Trip Report: Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore

Here it is – the long overdue trip report of last fall’s camping trip to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. As is typical of our style, we drove all the way to the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore (over 300 miles) without any reservations. Due to some rainy weather on our departure day (that would pretty much persist for the duration of our trip) we were able to get a campsite at the Platte River Campground, which is usually booked up weeks in advance.

The camping fees were affordable – $16.00 per night for the campsite, plus a $10.00 park pass. Our site was nice – the campground is wooded and our site was equipped with a metal picnic table and fire ring. There was plenty of fallen deadwood to collect as kindling (collecting downed wood is permissible in Michigan – check with your campground though; it’s not permitted in all states) and our site had a good mix of sun (when it wasn’t raining) and shade. Our site was also close to the shower house, which had clean bathrooms with flush toilets and private pay-per-use showers (a $1.00 token buys six minutes) as well as a dish room with a hot water-equipped dish sink. A few of the hiking trails also originate in the campground, making hitting the trails super easy.

On the drive north we really enjoyed the stunning beauty of an unindustrialized lakeshore – the clarity of the water and air were phenomenal and not something that those of us living on the western shore of Lake Michigan get to experience all that often. There are a few nice scenic overlooks along Route 31, and we stopped at one just after we’d entered Michigan. The air was crisp and humid due to the intermittent rain, but being able to see the barges making their way down the shipping lanes of the lake was pretty cool.

Further along in our drive we were ready for a bite of lunch, so we pulled off in Whitehall to see what we could find and came across US 31 Bar-B-Q. They’ve been serving their unique barbecue since 1939, but be prepared – this isn’t a smoky tomato-based barbecue sauce – their recipe is a sweet, relish-based sauce that’s been a family recipe since 1929 (as their brochure menu says). Their menu is simple, as a good barbecue joint’s should be – BBQ sandwiches (you can choose pork, beef or ham), fries or onion rings, chili, soup of the day and a couple of flavors of pie or ice cream if you’re inclined to have dessert. Our only complaint was the beverage available was soda – which is a shame, because these tasty sandwiches would go great with a cold beer. But the price is right – about four bucks for a sandwich, fries and a bottle of water. The portions are just the right size for a good lunch and service is prompt and friendly. They don’t have a website, but if you ever have occasion to spend a bit of time in Whitehall, MI US 31 Bar-B-Q is located right on the main drag at 604 E Colby.

After we’d gotten checked in at the campground, the rain subsided and the sun actually came out so we set up camp and then decided to hike out to the lake before making dinner in camp. We hiked along a trail built on an old railroad grade (I think it was about a mile) out to the lake and were greeted by more stunning views. There’s a small sandy beach surrounded by dunes and miles of beautiful coastline. We did get in a few more hikes on our trip, despite the intermittently rainy weather. We hiked the Old Indian and Bay View Trail, of which the Farm Loop was my favorite – the trail winds through old farm fields and buildings along the lakeshore. It was amazing to walk these fields and see the abandoned (though restored) farmhouses and feel the lives that were lived on the land so many years before. It was a beautifully haunting experience – what a stunning place those pioneers chose to build their lives. I couldn’t help but imagine how beautiful the summer sunlight must’ve been on wheat fields and pastures – but how harsh the isolated winter on a northern lakeshore, miles from anywhere must have been.

We also did the Dune Climb, where you can climb to the top of a 110-foot dune. To say the least, the views are expansive. We also walked along the Duneside Accessible Trail, which is a boardwalk trail at the Lake Michigan Overlook. Also at the Overlook is a 450-foot high rock and sand bluff, which appears to do a sheer drop straight into the lake. It was incredible to see, but despite posted warnings a lot of people were attempting to walk down it! According to the Park Service, they routinely have to rescue stranded or injured people that go down and can’t get back up. So while beautiful to see, it also gave us ‘Grand Canyon Nausea’ – watching all those fools get dangerously close to the edge.

During periods of rain, we did find things to do that kept us dry and enriched our trip. One of the coolest things we did on a drizzly overcast afternoon was drive through the Port Oneida Rural Historic District. It’s the largest historic agricultural district in the national parks, and the NPS website provides an informative guide on their website. One of the highlights of the district is the Point Oneida Schoolhouse, a one room school with a water pump and outhouse outside. Unfortunately you can’t go inside any of the buildings in the district, but you can peek in the windows and explore outside. Some of the interiors have been restored; others are slated for interior restoration as soon as funding and labor become available (if I lived closer, I’d volunteer in a heartbeat). Two other highlights, located across the road from each other on Kelderhouse Road are the Eckhert and Ole Olsen farms. Both farms still have the houses as well as farm buildings intact. Both farms grew wheat and potatoes from around 1860-1950. And of course, those Olsens were from Norway, so we thought that was pretty neat. Be careful if you’re checking out the area in rainy weather like we were though – most of the back roads are gravel, narrow and can be winding and steep – we didn’t get to explore some of the areas due to having to turn back as a result of bad road conditions. There are plenty of other farms and cabins in the area to explore that are not part of the Historic District; maps and info for them are also listed on the NPS website. We didn’t get to see a fraction of the locations that are preserved in the area, so we can’t wait to explore more the next time we get to visit.

Another rainy day activity was doing wine tastings. The Leelanau Peninsula wine region is a real Midwestern gem – the terroir is perfect for producing dry table wines such as Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. There are over a dozen vineyards and wineries in the area and they are worth checking out. I actually discovered a new American favorite in Michigan – Longview Winery’s Pinot Noir. They have an elegant tasting room in the tiny hamlet of Cedar, MI and you can taste as many wines as you’d like for free (though a generous tip for your sommelier is nice when you’re tasting an abundance of wine this great). The Longview Pinot Noir is worth the five hour drive to the UP alone. They also produce a really great Riesling. We also did a tasting at Bel Lago Winery, which is just outside Cedar. The tasting room, located in the same building as the wine cellar, is surrounded by the estate’s vineyards. You can also do as many tastings as you’d like for free. We really favored Bel Lago’s Chardonnay and Gewürztraminer. We were fortunate enough to have our tastes poured by the vintner himself at Bel Lago, and he was incredibly knowledgeable and personable. We left both wineries with a case a piece in the trunk (which was a great fourth anniversary present to ourselves).

We also took some scenic drives up and down the coast and checked out some of the small towns. In Frankfort, we strolled down Main Street and checked out a small, but well-stocked bookstore. In Port Betsie, we explored the grounds and climbed up into the Port Betsie Lighthouse – our first time actually inside one. We also drove all the way up to Leland and checked out the shops on the main drag and had lunch at the Early Bird Restaurant – which was a great small town diner. Down by the docks in Leland is a preserved fishing village known as Fishtown. The daily ferries out to the Manitou Islands are also located at the docks, and we saw some hearty souls setting out in the rain for some backcountry hiking and camping on the next ferry out. We also spent some time in the Glen Haven Historic Village, which was once a steamship stop on the shipping route between Buffalo and Chicago. The town contains the old hotel (restored but not open for business), a general store, a blacksmith shop, a few residences and the Cannery Boat Museum, which is home to all sorts of boats that once traversed Lake Michigan – from Native American dugout canoes to small coast guard cutters to fishing boats. In its heyday, the cannery once processed the regions apples and cherries – the pulley systems to move the fruit are still installed in the rafters. Once processed, the fruit was back on the steamships off to city destination – the pylons from the massive docks that once punctuated the cannery’s shoreline are still visible. Down the road from Glen Haven is the Maritime Museum, a preserved US Life Saving Service station. The museum details the area’s shipping history as well as the role service members played in life saving missions to shipwrecks along the coastline.

Despite the rain, we did a lot of cooking in camp ourselves. Breakfasts were mostly oatmeal and granola bars (I still want to learn how to make just-add-water pancakes in my outdoor cookware – I’ve got to practice them this summer before our next trip) with healthy amount of tea and coffee. For lunches and dinners we enjoyed some tasty camping standbys – tuna noodle casserole, minestrone soup with chicken, vacuum-packed chicken with bread stuffing, Thai noodle soup and other goodies. The major flop was my camping version of perloo – precooked rice with vacuum-packed chicken, a can of tomatoes, dehydrated onion, canned shrimp, and andouille sausage with chicken stock and thyme – it was so bland! But we made it edible by dosing it liberally with Tabasco sauce, so at least we didn’t go hungry. I guess perloo really is one of those dishes that you have to cook low and slow.

All in all, it was a great trip. I really fell in love with upper Michigan. I’m sure that there are awesome details and places I’m forgetting from our trip last year (since it took me so long to write up) but I’m more than anxious to get back and explore some more. If you’re looking for a new place to visit, I really encourage you to check out the Sleeping Bears Dunes – the rich history, incredible beauty and peaceful calm of a wilderness that is really just a stone’s throw from Chicago is worth the drive.