Exploring The Sands Of Time – Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, MI
So we’ve officially made it to fall. The autumn equinox has passed (Sept 22nd for those counting days) and we’re poised on the crisp heels of Father Winter. From here on out, at least for a few precious months, we’re promised cooler days and nature’s painting as we observe the annual changing of the leaves.
It’s a glorious time of year and one of my very favorite for RV travel. Campgrounds open up (for the most part), crowds calm down and seasons change in living color before your eyes.
Our plans were to hit the western side of the MI “mitt” at exactly this special time, and apart from a few minor snags it all worked out as planned. Turns out post Labor Day RV travel, at least in Michigan, might not be as smooth as I hoped. We had some definite upsides and a few unexpected downsides one of which, as the English would say, was quite gutting.
Weather Is Fall Purrrrfect!
On the upside the weather definitely accommodated us. Around a week ago the heavy, humid heat that had been plaguing us in Ann Arbor finally broke and the cool relief we’d been looking for all month came to bear. Sweet mother of relief!! We were still seeing rain and occasional storms, but just that slight 10 degree drop in temp was enough to change everything about the outdoors. No more sweat dripping down the small of your back as you walked outside, no more hounds of skeeters poking through your clothes. It felt pleasant to be out, even a tad nippy. We were besides ourselves with glee, paws and all.
But the rest of our post-Labor Day relief didn’t quite come as easily.
Everything Is STILL Booked?
The first snag was our difficulty finding a spot to stay. Much to our surprise, despite being well into September we were still having a hard time with bookings.
There’s only one campground (Platte River) within Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore that can accommodate our size and it was booked solid, even mid-week. Also I could only find one open site at the State Park in Traverse City for the weekend, which I grabbed right away, of course. It surprised me that there was such low availability, and it got me thinking….
Is the post Labor Day RV lull that we all used to enjoy so much gone?
I read this week that the RV industry has had its strongest sales since the late 1970’s. Over 400,000 RV’s are forecasted to sell this year alone, bringing the current estimate of RV’s on the road to over 9 million! I don’t know how many of these RVers are full-timers or post-retirement, but based on the feeble number of empty spots I see in campgrounds I can well believe it’s growing. RV’s are gaining ground, but the number of campsites stay the same so it seems harder and harder to find easy openings, especially “beast size” as we are.
But I digress….
Two Nights In Dog-Friendly Muskegon, MI
We decided to launch our Western MI plans, semi-booked and all by stopping for few nights at the Elks Lodge (#274) in Muskegon, MI. We finally became Elks members early this year and I have to admit it’s been a wonderful boon to be able to take advantage of their RV parking, especially in places where other parking has be hard to find (we used them a lot on our CA Coast travels this spring). The Muskegon Lodge is actually a fully-fledged RV park in a very quiet spot on Lake Michigan, and they had a lovely, large, quiet RV site available for us to use at $25/night.
And we totally enjoyed the stop.
Known as the “Riveria of the Midwest”, Muskegon is renowned for it’s beautiful beaches and historic downtown area. Plus it turns out, it’s extremely dog-friendly too. We enjoyed 2 wonderful days on our private (dog-friendly) slice of lake, discovered a fabulous off-leash dog beach (Kruse Park), a pretty lighthouse (Muskegon South Pierhead Light) and a most excellent (also dog-friendly) brewery (Pigeon Hill Brewing). An all-around enjoyable and peaceful stop that we could easily have extended, if we had the time.
An Unexpected Opening At The Dunes
But our true destination was a place that’s been on my list for years, and thankfully 3 nights opened up unexpectedly at the Dunes while we were in Muskegon, so we nabbed it and rushed over. It was a non-electric site in a no-generator loop, but with our robust pack of lithium batteries and mega-slew of solar panels we weren’t worried. This is exactly the kind of edge case we designed our solar/battery upgrade for, and even if we got 3 whole days with no sun we knew we could easily make it through. As it turned out we had a mostly shaded site and were rained out almost two of the days we were there, so the extra juice came in extra handy 🙂
And Falling In Love….
We arrived to our spacious site on Wednesday afternoon and immediately fell in love. Platte River Campground (review coming) is a wonderfully green spot on the south end of Sleeping Bear Dunes with huge, private sites sites, and a peaceful quiet that you can only find deep in the woods. It’s only ~1 mile from the beach (which is dog-friendly, by the way) and an easy ~10-20 minutes drive to everything else there is to see in the area. And of course you are right there in the very middle of the fairytale land that is the Western Michigan Dunes….
For those of you who have never been, let me try and set the scene.
Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore covers 64 miles of gorgeous bluff coastline with crystal clear waters, deep forests and sweeping vistas on the Northwestern comer of the MI “mitt”. The park is named after a Chippewa legend of the mama bear who escaped a raging forest fire on today’s Wisconsin by swimming over the lake to Michigan. Her cubs tired and drowned on the long journey so mama bear, who waited faithfully for them on the Michigan side became the northern dune, while her two cubs became the North and South Manitou islands.
In modern times it’s been named the “Most Beautiful Place in America” (on ABC’s Good Morning America) and it’s both stunning and difficult to grasp at the same time.
You see these are not your classic Sahara-type dunes in the sense that you don’t get undulating vistas of shifting sand. Rather these are two enormous bluffs, Empire Bluffs and Sleeping Bear Bluffs hardened by time and held by oceans of sea grass that soar up to 600 feet above sea level. The bluffs are SO large and SO steep that it’s almost impossible to capture them in any real sense, even when you’re RIGHT THERE.
At the top of the bluffs the vistas are incredible, with 360-degree views of the sweeping sand face and Michigan Lake that changes from brilliant blue to angry grey as storms pass through. The bottom of the bluff seems close until you spot the ant-like people walking on the shore below. Those who are crazy enough to slide down (which is oh so tempting) often spend over 2 hours crawling on their hands and knees to get back up. The size of these things is not to be underestimated.
Outside of the bluffs there are miles of pristine beaches with water (in places) so clear it seems the sand is covered in glass. Plus there are endless forested hiking trails and cute historic towns. And last but not least, despite this being a National Lakeshore (your National Parks Pass gets you in) it’s incredibly dog-friendly. ALL the trails (except for the Dune Climb Trail) are dog-friendly and there are over 15 miles of beach that are dog-friendly!! We were able to walk directly from our campsite to the beach to swim with doggie, take pooch to see the dune views and enjoy several miles with her in the forests. In fact Polly did her first 4 mile hike since her ACL injury right here at the Lakeshore. It was quite a special moment.
What About The Lighthouse???
My astute regular readers might have noticed that I haven’t mentioned the lighthouse on South Manitou Island which, if you know me well seems like rather a glaring omission.
This was the last post-Labor Day glitch that we did not properly foresee or research before we came, and I have to admit we were rather hard hit.
Turns out almost everything in Sleeping Bear Dunes shuts down immediately after Labor Day Weekend. In the local town of Empire every store but one was “closed for the season”. At Glen Haven the entire historic village AND the Maritime Museum (both of which I was really looking forward to) were completely shut down. And for the Islands, the ferry and tours to the lighthouse are all but done too. This time of year they only operate once a week for pleasure visitors on Saturdays…and even then, they only go if they have enough people (over 30 paying customers) aaaand the weather cooperates. Waaaaaaaahhhhh!
So, my dear blog friends we did not get to the Islands and we did not get to see the lighthouse. Gutting….
But We DID Get Chocolate…And Sunsets
The ONE store that was open in Empire was Grocer’s Daughter Chocolate which not only saved me on the one morning I was dying for a good Mocha, but also makes some of the most delicious truffles we’ve had in a while. Plus the ladies that run the store are just lovely. They deserve a shout-out and you should most definitely go taste their delicious wares if you pass through town.
Plus there were the dunes, and the sunsets, and the nature. Our three days at Sleeping Bear seemed to pass by in the wink of an eye. We enjoyed endless hikes in the forest with Polly, wonderful afternoons both sunny and stormy on Pierce Scenic Drive (outlook #9 is THE sunset outlook, by the way) and several sweet and dreamy sunsets on the beach. Was it everything we expected it to be? Certainly! Do we need to come back for the lighthouse? Most definitely! Would I change a thing? Not at all!
Despite the closures and rain (almost two whole days of it) Sleeping Bear was exactly the magical experience we expected it to be, and being able to stay on-site as we did made it even more so. Mama Bear made quite the lasting impression.
Useful External Links: