As COVID-19 continues to devastate America, people are fleeing to nature for much-needed relief and socially distant recreation. Michigan’s Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is perhaps a six-hour drive from Indianapolis, but the breathtaking scenery and adventure opportunities make it worth the effort to get there. It’s a perfect compromise for couples arguing about going to the woods or the beach for a vacation.
You may be wondering why I should drive six hours to visit Sleeping Bear Dunes when I can get to our own Indiana Dunes – a national park by the way – in less than three hours? At Sleeping Bear Dunes – and its sibling on the Upper Peninsula, Painted Rocks National Lakeshore – the scenery is more spectacular, the hiking is better, and there are more opportunities for backcountry fun.
If you are serious about being safe in these challenging times, get an RV. (Or rent one Airbnb style through Outdoorsy.) I was almost completely self-contained in my Roadtrek RV. Most trips I like to sit in a bar and talk to locals about their favorite things to do that might not be featured in a guide book. But in the middle of COVID, I don’t feel comfortable anymore. Almost all of my meals were cooked over my van campfire or over the open flame of a campfire.
Aside from one-off trips to the visitor center and a grocery store, I only met people on the way and at a scenic lookout point. Fortunately, like the Wolverine state’s namesake, I’m both hairy and grumpy enough that other hikers tend to keep themselves clear. It’s also pretty easy to socially distance yourself in Lake Michigan kayaks.
What my trip lacked in human interaction it made up for in natural splendor, fitting in with what was named “The Most Beautiful Place in America” by 2011 Good Morning America viewers. As I drove the 7km Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive, I was constantly on the move, stopping to explore the views or hike nearby trails. About 4 miles from the driveway, I pulled into the Dune Climb parking lot. The hike up the 460-foot sand dune doesn’t seem that difficult, but as I puffed and puffed my way up into the sky, I found that looks were deceptive. Had I decided to hike another 4 miles I would eventually have reached Lake Michigan, but the view of the much smaller Glenn Lake at the top of the climb was reward enough for me.
For me the highlight was cycling the 22 mile Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail. The greenway runs from the visitor center in Empire to the rural historic district of Port Oneida and winds through the forest around Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive to the tourist town of Glen Arbor. As I cycled through the little downtown entertainment district, I winced when I noticed that every outdoor table in every restaurant was occupied while people outside without masks waited shoulder to shoulder. I rode on quickly and wanted to get back into the forest as soon as possible.
One place in Empire, Joe’s Friendly Tavern, was deserted and served probably the best burger I’ve had since our semi-lockdown began. Better yet, the restaurant is less than five miles from the Empire Bluff Trailhead, which is a 1.5 mile hike for epic views of Lake Michigan.
Book a campsite in good time. The DH Day Campground in the middle of the dunes is possibly one of the most desirable locations in Michigan. Although there are no electricity connections, the sites offer easy access to the Great Lake and the dunes. There are many campsites for all prices and facilities throughout the region. Since my trip was at the last minute, almost every place I called was booked out for weeks. Fortunately, I found a spot on the district’s fairgrounds about 35 minutes east of the park. It wasn’t the most scenic, but I just needed parking for the night and emptied my tanks towards the end of my trip.