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:
- Visit Muskegon -> Official visitors site HERE
- Muskegon Lighthouse -> Click HERE and HERE
- Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore -> Click HERE for official NPS site and HERE for visitors site
- Manitou Island Ferry Schedule & Rates -> Click HERE
- South Manitou Lighthouse -> Click HERE
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We LOooVE Comments, So Please Do
Rusty Austin says
I guess we’re coming late to the party, my wife and I are going fulltime next June. We’re thinking Tiffin 33aa for the KS bed and the WD combo, but maybe we need to reconsider the length, FR3s are much shorter and have a KS bed, but, no WD combo…First world problems I guess…
Had we known what we know today I think we would certainly have gone for a smaller RV. If you like to camp in public parks like us, and you enjoy the forest, and mountains and boondocking in nature, it really helps to have a smaller, more nimble size. It’s a compromise in space, but it just depends how you like to camp. It’s one of the things I mentioned in my post 10 Things I Wish I’d Known Before Fulltime RVing…
That said, we’ve made “the beast” work for the past 6+ years so it’s do-able, although at times planning can be a bit of a pain 🙂
Ahhh…brings back such good memories. We hosted at Platte River – Loops 2 & 3 for 9 Fall seasons and gave the South Manitou Lighthouse tours 3 Summer seasons! We got our gig just by visiting in Fall. We loved it so much we asked if they had any openings. We began that week. 🙂 That was in the early 1990’s. They didn’t even accept Fall reservations at that time and during the week you could always get a spot. Gradually, the word got out and now it’s very difficult to get a spot. You were so lucky. It’s a very special place for us and you captured it beautifully. We felt we were actually there once again. Thank you!!!
Wow! What a GREAT place to host…and you got to volunteer the lighthouse too! Fabulous memories. Thanks for sharing!
Every single photo of yours is more and more astounding with all your blogs. You are blessed with such talent!
Jerry Ericsson says
Nice to see you are having a great time, although it a bit nerve wracking not finding spots when you need them. We just got back from the Black Hills of South Dakota, with a side trip to the Devils Tower, our adult daughter in tow, she had never visited the tower before, so it was an amazing sight for her, and the fall colors in Spearfish Canyon was glorious. We had a super day for it, just the right amount of sunshine for great photos yet the fall colors were in full bloom, and the wind had yet to rip the leaves from their trees, although that was yesterday, today was fraught with high winds, and made our journey home a day earlier then planned, as well as much slower then I like to drive. We are preparing for our run south to Arizona in a month or so, still a few doctors to poke and prod our aging bodies before we go, but that is part of growing old I guess. Thanks for the wonderful emails, they keep us going when we are grounded here in South Dakota.
How wonderful that you caught the fall colors. I think we’re still a few weeks away here, and we’ll (sadly) be gone by then but hopefully we’ll catch them further East. Sound like you had a lovely trip.
Hi Nina –
If you are in NJ during the peak of the fall colors I would recommend a drive to Delaware Water Gap. You can check the status of the foliage in this site. https://newengland.com/seasons/fall/foliage/live-fall-foliage-map/
We’re planning to drive through there so maybe we’ll catch something nice. Love the live foliage map. That’s awesome!
We love Michigan, and the whole Great Lakes region, but it’s hard to find beast-sized campsites. We have found that to be true for at least five years. We think part of the problem is the short camping season (profit season) in the area. There just isn’t a good reason to modernize a campground that was built decades ago to make room for us. We found the same issue all over the northeast, as well.
But we’re planners, and make reservations in advance, as a rule. It’s just a different scene from the broad open spaces of the west…
Glad to hear your pup is doing so well!
I think you’re probably right. It’s a short season and a lot of campgrounds, especially the public ones, were built years ago for smaller RVs. We generally plan our summer months well ahead of time, but have always relied on first-come-first-serve in fall. Then again we’re usually out West. And this year everything has been up in the air with all our unexpected issues. It’s definitely been an extra challenge.
Glad you are having a good time and the weather is cooperating now!
We are looking at buying a class A as you know. We found a great diesel pusher today. Looks brand new. But 40ft long and a 1999 model.
Does that extra 3 or 4 feet really make a difference? Would any of those places have a spot if you had a 37 or 36 footer? We will mostly do west coast but wife does want to go east in the next couple of years.
(Ps. As usual, love the pictures!)
So this is always a hard question, but yes I personally feel 33-35′ RV would have been a better choice for us. Or at least it would make planning easier. It doesn’t open up everything, but it opens up a lot more. Although we’re spec’d as 40-feet we actually measure 41.6′ end-to-end. That’s almost 7 feet more than a 35-foot rig and that really does alter swing room and maneuverability.
But honestly it’s always a compromise between space (in the RV) and where you can go. Would a 30-footer be able to get into more places? Absolutely! And a truck camper? Most definitely! It aaaall depends how and where you want to camp and how much time you plan to spend inside the camper versus out.
Mark Gehring says
When I was maybe 17 I went to Sleeping Bear Sand Dunes with a friend who’s parents were building their retirement home near there ( Interlochen, circa 1977 ). I remember it was a very hot day, and someone challenged us to run down to the bottom of the dunes, which was great fun until we had to climb back up. It was the classic “two steps up, one step back” trying to climb up those steep dunes, a real torture in bare feet at 90 degrees. So, I think that was a good way to get a handle on the enormity of those dunes. At least it cured my athlete’s foot, I think ….
Sounds like exactly the kind of thing I would have done at 17. You certainly got the “full” dune experience LOL.
Diane Ziemski says
Someone else mentioned it too…… your photos are gorgeous…. have you changed something? Camera?
Not really. I’ve been experimenting a little more with multiple exposures, but I’ve been doing that for a while. I’m using the same cameras & software as I have before. Hopefully I’m just getting naturally better 🙂
Hi…I have been enjoying all of your posts very much. Just wondering…how do you monitor and locate campsites? You seem to know about sites opening up very quickly.
In this case we basically just kept checking the online reservation system. The Sleeping Bear Dunes campground is on reserveamerica, while the campground in Traverse City is on the MI State Park system.
Terry Bailey says
Have no fear, we’ve been RV’ing on the east coast in our 42′ tag for the last eight years. We’ve been able to “wing it” without reservations in all but a few instances. We like to arrive in town around 2pm and drive through the park to select the best site. The Atlantic coast has 28,673 miles of shoreline with thousands and thousands of parks with “beastly” accommodations, compared to only 7863 miles for the Pacific coast. Interior states are not as well developed, as you mentioned.
You’re also likely experiencing “late season” campers. After the first freeze warning they will all “winterize” their rigs; and the campgrounds/parks will have plentiful openings.
Very comforting to know! Looking forward to winging it a bit.
Love the Paul, Polly and sunset photo Nina!
Another beautifully written post and amazing pictures! I’ve added Michigan to the bucket list! Question, off topic. I just started playing around with setting up my blog. Having a little trouble with formatting or perhaps it’s the theme I chose. I really like your heading with the title on the pic. Do I just need to work with customizing or look at different themes? Thanks, Deb
Ah yes, the header pic. That was something I looked for specifically in my theme. And even then I had to customize it with HTML to get it looking the way I wanted and re-format properly for all platforms (desktop, pad, phone). I would suggest looking for a theme with a header pic. It’s lots of hassle to format it manually, so getting a theme that’s as close as possible to what you want is my best recommendation.
Also, forgot to mention make sure you chose a theme that’s mobile-friendly. I went thro’ a heck of a time changing my theme last year to make it mobile friendly. You’ll have a much smoother time if you chose one that’s re-formats automatically to all the different platforms up-front.
Thanks for the quick response! May I ask what theme you chose?
Sure! I ended up paying for a theme since I couldn’t find a free one that offered what I needed. I went with the Genesis Framework and bought the Lifestyle Pro theme. Cost just around $100 for everything. I did a lot of customization too, but that was done on my own. Here’s the site:
My niece is a national parks ranger, stationed at Sleeping Bear Dunes. It’s been on my bucket list and I’m hoping to head there next year!
What an awesome place to be a ranger! Yes, you definitely want to come visit 🙂
Susie Kennedy says
The “Sands of Time” reference reminded me of the movie “Benjamin Button” where the characters pass through a brief moment where they are the same age. Seems you, Polly and Paul are all the “same age. It’s heart-warming to see Paul spending so much time frolicking and swimming with Polly while she is still relatively “young”. Precious moments for sure.
So true. We’re all approximately “middle aged” at this point, so we’re well matched 🙂
Those leaf peeping, apple picking people are out in full force this time of year up there. They know the snow will start soon and they can pack those RV parks this time of year. Beautiful pictures once again.
I am so enjoying your posts of my beautiful home state! I’ve traveled all over the state in my 59 years and your posts make me want to start all over again!
They used to run Olds 88’s on those dunes; we did it back in ’64. Spent the week in the state park in Traverse City, I don’t see how you get a beast in there. Sites were sized for a tent or small trailer and a car and picnic table and not much else. Just small single lanes thru the park, wouldn’t be easy to move a beast…
I’m thinking a van chassis, Class C?, is more than enough room for one person with a decent size motorcycle on the trailer hitch out back for running around.
Wander down to Benton Harbor and Warren Dunes state park, more sand. You can see Holland and the windmills on the way down.
Indeed, Traverse City SP doesn’t have many large sites. We were able to make it work, but I agree that it’s not really a “big rig friendly” park. Only a select number of sites that can handle our size, and inner roads are somewhat tight. I’ll be doing a full review within the next week.
Pam Wright says
This is a spectacular area and you did a great job capturing the beauty with your photos, Nina:) This was our first stop after the Fleetwood Rally when we went fulltiming. We had a coupon for 50% off a week stay at Indigo Bluffs RV Resort. I was immediately spoiled!! We stayed in the Class A owner side. As a matter of fact, we enjoyed the area and resort so much we returned for another visit two years ago on a whim. Indigo Bluffs is right outside Empire. The dunes are beautiful, as is the lake:)
Looks like a nice resort and convenient to the dunes. I’ll add it to my review of other camping options in the area.
Darrell Rogers says
Platte River is our “home” campground! We live in Traverse City and just love the dunes. Thanks so much for such a great article and pics! We’ll be thinking of you next weekend while we’re camping at Platte River…
Oh sweet! If we lived in the area we’d be going there ALL the time, so I totally understand that you’ve made it your “home base”. It’s literally the nicest campground we’ve been to in MI. Soooo glad we were able to get in.
Cori Young says
We’re right behind you arriving in Sleeping Bear Dunes tomorrow, so a timely post. Glad to know (although bummed) that so much is closed already. Thank goodness chocolate is available though!! Appreciate the tips!!
I hadn’t expected so much to be closed either, but I guess the season is short. Enjoy the area….and the chocolates!
so glad you loved the area sorry you did not see the lighthouse and so much was closed down…..I think as you travel east you will find that to be true and then change again you move south…
Yeah I’m prepared for stuff starting to shut down in the NE. I know we’re hitting end of season for most of these places now.
One again, beautiful pics of my former home state! So glad you’ve enjoyed your time there. Seems I’d forgotten about the quick close after Labor Day, but was reminded of course. Yes, many of the man-made attractions do close quickly, but Fall had always been a favorite time to enjoy Mother Nature’s changing wardrobe at a slower quieter pace. But, about that missed lighthouse trip? We share your pain! Next year? Happy travels east.
The chocolate shop ladies said they were kind of surprised most of the other stores closed down since they usually get a nice crowd a few weeks after Labor Day when the leaves turn. Maybe they can’t find the man power to keep them open? Even though it wasn’t terribly crowded when we were there, it still felt like there was fairly high visitation. Weather WAS fabulous!
I’ve seen more RVs this year than ever yet almost half of them are rentals. And visitation hasn’t slowed down after Labor Day. Glad you lucked out with the sites even if “gutted” from the lighthouse.
I’m with you Gaelyn. We’ve seen more RVs than ever this year.
Diana and Jim says
So glad you were able to make it work at Platte River, as it is so close to that end of the park. We could have easily accommodated you at Wild Cherry in Lake Leelanau, so remember that the next time you come, Nina. Did you know how close you were to Point Betsie Lighthouse? It’s a beauty! After being here for two years, we figure the post Labor Day closures are due to the locals not realizing the impact the Good Morning America and USA Today exposure has had on the area. This year was WAY busier than last year, and that trend will continue, I’m sure.
Your photos are amazing!
Oh nooooo….I had NO idea we were so close to that lighthouse. Now I’m even more bummed 🙁
Dave Verstraete says
Nina and Paul
Happy that you had a chance to enjoy our side of the Mitt. I’m sure that you wish that you had more time to do so. Yeah.. Sleeping Bear is awesome. Safe Travels.
Yeah we really could have spent much more time on the Western side. Another few weeks would have been perfect. Still I’m very happy we were able to get a taste.
I do not understand your comment on all but one store closed in Empire. There was only one store closed after Labor Day and that was Tiffany’s Ice Cream. The rest are still open yet today Oct 1. Since Labor Day our town has hosted The Hill Climb. The Sleeping Bear Marathon is today as well as The Hops Festival. Our Heritage Days is yet to take place this month. We are far from closed down. Possibly you never entered Front St.
I went into 3 different coffee stores that day, all closed. The ice cream store was closed. The second hand store was closed too. The gas station was open, as was the grocery store, but I didn’t get in anywhere else on Front Street. Maybe I went on the wrong day? Or the wrong time? Good to hear things are still rocking over there.
Possibly you were here sometime before 10 am. Our stores are open everyday until Dec. 31 when some close for the winter. We are such a little town with a great view and heart and this was a blow to some retailers. We had approximately 1200 people here last night for the Hops Fest. Do come back and look me up. Would love to acquaint you with our village. I did love your blog and hope to hear more. It is very interesting.
My husband and I are looking into RVing and ran across your blog, which we have deeply enjoyed. I am sooooo glad you enjoyed your stop in my town of Muskegon. I live about 1.5 miles from Kruse Dog Beach and I love how beautiful the beach is here, even in winter.
We had such a wonderful time here. Folks still ask me what my favorite memories from MI are, and this place always comes up. So dog friendly, such a great little town.