The dunes in the upper lower peninsula of Michigan are pretty well known in Michigan. I’m sure every kid has gone at least once. There are actually dunes all along the west coast of Michigan but only the Sleeping Bear Dunes near Traverse City are an actual national lakeshore.
TIP: bring your national park pass. They totally charge you to visit.
The visitors center is small but the rangers are very knowledgeable. There were a lot of people and we had to wait in line for awhile to buy our pass and ask questions.
We were handed a pamphlet that was all about the national lakeshore, a newspaper that talked about the science behind the dunes, and a tiny piece of paper with directions to the most popular spots, not that we really needed it: everything is off Hwy 109 and marked with ridiculously huge signs.
At 3pm in the summer, there is a demonstration of how the coast guard saved sailors during a ship wreck. We raced up to the maritime museum because it was close to three…then realized it was for kids.
The ranger was knowledgeable and nice but it was audience participation and kids were the focus. We left after a few minutes to check out the rest of the museum. The demonstration lasted a long time, and we were able to check their progress every time we passed by.
And the coast guard was necessary. There were a lot of ship wrecks.
If the ship was close enough – like a football field away, they would launch ropes to the sinking ship. To ensure the ropes were free to launch, they used an ingenious system where the ropes were wound around pegs, flipped upside down, and freed from the pegs. See the picture below.
After they launched ropes, they used a pulley system with bouy pants, or “bouy breeches,” to zip line the sailors to safety.
If the ship was too far away to launch ropes, they brought out the boats to save the sinking sailors.
The coast guard was 99% effective and saved over 150,000 men. Pretty impressive for guys in wooden boats.
Inside the museum, which is actually the Coast Guard station, you can see how the coast guard lived, their uniforms (a shocking amount of wool), and this cool recreation of what it looks like inside a ship.
The maritime museum was a lot more interesting than I thought it would be. There are rangers everywhere and man, do they know their stuff.
Do you have rowdy kids? Take them to the Dune Climb. The dune itself is pretty small. I remember climbing this when I was a kid and it was MUCH bigger.
It only takes 20 minutes or so to reach the top. I recommend no shoes if the sand isn’t too hot because you’ll end up with half the dune in your shoes if you wear them. The pamphlet said to bring water, but if you’re not doing the hike at the top, you don’t really need it.
There is a three mile hike at the top of the dune. We asked some people coming back if it was worth it and they said they turned around at the half way point, about 90 minutes in. They said it was just more sand. We decided not to do it.
We went up once and were done. There were kids there, though, going up and then running down, all day.
There is an ice cream vending machine next to the parking lot!
Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive
We almost didn’t go on this scenic drive but we had to kill time so we went. I’m glad we did.
There are about 12 stops on the scenic drive, all detailed in the pamphlet. It started with a covered bridge, of which I didn’t post a picture, because it is just a covered bridge. There are some forests, and even a stop to look at one tree that is leaning in the wind.
But stop 9 is where it’s at. THIS is the dune I remember. It’s huge.
Lake Michigan sits in the background and boats zip by, tiny specks with white tails.
The further you walk down the dune, the more it curves away from you. There is a sign giving three incentives not to walk down the dune: 1) it causes erosion, 2) it takes 1-2 hours to climb back up, and 3) rescue fees are expensive.
You better believe that dune was packed with people climbing back up. It really upset my mom, actually, because of the erosion. And she’s right. The more people climb it, the faster they will disappear.
To the left, there is a wooden platform that lets you truly see the entire dune. It is massive. It’s almost panic-inducing. I couldn’t take a picture that covered the entire dune. It truly is a sight to see.
Number 10 on the scenic drive is just a short walk from number 9. It’s not a bad walk at all and leads to a sandy area. Most people don’t walk to number 10, probably thinking the hike is going to be difficult, so it is pretty quiet.
The view is pretty, but we only spent about two minutes here. I can’t really recommend or not recommend it. It was fine.
Numbers 9 and 10 really do have some spectacular views of Lake Michigan. I hear the sunsets here are amazing.
Glen Haven Historic Village
Swimming in Lake Michigan. It seems like if there is a sandy area, people are swimming. They were swimming at the maritime museum, even.
It was getting late in the evening and we were a little hot so we decided to go swimming. We went to the maritime museum but the bathrooms were closed. So we went to the Glen Haven Historical District.
There is a blacksmith shop, a general store, and a boathouse. We didn’t see any of those. We just wanted to use the public bathrooms to change into our bathing suits. There is a big public bathroom right off the main road in what looks like used to be a barn or something.
We cooled ourselves off in the cold Lake Michigan. The water was surprisingly clear.
We were incredibly lucky and just happened to visit Sleeping Bear Dunes on their second annual Astronomy Night.
Astronomers from Traverse City came and set up their huge telescopes at the Dune Climb. It was packed, and there were a lot of kids up waaaaaay past their bedtimes.
Lines formed behind telescopes and everyone took a look.
I got to see Jupiter and four of its moons, Saturn’s rings, and the moon INCREDIBLY close up. It was so cool. I get why people are astronomy nerds. Seeing Saturn’s rings makes me almost want to switch my favorite planet from Pluto (a true underdog) to Saturn (truly unique).
You can do Sleeping Bear Sand Dunes in one day. Which is good because there is no place to camp. Most campsites are first come, first serve. There were people waiting for a spot at the D.H. Day campground by 9am for a spot for the NEXT day. They literally just hung out in their cars all day and overnight.
Do yourself a favor and reserve a spot at the Platt River Campground about 30 minutes south. It might seem like a long distance but it’s better than sleeping in your car for a chance at a spot the next day.