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  • Mikah Meyer

The Legend of the Sleeping Bear

Unit #18 / 412 - Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore

We saw lots of sleeping animals on the side of the road on the way to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.

Sleeping dear.

Sleeping raccoons.

Sleeping possums.

When we arrived, and didn't see any bears, we thought perhaps this park was named after a similarly sleeping bear.

However, despite our road trippin' theories developed while listening to Serial Season 1 (very helpful on a few long drives) Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore was named for something far heavier.

This 71,000 acre national park was so named because of an Ojibwa legend, one which this photo story from South Manitou Island does a far better job explaining than I could:

Now those three bears make up a landmass visited by more than 1.5 million people each year, taking advantage of both its crowded and wilderness areas.

One of those crowded areas was the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive. Andy and I stumbled on this entrance to the park by happenstance, but were glad it was our first interaction. For a national lakeshore split into three large chunks of land, and adding two islands off its western coast, this drive gave a great orientation to all that Sleeping Bear Dunes offers.

We saw the popular and obligatory Dune Climb

Magnificent views of both lakes that flank the park to the east

Hiked along the sandy pathways of its grain-filled soil

And ended with a view of Lake Michigan

...and plenty of tourists who ignored the park service's warning

For both Andy and I, this park was the first on our tour which invoked an essence of grandiosity. Not that the other 17 parks haven't been beautiful, thought provoking or inspiring, but this one had a "wow factor" to it.

Whether it was that initial panorama of the park

A hike on a secret trail with a Facebook-follower brave enough to invite Andy and I on a private tour (more on that below)

Or a majestic sunset that would have felt as beautiful as the photo were it not for the massive amount of flesh-hungry insects,

Sleeping Bear Dunes stirred something inside us.

Just as the Greeks believed astronomy was the study of large, moveable objects outside the body, and music the study of large, moveable objects inside the body, so too should nature be added to the melodious counterpart to which it often finds itself holding hands.

For at this park, nature moved something inside both Andy and I. Something that hadn't been yet awakened during our 73 days on the road.

Perhaps the Ojibwa people really were right about the creation of the Dunes. Maybe it actually was three bears who became the sandy soil underneath our feet, and what we felt was the mother bear: still stirring as she waits for her children to reach her.

5 Sleeping Bear Dunes Highlights (You Can Do)

1. Manitou Islands

While the main part of SBD receives 1.5 million visitors a year, the Manitou Islands get only 6,000. This leaves North Manitou island as untouched wilderness which doesn't even have campsites (you just pick your own with a back country permit), and South Manitou island as a mainland escape with slightly more services.

Both islands are reached via Manitou Island Transit and reservations are recommended to get a seat, especially during the high summer season. Though Andy will tell you the boat ride was a necessary evil (we had high wind conditions the day we went), for me and this group of teenagers it was like a joyous rollercoaster on the water.

Though I didn't join them on the bow, it was a splash fest for anyone who wanted it!

Once we were on the island, Manitou Island Transit also offered guided tours on tractor beds which made it a lot easier, and faster, to get to sights like the Cedar Grove--with 500+ year old trees, and the most famous shipwreck of the many that surround the islands.

There were so many great photos from the island. Follow my Instagram or Facebook to see the rest.

While about half the boat opted to hike, those who took the tour (as I did) were likely given many more moments of respite from the mosquitoes due to the tractor wind. I highly-recommend packing bug spray if visiting the islands or my next highlight...

2. Pyramid Point

As its name would suggest, this tip of the park offers great views and stunning sunsets.


Hiker beware: there were TONS of insects, which eventually caused us to leave pre sunset. I recommend wearing long pants/sleeves--basically, cover yourself like a beekeeper--if you want the photo Andy and I coveted.

3. Treat Yourself to a Moment of Relaxation

Living in a van, Andy and I were very thankful that the Sleeping Bear Dunes Visitors Bureau and The Homestead Inn were kind enough to provide us a stay on their incredible lakefront property.

This massive resort not only offered lakefront views from their rooms scaling up the dune, but a number of pools, including this one which led directly to a restaurant and the beach.

After hiking all day, Andy and I were thrilled to take a moment to relax in the hot tub and watch the sun set over Lake Michigan (while we soothed our bug bites from Pyramid Point too!).

4. Secret Trail

Earning mad points for her bravery, local Lyndsay contacted me and asked to join Andy and I for a hike. She took us to her favorite spot via a secret trail which isn't listed on the NPS maps:

To get there, head to this intersection then walk behind the car guard and stay on trail past this farm. That will lead you through a small pasture, into some trees, and viola! View.

5. Get On The Water

Though Lake Michigan is basically too cold to swim in (unless you're under 17 or very brave), there are plenty of opportunities to get on the water. This couple canoed 12 miles from one dune's point to Esch Beach. I also met a couple who was paddle-boarding on the smaller (and at only 12 feet deep-warmer) Little Glen Lake. They run All About Water and rent boats/kayaks/paddle-boards to take on the big and little lakes.

Just make sure if it's windy, you're on something this big. And wear appropriate clothes if you decide to get wet on the bow.

Upcoming Units (COMMENT with recommendations please! What should I do at each park? Local interesting detours? Food stops?)

(Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin and North Dakota)

-Isle Royale National Park

-Keweenaw National Historical Park

-Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore

-Grand Portage National Monument

-Mississippi National River & Recreation Area

-Pipestone National Monument

-Voyageurs National Park

-Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site

-Theodore Roosevelt National Park

-Fort Union Trading Post National Historic Site

-Apostle Island National Lakeshore

-Saint Croix National Scenic Riverway

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