Sleeping Bear in the Off-season

Traverse City outdoorsman Mike Norton is glad that the rest of the country considers the Sleeping Bear Dunes the “Most Beautiful Place in America” – but he thinks they’d love it even more if they came in the autumn, or even in winter. 

Up here in Traverse City, we like to tell people that we weren’t surprised when more than 100,000 viewers of “Good Morning America” voted for the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore as the Most Beautiful Place in America.

“Of course,” we say. “We knew it all the time.”

But the truth is, we were surprised. It’s not that we don’t love Sleeping Bear ourselves – we really do – but it came as a shock that so many other people love it just as passionately, even though most of them don’t know it the way we do.

After all, even though millions of visitors throng to the Dunes every summer to prowl its miles of sandy beaches, climb its towering 400-foot dunes and swim in the jewel-bright waters of Lake Michigan, only a few travelers think to visit in the other three seasons of the year. And those are the times when the place is really amazing.

Fall clothes the hills with brilliant color; spring carpets the coastal forests with cheerful wildflowers. And winter? Well, Sleeping Bear’s glacier-scoured landscape of ridges, bluffs, lakes, and islands is uniquely appealing clothed in snow: a wild and primeval setting for skierssnowshoe hikers, and anglers.

“In winter, there are large stretches of the park that you can have pretty much to yourself,” says Park Service interpreter Susan Schmidt. “There’s lots of wildlife and lots of good views. You can see the backbone of the land this time of year, the marks of the glaciers.”

Although it’s barely 20 minutes west of Traverse City, the park operates at an undeniably slower pace in the off-season. There are few rangers in evidence, and in winter some roads (including the popular Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive) are closed to traffic because they can’t be reliably kept clear of blowing snow and sand.

But the lack of crowds can make an off-season trip to the dunes particularly rewarding – and much more comfortable than one might think. (One example: since Lake Michigan’s waters can take a long time to cool down in the fall, swimming is often delightful well into October.)

Many of the park’s attractions and amenities remain open all year round – including the Philip A. Hart Visitor Center in Empire, where rangers and interpreters can give you a quick rundown on what’s happening. They know where the wildflowers and morel mushrooms can be found in spring, and where the best fall color is likely to be showing.

The visitor center is also the place where you can join one of the park’s most enjoyable winter group activities: guided snowshoe hikes. On Saturdays and Sundays in January and February, park rangers lead groups in leisurely trips to some of Sleeping Bear’s most interesting winter features. (They even provide free snowshoes for those who don’t have their own.)

But the best part about using snowshoes at Sleeping Bear is that you’re free to leave the trail system pretty much whenever you want. Because the park’s soils and vegetation are easily harmed, rangers are fairly strict with hikers during most of the year -- but in winter the rules are much more relaxed, and snowshoeing is allowed on all snow-covered dunes, fields, and forests.

Cross-country skiing is probably the most popular winter sport in the Lakeshore, and the park has designated several trails for Nordic skiers, from relatively flat routes like Platte Plains, Windy Moraine, Good Harbor Bay and Bay View to challenging routes like the Old Indian and Alligator Hill trails. And although the Stocking Scenic Drive is closed to auto traffic for the winter, it’s open to skiers and snowshoe hikers alike during the winter.

Fishing is permitted year-round at Sleeping Bear, and many anglers prefer to fish in fall, winter and spring. In fact, all kinds of creatures -- deer, coyote, fox, porcupines and otters – become more active and are more easily spotted once the crowds thin out and the weather cools.

That’s also true, strangely, of shipwrecks. Between 1835 and 1960 more than 50 ships sank offshore in the narrow strait known as the Manitou Passage; thanks to strong winds, many pieces of those long-ago wrecks wash ashore during the winter and spring. Many beachcombers look for relics along what’s called the Shipwreck Trail, between the ghost port of Glen Haven and the shore south of Sleeping Bear Point.

An even more thrilling winter experience can be sampled at the famous Dune Climb near Glen Haven, where the Park Service allows sledding on the 260-foot face of the dune. It’s the only dune where such activities are allowed. (But bring your second-best sled -- the combination of snow and windblown sand can be pretty gritty!)

Visitors can even camp overnight if they desire: the full-service Platte River Campground at the park’s southern end is open, and camping is also permitted at the White Pine and Valley View background campgrounds – but you’ll have to ski or snowshoe to those sites because they can’t be reached by car.

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 and cyclist, he lives in the village of Old Mission.