Empire, Michigan — Chances are, if you’re from Michigan, like me, you’ve tackled the Dune Climb at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore during a summer trip Up North. And you know how the park’s name came from an Ojibwa Indian legend inspired by a stretch of dunes with a remarkable resemblance to a sleeping bear.

In the Indian legend, a mother bear and her two cubs escaped a raging fire on the opposite shore by swimming across Lake Michigan. The mother bear made it to the dunes and rested high on a bluff waiting in vain for her cubs. The Great Spirit created the Manitou islands — not far from the dunes and part of the national park — to honor the cubs and their mother. And if you’re like most visitors, your relationship with Sleeping Bear has never been much more than that.

For years, that was me; I would fondly recall the exhilarating rush of sliding down shifting sand, and the glacially slow climb back up, barely appreciating the breathtaking views of Glen Lake. But in the past couple years, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore has become my stomping ground. I’ve ventured far beyond that Dune Climb to hike elsewhere in the 71,000-acre park, a diverse landscape of clear lakes and streams, dense woods, beaches and shoreline sand dunes.

But it’s only now, this winter, that I have felt inspired to explore Sleeping Bear in the off-season. Intrigued by a chance to join a guided snowshoe hike with national park rangers, I made my way north one weekend last month. The guided snowshoe hikes are offered nearly every Saturday throughout the winter, depending on weather conditions. The mile to mile-and-half hikes last no more than a couple hours and offer a glimpse into the park’s colorful human past, as well its unique geological features.

“It’s a great place to come and play in the winter,” Tom Ulrich, deputy superintendent at Sleeping Bear, tells me when I ask about winter activities. “All the places people go in the summer provide equally inviting and different experiences in the winter.”

He rattles off a list of activities that include everything from ice fishing to sledding down the dune (how fun would that be!) to snowshoeing and cross-country skiing along hiking trails and closed roads to walking along beaches fringed with ice formations.

“We sometimes also have this phenomenon of huge basketballs of ice, from wave action along the shore,” he says. “They get very round and quite large — it’s really something interesting to see.”

Clearly, there’s plenty to do, and winter also means fewer people. Attendance at the park has spiked since Sleeping Bear was named “Good Morning America’s” Most Beautiful Place in America, drawing about 1.6 million people last year, a record.

Hike spreads walkers out

My first attempts to join a snowshoe hike this winter failed, with the guided tours canceled because of extreme blustery weather or too-warm temperatures. Determined to experience the park this winter, no matter what, I end up at Sleeping Bear during a spring-like weekend in mid-February. But with snow still on the ground, I am hopeful.

Arriving at the Philip A. Hart Visitor Center in Empire, I find about 50 people gathered in an auditorium. Typically, park rangers provide basic snowshoeing instruction before visitors caravan to trailheads. The snow conditions are not ideal for snowshoeing, and we’re divided into two groups — for hiking.

One group follows Ranger Sarah Chalup to the Port Oneida Rural Historic District, an area of subsistence farms in use for more than 100 years and now part of the national park. I opt to follow Ranger Matt Ferraro to the Otter Creek Loop, about six miles away.

Chalup’s hike, I learn, will focus on the history of the Werner farm and family cemetery. The Werners, she says, embody the successes and failures with making a living as homesteaders and farmers in northern Michigan in the late 1800s to the early 1900s. The cemetery is a “pretty cool spot in the woods,” perched high along the bluff line, and since it’s not part of a designated trail, the graveyard can be hard to find.

The Otter Creek Loop, it turns out, is a mostly flat trail that winds along Otter Creek and around Otter Lake. At the trailhead, just off Esch Road, Ferarro points west toward the beach and parking area, where a booming lumber town called Aral once existed. It was a “good size town,” he says, and boasted a dance hall, train line, two churches, a school and houses, home to a few hundred people.

“Towns up and down the lake supported the lumbering industry. Most of the land here was deforested,” he says, noting that much of the lumber from this area of northwestern Michigan helped in the rebuilding of Chicago after the fire of 1871.

As we hike easterly, away from the Lake Michigan shoreline, we traipse a snow-packed trail along a wall of red pines, part of a plantation that once produced wood for Great Lakes ships in the last century. Animal tracks are visible, including a trail of leaves stirred up by deer darting through the woods.

The hike ends at Marl Springs, one of the few spots in the park where the water table breaches the land. and where, on cold days, you can sometimes see steam rising from the spring, Ferarro says, noting the water here is warmer than Lake Michigan. It’s a draw for animals — muskrats, otters, beavers, and black bears, eagles and owls are common in these woods, too, but we see no signs of animals or birds.

Along with a few other hikers, I continue along the snowy Otter Creek trail to finish the 4.6 mile loop. Before too long, we’re spread out far enough that I lose sight of anyone in either direction. Heading south, I pass forested ridges, once the lake bluff line thousands of years ago, and as I cross a footbridge, I remember Ferraro talking about Grandmother Bear, a similar shaped dune that would have been on the lake’s edge way back when, but now rests somewhere hidden behind the trees.

Trudging through snow, even just ankle deep, is a more strenuous endeavor, and the hike takes longer than I anticipate. Still, I revel in the moments of solitude and silence, even if I’m very cognizant of the afternoon sun slipping on the horizon.

Sitting on the nearly deserted beach afterward, I find a few families spreading blankets for a late afternoon picnic, and a few stragglers walking a shoreline dotted with only patches of snow.

View of islands spellbinding

The next day, heeding Ferraro’s advice, I head to Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive, a 7.4-mile roadway that leads to a scenic Lake Michigan overlook. The route, once a private, unpaved roadway built by a lumberman who wanted to share the views with others, is closed to traffic in the winter months but open, to snowshoers and advanced cross-country skiers.

Again, slushy, melting snow and warm temperatures are not conducive to skiing, so I’m forced to hike. It’s quite a climb, and I can see why the road is best suited to advanced skiers. As it snakes continually upward, and the incline is sometimes steep. Tens of thousands of cars drive to the overlook every year, and though I see plenty of footprints in the snow, but I rarely pass anyone.

When I reach the top, I find a deserted observation deck and for the time, I can see the Manitou islands — North and South — from a southern vantage. The view is spellbinding, and I’m hard-pressed to turn away.

Silence is remarkable

Even if the lack of snow that February weekend prevented a full winter experience on snowshoes or skis, Sleeping Bear didn’t disappoint.

The trek along snow-covered trails around Otter Lake and along Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive proved invigorating and I found remarkable stretches of solitude — and silence (not a sound) — not to mention the mesmerizing views of Lake Michigan. There’s a subliminal beauty in the barren woods, the grayness of the trees accented by the green of red and white pines, and the snow.

Looking out to Lake Michigan from the overlook, the sun shone so brightly it was difficult to do more than steal a glimpse. For a moment, while squinting my eyes, it almost looked like a pathway had been rolled out across the broad blue plane, narrow at the shore, but widening as it stretched to the Manitou Islands, places I have yet to explore. An invitation, maybe?

Greg Tasker is a Michigan-based freelance writer.


Snowshoe Hikes

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore

1 p.m. Saturdays, through March 11

Philip A. Hart Visitor Center


(231) 326-4700, ext. 5010

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