Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore spans a gracefully curved 64 miles of golden sand coastline on the shores of Lake Michigan. This stunning place encompasses a diversity of natural wonders: Immense sand dunes, high bluffs and serene beech-maple forests interspersed by shimmering lakes and endless beaches.
Each year, over a million visitors enjoy this sweeping landscape of high dunes and sapphire blue waters. Tourists hike the scenic trails, paddle canoes, or just relax on the inviting shore, while the most adventurous visitors scale a 400-foot dune for an unparalleled view of Glen Lake and the surrounding countryside. Wildlife is abundant, and there have even been recent cougar sightings in this deep wilderness that lies just a few miles from the city.
But don’t let these wide-open spaces fool you. The natural landscape of Sleeping Bear also includes a dramatic and fascinating human element. Over the centuries, generations of men and women – Native American hunters, Norwegian fishermen, German farmers, modern-day artists and artisans – have all been drawn to this splendid place. All have left their distinctive marks on the land, and their unique coastal culture can still be experienced in the picturesque towns surrounding the dunes. From the quiet village of Empire to upscale Leland and Glen Arbor, a visit to the outlying villages of Sleeping Bear will provide an added dimension to your trip.
Ottawa and Chippewa Indians first arrived here in the 1600s, and their descendents still live nearby. Gazing out over the majestic bluffs and the two shaggy Manitou Islands, they told their children a sad legend about the origins of this place. Long, long ago, they said, a mother bear and her two cubs swam into Lake Michigan to escape a raging forest fire. The sturdy parent managed to make it to shore. She climbed to the top of a bluff to search for her cubs, but the turbulent waters of the lake were too much for the little ones. In sympathy to the grieving mother, the spirits transformed her drowned cubs into two islands and set her atop the largest dune where she sleeps forever, facing the two islands that were once her children.
You can begin your exploration of the human side of the dunes with a step back in time. The settlement of Port Oneida was once home to German and Bohemian immigrants who built a farm community near Pyramid Point in the 1850s. Their former colony, perched on a high bluff over Lake Michigan, is now owned by the National Park Service; now known as the Port Oneida Rural Historic District, this 3000-acre region features 18 farmhouses that are being lovingly restored by volunteers.
In addition, the fields, orchards, schoolhouse and cemetery all bear the marks of the dedicated farmers who labored and planted together in this isolated town. As you walk past the structures, try to envision the hardworking people who worked the land and then enjoyed nature’s bounty at harvest time. Then take a hike from the Miller barn to the Bay View trail and enjoy a breathtaking view of Port Oneida, Lake Michigan and the Manitou Islands. Check with the National Park Service for their free guided tours of Port Oneida’s barns and schoolhouse.
Then drive to Glen Haven, situated on the shores of Sleeping Bear Bay. Settled before the Civil War, this little community started out as a fueling station, providing firewood for the steamships that sailed through the Great Lakes. Today it is a virtual ghost town, but you can catch glimpses of the continuing human imprint in the restored village. Imagine a burly blacksmith, pounding away at his craft in the restored shop. Visit the old cherry cannery to see the collection of vintage boats, including an ancient dugout canoe, or stop at the restored lifesaving station to reflect on the brave rescue crews who risked their lives to save shipwreck victims.
That heritage is still preserved in Sleeping Bear’s present-day towns, whose residents are proud of the history that shaped their communities. Empire – named after a ship that once was ice-bound in its harbor – is a small village with roots that go back to its origins as a logging port. Formerly noted for its substantial sawmill, the town thrived in the 19th century. A visit to the Empire Area Museum Center will show you that the town’s past lives on; railroad and shipping displays tell the story of the people who worked on the rails and on the waves.
Today, Empire’s main claim to fame is its location as the gateway to the national park, which surrounds it on all sides. You can view the majesty of the dunes from the town’s public beach or stroll down its quaint, cozy little streets, with Victorian bed-and-breakfast establishments, intimate restaurants, and a farmer’s market featuring local produce in season. Many families have chosen to live in Empire year-round, often commuting to jobs in Traverse City. Others are summer residents, drawn to Empire’s haunted shores and soaring bluffs, or retirees who have moved to the town where they enjoyed vacations in the past.
North of Empire, nestled snugly between the shores of Lake Michigan and the twin Glen Lakes, the town of Glen Arbor features a picturesque main street, lined with upscale boutiques, art galleries and restaurants. It’s also home to Cherry Republic, a unique complex of shops and stops that features everything from candy and beverages to clothing — all centered around a cherry theme. Originally settled in the mid-1800s, Glen Arbor currently has about 5,000 year-round residents, but in the summer, that number swells to tens of thousands.
Just beyond the northern limit of the park lies Leland, the port where ferryboats take visitors out to the Manitou Islands for single-day excursions and backpacking trips. It, too, boasted a grand sawmill and sturdy docks, and for years it was the center of a busy commercial fishery. And although most commercial fishing in the Great lakes has subsided, Leland managed to hold on to some of that heritage by transforming its old fishing district into a unique “village within a village” called Fishtown.
Here, the warren of weathered fishermen’s shacks along the river have been converted into colorful boutiques that attract visitors every summer to browse through shops like Leelanau Leather, with its fine leather bags, stuffed animals and beaded caps. Behind them, charter boats still wait at the docks to take customers on fishing forays into Lake Michigan, where salmon and lake trout abound in season. And yes, there’s still a commercial fishing family – the Carlsons – making regular trips out into the lake and selling the day’s fresh catch such as their ancestors did a century ago.
In Leland’s pretty downtown, you can relax in a serene park with impeccably manicured lawns, stroll down the main street, or wander among the gardens and alleyways of the town’s neighborhoods. Every June the village puts on a tasty Food and Wine Festival.
The evocative landscape of Sleeping Bear continues to attract creative people, especially artists and artisans like Richard Allen. His fascinating Leland store features his own handmade bamboo flutes and one-of-a-kind “art light creations” — magnificent three-dimensional works of art, with inner lighting that illuminates geometrical designs and paintings inspired by the region’s natural wonders. Allen also builds handmade kayaks and takes visitors on paddling tours of the surrounding area.
Wherever you go in the Sleeping Bear Dunes area, you’ll feel the touch of those who have gone there before – sometimes so light as to be almost imperceptible, sometimes as imposing as the hand-hewn beams of an ancient barn. From fishing villages to lumber towns and summer retreats, you’ll observe the interaction of people and their surrounding landscapes. As you pass through, you’ll experience the continued influences of the first Indian settlers, the sturdy immigrants who cleared the lands and braved the stormy seas, and even a sorrowful mother bear and her lost cubs.
Fun on the Dunes
A good place to start your Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore adventure is the Philip A. Hart Visitor Center in Empire, where you can view the slide presentation “Dreams of the Sleeping Bear” for a good orientation to the park. The center also features an exhibit of works from the park’s artist-in-residence program, where painters, photographers and composers have interpreted the surrounding landscapes in oil, watercolors, photographs and music.
Don’t miss the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive, a 7-mile route featuring stunning panoramas of the dunes, Lake Michigan and Glen Lake.
Adventurous visitors can attempt the strenuous Dune Climb. Other outdoor experiences in Sleeping Bear Dunes include hiking, fishing, swimming, and boating. Rent a canoe on the Platte or Crystal Rivers, or just relax and have a picnic at the North Bar Lake Overlook.
Freelance writer Linda Tagliaferro is based in the suburbs of New York City. She is a frequent contributor to The New York Times, and her articles have appeared in national publications ranging from Boys’ Life to Maxim. She is the author of 23 books for ages ranging from preschoolers to adults.