By Mike Norton
TRAVERSE CITY, MI — Has stardom spoiled the Sleeping Bear Dunes?
Visitor tallies at the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore have risen steadily since 2010, when viewers of “Good Morning America” voted it the Most Beautiful Place in America. On peak summer weekends, that can clearly be seen at many of the park’s most visible attractions: crowds at the Dune Climb, full parking lots at North Bar Lake, slow going on the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive. But there’s still plenty of solitude and mystery to be found at Sleeping Bear, if you know where to look.
After all, the park encompasses 64 miles of Lake Michigan coastline, two islands, 26 inland lakes and more than 71,000 acres of land about a half hour’s drive west of the resort town of Traverse City. And since the overwhelming majority of visitors gravitate to a handful of high-visibility spots just south of Sleeping Bear Point, there are miles of nearly-empty beaches, almost 100 miles of hiking trails and thousands of acres of parkland where you can experience this beautiful place without any distractions.
Hiking near Sleeping Bear Point
“That’s actually one of the most wonderful things about this place – the wide range and diversity of experiences that people can have here,” says Park Superintendent Dusty Schultz. All you have to do is get out a little bit, explore a little bit, and you’ll discover all the solitude and natural experience you could ask for.”
We’re not going to give away the locations of all our favorite beaches — half the fun of finding a special place is taking the trouble to discover it for yourself. But here are a couple of suggestions about where (and how) to start looking.
The busiest spots in the National Lakeshore are in a small area between the villages of Empire and Glen Arbor. That leaves two enormous tracts of land – the Platte River District to the south and the Port Oneida/Good Harbor area to the north – that are relatively quiet even at the height of the summer season. There are popular beach hangouts in both areas, but you’ll fund that most people don’t venture very far from the parking lot. In most cases, a ten-minute stroll along the shore will give you all the serenity you want.
The View from Pyramid Point
In fact, the best thing to do if you’re searching for peace and quiet at the Sleeping Bear Dunes is to leave your car behind. Want to see a view that’s every bit as inspiring as the much-photographed overlook on the Scenic Drive? Go north to Pyramid Point and climb the half-mile trail up to the top of the bluff. (Even better, keep going and do the whole 2.7-mile loop; it’s a beauty.) Want to find an unspoiled beach with splendid vistas of the dunes? Explore the shoreline of Platte Bay on either side of the Peterson Road turnoff.
In fact, if you’re really determined to get away from it all, you need to jump on the ferryboat that takes visitors out to the Manitou Islands, the most remote and secluded part of the park. Day-trippers head for South Manitou to climb the lovely lighthouse, explore the small village near the docks, or wander along the shore to visit the grove of giant cedar trees and look for shipwrecks.
North Manitou is a federal wilderness area, and its only visitors are serious backpackers who come prepared to stay for several days. There aren’t a lot of amenities unless you count empty beaches, tall dunes, mysterious ruins and forests so deep they feel like something from Jurassic Park. But if you’re after solitude, this is definitely the place.
A Beach on North Manitou Island
Some of Superintendent Schultz’s favorite solitary spots are actually located in the most densely-visited section of the park. She loves the Sleeping Bear Point Trail with its dramatic changes in landscape, the Empire Bluff Trail with its sweeping views of the lake and shore, and the winding Crystal River’s serpentine “ridge and swale” topography. The best strategy, she says, is sometimes to pick the right time for a visit.
“Morning and early evening are quiet times,” she says. “Evening is my favorite time to go down to the beach at Glen Haven to watch the sunsets – especially now that they’ve relit the lighthouse on South Manitou Island.”
For more information about the Sleeping Bear Dunes and other natural wonders of the Traverse City area, and for assistance with lodging and dining options, contact the Traverse City Convention & Visitors Bureau at 1-800-TRAVERSE or on line at www.traversecity.com.
*Content sponsored by the Traverse City Convention and Visitors Bureau.