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The Dune Climb at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore Invites You to Climb, Run, Jump, Slide, Roll, Whoop, and Holler


View of the Dune Climb and Glen Lake from the top of the Cottonwood Trail at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. That’s the parking lot waaaaaaaay down there at the bottom of the dune. Photo by Kerry Kelly via Wikipedia.

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is located on Lake Michigan in the northwestern part of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula. The park protects a 35-mile stretch of shoreline that has many important natural and cultural features, including:

• Some of the best sand beaches on the Great Lakes
• Some of the world’s largest sand dunes
• Two offshore islands that have a backcountry or wilderness character
• Beech-maple forests and related terrestrial ecosystems
• Lakes and wetlands
• Cultural resources such as old farm buildings and a replica covered bridge
• Two campgrounds
• Opportunities to enjoy hiking, dune climbing, camping, boating, canoeing and kayaking, fishing, backpacking, scuba diving, and related activities.

One of Sleeping Bear’s major attractions, the renowned Dune Climb, is loads of fun for the young and young at heart. It’s one of my favorite places in one of my favorite parks.

The dunes at Sleeping Bear are stupendous in size and have a very interesting geologic origin. The vast amounts of sand that have accumulated here and at other places along Lake Michigan’s eastern and southern shorelines can be traced to the great glaciers that repeatedly advanced into this area over the past million years. The most recent advance of the icesheets covered the land here to a depth of a mile or more and melted away only about 10,000 to 12,000 years ago.

Glaciers and glacial melt water loosened, sorted, and moved vast quantities of sand that were subsequently dumped into Lake Michigan by stream action. Longshore currents and waves distributed the sand along the shoreline to create sandy beaches, and then the sand was piled into great dunes by the westerly winds blowing strongly and steadily across the smooth lake surface.

The dunes at Sleeping Bear are properly termed “perched dunes” because they have formed atop pre-existing landforms. In this case, the pre-existing landforms are hills (moraines and drumlins) created by glacial deposition. The dunes cover a large area (about four square miles) and are very impressive. The slopes are steep, and the dunes top out as much as 460 feet above the shoreline.

To help insure visitor safety as well as protect the dunes-anchoring vegetation, Sleeping Bear visitors are urged to use established/marked trails or boardwalks and stay off steep dune faces. The Dune Climb is a conspicuous exception. While people can (and do) climb the dunes in other places, the Dune Climb is the only place in the park where dune climbing is encouraged and facilitated.

The Dune Climb (see the accompanying photo) is easy to get to and has lots of amenities. It sits right next to highway M-109 and just north of Pierce Stocking Scenic Road, the park’s heavily traveled loop drive. At the base of the Dune Climb there is a spacious parking lot, a visitor center (the Dune Center), a park store, modern restrooms, a playground, and a nice picnic area.

On any given summer day there will be hundreds of people, especially kids, climbing the dune or just watching. Try it for yourself. Wear comfortable clothes and get ready to climb, run, jump, and maybe even tumble and roll.

Be warned that the Dune Climb is steep and strenuous. Starting out at the bottom of the dune is one thing, but making it all the way to the top is quite another. Fortunately, there’s a place along the way where the dune sort of levels out for a while and offers you a breather.

Youngsters like to charge up the hill, passing us older folks who are struggling and resting. Then, many of the kids run all the way to the bottom, jumping and sliding and whooping and hollering. And occasionally tumbling and rolling, too, for when you run real fast down that steep slope it’s easy to lose control and pitch forward. Adults are more likely to enjoy the view of Glen Lake to the east and then sort of lope down to the bottom of the dune. Not me, though. I love to run and jump and slide and maybe even holler a bit. Makes me feel like a kid again. Yahoo!!!

Post script: If you really, really love to run, jump, slide, and roll on sand dunes, consider a visit to Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve in south-central Colorado. The park’s 30 square miles of windswept dunes include the tallest dunes in North America (up to 750 feet or so high), and you can go anywhere you want in the dunefield, which is federally designated wilderness. You might want to avoid the dunes on summer afternoons when surface temperatures on the dunes can top 140 degrees.


Don't forget to continue on after the top of the hill. Continue for two miles through low hills of loose sand out to Lake Michigan. By the time you get back, you have had a great workout. Done properly, it is a lot of fun. Done improperly, it can also be a lot of fun as my son and I discovered when we lost the trail, wandered through scrub and ended up at a 500 foot cliff overlooking Lake Michigan. On our way back we came across a deer jawbone that the wind and sand had bleached clean. It is an amazing place.

I agree that Sleeping Bear is a wonderful place for hiking, Anon, especially on a hot summer day when cool breezes are blowing in off Lake Michigan. Gotta say a couple of things about that, though. Walking in loose sand can be a penance, especially in steeper areas. And the wind at the top of the dune scarp ("cliff") is sometimes strong enough to whip sand into your eyes. A very small price to pay for the gorgeous view.

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