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.