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Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, September 2000

Near Traverse City, Michigan

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Lake Michigan Sand Dune

Lake Michigan Overlook

Sleeping Bear Dunes, Michigan

Glaciers scoured the Great Lakes region during the last Ice Age. This mighty forces inundated the countryside, carving out many places while leaving behind deposits behind in others. Sleeping Bear Dunes is one of those locations that happened to gain land, and presents rare examples of what are known geologically as "perched" or "cliff-top" dunes. Vast piles of sand were left behind on top of the plateau as the glaciers retreated. Some of them reach heights of 400 feet or more as they rise steeply along miles of shoreline adjacent to the banks of Lake Michigan. Towering sand dunes are not what one would normally expect more than a thousand miles inland from the ocean and it is an awe-inspiring sight.

The National Park Service created Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in 1970. It is certainly one of the newer significant properties in the National Park system. The public is fortunate that the property came under protection before it had a chance to be developed extensively like many other places along the Lake Michigan coastline. Dunes, forests, valleys, lakes and shorelines provide abundant natural beauty and a habitat for many of the wild animals that have called this place their home for thousands of years.

Covered Bridge

Famous Covered Bridge on Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive

One wonderful feature of the park is the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive. Pierce Stocking, while having a somewhat unusual name, certainly had no problem understanding the uniqueness and beauty of the Sleeping Bear Dunes and the local environment. He used his skills as a lumberman to forge a road that meandered through the wilderness and up to the top of the dunes, which he then opened to visitors in 1967. He owned the drive and operated it as his livelihood until he passed away in 1976. The National Park Service acquired the property the following year and added it to their existing park. They renamed the road in honor of the man who conceived of it and build it, the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive.

The Scenic Drive forms a 7.5 mile loop with twelve separately numbered stops along the way. It has a 20 mile per hour speed limit along its entire length to protect the many bicyclist, hikers and pedestrians that prefer to see the trail a different way. The drive includes a landmark covered bridge (above), picnic areas, scenic overlooks and trailheads. It includes an extremely steep path down a 450 dune to the shores of Lake Michigan far below. However, the Park Service actively discourages this pathway as it is dangerous and there are other places where the lakeshore can be reached with greater ease.

These are the stops that can be explored along the way:

The road is closed to all motorized traffic including snowmobiles during the winter months. It becomes a quiet, pristine playground for cross-country skiers and snowshoers until the warmth of spring returns.

Lake Amid the Dunes

Glen Lake

The Sleeping Bear Dunes are bracketed by its lakes, certainly the amazing Lake Michigan shoreline to the west, but also by the inland lakes carved from the plateau by retreating glaciers. The largest of these is Glen Lake with more than 6,000 acres of vibrant blue waters of incredible purity. Several small towns dot the shoreline and trails bring hikers around and above it. There are actually two portions of Glen Lake, a smaller western area known as "Little" Glen Lake (shown above) and "Big" Glen Lake to the east.

Lifesaving Station

Sleeping Bear Point
Coast Guard Station and Maritime Museum

There's more to Sleeping Bear Dunes than nature. There's also history. This stretch of coastline was right in the shipping lanes due to two offshore islands, South and North Manitou, that provided a modicum of protection during stormy weather. Steaming between the shoreline and the islands offered a better option than then open water in the main body of Lake Michigan. Even so, accidents could happen so the U.S. Life-Saving Service operated a station here between 1871 and 1915. This was a government organization staffed with professionals who were trained to row into the roiling surf. They performed dangerous rescues of those in trouble on the high seas. The Life-Saving Service later joined with the Revenue Cutter Service to form the United States Coast Guard. The structure in the photograph above is the original structure that housed the Service at Sleeping Bear Dunes, however it was moved to this spot because sand dunes were beginning to bury it at its former location. There are a number of historical exhibits on display at any given time including numerous artifacts related to life-saving and shipping in the Great Lakes.