Lake Michigan Sand Dunes: Sleeping Bear Dunes

Discover the fascinating ecology and mythology of Lake Michigan Sand Dunes and learn how to properly climb the Sleeping Bear Dunes.

The Lake Michigan Sand Dunes are a national treasure. Formed by glaciers almost 300,000 years ago, they are fragile ecosystems of breathtaking beauty. The Lake Michigan Federation reports that Lake Michigan sand dunes are the “largest concentration of freshwater sand dunes in the world.”

Author Carl Sandburg wrote:

“Those dunes are to the Midwest what the Grand Canyon is to Arizona and the Yosemite to California. They constitute a signature of time and eternity.”

Per the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the dunes are even visible from space. The Sleeping Bear Dunes are part of this magnificent system. The National Parks Service estimates the dunes’ age at 2,000 years old and they span an area of four square miles. Their age and beauty make the Sleeping Bear Sand Dunes are a major tourist attraction in Northern Michigan.

In years past, the dune looked like its namesake; a sleeping bear. An old Chippewa legend says that the sleeping bear is mother to two drowned cubs, holding eternal vigil. However, time and wind have eroded the dune into a hill of soft sand that is fun to climb.

How to Climb the Sleeping Bear Dunes

The dune climb is 100 feet tall and is a challenging rite-of-passage for tourists. The best strategy is to go slow, go barefoot, bring water in order to stay hydrated and a camera to document the experience. Also, start earlier in the day before the sand has been scorched by the sun.

As muscles become fatigued and start burning, it can be helpful to scuttle sideways like a crab or even turn and walk backwards as a way to reduce stress on the legs. Walking at a diagonal to the steep slope is also a good idea.

If all else fails, sit down and take a break. Just don’t give up because the views from the first big plateau are breathtaking and the dunes are naturally eroding into extinction. The dunes won’t always be there to climb.

Alternatives to Climbing the Sleeping Bear Dunes

Another way to take in the majestic Lake Michigan sand dunes is on the National Parks’ Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive. The scenic drive is 7 miles long and goes through a gorgeous forest with sweeping views of Lake Michigan, a variety of sand dunes (including the Sleeping Bear Sand Dunes) and bluffs. Pull off points and look outs allow for photos.

At dusk, tourists congregate on top of the sand cliff at the Lake Michigan Overlook to watch the sunset. A $10 fee per vehicle grants 7 day access to both the scenic drive and the dune climb, just tape the receipt to the car window.

The Sleeping Bear Sand Dunes are nature’s hourglass, a reminder that time changes everything. Don’t miss this national treasure; it won’t ever be the same again.


NOAA. “Dune Fact Sheet.”

Lake Michigan Federation. “Vanishing Lake Sand Dunes.”

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. “Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive.” Brochure with no publication date listed.

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