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Backpacker Magazine – Online Exclusive

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore

A big Midwestern sandpile turned into an otherworldly escape by pounding surf and forests.

by: Larry Rice

PAGE 1 2

Contact Information:

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore Box 277 Empire, MI 49630 616/326-5134

Location: The park lies at the base of Michigan's Leelanau Peninsula, on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan, 25 miles west of Trevor City.

Getting There: Follow M 72 west 25 miles from Trevor City to Empire. (Several all-weather highways approach the park.) North and South Manitou Islands are accessible only by ferry service ($18 round trip for adults; $13 for children under 12) from May to November, weather permitting. Reservations for ferry service are needed; call 616/256-9061 May through October or off-season, 616/271-4217.

For area information, contact: Glen Lake Chamber of Commerce Box 217 Glen Arbor, MI 49636

Benzie County Chamber of Commerce Box 505 Beulah, MI 49617

Leelanau Chamber of Commerce Box 627 Leland, MI 49654

Seasonal Information: The Manitou Islands are managed as isolated, seasonal use areas, where hiking is the primary means of travel. But the mainland is suitable for use year-round.

~ Visitation is highest in July and August. ~ In winter, there are 25 miles of marked trails available for cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, and hiking. Sufficient snow cover for skiing usually exists from late December through mid-March. ~ Summers are cool (temperatures in the 70s in the day and 50s at night) and winters mild (reaching only as low as zero, although wind can make temperatures feel cooler and there is a good chance of snowfall ~ especially in January) along the lakeshore than in nearby inland areas because of Lake Michigan's moderating influence.

Wildlife: Within this varied ecosystem lives a diverse population of animals. More than 220 species of birds can be seen here ~ including the endangered piping plover on North Manitou Island.

And, in addition to deer, there are foxes, squirrels, snowshoe hares, porcupines, and the secretive bobcat. On South Manitou Island, you might also see beavers, masked shrews, chipmunks, deermice, and four species of bats. Raccoons are quite the scavengers.

Fishing fervor peaks in the fall, when coho and king salmon, sport fish introduced from the Pacific, return to the Platte River to spawn.

Insects: Mosquitoes are common in summer.

Plant Life: Beachgrass and sand cherry are among the first plants to grow on newly built dunes. They play an important role in dune development by acting as obstacles that slow sand-laden wind and force it to drop its load. Their roots hold sand in place and stabilize dunes.

Vegetation also features forests of jack pines, cottonwood, and beech-maple.

And a grove of huge white cedar trees highlights the southwest corner of South Manitou Island. The North American champion white cedar is located in the grove. It measures 5.3 meters (17.6 feet) in circumference and stands more than 27 meters (90 feet) tall. One of the fallen trees showed 528 growth rings, dating its existence to before Columbus.

Facilities: Backcountry camping is allowed in designated areas on the mainland and on South Manitou Island. On the mainland, these sites are White Pine and Valley View campgrounds. There is no water at either area. Pets and bicycles are prohibited, and fires are allowed in fire rings only. Three primitive campgrounds are located on South Manitou Island. Reservations are required for groups of 8-20 people per site. There are two car campgrounds and two hike-in campgrounds on the mainland and there are three hike-in campgrounds on South Manitou Island. Sites with water, flush toilets, showers, and hook-ups are available. Fees, ranging from $8 to $17, are charged at Platte River and D.H. Day campgrounds on the mainland. Group sites are also available and run about $20 for groups of up to 10. Wilderness camping regulations apply on North Manitou Island. The only pottable water on North Manitou is available at the ranger station.

Parking: Contact park office for information.

Permits: ree permits are required for the backcountry; they are available at the visitor center, ranger stations, and on the islands.


  • No fires are allowed on North Manitou Island, so bring a stove.
  • No pets are permitted on the islands.
  • Campfires are permitted only in campgrounds and picnic area fireplaces. Beach fires are restricted to bare beach sand between the water and the first dune and are not permitted on the Manitou Islands.
  • Do not collect ghost forest or other wood on the dunes.
  • You may pick mushrooms and fruit for personal use.
  • Bicycles are not permitted off roads.
  • Travel on North Manitou Island is by foot only.


  • Sand dunes, like snow drifts, can be unstable. Landslides sometimes occur, so do not dig in sand at the base of a dune, dig holes deep enough to bury someone, descend steep slopes where rocks or sand could dislodge and injure someone, or cross steep snow-covered dunes.
  • Wear shoes to protect your feet.
  • Various hunting seasons span the entire year. Wear bright clothing when hiking or skiing. Firearm deer hunting season in November 15-30.
  • Watch for poison ivy.
  • Do not enter abandoned buildings.

Leave No Trace:

  • Although fires are allowed on South Manitou, stoves are encouraged.
  • Stay on designated trails to prevent erosion and damage to vegetation.
  • Respect private property.

All LNT guidelines apply.

Maps: Maps are available from Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. A good guidebook is "Exploring Lake Michigan Islands"

Other Trip Options:

  • The entire Michigan Lake area provides opportunities for recreational activities such as scuba diving and fishing. Charter operators from Traverse City offer scuba-diving trips to shipwrecks of Manitou Passage State Underwater Preserve.
  • And the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive offers brilliant views.

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Jun 06, 2008

For those of you not familiar with the area: the city referred to repeatedly in the article as Trevor City is actually Traverse City.


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