Thursday, March 11, 2010

Sleeping Bear Dunes

Hike: Sleeping Bear Dunes
Location: Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore
Nearby Town: Glen Arbor, MI
Elevation (Max): 920'
Elevation Gained: ~600'
Mileage: 4.5
Difficulty: Moderate
Trailhead: From the South: Take Rte 22 north until after Empire, then turn left onto Rte 109. Parking will be on the left (opposite Glen Lake). From the North: Take Rte 22 into Glen Arbor, where 22 intersects with Rte 109, stay straight to take 109 south. Parking will be on the right. The parking is very obvious from 109.
Fees: The NPS charges $10 per vehicle--so pack everyone in.

Shortly after returning from our Presidentials adventure, E and I went with my family out to Ohio for my cousin's wedding. It was so nice to be in that beautiful part of the country with family and warm, sunny weather (which we had been severely lacking in New England). After the wedding, my parents, aunts, E, and I went up to our family's clubhouse on Platte Lake in northern Michigan. Of course, as soon as we got to Platte Lake, a huge low pressure system parked itself over the Great Lakes and gave us delightful cold, windy, rainy weather for days. After about 4 days of relentless gray, the low finally moved away and blue sky and warmth returned, so we decided to hike the Sleeping Bear Dunes to take advantage of the first good weather of the trip.

A little background, the Sleeping Bear Dunes are impressive dune formations along the eastern shore of Lake Michigan in northern Michigan. The dunes are short mounds in some areas, enormous bluffs in others, and always beautiful. One of my favorite activities is dune jumping, which is the art of climbing to the top of a steep dune, sprinting at full tilt back toward the edge, leaping as high and far as you can, momentarily fearing bodily harm is about to ensue before landing unharmed on the soft sand. It's quite a thrill and the Sleeping Bear Dunes provide some of the greatest opportunities I've come across (if you are going to try this, make sure the dune isn't so steep you will actually hurt yourself, and avoid dunes with rocks or pebbles as that would be very painful). The source of the name Sleeping Bear Dunes is an Indian legend of a forest fire on the western shore of Lake Michigan that forced a mother bear and her two cubs into the lake, from where their only option was to swim to the opposite shore. Sadly, the cubs were not strong enough to make the swim and lagged behind their mother who, when she reached the shore, waited on top of the bluffs for her cubs, but they drowned in the lake. The mother bear stayed and waited for her cubs, and the Great Spirit, impressed with her faith, created North and South Manitou Islands to memorialize her cubs, and the wind buried the sleeping mother bear under the sand dunes where she waits to this day.

The Climb featuring my parents

We began the hike with my parents under an overcast, but as soon as we ascended the first big climb, known logically as The Climb, the clouds broke apart revealing blue sky that reflected brilliantly off Glen Lake. Once we conquered The Climb, E and I made for Lake Michigan across the dunes. First we had to traverse the large, open, flat sand just above the Climb which is a popular place for football or frisbee. After that, we began hiking on a trail that involved lots of ups and downs, but nothing too big. The thing about hiking the dunes is that everything is more difficult than just looking at the elevation gain would indicate because every step is made in loose sand. After hiking the majority of the way to Lake Michigan, we found a nice place to go dune jumping so we climbed up, sprinted to the edge, and leaped as far and high as we could--always exhilarating. It was not long from there to the Lake which was a beautiful light blue.

The flat above The Climb

We made it to the Lake!

Beautiful Lake Michigan

From there, we headed south along the beach under the assumption that another trail would present itself that we could use to loop back to the start. Unfortunately, we never found another trail, and the dunes were turning into towering 300' bluffs. We found some footprints that ascended the bluffs so we decided to follow them on the chance it would lead to a trail instead of tracking back to where our trail had met the beach. Climbing loose sand and pebbles (some very large pebbles) is challenging especially when the sun is cooking the dunes. Eventually we got to the top of the dunes which provided an impressive view in all directions including down. At this point we had lost the foot prints because the top of the dune was more compacted so we just decided to head away from the Lake knowing that would get us back in the general area we wanted to be. After a while of tip toeing through prickly plants, we finally found a trail.

Big bluff

E climbing the big bluff

North and South Manitou

The dunes

Looking south to the bluffs at Empire

Climbing the super steep dune

While this was certainly a welcome change, it did not help with the fact that we did not know where we were. Also, we had lost some elevation so we no longer had a good vantage point for planning a route. So, we basically guessed which direction to go and went with it as long as it didn't feel terribly wrong. After what seemed an uncomfortably long while, we finally saw people, tiny little specks, walking along a ridge east of where we were. We began picking up the pace, since we assumed my parents had probably finished their hike by now, and met up with some other hikers. I asked one which way to go to the parking lot, but she did not speak English, so we just took a guess, and soon enough we started recognizing the surrounding terrain and came back to The Climb. We bounded down The Climb like we were walking on the moon, and were surprised to find my parents had not yet returned. We emptied our shoes of enormous piles of sand and opened a bag of Doritos to enjoy while we waited for my parents to return, which they did pretty soon (they had also gone out to the Lake). We all refreshed ourselves with some water, and then got in the car to take a scenic drive around the dunes including a stop for a picnic. It was a great day.

Glen Lake

A shot from our scenic drive

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