Beaches, sand dunes, forests, rivers, and lakes. Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore has all of them, wrapped up in a lovely location on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan. I spent five nights here in early July, based at the Platte River campground, exploring the area.
Finding the Beach
Right from the campground is a 1.5 mile-long trail ending at this lovely, mostly deserted beach.
The trail itself passes through the back side of the four camping loops, making it easy for anyone to jump on and walk down to the beach. It featured a wide lane with easy footing, becoming my default morning exercise during my stay.
And, oh, those ferns. This was yet another place in Michigan that excelled in fern production and I loved watching the light play across the fronds as they swayed in the soft breeze.
I went south of the park one day to explore, starting with Elberta Beach, which is the opposite side of Betsie Lake from the town of Frankfort. I walked all the way out the breakwater to that red and white navigational aid. Just me and the birds and I quite enjoyed the warm wind and weather.
The Frankfort lighthouse continued the series of Michigan lighthouses I’ve been collecting this trip. I didn’t walk out to it from Frankfort because traffic and parking was a mess over there, between the July Fourth weekend and some ill-timed road construction that rerouted traffic through the tiny downtown area. Still, I did see the lighthouse from a distance and the southern end of the dunes in this area.
Lake Michigan, you’ve definitely stolen my heart on this trip. From deep blues to luminous greens, sandy beaches to rocky shores, I can’t get enough of this beautiful body of water.
On the suggestion of my friends Brian and Warren, I stopped by the Gwen Frostic store between Elberta and Benzonia (I love saying both those names). Gwen was an artist who specialized in nature prints using Linocut block printing. After WWII, she founded her own printing company to produce her work. In 1964, she opened the Benzonia store and museum that she designed herself. That store, now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, carries on her work. My favorite view was of the gorgeous Heidelberg Platten presses used to print cards, postcards, and other works for sale in the shop. And, yes, I bought a packet of notecards featuring her wildflower prints because they are beautiful works of art.
North of Frankfort is the privately maintained Point Betsie lighthouse. Built in 1858, the lighthouse, keeper’s residence, fog signal building, and a small museum are open to the public, with lighthouse tours a bargain at $5 per person. And yes, you get to climb up to the light and see that view, which always is the best part of a lighthouse tour to me.
Continuing my fascination with Fresnel lenses, I got to see this lens up close since it was on display in the lightkeeper’s residence. This fourth-order Fresnel lens is over 100 years old and still looks beautiful. When it was a working lens, its light could be seen 15 miles from shore.
The Scenic Drive
One of the classic tourist activities at Sleeping Bear Dunes is to do the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive. The speed limit is 15-20 miles an hour so that encourages you to slip into slow mode and enjoy the views out every window of your vehicle.
There are several pullouts and parking area where you can get out and enjoy the view or a short hike, or both. It’s a pretty unspoiled landscape as this overlook shows. It’s not a huge loop, but you can spend a few hours or more there, depending on how many times you stop and savor the views.
On the west side of the scenic drive is this classic view of the North Bar Lake, Empire Bluff, and Platte River Point. It’s such an iconic view that a wide-angle version of it is featured in the Sleeping Bear Dunes brochure that the National Park Service distributes to visitors.
Another popular stop on the scenic drive is the huge sand dunes leading down to Lake Michigan. There’s a big sign saying that if you climb down and can’t get back up on your own power, it’s a whopping $3,000 to be rescued. How high is this dune? Look for the red circle near the bottom left in the photo and you’ll see it encircles a few people at the bottom of the dune!
One hot afternoon, my friends and I joined dozens of other people where the Platte River flows into Lake Michigan. We set our beach chairs in the shallow water and cooled off as we poked at the sand around us, looking for interesting stones.
I didn’t take a camera with me and so I don’t have any photos of that afternoon. Instead, here’s a photo of Lake Michigan. It’s a chill photo that comes close to capturing how right that lazy afternoon felt. Sometimes, even the most avid vagabond needs time to just chill out and enjoy the cold water, the warm sun, and the company of friends.
Want to Know More?
- Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore
- Elberta Beach
- Gwen Frostic
- Point Betsie Lighthouse
- Fresnel Lenses
Long ago, along the Wisconsin shoreline, a mother bear and her two cubs were driven into Lake Michigan by a raging forest fire. The bears swam for many hours, but soon the cubs tired. Mother bear reached the shore first and climbed to the top of a high bluff to watch and wait for her cubs. The cubs drowned within sight of the shore. The Great Spirit created two islands to mark the spot where the cubs disappeared and then created a solitary dune to represent the eternal vigil of mother bear.
Anishinaabe (Odawa/Ottawa, Ojibway/Chippewa and Potawatomi) oral tradition