MI Road Trip: Sleeping Bear Dunes History


Long, long ago, an enormous forest fire along the western shore of Lake Michigan drove a mother bear and her two cubs into the lake. They attempted to swim to the opposite shore, but that was so far away. Eventually, the mother bear made it to land, but her two cubs had tired and lagged behind.

She waited, watching for them, unwilling to accept that they had drowned. She lay on the top of a bluff, watching the sea, and waited so long she was buried by the shifting sand dunes. The Great Spirit was impressed by her patience, and created two islands in the lake to honor her lost cubs.

The story is an old Chippewa legend that tells the tale of the area. The two islands are North Manitou and South Manitou Islands, visible off the mainland. The sleeping bear, buried under the dunes is still visible in the form of two dunes in the shape of a bear, although they have eroded significantly over the last many years.

In terms of National Park Service parks, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is a more recent addition to the portfolio, becoming the first National Lakeshore on October 21, 1970. At that time, the Park Service already had several National Seashores, including Cape Hatteras and Point Reyes, and the general sentiment was that the lakeshore along the great lakes was America’s third coast.

However, the creation of a park proved more controversial. The residents of the Sleeping Bear Dunes area have long considered themselves to be the stewards of the land, and they didn’t want tourists overrunning their pristine and quiet countryside. Not to mention the fact that parks don’t pay property taxes, and the conversion of this land would have a significant financial impact on the local communities.

But the area contains amazing natural beauty, including forests, beaches, sand dunes and evidence of ancient glacial phenomena. Not to mention the historic buildings and cultural richness of life in the area, with a historic lighthouse, three historic Life Saving Service stations (the precursor to the modern Coast Guard) and an extensive historic farm district.

The government was eventually able to win the favor of the local residents by agreeing to compensate local government for the lost property tax revenue, and by absorbing North Manitou Island into the park.

The park is well loved today for its camping and hiking opportunities, and the pristine beauty that surrounds the visitor. One can’t ignore the draw of swimming in the lake either when the weather is warm, somewhere along the park’s 35 miles of shoreline.

In 2011, Good Morning America gave it the title of “The Most Beautiful Place in America.” Visitation is estimated to have been 1,280,932 in 2010 – more in the summer months, but there are hikes that would be lovely with snowshoes as well. I can only assume the “Most Beautiful” title has increased visitation in the years since.

“The Most Beautiful Place in America”

“The Most Beautiful Place in America”

We visited in October, so swimming wasn’t really on the top of my list, although we did see tourists dipping their toes and wading in the water at Glen Haven. I will be posting about our adventures at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore next!

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4 thoughts on “MI Road Trip: Sleeping Bear Dunes History

  1. Your photograph drew me in, Camille. “The Most Beautiful” award seems very appropriate! Though your picture is from October, it looks warm and inviting with the blue sky and sand. Eye candy for this winter day!

    • It was so gorgeous! The weather that day was warmer than it had been – we were wearing jeans and a light jacket while just wandering around, and then jeans and a t-shirt while hiking through the dunes (coming up in another post!). But wow, when the sun set, it sure got cold! I’m glad to have warmed your soul – if just for a moment!

  2. Wow- it is very beautiful! Even though, I’ve been to Michigan (many years ago- went to Boblo Island and Frankenmuth) I still think Detroit when I hear MI and obviously, there is so much more to it.

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