How to make the most of your one-day visit to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore

You can see a great deal of Sleeping Bear in just one day. 

By Ranger Bill

When you visit a National Park, the proper question to ask the ranger at the information desk is “What should I see and how do I do it?” If you were to ask how to get to a specific attraction, the ranger will tell you but it may not be the best place for you to go or the most productive use of your time. So give the ranger a chance to share his/her knowledge with you. Next, the ranger will ask you how much time you have to spend in the park.

Only about 10 percent of the people who visit Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore stay overnight inside the park at one of the campgrounds and will be around for a few days or more. Many stay at a cottage in the local community and may come into the park a couple of times during their vacation. But by far the great majority of visitors are from outside the immediate area and will only spend one day at the National Lakeshore.

So what should those folks who have only one day do with their limited time in the park? You can’t do nearly everything, but if you use your time wisely, come early and stay till sunset, you can experience many of the features that make the National Lakeshore so special.

Nearly every article or guide to the Lakeshore will suggest that you begin with the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive, especially if you have limited time. The scenic drive is a seven-mile, one-way, paved road through the forest and dunes with boardwalks and overlooks. In my opinion, that is the wrong place to begin especially if you have limited time. Sure you will see more scenery but it will not have the same impact as actually getting into the dune environment. I suggest that you start at the Dune Climb.

As a park ranger, it was always frustrating to me to hear parents decide to go on the scenic drive because the kids will see more, or because the dune is too high for their kids to reach the top, even after explaining to them the difference between the scenic drive and the dune climb. So what if the kids only get halfway up. The Dune Climb is 130 feet high. Imagine a 65-foot high sand box-what kid wouldn’t want to play in that? But its not just kids who have fun on the Dune Climb, its teenagers, college kids, parents, even senior citizens. Just remember it’s not a competition; just go at you own pace Getting to the top is not the point. The point is to have fun with a huge pile of fine, clean sand that nature has put there. You may not see as much of the Sleeping Bear Dunes but you will keep it in your memory and in your heart longer than by viewing more of it from a boardwalk and paved overlooks.

Now this is important, tell your group not to go so far that they cannot see your vehicle. You will wave when it is time to come down. At the Dune Climb there is always the impulse to see if Lake Michigan is just over the next dune. Hikers get lured into long unplanned treks. It’s a mile and a half across the dunes to Lake Michigan over five big hills. It is a great hike if you are prepared with food, water, sunscreen and three hours but it is not for your group today. Make plans to return another time for that adventure. Today, you might spend as little as a half hour or a couple of hours on the Dune Climb depending on how much time you have and how hot the sand is.

Now is it time for the scenic drive? No, not yet. Remember I am planning to pack as much as possible into your one-day visit to Sleeping Bear so it is going to be a long day. We’ll go to the scenic drive later and be there for the sunset. Hopefully you have packed a lunch that you can eat anytime along the way. If not, head into Glen Arbor to grab some quick food but not a sit down meal. That will take too long but you’ll get there later for dinner.

Okay, if your family or group got an early start you get a bonus activity others may not have time for on their one-day visit. For many years I have said, “If you can only hike one trail in the National Lakeshore make it the Sleeping Bear Point Trail (No. 9 on the park map, which describes the hike as strenuous, but we are only doing the first quarter). After a short hike up a hill about as high as the dune climb but not nearly as hard (because it is gradual and you do not slip back with each step), you come to one of my favorite places in the Lakeshore. Atop the dune at Sleeping Bear Point you are in the most rapidly moving and changing dune area in the park. Here only the most hardy dune plants survive the harsh conditions because the Point catches wind from every quarter. Around you are areas so frequently blasted by the wind that no plant can survive and only wind-sculptured sand occupies the space. From this vantage point you can see most of the elements that define the character of the National Lakeshore. In addition to the sand dune at your bare feet, you see a ghost forest, the deep blue water of Lake Michigan and the emerald Manitou Island of legend seven miles off shore.

With lighthouse and Morazan shipwreck on South Manitou, the North Manitou crib lighthouse and the Sleeping Bear Point Coast Guard Station just visible through the treetop behind you, recall the rich maritime history of the Manitou Passage. Across the aqua-colored water of Sleeping Bear Bay you see the forest and open fields of the Port Oneida Rural Historic District, and along the water’s edge, a strip of sandy beach stretching for miles. On another visit you can complete the loop trail past Devils Hole but for your one-day visit enjoy the view and dunes then return back to your car the way you came. Good news, its all down hill.

If the day is hot, next, you will want to head to a Lake Michigan beach next, but first check the time. The D.H. Day StoreI want you to visit both the Glen Haven Historic Village and the Sleeping Bear Point Coast Guard Station Museum. For a quick visit you will need an hour and a half and they close at 5 PM. The beach is always open so plan your time accordingly. The good thing is that they are all right together. You can break up your museum tour with a little beach time at either location. The beach at the museum and the village are as nice as any in the Lakeshore, and both have modern restroom facilities. The Glen Haven restrooms even have benches and hooks for changing into to your bathing suit.

The Sleeping Bear Point Coast Guard Stations Life-Saving Museum has exhibits about local shipwrecks and rescues. The station was one of three Life-Saving Service Stations that guarded the Manitou passage. The Coast Guard was called the Life-Saving Service before 1916. A highlight of the museum is the boathouse that contains all the rescue boats and equipment just as it would have been in 1902 when the station opened. Glen Haven is one of the best surviving examples of a Great Lakes village. While there, watch the blacksmith, visit the boat museum and shop at the general store.

Point Oneida FarmAfter that you may be hungry, so head the car towards Glen Arbor or Empire for a leisurely sit-down dinner. After dinner check the time again. You will want to enter the Scenic Drive about an hour before sunset. If you have a little time to spare, you could take a drive through the Port Oneida Rural Historic District five miles north of Glen Arbor, or you could go to the beach on Little Glen Lake across from the Dune Climb, or maybe back to Lake Michigan beach in Glen Haven. Each of these spots is calm and relaxing in the early hour of evening.

When you enter the scenic drive, get the booklet that describes the features. One person can read aloud and act as tour guide. When you exit there is a sign that reads “Return Brochure Here.” It should read “Return Brochure Here if you do not wish to keep it.” I can guarantee you that you are welcome to keep the booklet if you wish. (I will work on getting the sign corrected.) There is a new service this year. You can use your cell phone to hear a message about the view you are seeing from the overlooks. Look for the information along the drive. Get out at each of the overlooks. Hopefully by now everyone in your group is too tired by the events of the day to be tempted to go down the steep bluff at the Lake Michigan overlook. If someone is still considering it, lock him or her in the car! The climb back up makes the Dune Climb seem like a mole hill and you could be there for hours waiting for their return.

Enjoy the sunset over Lake Michigan and the pink glow of the dune sand. Congratulate yourself. By carefully planning your one-day visit to the National Lakeshore you have experienced six (and maybe seven) of my top ten things to do at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.


Watchable Wildlife

By Ranger Bill

Seeing wildlife on your vacation to a national park makes the trip extra special. It makes no difference if your primary objective was to see mountains, canyons, swamps or beaches; seeing the park’s wildlife is always a welcome addition to your visit. Viewing wildlife in its natural habitat requires knowledge, patience and lots of time. Most of us, including national park staff, do not have all three of these requirements, especially time. Professional wildlife photographers know that seeing wildlife may take weeks of quietly waiting in just the right spot and still there is no guarantee that they will get a good picture.

However, with just a little information and planning you have a better chance of seeing animals on your next visit to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.

For most of us, seeing wildlife in the National Lakeshore is just a matter of chance – of just being lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time. A surprising number of times, wildlife is seen not while hiking a backcountry trail but while riding in the car. Park Rangers know that when these lucky occurrences happen, you need to be prepared to take full advantage of them, so keep your camera, binoculars and field guide handy. You never know if you will get another chance to see the animals again on your visit. If you see a mother deer and her fawn soon after entering the park, stop and enjoy the sight. Do not hurry on to the beach and assume you will have another chance later. Inside the park don’t be too destination-focused but be ready to respond to these unexpected opportunities. If you discuss the matter and take a vote you will be too far down the road and the opportunity gone. Stop slowly and safely pull as far off to the side as possible. Stay in the car. The local wildlife are very used to the sight and sound of cars and are not frightened by them. But when you get out to get a picture or a better view they are often scared away. Because animals are use to them, vehicles make an excellent blind and they have much more comfortable seats than the traditional hunter’s blind. See as much as you can from your present location. If conditions permit, safely and slowly move the car for a better view. If you sit quietly and move around slowly inside the vehicle, the animals will return to their normal activity and more animals may come into view.

You do not need to just depend on chance or luck to see wildlife during your visit to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. Knowing how to be in the right place at the right time can greatly increase your success.

For many years my seasonal naturalists had good success helping groups of visitors to see beaver. First, find out from park staff where beavers have been recently active. Right now one location is on Bass and Deer Lake at Trails End. They have dammed the creek between Bass Lake and Otter Lake with a lodge at the outlet of Bass Lake into this creek. Another dam is between Bass and Deer Lake with the lodge at the far side of Deer Lake. When looking for the lodges in this area be aware that our local beaver do not build their lodges out in the lake like we are use to seeing in books, but along the bank. So look for a big pile of chewed sticks, and packed mud. Another area of beaver activity this year on Tucker Lake just north of Glen Arbor on Westman Road. Get to either site in early evening and check out the lodge, dam and fallen trees. Even if you do not see a beaver just seeing their work is always impressive. No other animal manipulates the environment more than the beaver. Around sunset find a comfortable spot where you can see the lake in front of the beaver lodge. Sit quietly, enjoy a snack, don’t forget the insect repellent and maybe a quiet game or book to keep the younger ones from getting antsy. Beavers are active at night and just around sunset they will leave the lodge through its underwater entrance and swim across the lake. You will see a V shaped wake and at the point of the V a dark head. Kids may be disappointed if they thought they were going to see a beaver up close and doing tricks like the Otters at the zoo. It is important to let them know ahead what to reasonably expect from their efforts.

Likewise, deer are most active just after sunset and just before dawn. Deer like to eat a variety of plants and when they venture into the open fields they can be easily seen, especially at the beginning or end of the day. Try driving slowly along the back roads of the Port Oneida Historic District or along Norconk Road, which parallels M-22 just south of Empire. Or you can hike the Bayview Trail up to the overlook, but you must be very quiet if you want to see deer. For a few years, my summer naturalists gave a deer viewing hike at sunset on this trail with great success even with large groups of 50 hikers and more. They had to really work to keep that many people quiet. The very best time to see deer in these fields is in the winter when we have had enough of a thaw to melt the snow in the open fields but it is still deep in the woods. Then all day, but especially at sunset and sunrise, deer can be seen in the fields as numerous a cattle feasting on the grass. Imagine a hillside with 65 grazing deer.

The Platte River can get crazy during the afternoons in July and August with canoes crashing into each other, kayakers having water fights and tubers towing ice chests of beer down the river, but come early or late and it’s a different place. Vacationers don’t get on the river very early by the time they have made all the preparations and got the car positioned near the end of the trip. If you can get started down the river by 10 or even 10:30 most days you will be one of the first and a variety of wildlife will be waiting along the banks. Turtles will be sunning themselves on logs, kingfishers will be skimming over the surface hunting, duck will be feeding near the bank and herons flying overhead. You may spot deer, a raccoon or even a weasel. You never know what you may see. One day I told a group of school kids that just ahead we will see the remains of an old beaver lodge but we would not see any beavers because the lodge had not been used for many years. Just then all of us saw a beaver swimming just ahead of the group. If you do not make it early, late is OK too. An evening paddle is an excellent time to see wildlife along the river and a special treat. If you have your own canoe, a moonlight trip is a special adventure but if you do not have your own, 6:00 PM is the latest time you can rent a canoe. Still, I am always amazed at how quickly after the craziness of the afternoon ends, wildlife returns to the river to hunt, fish and drink. An early evening canoe trip is almost as good as early morning. If you are not into paddling, plan on being the first on the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive. The drive officially opens at nine but often the gate is open much earlier. You are likely to see deer, raccoons or other woodland creatures.

The porcupine is an icon of the north woods, but few visitors have ever seen one. Winter is the best time to find its home. Any of the thousands of folks who have been on one of my snowshoe hikes know that I like to leave the trail to follow animal tracks in the snow. The porky is active all winter but with its short legs its track is more like a trench as its whole body pushes through the snow. Look for its tracks in a forest of big hardwood trees and follow them. Getting around in the snow is hard on the little fellows so they do not travel far. Shortly, the tracks will lead to a tree with no tracks leaving it. If it’s hollow, the porky is likely inside, if it is not hollow, look up. Somewhere up there the porcupine is chewing on the tender bark or sleeping on a limb. If it’s a hollow tree, tap hard on the trunk and you will hear the critter scuttering about inside. Winter hiking is also the time to find the den trees of raccoons and old nests of your favorite birds so you will know where to look come spring.

Unfortunately, wildlife is too common in campgrounds. Chipmunks, raccoons, skunks and opossums are fun to see but in the campground they have lost their natural fear of people and can be hazardous. They are still wild animals; not only can they bite and claw but they may also carry rabies. Watch them from a distance and keep them out of your campsite by keeping food stored in the car and chasing them away if necessary. You are not doing them any favors by giving them food. As the signs in the campground say, “A Fed Raccoon is a Dead Raccoon.” A few years ago, there were so many raccoons in the D. H. Day campground that professional exterminators had to be hired. They captured and removed about 3 dozen animals, which were then put to sleep.

An early summer wildlife viewing opportunity is to stop and see the nesting Piping Plover. The most reliable place to stop is at the mouth of the Platte River. The nesting area is closed and a fenced enclosure is set up around each nest to protect the parents and chicks from predators. Piping Plover are so rare that a ranger, intern or volunteer watches each nest from a distance with a telescope. The “plover patrol” folks are happy to answer your questions and give you a chance to view the birds through the telescope. You can ask at the Visitor Center for other locations around the Lakeshore where you can view the rare Piping Plover.

Enjoy your Lakeshore vacation, keep your eyes open, and add some wildlife viewing to your activity list.

Good Morning America votes Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore most beautiful place in America

Good Morning America produced evidence that proved to the world what most people in northern Michigan already knew – Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is the most beautiful place in America! The ABC morning news program conducted a poll on their website asking people to vote for one of ten places nominated for the honor by their viewers. On Wednesday, August 17, they announced the winner-and it came as no surprise. Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is the most beautiful place in America. Good Morning America -Most Beautiful Place in America Sleeping Bear Dunes