With its first crest sitting at almost 150 feet high, taking on the iconic Dune Climb within the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore near Empire is a feat that many attempt in the summer months. But did you know that the same brilliant bluff turns into the ultimate sledding hill come winter?
As the only location within the National Lakeshore where sledding is permitted, each winter families and folks of all ages flock to the snow-covered hill with sleds in hand.
“In the winter, the Dune Climb is a fabulous sledding destination. We take out the signs and the drinking fountains that are normally at the base of the hill, and we block off the entire first row of parking so people can get that run in and slide out into what would normally be the parking lot. When conditions are right, you can really fly,” says Tom Ulrich, the park’s deputy superintendent.
With the dunes’ wide landscape, it’s easy to spread out, notes Ulrich, and families with younger children can navigate the hill easily and safely. “The good thing about it is you can go as high up as you want. If you go to the top, you get that fabulous view out over Glen Lake. It’s just a beautiful place to sled. I mean, you get to sled in a national park!”
For Laura Ann Johnson, a board member of the Friends of the Sleeping Bear Dunes, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to protect resources and heighten visitor experiences in partnership with Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, sledding at the Dune Climb is guaranteed to bring a smile to your face and get the heart pumping.
“Turning around and seeing the big, wide-open hill below is exciting and exhausting all at the same time,” Johnson says. “The park ropes off sections of the hill, so sledders know the safe spots to sled and walk up. It’s a fast, fun ride down that usually ends with lots of snow everywhere and much laughter.”
While in the summer the sand can pose a challenging hike for some, in the winter Ulrich says it’s “often easier, because the snow doesn’t collapse under your feet like the sand does.”
For Ulrich, sledding at the hill is also about experiencing a side of the park that most people don’t usually see. Out of the more than 1.5 million visitors each year, Ulrich says only about 100,000 visit from November to March. “If you come in the shoulder seasons, and especially in the winter, you get to experience it like a local. You get to come in and the restaurants are all open and, you know, it’s just a more relaxed pace,” Ulrich says.
The park also is popular for cross-country skiers, snowboarders, and for those looking to take to the trails on fat tire bikes and snowshoes. Each Saturday, the park offers ranger-led snowshoe tours for the public. Starting at the Philip A. Hart Visitor Center in Empire, the hikes last about two hours and each features a different thematic presentation and location chosen by the ranger. Snowshoes are free to borrow for the hike.
For those looking to take out their skis and snowboards, the Friends group grooms the park’s beloved Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail. “We lay classic tracks for classic cross-country skiing and corduroy the Heritage trail for skate-skiing,” Johnson says. “Personally, I love back-country skiing after a fresh snowfall. There’s something magical about being in the woods after a good snow and hearing fresh power under your skis.”
Johnson suggests Platte Plains, Good Harbor Bay, and Old Indian Trail for beginners; Windy Moraine, Alligator Hill, and Bay View for a more moderate experience; and for those looking for a difficult challenge, she suggests the Shauger Hill and Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive Ski trails.
“The main things people come here for are the fantastic views and the beaches, and those are all still available in the wintertime,” Ulrich says. “When you walk the Empire Bluff trail, you’re 450 feet up above Lake Michigan, and in the wintertime that can be really spectacular because of the whiteness of the snow and the blue lake. The air is so crisp, you often can see a lot farther than you would in the summer when there’s more humidity in the air.” Ulrich also suggests visiting the beach, where ice formations provide an astonishing scene.
“There’s so much to do in the National Lakeshore, and during the long gray winter days, it’s so important to get out in nature to chase those winter blues away,” Johnson says. “Lake Michigan is so unique to see and ever-changing in the winter, depending on the wind, snow, and ice pack. I’m lucky enough to live near the park year-round. My first winter living here was what sold me on moving here full-time from Chicago. It’s so peaceful and beautiful in the winter months. Snow or no snow, there’s plenty to do.”
Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore