Winter Recreation at Sleeping Bear Dunes

7 January 2019

Sledding. Hiking. Snowshoeing. Stunning natural scenery. Warmer temperatures and sunshine draw visitors to the snowy dune climb at Sleeping Bear Dunes in the midst of a government shutdown affecting our National Parks; Friends of Sleeping Bear Dunes encourages winter safety through clothing and gear choices.

By Holly N. Wright | National Park Enthusiast

As the noon hour approaches, the sun ascends high over the Sleeping Bear Dunes dune climb, its brightness made hazy by tumbling wisps of cloud. The rolling dunes, surfaces blanketed in snow, reflect the light and brilliantly shine, crisscrossed in wild patterns of boot prints and corrugated sled trails. Wind whistles across the tops of the dunes, challenging the spring-like feel of the day as temperatures flirt with 40-degree Fahrenheit weather. Scattered patches of yellowing long grasses peak out from damp sand. The colorful kites of summer have been exchanged for a rainbow of sleds in cadmium red, lime green, neon orange and royal blue; children squeal and laugh as they fly down the first dune while families arrange snow sculptures at the base, bearing thermoses filled with coffee and hot chocolate.

Over the crest of the first dune, the voices of the sledding children become faint, and the world seems very quiet. A tell-tale caw announces the appearance of a gliding raven; its shadow, tossed onto the snow, morphs and shifts as the bird passes over the curving bowl of the dune. A pair of young women visiting the park from Alma, Michigan, describe the scene: “It’s beautiful! Majestic. Vast.”

Brothers and Kentucky residents Aden and Drew Yeager, aged 17 and 23 respectively, greatly look forward to visits to the region. They have hiked Sleeping Bear Dunes all the way to Lake Michigan in both summer and winter. The brothers report that their winter excursion, free of scorching heat demanding breaks, may actually have been more comfortable and speedier than their summer hike. During the estimated two hours that it takes them to complete the trip to Lake Michigan and back, the brothers pause to appreciate the rich variety of scenery. “Between each individual set of dunes, it’s kind of like its own environment,” explains Drew. “It’s so special here. You’d almost have to travel out West or to other far-away places in the country to find habitat this unique.”

Kerry Kelly, chairman of Friends of Sleeping Bear Dunes and longtime volunteer and steward, is also out hiking today. When I encountered him, he was returning from Lake Michigan after examining and measuring the position of the shipwrecked wooden steamer, the General Taylor, which had moved with changing shoreline conditions (story covered in a January 4, 2019 newspaper article from the Traverse City Record-Eagle , “Shipwreck”, by Patti Brandt Burgess). According to their website, Friends of Sleeping Bear Dunes is an organization which utilizes volunteer efforts to “protect resources and heighten visitor experiences in partnership with Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.”

In lieu of regular maintenance by National Parks staff during the current government shutdown, Friends of Sleeping Bear Dunes has been a big help in continuing to support park and trail operations. Notably, Friends of Sleeping Bear Dunes has displayed initiative and followed proper steps to ensure that the vaulted restroom at the dune climb parking lot is maintained and safe for visitor use—and for that necessity, we are all grateful.

Supporting visitor safety on the dunes is an important goal of the Friends of Sleeping Bear Dunes. Kelly reports that since the Friends’ recent implementation of Preventative Search and Rescue efforts, which include educating visitors about clothing choices and terrain challenges, the number of search and rescue operations has been reduced by half in the summers of 2017 and 2018, and the Friends intend for the number of rescues to continue to decline in the future.

Kelly’s outdoor practices and clothing choices model safe and fun winter hiking on the dunes. Kelly strongly suggests always donning a good hat with ear coverings and wearing layers. An REI (Recreational Equipment, Inc.) representative stated that a wool base layer is the best option for Northern Michigan winter recreation; cotton “retains water” and those who wear cotton as a base layer will “be swimming in your own sweat”; dampness from sweat will chill a winter hiker. The Yeager brothers recommend that hikers “dress as if you were going skiing; plan to be outside for several hours” and to “turn back when you start to feel tired; the hike to and from Lake Michigan can be a long trip.”

In his backpack, Kelly also carries a map, a compass, and often, electronic GPS equipment, along with extra warm clothing, snacks, and always water, even in cold weather. Kelly uses a Camelbak for immediate access to hydration.

According to Kelly, a benefit of winter dune climbing is that footprints clearly display the path of the trail to Lake Michigan. However, as that path is compacted in conjunction with dropping temperatures and precipitation, the trail will become icy and slick. Kelly asserts that hiking (or trekking) poles are very helpful in these conditions, and the addition of attachable snow spikes (crampons or micro-spikes) will serve hikers well; as long as the equipment fits boots properly.

As a general hiking safety guideline, travel with a buddy. Wind blowing over the dunes will mix sand with snow; drifting sand can also completely blanket deep snow drifts; surfaces that appear solid can actually immerse a hiker to the knee, presenting a risk of twisted ankles.

With good clothing and preparation, a winter hike at Sleeping Bear Dunes can offer a spectacular experience. When asked if they would change anything about their gear and preparation for the future, the Yeager brothers exclaimed, “Next time, we’ll bring a sled!”