EMPIRE, Mich. —The Dune Climb is the most famous attraction at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore and a Midwest rite of summer.
It's a 110-foot-high wall of glistening white sand that tourists climb for fun. It takes 10 minutes, a strenuous hike that will take your breath away. Go for it. Everyone does.
The east-facing dune off state Route 109 offers up-high views of Lake Michigan and a nearby inland lake. You can slide and tumble back down the sand. Or you can hike through the dunes 1.75 miles to Lake Michigan. There's a 20-foot rise to the blue-blazed post that leads the way through rolling dunes.
Yes, sand is the big attraction in the federal park that sits in the northwest corner of Michigan's Lower Peninsula. It covers 71,200 acres of land and water and stretches along 65 miles of Lake Michigan shoreline plus two offshore islands.
The park features the largest freshwater sand dunes in the world. The dunes are spectacular, impressive, imposing and colorful, especially at sunrise and sunset. It is a very special place that is fun to explore.
Glaciers left behind rubble and fine-grained sand. The southern part of the park features beach dunes created by winds blowing beach sand onto low-lying dunes.
Perched dunes, built by wind-blown sand accumulating atop piles of glacial debris, sit high on the bluffs.
It is those perched dunes for which Sleeping Bear Dunes is famous. Great tan-colored mountains of sand, they climb at impossible angles from Lake Michigan to the sky. They once measured 600 feet high, although today they top out at about 460 feet.
One of the park's special features is the ghost forest, trees that have been buried and then uncovered by the ever-shifting sands.
But there's more: high bluffs that overlook Lake Michigan, an 1871 lighthouse, three old Coast Guard stations, a historic farm district, inland lakes and forests.
Short hikes will take visitors to high bluffs with sweeping views of the Lake Michigan shoreline.
The park, located 25 miles west of Traverse City, also offers the 7.4-mile Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive.
The drive is open from late April to early November and features 12 stops and trailheads, including my favorite dune stop. It is a wooden observation deck perched atop the dunes with take-your-breath-away vistas, 450 feet above Lake Michigan. It is Stop No. 9.
That bluff retreats by 1 foot per year as waves cut into its base and sand and rocks slip down into the water.
The dunes, created by the prevailing winds from the southwest, cover four square miles.
The park gets its name from the 400-foot-high Sleeping Bear Dune, a major landmark for early lake travelers and the subject of an Indian legend.
A mother bear and her two cubs were swimming from Wisconsin across Lake Michigan to escape a forest fire, the story goes. Nearing the Michigan shore, the cubs lagged behind. The mother climbed to the top of the bluff to wait. The cubs never reached her. The mother bear is the namesake dune and her cubs are the park-owned Manitou islands offshore.
In fact, that story is Michigan's official children's book: "The Legend of Sleeping Bear" by Kathy-jo Wargin.
The namesake dune, however, is suffering from erosion. The perched dune, about 2,000 years old, was once 234 feet high with dense plant cover. Now it is less than 100 feet high and its humped back is dwindling.
Interestingly, no trails go to the Sleeping Bear Dune itself. One trail will take you close by on the north and an overlook provides a glimpse from the south.
One of my favorite stops is Empire Bluffs just south of Empire. The 0.75-mile one-way trail climbs through old farm fields and orchards and through a forest to emerge in a clearing at the edge of Lake Michigan.
You are 400 feet above the lake with views to Platte Bay to the south and Sleeping Bear Dune to the north. A wooden boardwalk extends 500 feet along the edge of the bluff, which was created by layered sediments from glacial melting.
At the north end of the park, it's a short hike, 0.6 miles, to Pyramid Point where visitors stand 260 feet above the waters of Lake Michigan on a perched dune. It's a little off the beaten path and away from the crowds.
To get to that trailhead off Port Oneida Road, you must also traverse the 3,500-acre Port Oneida Rural Historic District with its old farms and rural landscape that date back to German settlers in the 1860s.
Another very cool hike is to Sleeping Bear Point. It lies west of the historic village of Glen Haven with its general store, maritime museum (open seasonally), cannery, blacksmith shop and an inn. It is among the park's biggest historic attractions.
Glen Haven, a one-time fueling station, is designed to keep its 1920s look and feel.
The park gets 1.5 million visitors with the greatest numbers in July and August. It has 13 mainland trails that stretch 53.7 miles. It offers snowshoeing and cross-country skiing. Canoeing, kayaking and tubing are offered by outfitters on the Betsie, Crystal and Platte rivers. Camping is permitted in the park and on the islands.
The park typically gets 100 to 150 inches of snow. In fact, the scenic drive becomes a cross-country ski loop in the winter.
The park has wild islands about seven miles offshore with ferry access, in season.
South Manitou Island features its own sand dunes, old farmsteads, giant white cedars, a gull colony and 16 miles of trails. It is roughly 3 by 3 miles in size. There are three campgrounds.
The old 104-foot-high lighthouse that dates back to 1839 is again shining over the Manitou Passage from May to October.
There were more than 80 shipwrecks in the channel over the years. That includes the Liberian ship Francisco Morazan that wrecked in 1960 on the island's southern tip and is the biggest attraction.
On 5,313-acre South Manitou, a trail leads to the Valley of the Gods with its 500-year-old trees, some of which are 15 feet in circumference and 90 feet tall.
North Manitou is less developed and offers 15,426 acres of wilderness. The island is roughly 7.25 miles by 4.5 miles. Backcountry permits are required to camp. There are 23 miles of trails.
Both islands were settled for lumbering and farming.
Access is by private boat or via the Manitou Island Transit Co. ferry from Leland. The ferry to South Manitou runs from May to October; to North Manitou, from May to November.
The ferry runs to South Manitou and stays there on a five-hour layover. That makes a short day trip possible. Visitors to North Manitou must camp overnight. Call 231-256-9061 or check out http://www.leelanau.com/manitou for more information.
The park is developing plans for new campgrounds, additional trails and designating as much as 45 percent of the park as wilderness. Those plans include a 35-mile Bay-to-Bay Trail that would allow hikers to travel the shoreline from Platte Bay in the south to Good Harbor in the north. There are also plans for a north-south gravel bike trail.
Park admission for seven days is $10. For information, contact Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, 9922 Front St., Highway M-72, Empire, MI 49630, 231-326-5134, http://www.nps.gov/slbe. For tourist information around the park, call 888-334-8499 or check out http://www.sleepingbeardunes.com. For information on Traverse City, write to 101 W. Grandview Parkway, Traverse City, MI 49684, or call 800-TRAVERSE. You can also check out http://www.visittraversecity.com.