The dune climb
1. It's the most famous attraction at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore and a Midwest rite of summer: a 110-foot-high wall of glistening white sand that tourists climb for fun. It takes 10 minutes, a strenuous hike that will take your breath away. Go for it. Everyone does.
2. Yes, sand is the big attraction in the federal park that sits in the northwest corner of Michigan's Lower Peninsula. It covers 71,200 acres of land and water and stretches along 65 miles of Lake Michigan shoreline, plus two offshore islands.
3. The park features the largest freshwater sand dunes in the world. The dunes are spectacular, impressive, imposing and colorful, especially at sunrise and sunset. Glaciers left behind rubble and fine-grained sand. The southern part of the park features beach dunes created by winds blowing beach sand onto low-lying dunes.
4. One of the park's special features is the ghost forest, which has been buried and then uncovered by the ever-shifting sands.
5. In addition to three old Coast Guard stations, a historic farm district, inland lakes and forests, the park has an 1871 lighthouse at South Manitou Island. It's 100 feet tall and was active until 1958.
6. Short hikes will take visitors to high bluffs with sweeping views of the Lake Michigan shoreline. Empire Bluffs trails is a ¾-mile one-way trail that climbs through old farm fields and orchards and through a forest to emerge in a clearing at the edge of Lake Michigan.
At the north end of the park, it's a short hike, six-tenths of a mile, to Pyramid Point, where visitors stand 260 feet above the waters of Lake Michigan on a perched dune. It's a little off the beaten path and away from the crowds.
7. The 7.4-mile Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive is open from late April to early November and features 12 stops and trailheads, including my favorite dune stop, a wooden observation deck perched atop the dunes with take-your-breath-away vistas, 450 feet above Lake Michigan.
A good story
8. The park gets its name from the 400-foot-high Sleeping Bear Dune, a major landmark for early lake travelers and the subject of an Indian legend.
A mother bear and her two cubs were swimming from Wisconsin across Lake Michigan to escape a forest fire, the story goes. Nearing the Michigan shore, the cubs lagged behind. The mother climbed to the top of the bluff to wait. The cubs never reached her. The mother bear is the namesake dune and her cubs are the park-owned Manitou islands offshore.
In fact, that story is Michigan's official children's book: "The Legend of Sleeping Bear" by Kathy-jo Wargin.
Sleeping Bear Point
9. The point and its Coast Guard station lies west of the historic village of Glen Haven with its general store, maritime museum (open seasonally), cannery, blacksmith shop and an inn. It is among the park's biggest historic attractions. Glen Haven, a onetime fueling station, is designed to keep its 1920s look and feel.
10. The park has wild islands about 7 miles offshore with ferry access, in season. On 5,313-acre South Manitou, a trail leads to the Valley of the Gods with its 500-year-old trees, some of which are 15 feet in circumference and 90 feet tall.
It features its own sand dunes, old farmsteads, giant white cedars, a gull colony and 16 miles of trails. It is roughly 3 by 3 miles in size. There are three campgrounds.
North Manitou is less developed and offers 15,426 acres of wilderness. The island is roughly 7¼ miles by 4 1/2 miles. Backcountry permits are required to camp. There are 23 miles of trails.
Both islands were settled for lumbering and farming.
Access is by private boat or via the Manitou Island Transit Co. ferry from Leland. The ferry to South Manitou runs from May to October; to North Manitou, from May to November.
The ferry runs to South Manitou and stays there on a five-hour layover. That makes a short day trip possible. Visitors to North Manitou must camp overnight. Call 1-231-256-9061 or www.leelanau.com/manitou for more information.