Wilderness, Legends, And A Refreshing Escape From Summer's Heat Can Be Found At Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore

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The refreshing waters of Lake Michigan at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore/NPS

Bears, water, and sand are the main themes that run through this lakeshore that hugs the main arm of Lake Michigan; bears that drew life in Anishinaabek legend, water that flows both rhythmically and tempestuously, and the sand that towers over the landscape.

But there are also sun-splashed beaches perfect for escaping summer’s heat, a rich maritime history, and the newest wilderness area in the country that offers a 32,557- acre mix of beachfront, dunes that rise 450 feet above Lake Michigan, islands, and wetlands and hardwood forests that lure some of the 240 bird species counted at the lakeshore.

It’s that natural Great Lakes coastal beauty that earned Sleeping Bear distinction as the “Most Beautiful Place in America” from Good Morning America viewers. That type of branding can generate crowds, and with 1.3 million visitors in 2013, Sleeping Bear was the second-most visited of the four national lakeshores. But you can still enjoy that beauty without crowds.

For starters, avoid Platte River Point, and North Bar Lake. Instead, explore the Port Oneida Rural Historic District with its turn-of-the-century collection of well-preserved farms. Head out to South Manitou or North Manitou islands (ferries leave from Leland), relax at 669 Beach on Good Harbor Bay, or explore the landscape via the Old Indian, Windy Moraine, or Cottonwood hiking trails. The 4-mile Old Indian Trail offers sweeping views of Lake Michigan. Windy Moraine is a 1 1/2 mile loop through a forest of beech-maple and pines, while Cottonwood runs about 1.5 miles through rolling dunes, though hiking through sand makes it a bit more strenuous.

Those who venture to South or North Manitou islands are in for a treat. South Manitou Island features a U.S. Life-Saving Service station built in 1901 (one of three U.S. Live-Saving Service stations on the lakeshore), a now-retired lighthouse and Keeper’s quarters that you can tour, and remnants of a farming community that dates to the late 1800s. North Manitou Island is managed almost entirely as wilderness. As such, most visitors come for backpacking and camping.

How Did Sleeping Bear Get Its Name?

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. — NPS

If you go:

The Dune Climb and the Dunes Hike Trail are great experiences, but they also are strenuous. In mid-summer, if you hike the trail on a high dunes plateau, fully exposed to the sun overhead, take plenty of water, a wide-brimmed hat, and sunscreen.

The 27-mile-long Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail, when completed, will provide a fully accessible experience for hikers, bicyclist, walkers, cross-country skiers and people of all physical abilities.