3:50 after hurrying up Michiganís western coast in order to secure campsite information. Instead of welcoming us, the Rangers forced us out. They brushed off our questions even telling us, incorrectly, that the ferries were not yet running to the Parks offshore Manitou Islands.
The Site is not as remotely located as the other Michigan National Park sites. It still is rather remote, being about 150 miles from Grand Rapids, MI and 250 miles from Detroit, MI. The Dunes are located about 20 from the lively resort town of Traverse City.
The Parkís signature hike, the Dune Climb (straight up a 200-foot dune), is very strenuous and obviously accessible only to the fittest of visitors.
CONCESSIONS/BOOKSTORE (3/5) Good selection.
COSTS (3/5) $7 per car, free with the National Parks Pass.
RANGER/GUIDE TO TOURIST RATIO (2/5) We saw a good number of Rangers but they were all either at the one open Visitor Center or leading large tour groups of school kids. There most definitely were not any Rangers on the Manitou Islands as one Ranger told us they were inaccessible. The night before we were set to leave, we learned from a fellow camper that the ferries were indeed running and that there was some sort of festivities on South Manitou Island.
TOURS/CLASSES (3/10) The exhibits at the Visitor Center were well done. The slide show was beautiful and may have been subtitled Ďthis is why we are professional photographers and you are notí. The pictures were so good that we saw Sleeping Bear Dunes in a much more attractive light. We even stopped listening to narration in favor of looking at the images.
The Park advertised self-guided pamphlets to accompany your hikes, but all the pamphlet boxes were empty.
FUN (4/10) The Dune Climb was fun if not exhausting. We surely should not have tried to run up it. Our campsite was lovely and the views of Lake Michigan were breathtaking. It is also hard not to be charmed and saddened by the story of the Sleeping Bear Dunes. A mother bear and her two cubs took to the rough waters of the Lake, fleeing from an intense forest fire. The mother made it to safety but the cubs lagged behind and drowned. The mother bear remains to this day on watch over the Lake. She is the Dune. The spirits of the cubs rose to form the two Manitou Islands.
WOULD WE RECOMMEND? (4/10) The area surrounding the Sleeping Bear Dunes NL was delightful and, when warmer, would probably make for a wonderful summer vacation.
USA-C2C.com is an independent website, not affiliated in any way with the National Park Service, the National Parks Foundation or any of their partners.