Sahara-Level Sand Dunes, Mediterranean-Blue Water: Welcome to Michigan

The Dune Climb is one of the most popular things to do in a remarkably beautiful, off-the-radar corner of northwest Michigan called Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. Yet it had me suffering like a modern-day Sisyphus on a June afternoon. With each oxygen-sucking, uphill step, I slipped and slid backward on the sandy slope. My lungs burned, my bad knee ached, I was drenched with sweat — and I was only halfway to the top.

For locals, the sandy clamber is a childhood rite of passage. “Our mom would take us there to tire us out,” a friend told me, “while she lounged in her beach chair and drank Tab.”

And on this day, kids galloped past me and rolled down the 300-foot dune, their squeals as high-pitched as the cries of the herring gulls overhead. For visitors like me, the steep climb was a way to dig into the park’s quintessential feature: sand.

The park has a plethora of the stuff, from 35 miles of beaches to “perched dunes” towering 450 feet above Lake Michigan — part of the state’s 275,000 acres of sand dunes, which help make up the largest freshwater dune system in the world.

Under a blazing morning sun, I forged upward, thinking — possibly hallucinating — about a cool drink and a dive into the lake, which, I’ve been promised, is two miles across the sand. I could have been in Dubai’s desert; this certainly looks like no landscape I saw growing up in Middle America. Elsewhere in the 71,000-acre park, pristine beaches and bone-white lighthouses call to mind Maine. And all of it curves along the third-largest of the great lakes, as deep-blue and sparkling as the Mediterranean Sea.

For all the park’s odd, otherworldly beauty, it can be reached year-round via a short flight from Chicago (In summer, there are direct flights from several major airports). Yet, like many lifelong Midwesterners, I’d never heard of it until a few years back, when it garnered headlines after “Good Morning America” viewers voted it Most Beautiful Place in America.

Even as I triumphantly crested the top of the dune, it was difficult to imagine that such an extraordinary place existed here. I was pleased to find the view didn’t disappoint. Behind me stretched a forest canopy, rolling wooded hills, farmland and the iridescent waters of sprawling Glen Lake.

And just ahead (after a bit more hiking), Lake Michigan appeared in the distance, shimmering like a mirage, delicious enough to drink. Stretching west, so vast and sapphire blue, the lake seemed endless as an ocean, stopping only when its farthest edge met the pale sky — two shades of blue colliding to form the distant horizon.

Even locals don’t grow immune to the beauty; many keep an annual park-entrance pass dangling from their car’s rearview mirror for spontaneous after-work outings (a less-expensive weekly pass is $25). “We chase the sunset,” Emily Betz Tyra, a native of the region and editor of Traverse Magazine, told me, “and everyone has their favorite beach.”

The following day, ignoring a gray sky, I set out to find my own private stretch of sand. I had arrived at an awkward time, in early June, when the weather can require a tank top one day and a down jacket the next. The actor Tim Allen, who has long summered in this part of northern Michigan, famously compared its climate to “ripe pears — really good for a short period of time.”

Like me, he’s among those who think that, on a sunny summer day, the area looks more like the Mediterranean than modest Michigan. “If you get there between the Fourth of July and late August, in a stretch where it’s 90 degrees, and you’re standing on a white sand beach — you’d be hard-pressed to tell me where you were, if you didn’t know,” the actor told Forbes magazine.

Weather is a subject much on the minds of locals these days. Lake Michigan’s water levels reached near record highs this year (after hitting an all-time low in 2013). Past decades have seen the lake’s water levels wax and wane with the vagaries of rain, snow and climatic conditions; for now, with great swaths of sand underwater, the park’s beaches are “much narrower” than in 2018, more than one person said. Sleeping Bear Dunes’ deputy superintendent, Tom Ulrich, put it this way: “You can still play Frisbee on the beach; you just have to be a lot more accurate.”

I was speaking to Mr. Ulrich at the Sleeping Bear Dunes visitors center in Empire, population, 375, a Rockwellian hamlet smack-dab in the middle of the park. Antique stores and ice cream shops populate the one-stoplight town’s Front Street, while Carol Cunningham’s baked-goods stand runs on the honor system from her front yard. (Just drop your coins in and snag one of her popular cherry scones.)

From there, I drove to nearby Esch Beach, following a gravel road through a pristine woodland, windows open. I could almost hear the ghosts of Aral, a logging boom town here in the late 1800s that all but disappeared once the timber was gone, around 1930. On impulse, I stopped and cut the motor; only the symphony of birdsong filled my ears. Drinking in the fresh air, I felt intoxicated. By the time I got to the nearly deserted beach, I was in full Zen mode.

On this day, Lake Michigan was painted in a moody palette of grays and silvers, with a straight dark line at the overcast horizon. With no wind, the water was as smooth as glass and crystal-clear, its sandy bottom peppered with stones rounded by endless waves. I crouched by the water’s edge and listened to the quiet, which was broken only by the gentle lapping of water on sand, as soothing as any sound machine.

Less gentle was the frigid water, which wouldn’t warm to swimsuit-worthy temperatures until July. I waded in to my knees, feeling my calves turn numb as a pro athlete’s in an ice bath. A more appealing way to enjoy the lake appeared when three standup paddle boarders glided by, silent as swans. Surfers, too, can be seen catching waves year round, and you can rent a board or take a lesson through the friendly Sleeping Bear Surf & Kayak shop in Empire.

I ambled down the beach to where a couple and two young children scavenged for Petoskey stones (Michigan’s state stone) — fossils beautifully laced with a honeycomb pattern, relics from when warm seas and coral reefs covered this region 350 million years ago.

“Find any?” I asked.

The father shook his head, while his impatient wife — a Nebraska native — had given up, deeming the treasure “an urban legend,” Lake Michigan’s version of the Loch Ness monster. (Local stores hawking the stones, polished to a high sheen and often made into jewelry, would disagree.)

As a lakeshore overseen at the federal level, with the same protections as a national park, Sleeping Bear Dunes’ beaches are blissfully free of snack bars, jungle gyms, life guard chairs and other trappings of civilization. They’re in their natural state, these long expanses of sand. And amid the 35 miles of coastline, it’s easy enough to find a deserted strand where you’re free to do as you please — up to a point: A sign along Esch Beach warns sun worshipers to KEEP YOUR SWIMSUIT ON. (A portion of the beach was once popular among nudists.)

Curious about Sleeping Bear Dunes’ history, I learned that some 14,000 years ago, retreating glaciers carved out Lake Michigan and left behind ridges and glacial moraines (headlands of rock and dirt). Westerly winds blowing across the lake piled sand atop the moraines, creating the spectacularly steep and tall dunes — known as perched dunes — that define the park. Following the retreat of the glaciers, Anishinabek Indians were active here when Europeans arrived in the mid-1600s, and some of the 100 miles of hiking trails trace well-worn paths the Indians followed across the dunes to reach their fishing camps.

The park also maintains villages that thrived in the late 19th century: Port Oneida, a lumbering and farming community, and Glen Haven, a port town along an expansive beach where steamers stopped seeking food, lodging and wood for fuel. You can step back a century or so by meandering through their preserved buildings, including a fruit cannery (now a boat museum), general store and blacksmith shop.

There’s another way to enjoy the coastline and the lake: from up high. The easy, 1.5-mile Empire Bluff Trail led me through a beech-maple forest to a lofty bluff above Lake Michigan, where I gaped at one of the prettiest views in all of the park, north along the lake’s dune-draped shoreline. A more challenging hike took me huffing and puffing to the top of a steep headland known as Pyramid Point (a popular launching point for hang gliders and paragliders). But standing there, nearly straight above the lake, the only airborne things I saw were herring gulls coasting below me on the breeze.

Happily, there’s a way to see dramatic vistas without a hike that feels like a cardiac stress test: Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive, a seven-mile blacktop road that leads cars and cyclists through the wooded hills and towering dunes. (It’s an especially lovely route when the leaves turn in fall.)

Numbered stops show off spectacular views, and the highlight is Stop 9, which boasts a wooden platform perched precariously atop a fiercely angled dune, some 450 feet above the water. It’s surely the most Instagrammed spot in the park — and perhaps the best place in the entire Midwest to watch the sunset, slowly melting into Lake Michigan.

It’s certainly not true that if you’ve seen one sunset you’ve seen them all, but I confess I spent as much time on the viewing structure looking down — at folks racing to the bottom of the dune, then plodding back up. Those at the water’s edge looked like mere specks from my perspective — and had clearly ignored the sign that warned: “Running down may sound fun. Trust us: Climbing up 450 feet of hot sand and gravel definitely is not.” Some learn the hard way: Last year, park rangers rescued 17 souls too tired, sick or scared to make their way back to the top.

Climbing a dune is like walking up a down escalator, as many sand-savvy folks have noted, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Annie Dillard. But Mr. Ulrich, the park’s deputy superintendent, appreciates the impulse. “Anyone who visits Sleeping Bear Dunes,” he concedes, “should go home with a little sand in their shoes.” Back home from my trip a few days later, I readied my hiking socks for the wash and unleashed a small avalanche onto the floor.


Lucinda Hahn, a Chicago area native, is a freelance writer who lived on a dune overlooking Lake Michigan for two years while she was the editor of Lake magazine.