I wanted to throw something together from this past July’s visit to Michigan’s Leelanau Peninsula, the area where I grew up and still frequent occasionally. Its a place that is inspiring by its beauty but also suffers a bit from its popularity from said beauty.
For the uninitiated, Leelanau County is the pinky finger of the mitten that makes up the lower peninsula. Yes I know, I am an Upper Peninsula guy, yadda, yadda, but to overlook this area just due to the fact that it is south of our Yooper version of the Mason Dixon Line, the Mackinac Bridge would be a shame. The fact is the northern portion of the LP is a pretty amazing place in its own right….. as long as you aren’t frightened by the onslaught of hollow gazed, fudge crazed, 35mph driving tourists. That said, there are plenty of ways and places to avoid the crowds and sample what makes the area so special. Here is a look into a week we spent down there and some activities that made for a great time. We even put together an overland route from the south to the north end of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. Less words, more pics… that is the theme here…
The Mackinac Bridge, the world’s second longest suspension bridge which connects the LP and the UP at a distance of 5 miles long. It never fails to impress and immediatley whether going south or north you realize that whatever peninsula you find yourself on is distinctly different from the one you just left. Little known random fact, my mother was in the 1957 bridge opening ceremony as one of the beauty queens for the ribbon cutting.
We took a little detour through the midwestern Riviera, aka Harbor Springs, Petoskey, and Charlevoix. The Chicago/Mackinac race just ended and we marvelled at the race boats we saw at the marina in Harbor Springs along with some pretty impressive yachts.
Touring some dirt roads through a tunnel of trees
Taking the backway to North Bar Lake to kayak out into Lake Michigan and along the sand dunes. We left our kayaks and canoe at home to keep things simple and borrowed a recreational tandem kayak from my father. At first I thought I would hate it, being a sea kayaker but honestly, it was perfect for a little fun day excursion and we had a blast.
My partner in crime, Miss Alyssa
North Bar Lake. A cool little inland lake seperated by a couple of hundred yards and a sand dune from Lake Michigan. A popular beach in the summer but it only takes the effort to go a 1/4 mile in either direction on Lake Michigan to get away from everyone.
Out on Lake Michigan with the Sleeping Bear Dunes in the distance.
A unique landscape of water, sand, and sky. The dunes rise 450 feet above Lake Michigan and are the namesake for the National Park here.
We met up with my brother and sister who came into town for a class reunion. This is on the beach in Glen Arbor, a town I claimed as home for a few years, nestled in the national lakeshore. Sleeping Bear Dunes was just named the most beautiful place in America by Good Morning America. It definately is stunning, especially around sunset time.
The sun setting between Sleeping Bear Point and South Manitou Island over Sleeping Bear Bay
Something you don’t see every day….
Not a bad way ride, not a bad way at all
While we didn’t bring our own boat down, we did bring our tandem mountainbike, which is a great touring machine for the rural paved and dirt roads of Leelanau. On this day we road from Sugar Loaf up to Leland for a bite to eat and cruise through Fishtown before rounding Lake Leelanau.
Down on the dock in Fishtown, which is Leland’s historic old fishing district but now more of an area for artisan shops and tourists. When there you must go the Cheese Shop and order a sandwhich on pretzel bread. Some of the best sandwhiches I have ever had. Eat it on the dock for extra points.
Looking down the dock towards the ferry boats for North and South Manitou Islands, part of the NPS and the areas only way to really get out and backpack.
Looking up the dock towards the dam with the Janice Sue fishing tug, a Leland icon.
If you can’t tell yet, in northern Michigan, especially in the summer…. life revolves around the water.
Taking a swim break on the north end of Lake Leelanau, this is MY kind of bike touring!
The water felt as good as it looks too.
The harbor in Sutton’s Bay which lies on the Grand Traverse Bay side of the peninsula.
One of the things I really wanted to do on this visit was to connect as much dirt roads and trails from the south end of the park to the north end. I had never really driven it all together and thought it would be a fun exercise in the game of memory. We would start south at the mouth of the Platte River. Being that it was July, the Traverse City Film Festival was underway and we were in the heart of tourist season, I expected to encouter some folks at my favorite spots. The sheer numbers astonished me honestly. From M22 down the 4 miles to the beach at the Platte River mouth was literally bumper to bumper parked vehicles parked on the side of the road. It was a bit disheartening. Luckily, one of the first dirt roads I wanted to take took us to a beach maybe 1 mile from the crowded beach, and get this, only 4 cars! I guess it is still true that people swarm around each other at these main parking areas and beaches when just next door are these amazing spots that they don’t know about or get to.
Our weapon of choice for this Sleeping Bear Dune assault.
Our beach with the Sleeping Bear Dunes visible to the north. We had all the space we wanted…. and the water was perfect…. niiiiiiiiice
Having some fun with the pano app
After swimming for over an hour and just general beach frolicking, we got on our way. We connected up a whole section of two tracks and dirt roads that led us north.
It was pretty narrow at times but again, we didn’t see anybody. Alyssa seized the opportunity to brush up on her stick shift driving skills.
A great little undeveloped lake along the way.
A gorgeous day to be touring along the forests and the old farmsteads of the area.
After witnessing again the number of people at the beach at Otter Creek we continued on for our next stop which was the Empire Bluff’s trail. We hiked out to the overlook which is a short but quite rewarding hike. The town of Empire lies just to the north and the Sleeping Bear Dunes and South Manitou Island are off in the distance.
This sums up the feeling. I nice southwestern breeze blowing off the lake up the bluff….. but something was brewing…..
By the time we got back to the rig and drove down to the beach in Empire, the beautiful, sunny day was changing rapidly. People were running to their cars. Typical summer storm cell, formed over the lake then moves in rapidly. These storms are always an impressive sight, unless you are stuck on a boat on the big lake.
Moving over land and blowing in fierce. The sand blew with such force that it was physically painful as it blasted against your uncovered legs.
Looking south at the Empire Bluffs. Lightning flashed, the wind raged and the waves built. As most people were fleeing to their cars and leaving, we waited for the front to pass and proceeded to play in the waves, body surfing and having a great time.
Onward, we set north again and got to the meat and potatoes of the park. The dunes themselves. Rather than doing the popular dune climb or some of the other trails or even the scenic drive we went to a spot I love and climbed up to a great little area.
The Sleeping Bear Dunes are actively moving and in some areas as you climb up through them, you are actually climbing up through the tops of trees that are partly or even completely buried by the encroaching sands.
A dramatic landscape
Goofing around trying to get her to get a running start and jump off the edge of a dune.
Trying to show how it is done
I could do this all day 😉 I convinced Alyssa to lay sideways and roll down this short steep section. She got so completely dizzy and COVERED head to toe in sand that she looked like a sugar donut and couldn’t stand up straight for several minutes. Ha!
Well we ran ourselves out of daylight darn it. And we were only to Glen Arbor. We caught a great sunset and drove out on Thoreson Rd and hiked back to an old cemetary that is hidden in the woods atop a bluff over Lake Michigan. It was almost completely dark and such an eery setting to begin with. We saw this buck, looked to be a solid 8 pointer that just watched us walk by, rather close without running away. Added to the weirdness of it when we came by him again, in a different spot on the way out. As we hit M22 again it was totally dark. We pulled off on a section of Good Harbor and debated swimming in the dark. No moon, a bit overcast and super dark. The type of dark where you can’t see your hand in front of your face. As we were rustling around behind the car we heard an animal, a very large sounding one walking towards us out of the woods. We paused, yep still there, coming towards us. My headlamp and flashlight were in the Rover of course. We hopped back in and turned on the lights but it was gone. There have been a number of sightings of cougars lately around there and I wasn’t feeling that great about playing in the dark with a bad kitty hanging around. We called it a day.
Another morning we did the hike up Pyramid Point which overlooks North and South Manitou Islands.
Checking out an abandoned old farmhouse which is being consumed by the forest in the Port Onidea district of the park.
More bike touring, this is at the old Coast Guard life saving station at Glen Haven. We had a great ride around Big and Little Glen Lakes and sampled the goods at Cherry Republic in Glen Arbor. Later that day we also met up with some friends and did the classic paddle of the Crystal River which is inded pretty but also a bit busy for my liking.
We also managed to see some music, meet up with friends, try some great food and wine, though we weren’t able to squeeze in any time for the TC Film Fest, next year I tell you! Overall it was a wonderful week and some of the most fun we have had in our action packed summer. It was cool to show Alyssa my homeland and how it is very different in feel and experience from the UP. Both are great in their own ways for sure, Leelanau is about beaches, dunes, and farmland, the UP about more dramatic, rocky coastlines, undeveloped tracts of lands and uninterupted forests. While most folks write off the LP for an outdoor destination, it is simply amazing. What it lacks in tough 4wd routes it makes up for with cultural activities, beaches and food.