5 most amazing things to do at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore

Sleeping bear dunes and Michigan lakeshore painted on canvas by Gayatri Nair (image is copyright protected)

As I eased into the passenger seat of our shiny deep blue BMW, I knew I would have a great weekend ahead. The decision to go to Sleeping Bear Dunes was rather impromptu. We wanted a break and explore Midwest, but also wanted a diverse experience. We heard about Sleeping Bear Dunes from a friend, so decided to give it a shot.

Let me share some facts first. Sleeping Bear Dunes is a US national lakeshore located in northwest coast of lower peninsula in Michigan. The name “Sleeping Bear” comes from Ojibwa Indian legend where a mother bear and her two cubs swam across the lake from Wisconsin to escape a forest fire. While the mother bear made it across, the cubs drowned. However, the mother bear lay on the coast waiting for the cubs. The two islands, North and South Manitou islands, commemorate the cubs. The dunes rise 460 feet above the lake and stretches for 7 miles.

Now, onto our trip! We reached Honor village, about 18 miles south of Sleeping Bear Dunes lakeshore, around midnight. Since we made hotel reservations just the night before, we had limited choice. The motel we stayed the night, Honor Motel, was an array of yellow painted cottages with a white sloping roof. Every cottage has car parking facility right in front, just like a motel. The room was decorated with deep brown bedspread and beautiful oil paintings. The room had all amenities including mini fridge, microwave, coffee maker and internal temperature control. The bathroom, however, was exceptionally small, and only had a shower head. Nevertheless, I was happy with the room, and we had a very peaceful night.

1.Shipwreck café: I woke up the next day as sunrays streamed through the thin floral half curtains. The day was cool but sunny, and I loved it. After a quick shower, we headed for breakfast at the Shipwreck Café where I had a Griffon sandwich. I was starving and we were late for the day, so we had the sandwiches “to go”. The sandwich was freshly made with lettuce, avocado, tomatoes, picked peppers and topped with cheese! I relished every bite of the sandwich as the creaminess of avocado was contrasted by tanginess of tomatoes and picked peppers. I would go back just to have the sandwich.

We drove to Glen Arbor for the rest of our itinerary. Contrary to Honor and other towns we passed by, Glen Arbor was thriving with tourists. Almost every restaurant had a half hour wait and parking spots were hard to find. Our first stop was kayaking with Crystal River Outfitters. Since our T-Mobile connectivity was disappointing, we had to stop by and take directions the old fashioned way. Also, our BMW’s superior navigation saved us from getting lost at times. We reached the downstream Crystal river outfitters stall, from where we were loaded onto a mini bus and headed to upstream start point. The ride was about 15 minutes.

2.Kayaking at Crystal River: Crystal river flows from Glen lake to lake Michigan, and is a very scenic route for kayaking. The swift upstream currents and narrow riverbed made kayaking more exciting. My kayak hit several trees that protruded from the shore and I had to paddle hard to steer the kayak away from currents. This part of my kayaking journey seemed more like an adventure and less like a relaxing getaway. I wish I had been more diligent with my workouts so I wouldn’t feel like a deflated balloon.

The shallow Crystal river, Michigan painted on canvas by Gayatri Nair (Copyright protected)
The shallow Crystal river, Michigan painted on canvas by Gayatri Nair (Copyright protected)
The shallow crystal river, Michigan painted on canvas by Gayatri Nair ( image is copyright protected)

There were a couple of rapids along the river, so we had to drag our kayaks across the road to continue the journey. After about half hour, the river became kinder. The currents weakened and water level rose. So, I was allowed to take breaks without banging my kayak on a tree. Relieved, I looked around to find different types of birds enjoying the summer. The thick green foliage and the gushing sound of river transported me to a different realm. For a moment, I felt at peace.

As I paddled down south, I could see more houses and a row of ducks quacking happily. Since the water was clear, I could see small fish swimming along the river too. About an hour later, we reached our end point and recognized how wet we all got. Some of the group members capsized their kayak so they were drenched.

After drying up, we headed for lunch. We were intimidated by the 1 hour wait time at Art’s tavern and so, headed to a restaurant nearby. The restaurant also mentioned half hour wait time, and since we were late with our schedule, we ended up opting for takeout. I ordered mussels soup (never tried before), and my husband ordered catfish. We were less than impressed by the food. My mussels soup was wrapped in aluminum foil and dumped in a Styrofoam container that was barely designed to hold liquids. Nevertheless, we ate our food and headed to our next destination.

3. Cherry Republic and Cherry Public House: The next destination was Cherry farm, except there wasn’t a cherry farm. Instead we entered a cherry market. The place had a beautiful vibe with lots of people and decorated lights. We bought a cherry salsa from the store and then headed to taste cherries covered in chocolate. Yum! The marketplace was a great way to spend money without even realizing! We ordered cherry pie and cherry lemon soda. The cherry pie was flaky, fresh and not too sweet. We loved the lemon soda so much we kept refilling!

4. Biking through Sleeping Bear Heritage trail: I am 5" 4 cm, so its hard to find a bike (a.k.a cycle) that’s comfortable for me. But, The Cyclery, opposite Crystal River Outfitters where we borrowed our kayaks, had the perfect sized bike. The bike was designed for off road and was in fantastic condition. They also provide helmets for safety and a bottle of water. We rode through the forest haven drive and onto Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail. Sleeping bear heritage trail is about 20 miles long and is reserved for cycling. In winter, parts of the trail are used for skiing.

The trail cuts through lush green forests. The fragrance of fresh foliage combined with pleasant chirpings of sparrows made the ride refreshing. After about 20 minutes, the trail crosses the motor road onto the lakeshore. After the lakeshore part, the trail continues to the dunes. We did not finish the 20 mile radius as we had one more activity before sundown, but for the hour and half I rode, I absolutely loved the trail. Since the trail was well maintained, I could ride at high speed. There were parts with steep slopes where I went on full speed. It was such a thrill!

By now, I was pretty tired. The high intensity cardio broke my carefully regimented sitting-around plan. And my body was giving all kinds of signals to crash on a bed. But, I just couldn’t skip the last activity! If you have been reading so far, you might be wondering this: “Kayaking and cycling are great, but did you go to the dunes?”

5. Climbing the dunes: Yes, at around 5 pm we reached the parking lot of the sand dunes. I lived in Middle East for a while, so I was confident climbing dunes will be a piece of cake. There are a total of FIVE dunes to reach the lakeshore. And if you haven’t tried yet, walking on the dunes is not easy. I started with shoes, then changed to flops, and finally decided to walk barefoot. My legs were dying but I kept going.

The sky was cloudy, so I wasn’t burnt. But, wind blew often making it hard to see, breathe or hear. I kept lifting my feet and climbing until we reached the top of our first dune. Well, you know what comes after the climb up right? The downward slope! I was so happy, I almost ran down. For a moment, my exhilaration gave me such courage that I did not care who watched me run like a five year old! But, after the temporary relief and excitement comes the second climb, even more arduous than the first. By now, I could see people sitting down on the sides, and some even turning around halfway. But perseverance mattered to me. So, I kept going!

Walking, walking, and more walking on the empty sand dunes. Apart from a few shrubs, the place lacked any vegetation. I meandered into random thoughts so as to even contemplate on the purpose of life, as my muscles on my legs felt like cooked noodles. As we approached the lakeshore, the sand on the dunes became harder making it easier to walk.

Finally, we reached the lakeshore. I have to say, it looked exactly the same as the ones we saw while biking. So, we were a little disappointed. But, relief washed over me as I finally sat down on the beach, enjoying the breeze as the tangerine sun peeked amidst a cloud covered sky. The soft sunrays of afternoon dusk made the water sparkle orange and green. It was beautiful.

It was already six o’ clock, and we were starving. So we decided to head back. The sky was getting darker and at the top of the dune, I could see streetlights flicker in, what seemed like, a distant city. The winds gathered more strength as they wiped loose sand across the dunes, lashing it on anything on its way. After a lot of walking, and contemplation, I realized how hard life might have been a few years ago. Life without roads and cars, when people walked everywhere!

At last, I could see the parking lots. I ran down the last dune in thorough excitement! It was past seven, so we rushed into the city for dinner. We wanted a nice sit-down dinner and really liked Cherry Public House and marketplace. We got a beautiful outdoor spot by a tree with sparkly lights hung above. I ordered macaroni and cheese (I don’t know! Sometimes you feel like eating Mac & Cheese), and my husband ordered a mushroom burger. The burger was a delight — cherry sauce really complemented the mushroom. But my macaroni and cheese with cherry flavor wasn’t great. It tasted like store-bought Mac & Cheese with a funky cherry flavor. But I loved their freshly baked goodies.

We wanted to head to the lighthouse to enjoy the twilight, but by the time we reached, it was already dark. It also started drizzling, so we decided to discard our star-gazing plan and head back home. We drove back the next day morning.

Summary

If you are around Midwest and looking for a weekend getaway, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is the perfect place to be! I loved Glen Arbor. Every activity is in walking distance so you don’t waste time driving around. I got to experience the lush green forests, the clear watered river and the windy sand dunes, all while in close proximity to delicious food and drinks. If I were to go again, I would try camping and devote more time to biking (maybe explore mountain biking, but first I need to work out!). If you are looking for the itinerary, here it is:

9:00 AM Breakfast at Shipwreck Café — This place has great sandwiches, but is a bit far from the center of Glen Arbor.

9:30 AM Kayaking at Crystal River Outfitters — Make sure you dress appropriately, because you may get wet!

12:30 PM Lunch- Plenty of restaurants around, try Cherry Public House’s cherry flavored lemon soda.

2:30 PM Biking at Sleeping Bear Trail (Bike rented from The Cyclery) — Bikes are rented for the day, so the more time you spend biking, the more ROI

5:00 PM Sleeping Bear Dunes — Best way to climb is barefoot. Also, the total duration of the activity is around 2 hours, so make sure to budget enough time.

8:00 PM Lighthouse — Sunset view & Stargazing at the lakeshore.

Pointers to keep in mind:

  1. If you don’t live in Glen Arbor, you may want to download maps since a lot of places outside Glen Arbor does not have strong network coverage.
  2. If you are a vegetarian or vegan, you may want to explore Cherry Republic as they have good food choices. Most other restaurants only offer a salad for vegans.
  3. Parking spaces are hard to find, so I would recommend finding a spot early in the day, and then walking around. The sand dunes are far away, but the rest are all in walking distance.
  4. Sand dunes can be windy, so make sure to dress appropriately. A face covering such as mask or eyewear might be helpful.

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