Sleeping Bear Dunes


Before Jim, Jobie, and I left Collierville two weeks ago, I asked members of several Facebook travel groups for suggestions of things to do and see in the Petoskey, MI area, and nearly everyone who responded recommended spending a day at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, which stretches 35 miles along Lake Michigan’s eastern shore. Last Tuesday morning, we left the bus in Petoskey at 7:15 AM and drove two hours south to the park, stopping at the welcome center in Empire for information and brochures. The guide marked on a map places where dogs aren’t allowed, including a few beaches where Piping Plovers are currently nesting. She highlighted the Lake Michigan Overlook, which she called the million-dollar view.

We first hiked a forest trail up to Empire Bluff, a sandy area overlooking the lake. Sun glinted off the water’s glassy surface, and dunes rose up in the distance.

After lunch at Joe’s Friendly Tavern in Empire, featuring Joe’s homemade root beer, we drove the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive, stopping several times to take photographs and enjoy views of the woods, beaches, and lake. The three of us hiked to the Lake Michigan overlook, atop a dune 500 feet tall, the water below deepening from aqua to turquoise to deep jewel shades of green and blue.


The beauty of this place defies its legend of a mother bear grieving her two dead cubs, as described below on the National Park Service website, though gazing toward Wisconsin across the vast lake, one can easily imagine the story’s origins.

The Legend of Sleeping Bear

Long ago, along the Wisconsin shoreline, a mother bear and her two cubs were driven into Lake Michigan by a raging forest fire. The bears swam for many hours, but eventually the cubs tired and lagged behind. Mother bear reached the shore and climbed to the top of a high bluff to watch and wait for her cubs. Too tired to continue, the cubs drowned within sight of the shore. The Great Spirit Manitou created two islands to mark the spot where the cubs disappeared and then created a solitary dune to represent the faithful mother bear.

Past this overlook, we stopped to watch some people at the Dune Climb. Dogs aren’t allowed on the dunes in that area, and Jim and I debated whether to climb. Finally, he said, “Let’s go,” and I responded by untying my shoes and opening my car door. Jim followed suit, though he later said he’d meant, “Let’s go back to the bus.” We crossed the flat sand base and started climbing in bare feet. The temperature was about 70F, with a cool breeze off the water. The largest dune is nearly two hundred feet high, the incline steep, at times nearly vertical. Although I’ve been running regularly for about a year, up now to 3-4 miles at least four days a week, I was soon winded. With each step, I sank farther down into the deep, soft sand. Children ran up and down the dunes, making a game of tumbling to the bottom and climbing up again. Some adults struggled, stopping often to rest, and some gave up and turned around.

On a distant dune, I saw hikers wearing backpacks inching toward the big lake along the 7 1/2-mile trail, deemed, because of the sand, the most difficult in the park. At the top of the first long climb, the sand leveled out for a few feet, and I was tired and ready to descend. But, the only view from there was of surrounding dunes, and I could see that a glimpse of Lake Michigan, from yet another perspective, would be the reward for climbing another fifty or hundred feet up another incline. And so, we climbed. I stumbled once, said I wasn’t going farther, but Jim took my hand to steady me, and we made it to the top. We saw more aspects of the glimmering lake, more dunes, other climbers. We snapped a selfie. The descent was relatively easy, and in the car, Jim and I marveled that we’d actually made the climb. We’d have previously most likely made excuses: we’d have to leave the Jeep running and leave Jobie behind, we were tired from the already long day, we hadn’t brought proper shoes, we had more important things to do, we’d get sand in our clothes, in the Jeep, in the bus. But, that day, we stopped and climbed, and we’ll always have the memory of those views, the fresh air, and the wind in our hair. I hope next time we have the chance, we’ll stop, climb, enjoy the scenery, and remember that this new life we’re embracing together is not about reaching a destination but about cherishing each step along the way.


About cherylwrightwatkins

Writer, VCFA grad, retired air traffic controller, traveler
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