The Beauty of Sleeping Bear Dunes

After 34 years as a resident of Traverse City, writer Mike Norton has come to love his adopted hometown’s natural beauty, its many opportunities for outdoor recreation and its generous array of tasty things to eat and drink. But most of all, he loves the big sprawling national park just a few miles west of town: the Sleeping Bear Dunes.

The dream is always the same. It’s evening, and I’m standing at the edge of the great dune, looking out over Lake Michigan. The sun is low in the sky, the distant water like a sheet of beaten brass, and the sand-warmed wind makes the leaves hiss in the cottonwoods behind me. Far below, a single tiny gull wheels over the beach. Everything is as it should be, nothing is out of place, and when I awaken I am always refreshed.

All too often, places and things that once impressed me with their size and power seem sadly diminished when I visit them later in life — larger in memory than they are in reality.

The Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is not one of them.

Thanks to my job, I get out to the Dunes pretty regularly (lucky me!) and if I was ever going to get tired of the place, I’m sure it would have happened by now.  But it hasn’t. Whether I’m wandering around in the pine barrens near Platte Bay or getting lost on South Manitou Island, walking the long beach by Pyramid Point or cruising the Pierce  Stocking Scenic Drive for the umpteenth time, there’s always at least one moment when I’m rocked back on my heels by the beauty of it all.

There are a lot of ways to enjoy this magnificent landscape. Visitors often get their first overview on the Scenic Drive, a 7.1-mile self-guided route that offers great views of the surrounding dunes and lakes.  But some people can’t resist the famous Dune Climb at the west shore of Little Glen Lake. (It’s a hard climb, but the view from the top is worth it!)

Others visit the nearby “ghost port” of Glen Haven, where there’s a working blacksmith shop, a boat museum and a well-preserved Lifesaving Service station that’s open for tours, and the once-thriving German settlement at Port Oneida, where 19th century farms are being rescued from the ravages of time.

Me, I like to hike – and Sleeping Bear is full of hiking trails. My personal  favorite? The 2.8-mile Dunes Trail, which takes you out along Sleeping Bear Point through a landscape of wind-scoured dunes and vegetation. One of its strangest features is a “ghost forest:” a stand of huge bleached cedars that were buried by sand and then uncovered by the winds. Walking through them, especially at dusk, is an eerie experience — like being stranded on another planet.

I think one of the best things about my job is that it gives me the opportunity to introduce other people to Sleeping Bear for the very first time. I love to watch the light come into their eyes as they step out onto one of those high overlooks above the lake, where you’re so high above the sand and sky and water that you might as well be flying.  Ninety percent of the time, the first words out of their mouths will be “I had no idea!”

That’s right, I think. But now you do.

Sometimes I wonder if we Traverse City folks get so caught up in all of our town’s great food and wine, entertainment and shopping that we start to forget what brought most of us here in the first place: the sheer beauty that surrounds us on every side.

That’s the true value of things like the recent vote by viewers of Good Morning America who named Sleeping Bear the “most beautiful place in America.” People can quibble with the results (there are lots of beautiful places, after all) and people can talk about how much good such things do for the local economy. But I think the best part of it is to serve as a reminder that we’re all — visitors and residents alike — members of a privileged group and custodians of a very special part of the world.

Some people seem to think we can best protect these wonders by keeping them a secret, known only to the privileged few. For my part, I want to do what I can to let the world know about them. I’ve come to believe that when other people see what an amazing place this is, they’ll be motivated to guard and protect it — just as I was when I first stepped out on that overlook above the lake.

Mike Norton, a native of Grand Rapids, spent 25 years as newspaper writer and columnist before starting a second career as media relations director at the Traverse City Convention & Visitors Bureau. An avid hiker, cyclist and kayaker, he lives in the village of Old Mission.

Family Fun at the Kalamazoo Nature Center

Discover plants, birds, barn animals and more at the Kalamazoo Nature Center, a fun, informative environment for the entire family. The editors of Michigan Travel Ideas share this springtime find, as well as other kid-friendly stops in Kalamazoo.

Interpretive Center: Young children love to push display buttons to release animal odors and bird calls. They can see fish live in area waters in the aquarium. Before heading out walk the trails, learn plant names in the domed greenhouse.

Barn: In May, the timber-framed barn opens for weekends. See baby farm animals: ponies, chicks, sheep and goats.

Trails: More than a dozen gravel footpaths wind through pine and hardwood forest and alongside ponds and marshes. Though trails range in difficulty, most are less than a mile long. A few highlights:

    • Beach Maple Trail: Take this .7-mile trail to see spring wildflowers in all their blooming beauty.
    • Habitat Haven Trail: Just over a half a mile, this winding woodland path loops around a pond where marshy plants like Joe Pye weed harbor frogs and turtles.
    • Bluebird Trail: A bit longer (2.7 miles each way) and more challenging, this trail goes through a variety of habitats, including a 144-acre tallgrass prairie. You’ll see lots of daisies, purple coneflower and big bluestem grasses.

Events: There are events planned for almost every day of the week and many on weekends. Kid-friendly activities include Small Wonders (stop at interactive stations geared to the under-5 set), Creature Features (where the animals come out from behind glass), Groovy Growing (kids under the age of 5 can visit the Learning Garden to see what’s growing in the sustainable farm project) and story times.

More to explore: Want to make a weekend of your trip?

  • Kalamazoo Valley Museum: This three-story museum blends history and science, with tons of hands-on activities (free!). At the “Science in Motion” exhibit, build a race car using supplied parts and race it around a track (kids love this, but we saw plenty of dads having fun, too). In the nature exhibits, kids can create a miniature tornado or tidal wave.
  • Food Dance: Funky Food Dance restaurant specializes in local food. The kids’ menu includes polka-dot cakes for breakfast and a pint-size burger for lunch and dinner.
  • Radisson Hotel: The 5,000-gallon saltwater aquarium on the lower level will entertain.
  • Air Zoo: Kalamazoo’s signature attraction features airplanes from the earliest fliers to advanced military craft and eight amusement park-style rides, including a 3-D space shuttle ride.

Trail Happy at Porcupine Mountain Wilderness State Park

With 60,000 acres of stunning forests, secluded lakes and scenic rivers, Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park is one of the few remaining large wild areas in the Midwest. The editors of Michigan Travel Ideas share what makes this massive state park Pure Michigan.

The still of the predawn morning is the perfect time to walk along the Lake Superior shore. Only the gentle hush of the water lapping on shore and the first birdcalls of the day accompany you. Watch the sunrise over the Porkies and experience all the beauty nature has to offer in a fleeting moment. Serenity is attainable here.

The size and variety of Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park allows you to choose your level of immersion in nature, and your level of difficulty on the 90-plus miles of hiking trails.

If you have part of a day…
The Union Mine Trail is an easy 1-mile loop north of the Union Spring trailhead, where interpretive signs point to evidence of copper miners who once worked here. On the hunt for waterfalls? Take the East or West River trails, which skirt the Presque Isle River to form a 2-mile loop.

If you have half a day…
For breathtaking views and a little more difficulty, tackle Escarpment Trail, which rises and falls along a ridgeline for more than 4 miles before accessing Lake of the Clouds Overlook. Only go half as far as you want to hike because you’ll have to turn back the way you came—unless you’re prepared for a much longer hike into the heart of the park.

If you have a full day…
Leave from the Summit Peak Scenic Area on the park’s south boundary and follow a 10-mile loop on the South Mirror Lake, Little Carp River and Lily Pond trails. The route hits many of the park’s highlights, including a wilderness lake, bird-filled marshes, dense forest, the Little Carp River and the Summit Peak Observation Tower, which soars three stories above the treetops. A day or annual permit is required for this hike.

Just as the sunrise exhilarates you for an adventurous day, the sunset (and the day’s hikes) will leave you satisfied and ready for a good night’s sleep. Visitors can choose from 10 campgrounds in the park, including rustic or backcountry camping and cabins as well as more modern areas with electrical service and restrooms.

Before you go, make sure you’re prepared for the level of difficulty on the trails you want to try. For more information on Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park, call 906/885-5275 or check out Michigan DNR.