Uncovering the Dunes

Vast tracts of dunes exist elsewhere in the country, but the combination of the sand and the sweet water of the Great Lakes — particularly Lake Michigan — is an irresistible one.
Photography by Brian Confer

Almost half of Michigan’s 275,000 trademark dune acres are in public parks, preserves and national lakeshores.

“The majority offer an escape in the natural world, whether it’s through hiking, camping and birding or watching the surf roll in on a wide, sandy beach,” notes Jim DuFresne, author of more than a dozen wilderness and travel guide books including “The Complete Guide to Michigan Sand Dunes” (2005, University of Michigan Press).

This user-friendly book highlights nearly 50 such areas state-wide — from Nordhouse Dunes Wilderness and Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore to Grand Sable Dunes and Seagull Point Park. Detailed maps included for each also cite unique natural features and activities that can be enjoyed in and around each dune, along with where to picnic, swim and camp.

Hiking in Dune Country

“Of all the recreational activities offered here, hiking is one of the best,” says DuFresne, who also contributes to MichiganTrailMaps.com. “Thanks to the open country and high vistas that dunes create, trails often lead to sweeping views and dramatic scenery.”

In the forested backdunes, follow trails through an intriguing topography of narrow ravines and steep slopes. Remember the more open country through which you hike, the more sand you will have to traverse. Such ventures can become especially strenuous, particularly in Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.

“The key to an enjoyable trek is being properly equipped and undertaking only what you or your family is physically able to,” DuFresne says. “Hiking among the dunes isn’t easy. Trekking through soft sand — whether you’re climbing a slope or following the shoreline — is hard on the ankles and can quickly tire you.”

Morning at the beach
Photography by Todd and Brad Reed photography

During the summer it’s easy to misjudge how hot and dry the open dunes can be, he emphasizes in sync with these tips:

• Be equipped with good hiking shoes, not flip-flops or running shoes.

• Pack along sunglasses, a wide-brimmed hat and sunscreen to ward off intense heat radiating off the sand.

• In areas where perched dunes tower above the Great Lakes, stay away from the edge to avoid being swept down by a sudden avalanche.

• Be prepared for bugs, particularly stable flies (a biting house fly that congregates on beaches and dunes in July and August).

• Remember that poison ivy is common in dune country and if “leaflets three, let it be.”

• Carry at least a quart of water per person if you plan to hike for four hours or more.

The vast majority of parks covered in “The Complete Guide to Michigan Sand Dunes” have trails systems. The author’s favorites include Lake Michigan Trail in Nordhouse Dunes Wilderness; Sleeping Bear Point; the 4-mile loop in Warren Dunes State Park featuring Mt. Randal Trail; and the Lighthouse Trail in Ludington State Park. Families, he adds, will have fun tackling Mt. Baldhead in Saugatuck.

Seeking overnight adventures? “Hoist a pack and spend a night at Nordhouse Dunes Wilderness, Platte Plains and South Manitou Island in Sleeping Bear Dunes,” the author says, “or hike to Sturgeon Cabin in Wilderness State Park.”

Learn more at MichiganTrailMaps.com.

Top spot to sunbathe

Although 2012 marks the 21st year a nationwide Top 10 Beaches List has been compiled by Stephen Leatherman, director of Florida International University’s Laboratory for Coastal Research in Miami (a.k.a. Dr. Beach), this is the first year the renowned coastal shoreline expert has specifically studied beaches on the Great Lakes. To identify the best lakeshores, Leatherman asked coastal communities to complete a survey and submit a sand sample, as he hasn’t been able to visit and rate all of the beaches in the Great Lakes.

Sleeping Bear Dunes
Photography courtesy istockphoto.com/Jerome Skiba

From this information, Leatherman evaluated the beaches with about 60 factors, including clean sand and water, safety, environmental quality and management and services. His Top 5 Great Lakes Beaches for 2011 in order are:

• Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Lake Michigan, Mich.

• Presque Isle State Park, Lake Erie, Penn.

• Sand Point Beach, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Lake Superior, Mich.

• Bayfield Main Beach, Lake Huron, Ontario, Canada

• Oak Street Beach, Lake Michigan, Chicago

Leatherman also chose two runners-up: North Beach on Lake Michigan in Racine, Wis., and Grand Haven State Park. To learn more, visit livescience.com.

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