Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore Overview

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Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Michigan (courtesy, NPS)
Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore

Location: Northwestern shore of Michigan's lower peninsula
Size: 71,187 acres
Features: Lakeshore dunes, hardwood forests, traces of glaciers

Contact Details
Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore
9922 Front Street
Empire, MI 49630
Phone: 231-326-5134

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The 460-foot Sleeping Bear Dunes tower over the eastern shoreline of Lake Michigan like shifting pyramids of sand. The dunes are a popular launching pad for hang-gliders and stretch for seven of the Sleeping Bear Dunes' 35 miles of national lakeshore. The Sleeping Bear Dunes are the world's largest assemblage of perched dunes, so named because the dunes sit atop high, limestone bluffs. The dunes are slowly migrating eastward and inland, where forest remnants of bleached pine, white birch, and cedar swamps persist.

The lakeshore includes North and South Manitou Island, which are integral to the Chippewa Indian legend used to name the dunes. The legend goes that on the shores of what is now Wisconsin, a forest fire forced a mother bear and her two cubs into Lake Michigan. The mother swam to the opposite shore and climbed to the top of a high bluff to watch and wait for her cubs. The cubs could not keep up and drowned within sight of the shore. The Great Spirit Manitou created two islands to mark the spot where the cubs slipped beneath the water. Manitou created a solitary dune on the mainland to represent the faithful mother bear.

Ferries out of Leland, Michigan service both islands. Expect an hour-and-a-half ferry ride to reach South Manitou Island, while North Manitou Island takes one hour and ten minutes by ferry.

Explore the Manitou Islands
If you are into backcountry camping, then North Manitou is your island oasis. The 15,000-acre island wilderness permits "open" camping: Just pick a spot in the woods and camp. It too, like the mainland, features spectacular dunes with strange sand formations like the Pot Holes and eerie ghost forests stripped by shifting sands. Or visit the island's smaller sibling, South Manitou Island. In the southwest corner of this island, you can hike a 6.9-mile trail to the Valley of the Giants—a grove of virgin white cedar trees where one fallen old-growth cedar predates Columbus with 528 growth rings. The wreck of the Francisco Morazon is also a popular destination when hiking to or from the Valley of the Giants. The top half of the wreck is visible, protruding through the surface of Lake Michigan like a ghost ship.

Hike the Dune Climb
Sleeping Bear's famous Dune Climb is a good workout if you are training for New York City's annual Empire State Building Run-Up. The initial dune is a 50- to 60-degree incline of sand that rises 160 feet. From there, most hikers trudge up the slope to the southwest that reaches an elevation of 890 feet (comparable to the 1,050-foot ascent you will encounter on the stairs of the Empire State Building.)

Hang Glide Michigan Bluffs
Lake Michigan updrafts launch hang-gliders upwards of 8,000 feet above the water. Hang gliders push off at the 260-foot Pyramid Peak and the 450-foot dunes of Elberta. With one short leap, you can soar over the waters of the Manitou Passage like the bald eagles that ride the thermals here.


Published: 6 Oct 2008 | Last Updated: 13 Sep 2011
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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