By EDWARD M. EVELD /
The Kansas City Star /
SLEEPING BEAR DUNES NATIONAL LAKESHORE, Mich. - You can talk your head off about this park's scenic drive, its hiking trails and its islands in Lake Michigan, but inevitably visitors gather here at the big plunge.
It's one dramatic spot, a 450-foot drop to Lake Michigan that appears terrifying and thrilling and almost, but not quite, straight down.
People at the bottom, arranging big stones to write "Hi Mom" messages for those still at the top, seem minuscule. The lake, a striped expanse of emerald and blue, looks terrific.
You want to go there. The trip down is tantalizingly steep yet possible without ropes. The climb back up, on the other hand ...
Sleeping Bear Dunes is not the Grand Canyon or Niagara Falls, but it belongs on everyone's list of amazing natural things to see in North America. Combine it with a stay in Traverse City, just 30 minutes away with its fine beaches, split-fingered bay and nearby wineries, and you have yourself a stimulating sampling of northwest Michigan.
LOOK DOWN AND GASP
"It's taking him almost two hours," said Dallis Sun of Rochester, Minn., a little worried about his 60-year-old father-in-law's climb up the big dune.
Sun, 35, is a veteran of the Sleeping Bear climb, reaching the top in about a half-hour. But on this day in mid-June it was 90 degrees and humid, not the greatest conditions for a nearly vertical upward crawl, especially for the un-exercised.
A sign at the top warns visitors that the tab for any rescue will go to the rescued. Most people look down and gasp, then move on to the lookout deck for a view of the sand-covered bluffs. Others really, really want to try it.
I decided to join the latter group. I leaned back and felt I was almost hopping down the dune, my bare feet sinking deep into the sand with each step. A youngster in front of me, picking up too much speed, tumbled head over heels, then rolled for a while on his side before stopping. Luckily, he was laughing when he stood up.
The view from the bottom made the dune seem even steeper. I spent a few minutes gathering steam and taking in the rest of the view: Up and down the shoreline, monumental dunes rose precipitously from the lake.
Then I started. Right away I discovered the many stones mixed with the sand. Each encounter hurt. These bluffs aren't made of pure sand; they're "perched dunes," rocky cliffs with a thick sand frosting.
In my attempt to ascend, I lost about two-thirds of every step to the loose sand, no matter how firmly I planted my feet. I tried using my hands, too, as I saw some people do, but that just displaced more sand.
Finally, I leaned my upper body as close to the dune as I could without actually eating any granules. That seemed to work, although it was so strenuous that I had to stop and remind my lungs how to breathe about every 30 steps.
By never sitting down to rest - I was afraid I wouldn't get back up - I finished the climb in less than half an hour. At the top I wished I owned the beer concession. Unfortunately, there were no concessions of any kind.
Three first-timers from Holland, Mich., Jennifer Somers, Janelle Current and Brenda Nickel, had also just completed the climb and were gulping bottled water they were smart enough to bring. Other hints?
"Be ready with Neosporin and Band-Aids," said Nickel, as she dressed the wounds on her hands from the sand and rocks.
I started my trip to Sleeping Bear Dunes at the National Park Service's visitor center in Empire, Mich., where state highways 72 and 22 meet. Besides gathering brochures and maps and watching a slide show, I learned the native American legend of the Sleeping Bear:
On the other side of Lake Michigan, a mother bear and her two cubs were driven into the lake by a forest fire. They swam furiously but soon the cubs lagged behind. The mother bear reached the opposite shore, climbed to the top of a bluff and waited for the little ones.
The cubs, however, didn't make it. The Great Spirit created the solitary dune called Sleeping Bear where the mother waited. To mark the spot where the cubs were lost, the Spirit created the Manitou Islands in Lake Michigan.
From the visitor center, I headed to Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive, the best way to see the highlights of the park, including the Sleeping Bear. The drive is just seven miles, which seems like a quick trip, but traffic is heavy in July and August. Plus it can take time to drink in the views at the stops or take a hike.
I walked the 1.5-mile Cottonwood Trail (stop No. 4) which offered up-close looks at phenomena such as "blowouts," a barren crater that looked almost like a meteor strike but was really the work of prevailing southwesterly winds.
The highest point on the trail offered a great view of enormous and sparkling Glen Lake, which at some point in the geologic past was part of Lake Michigan but became separated by a sandbar in post-glacial times.
From the trail I also could see the summit of the "Dune Climb." The park service directs people to this broad-shouldered, 130-foot-tall dune close to Glen Lake as a more manageable challenge than the big plunge at Lake Michigan.
The Dune Climb has its own entrance and parking lot off the park highway, so even though you can see it from the Cottonwood Trail, it's best to drive there directly.
On a toasty day in June, scores of people of all ages were getting a good workout on the dune. Much of the climb is set away from Lake Michigan and so lacks the drama of the giant bluffs. But the long, desertlike landscape at the top has an allure, too.
All this fascination with dune climbing and hiking meant I hadn't actually had a regular beach experience yet. But I found an interesting beach close by, near the southernmost part of the park where the Platte River merges with Lake Michigan.
It was here at Platte River Point that Cathie Ulanch of Caledonia, Mich., had brought her 11-year-old son and 7-year-old daughter. Staying at the Platte River Campground, they simply climbed aboard their blow-up tubes and floated down the river to the beach and Lake Michigan.
"It's a lot of fun for the kids," said Ulanch, smiling at herself for stating the obvious.
A grassy park fronted the river as it curved around the last 200 yards to the lake. People stretched out on the lawn and watched others in their rafts, tubes and kayaks float by.
The park had picnic tables and restrooms but no lifeguards. As for scenery, it didn't hurt to be able to look down the shoreline toward the soaring bluffs of Sleeping Bear Dunes.
The great thing about western Michigan, for beachgoers at least, is that you're never too far from a new beach to explore. Traverse City, which has several beaches and a state park beach, is just 25 miles, a half-hour drive, from the Sleeping Bear Dunes visitors center in Empire.
Traverse City is spread along the southern shoreline of Grand Traverse Bay, which is split in two by a narrow, 18-mile-long peninsula. It's a city of 30,000 that gets mobbed in the summer by those who want to see the blue-green bay and visit its string of shops and restaurants downtown.
The city beaches offer a fairly urban experience. On a Sunday in June, the Clinch Park Beach near downtown was a busy place, and the bay became a panorama of sailboats, most with pure white sails.
Motorboats pulled up close to the beach and anchored, their occupants ready for some heat relief as temperatures climbed to the upper 80s. A quick dip sufficed - the lake was plenty cool at 61 degrees. The beach also had a roped-off swimming area with lifeguards on duty.
Next door was a concessions building and the Clinch Park Zoo, where visitors strolled through exhibits of Michigan's native animals. A mini-train that circles the zoo was out of commission due to some construction.
While Clinch Park Beach was popular with families, the beach on the other side of the zoo - West Beach - seemed to draw more teens and 20s. A section of the park at West Beach was given over to a series of sand volleyball courts, which were in constant use. Both beaches were bordered by a strip of park with shade trees, benches and a path, shared by strollers, bike-riders and skaters.
I stumbled across another nice beach east of downtown at Bryant Park. It, too, was quite popular with families. A grove of towering pines afforded some nice shade, and a playground was a big hit with youngsters.
Teddy and Helen Rodriguez of Saginaw, Mich., and their 13-year-old daughter chose to have a picnic lunch at the Traverse City State Park beach, which was on the East Bay rather than the West Bay where the city beaches were.
Actually, the family could have simply picnicked on the private beach at their hotel, but they came here for old times' sake. This was where Teddy's father brought the family to relax on their trips to the region for seasonal work harvesting cherries.
"I remember the first time when I was a kid," he said with a laugh. "My father said, 'You want to go north?' He didn't tell me we were going to pick cherries."
They still love coming here because, although the tourist trade has gotten huge, the people are still friendly and welcoming, Helen said.
And the water?
"Don't let anyone fool you," Teddy said. "The water is always cold."
TIME FOR WINE
Talk of cherries gave me an excuse to stop my beach exploration and take a drive up Old Mission Peninsula, a place with a microclimate just about perfect for fruit-growing, including grapes for wine-making.
About two minutes after leaving the busy streets of Traverse City, I suddenly was driving past rolling hills of cherry orchards and row after row of grapevines. The two-lane highway rose to the top of a ridge so that I could see both sides of Grand Traverse Bay at once.
I stopped at Chateau Chantal, a winery that sits high on the ridge and provides spectacular views of surrounding orchards and vineyards and of the bay. The acreage here is planted in Chardonnay, Riesling, Pinot Noir and other grapes, and the tasting room is open year-round.
Of course it's always fun to go wine-tasting, if only to hear conversations like this one at Chateau Chantal between wine-lovers:
"I taste something right at the end, maybe, hmmm, cinnamon."
"Oh no, no. That's the cherry!"
The area has a growing reputation for producing great wines. And you won't have to ask to hear, several times, that the region sits near the 45th parallel, which puts it at about the same latitude as, say, the Bordeaux region of France.
In fact, at the very end of the peninsula, you might miss the view of the handsome Old Mission Lighthouse, circa 1870, because of the enormous sign that says, "You are now standing on the 45th parallel."
I don't know if there is something magical about being halfway between the North Pole and the equator. But I did think the peninsula was a pretty magical place.
And, oh. I found yet another beach, a sandy crescent called Haserot Beach not far from the lighthouse, barely south of the 45th parallel.
The Kansas City Star, 2002
THE FACTS OF THE DUNES
The dunes of Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore cover four square miles, a small area within the 100-square-mile park. Coastal dunes form a narrow band no more than a mile from the lake.
Beach dunes are fairly low-lying; their chief ingredient is sand. The glaciers that formed Lake Michigan left an ideal setting for dune-building.
Perched dunes, such as the Sleeping Bear, are dunes that formed atop high bluffs and plateaus.
Dunes move with the wind, sometimes advancing three feet a year. Other dunes are stabilized by plants and show very little movement.
Lake Michigan sand is a light color because of its high quartz content.
Winters are milder along the lakeshore but not that mild. Winter months can bring 100 inches of snow along the shore, with inland accumulations even higher.
Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore visitors center, 9922 Front St., Michigan 72, Empire, Mich. www.nps.gov/slbe, 231-326-5134.