Personally, I think the notion of a “most beautiful place” is like choosing a favorite child. How does one go about that?
And yet, doesn’t every child secretly think (s)he’s the favorite?
So, while there are thousands of incredibly beautiful places on this continent (the Bugaboo ice field in British Columbia comes to mind), I make no bones about being proud that “my” state was so honored. I always knew it was the best.
Now that the cat is out of the bag, however, just take my word for how nice it is—and stay home. There are enough visitors here already. One million to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Park last year. Ouch.
* * *
On a recent mid-September morning, the tiny town of Empire where the park headquarters is located, was clearly relishing its return to utter obscurity. There were, maybe, five cars on the street. “We had a good season,” says Cynthia, owner of the Secret Garden, a shop featuring work by local (and not-so-local) artisans, “but I just wish people wouldn’t drive so fast through downtown.” This is a town to be explored on foot in a leisurely fashion, not blasted through.
My daughter and I visited Empire during a camping week at Sleeping Bear this September. The weather was glorious and balmy without the bite of autumn. Trees were just beginning to turn.
Since Julia was nursing a cold, we were a bit more sedentary than usual. Otherwise, I’m sure we would never have spent a day at the Leelanau Coffee Roasters in Glen Arbor. Never.
The beauty of this place derives from the white sand beaches against the expanse of freshwater sea that changes color with the sky. While the water stretches to the horizon, this shore is different from the ocean. For one thing, it doesn’t smell like salt—in fact, it doesn’t smell like much of anything except the outdoors. Seaweed and other ocean crap doesn’t wash up on the beach, except for the ubiquitous zebra mussel shells and the occasional driftwood. Also, the water doesn’t leave a salt residue.
The dunes for which the park is named are called “perched dunes” because sand is blown high onto plateaus overlooking the lake. The dune climb–running down the 460-foot dune and then laboriously climbing back up–is the iconic activity at Sleeping Bear. Since I vividly recall just how demanding a climb up a steep and shifting sand dune can be, I decided that Julia wasn’t up for that particular activity.
My favorite hike in the park is a moderately challenging trek around the Sleeping Bear Point. At about 2.5 miles, the trail offers great views and varied terrain. Plus, to get to the trailhead you drive through the newly restored Glen Haven historic district, which is still arising, Phoenixlike, from the mists of the past.
The park has two campgrounds: the southernmost Platte River Campground where I’ve always camped. Miles of trails loop north of the campground and the Platte River is apparently great for kayaking. A kayak, however, is still on my wish list.
Next time, I’ll camp in the rustic D.H. Day campground toward the middle of the park, which is more suited to tents and small RVs like mine. And, it’s cheaper.
The park also includes almost two dozen inland lakes and two islands—the North and South Manitou. Ferries run twice daily to the south island, so it’s a great day trip. You should plan to do this trip unless you have a cold like Julia, and then you should sit in a coffeehouse and talk to your friends on FB. North Manitou is wilder—no cars allowed. Ferries run only once daily, so the trip entails at least an overnight camp. It’s on my bucket list.
From the park, head north on M-22 to circumnavigate the Leelanau Peninsula—Michigan’s little finger and prime wine country. That’s also on my bucket list.