Sand dunes and fall colors: a weekend in Michigan

Since the fall break added a few days to my weekend in mid-October, and this time magically coincided with the peak of fall color fiesta in the northern part of the United States – everything called for another adventure. Back in September one of my friends who inspired and organized our weekend getaway to Wisconsin in May came up with an idea to visit the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in lower Michigan – Good Morning America‘s 2011 “Most Beautiful Place in America”. Thus, the wheels started spinning, and the plans were soon all set.

Day 1: drive up and sunset hike

I arrived to Chicago the day before our departure. In the morning, we headed out to pick up our rental car – to be pleasantly surprised with a free upgrade. Not a bad start of the trip! All supplies and groceries were prudently purchased ahead of time – thus, without further due, we hit the road on our way around the Lake Michigan and north to its namesake State.

Overall, the drive takes approximately 5.5 hours to Empire – our first destination, where the park’s visitor center is located. To use our time more efficiently, we even bought some salad and meat for lunch – after getting gas in Saugatuck, MI we decided to refuel ourselves and stopped for a picnic at the River Bluff Park just off of I-196.

Our plan was to get to Empire, MI early enough to purchase a weekly pass to the park in the visitor center. Well – that didn’t happen. Don’t trust Google when it comes to off-season hours: they close at 4pm instead of 6pm, apparently after the Labor Day. Nevertheless, we could not miss one of the most picturesque sights of the day – sunset on the lake!

View of the Lake Michigan and the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore at sunset.
Looking north at the sand dunes of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. We will be hiking there tomorrow!

Sun setting into the Lake Michigan, and two sundogs at 22 degrees left and right from the Sun.
Sun setting into the Lake Michigan, with two sundogs (the left one is much brighter, although both of them look less apparent in the picture than they did in real life).

So we headed to the Empire Bluff Trail just south of the city. It’s a short drive to the trailhead, and an approximately half-hour easy hike to the end of the trail. Once we peaked out of the trees – we saw our first panorama of the Lake Michigan in all its glory. Golden hour made the views absolutely stunning, with crisp colors and sharp shadows. On top of that, we were rewarded by a sight of sun dogs – a rare atmospheric phenomenon that features bright patches of light at 22° to one or both sides of the Sun!

The picture that I took that evening even made it to Sunset of the Day 🙂

For our base camp, we rented a small barn-style cabin not far from Lake Ann. The cabin had no electricity, water or heating – however, this was not our first rodeo, so we were ready to provide ourselves with everything that we needed. On the flip side – it was a nice little place with enough sleeping space that was more comfortable than if we slept in a tent, a generous fire pit, and some outdoor furniture to spend time around the campfire. Which we sure did once we got there after our sunset hike – topped with some fresh steaks right from the grill, and (of course) s’mores!

Day 2: the dunes

The 130-foot sand dune near the trailhead of the Dune Climb at the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in Michigan.
A 130-foot sand dune near the parking lot welcomed us at the trailhead of the Dune Climb.

Since this place is in the far western part of the Eastern Time Zone, the Sun rises there almost at 8am at this time of the year. Thus, it’s safe to say that we woke up at sunrise 🙂 After a hearty and filling Mountain House breakfast, we packed our lunch and plenty of water, and headed out to our main mission of the day: the Dune Climb. First thing before entering the park, we stopped at the visitor center (which was open!), and purchased a 7-day pass that costs $25.

Panoramic view of the dunes and Glen Lake.
Panoramic view of the dunes and Glen Lake.

The dunes give you a strange feeling of hiking in the desert.
The dunes give you a strange feeling of hiking in the desert – until you see the lake 🙂

The Dune Climb trail is the most popular trail of the park, and most probably one of the top places to visit in the entire Lower Peninsula of Michigan. It is approximately 3.6 miles long roundtrip, and takes about 2-2.5 hours for an average person to hike to the lake shore and back. With overall elevation gain of almost 650 feet, AllTrails rates it as difficult – however, in my personal opinion, it is fairly comparable to other trails that I hiked in the past few years that were rated as moderate.

It would not be so difficult to climb if it were solid ground, but it is soft sand that gives way under each step. As you step up 12 inches you lift your body weight to this spot but the sand gives way under your foot and it slides down 8 inches. You have done enough work to go up 12 inches but have only moved up 4.

America’s Lakeshore: behind the Dune Climb

The first dune is approximately 130 feet high, and the second one behind it has about the same height. The trail further takes you through a series of descents and climbs, and eventually brings you to a beautiful, though quite narrow, beach. Water and sand there look just picture-perfect, and we decided that there’s no better spot for a well-earned break and snack.

Picturesque view of Lake Michigan from the beach at the end of the Dune Climb trail.
Picturesque view of Lake Michigan from the beach at the end of the Dune Climb trail.

Spring and fall are known for significant temperature swings during the day. It can also happen due to terrain, like during our hike to the Black Elk Peak in June. Thus, it is quite hard to plan the perfect outfit for such hikes, and the best strategy is to have several layers that you can take off and put back on as needed. In addition to this, the Dune Climb hike takes you through rather windy area – so make sure you are ready for this too!

The Dune Climb trail offers plenty of descents followed by sometimes rather steep climbs.
The trail offers plenty of descents followed by sometimes rather steep climbs.

After completing the Dune Climb hike, we took a short ride to the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive just two miles south. It is a 7.4-mile loop one-way road that features 12 stops. At each stop, visitors can either enjoy the view from a viewpoint, or take a relatively short hike. For most of it, however, I separated from my friends: I brought my new portable HF station with me, and planned to activate this park for the Parks on the Air program. As described in my successful activation routine, I spent some time researching the best operating position. Thus, I asked to drop me off at the stop #10, and hiked up to the highest point in the area to deploy my station.

View northwest from the Sleeping Bear Dunes Overlook.
View southwest from the Sleeping Bear Dunes Overlook.
It is approximately 450 feet from the top of the dune down to the Lake Michigan at this point.

After replenishing our energy with a late lunch, we headed out of the scenic drive towards Glen Lake. With just a few hours of sunlight left, we drove to the place with an inviting name – Inspiration Point. It doesn’t have a hiking trail associated with it – it’s just a somewhat elevated viewpoint that features a pretty sight of the Glen Lake and surrounding forest.

Glen Lake from the Inspiration Point.
Glen Lake from the Inspiration Point.
Glen Lake from the bridge on Hwy 22.
Glen Lake from the bridge on Hwy 22.

We drove around the Glen Lake to see if there are any other interesting spots – and stopped to enjoy pretty views from the bridge on Hwy 22 that crosses the lake. Overall, it doesn’t take too much time to find a place with a good view if you’re driving by – though not necessarily they will be worth of a drive by themselves.

Day 3: northern tip and drive home

While the first night opened for us crystal clear and pitch black skies with bright Milky Way from horizon to horizon, the second one was cloudy, even with some light rain late after midnight. As a consequence, it was warmer – approximately 50 F compared to 39 F during the first night. Our destination for today was the northern tip of the park, to the northeast of Glen Arbor, MI.

Lake Michigan and Manitou Islands from the Pyramid Point Overlook.

We started the day at the Pyramid Point Trail – a 2.7-mile loop trail that mostly takes you through the forest. It has an elevation gain of 570 feet, but is much easier to cope with since it’s not all soft sand. The highlight of the trail, of course, is the Pyramid Point Overlook that offers great views of the Lake Michigan, as well as North and South Manitou Islands.

A short drive south of there is Bay View Trail that became our next destination. Its two loops feature almost 8 miles of forest hike, and the only thing that I did not understand about it is – where does the bay come into play, beside its name? 🙂 In all fairness, though, you can see the lake from the top of the hill at the Scenic Lookout Point.

Bright fall colors along the scenic drive on Hwy 22.

Bright fall colors along the scenic drive on Hwy 22.
Bright fall colors along the scenic drive on Hwy 22.

With some time to spare after our hikes, we decided to take the most scenic part of the Hwy 22 and headed to the Leelanau State Park and the Grand Traverse Lighthouse. The drive itself was well worth the hour that it took! The sparkling colors of the Michigan fall interchanged from time to time with stunning views of Lake Michigan and Northport Bay. The lighthouse itself was already closed, but we had a good time just walking around the little park. To keep the post informative, I will mention that the entrance fee is $9 per day for out-of-state vehicles.

The Grand Traverse Lighthouse.
The Grand Traverse Lighthouse.
Looking north from the Lighthouse Point – from here, it’s only about 50 miles to the Upper Peninsula!

Of course, there is much more to see and experience in the area – likewise, in many places, we can only get a feel of it, but there is almost never enough time to see, visit and try everything. It was time to head back home – we had an almost seven-hour drive ahead, since we also planned a detour to stop at Point Betsie Lighthouse near Crystal Lake. By the time we got there, however, the park was already closed. Thus, we only got to see the lighthouse from the beach, as well as take a farewell glimpse at the Sun setting in to the Lake Michigan – much like when we first came here two days ago.

Point Betsie Lighthouse.
Point Betsie Lighthouse.
Our farewell sunset on the way home.
Our farewell sunset on the way home.

First thing that flashes in my memory about our drive back to Chicago is patchy, sometimes quite dense, fog that followed us from around sunset all the way into the Windy City. It even somewhat reminded me our drive from western Nebraska into Wyoming on the day of the total solar eclipse in 2017. Thankfully, we made it home safely.

In grand total, we drove almost 900 miles during this trip (well, except I can add another 950 miles that I traveled from Omaha and back – but that’s a different story). We like traveling on a budget, and we succeeded this time as well: the total cost of the trip was about $200 per person, including all expenses. The definite highlight of the trip, in my opinion, was the Dune Climb – however, I wouldn’t trade off any of our other adventures either!

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