Michigan’s Vertical Sandbox
● By Rick McGarry
I feel a little cheated that I have lived my whole life in Michigan without climbing the dunes at Sleeping Bear. I realize that three or four hours in a car with children can seem like a life sentence, but we rate this destination as worth the trip, either for a very long day, or better yet for a few days.
It takes about 4 hours to get to Sleeping Bear Dunes from Livingston County. Things were pretty quiet in Benzie County in early May, although the Crystal Mountain golf courses, pool, jacuzzi and restaurant were all open. We arrive with enough time to walk through The Michigan Legacy Art Park before dinner. We walk for a mile and a half up and down hills to see about 40 different works of art. At least, that’s how it started out, with our family walking happily along admiring and commenting on the art. Then, after a while we kind of get lost and confused, in spite of our map, and wander down the hill along the edge of the golf course back to our room.
The next morning, it’s 25 miles to Point Betsie Lighthouse, that day’s initial destination, built in 1858 and one of the most photographed lighthouses in the United States. Tours are available from June through September on weekends only. Adults pay $4, children under 12 pay just $2. There is no charge to scramble through the sand and brush along the edge of Lake Michigan soaking up surf and sun, admiring the lighthouse, and watching the occasional boat pass by.
As you wind your way further down M22 to the dune climbing area, you’ll find trails, places to canoe out to Lake Michigan (suitable for children), opportunities for tubing, and lots of wildlife and scenery. Come prepared, though, because you will also find this National Park light on civilization, including restaurants.
Climbing the dunes is our main goal for the day, but it has become absolutely necessary, in an urgent sort of way, to eat first. We drive north for 19 miles through the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore to get to Empire, population 400, and Joe’s Friendly Tavern, which does not seem to have a web site, but does serve burgers and sandwiches and has a game room and pages on Facebook. Be careful not to overeat if you plan to climb the dunes.
After lunch we continue to travel north from Empire to the shore of Glen Lake finally arriving at the location where, for the price of a $10 daily pass (per car) to Sleeping Bear Dunes, you will have a chance to climb hundreds of feet up the side of a very steep sandy hill. Before your family enters this vertical sandbox, it’s a good idea to stretch a little bit by hiking north on the trail along the base of the dunes, which is even suitable for strollers. Afterwards, having filled your water bottle and emptied your bladder (there are no amenities up top), you are now prepared for your ascent. You will probably begin by walking upright like a civilized and fully evolved human being, but by halfway up you will be scrambling on all fours like a witless savage, or maybe even laying on your back taking deep breaths while you try to control irrational waves of anxiety and battle climacaphobia. Most people do seem to eventually make it to the top. The view to the west is truly one of the most barren, sandy, bizarre and disorienting landscapes I have ever personally seen. It is oddly reassuring to look back toward the east and see Glen Lake, pastures, and other signs of civilization. When you finish admiring the panorama, you are faced with a decision: walk, run, or roll back down the hill to your air conditioned car, or push on for a sandy 3 ½ mile round trip hike to Lake Michigan on the most strenuous trail in the park. We push on up the hill just far enough to catch a glimpse of the great lake, then like Moses we turn back. Since this location has a playground and vending machines, it is a great place to sit and wait for your children to exhaust themselves, although if they climb up unattended they will be out of sight when they reach the top.