The passion of a Michigan lumberjack led to the creation of a 7.4-mile driving trail that’s a must-see when visiting Traverse City.
“Good idea Pierce.”
It’s my first thought as our rental car slips under the canopy of Sleeping Bear Dunes, a National Lakeshore located about 40 minutes west of Traverse City, MI. The park stretches along 100-plus square miles of forest, dunes and meadows before ending at the massive sandy bluffs overlooking Lake Michigan.
If it weren’t for Pierce Stocking, a Michigan lumberjack born more than a century ago, this area might be a high-end resort, or a series of strip malls.
But Stocking’s passion for the area’s natural beauty – and his belief that others would also be enamored by the inland lakes, black cherry tree forests, and fields of thistle – led to the creation of a 7.4 mile self-guided driving tour that bears his name.
My fiance Greg and I picked up a stack of guides from the visitor center, ready to explore.
Over The River. Through The Woods.
Our first stop is the drive’s covered bridge, a site you’d normally associate with New England or the Pennsylvania countryside. Here the wooden hut protects a stretch of road over what appears to be an old ravine.
Not content to just admire the dried up riverbank from above, we park the car and climb over the guardrail, sliding into the forest below.
A light footpath indicates we aren’t the first travelers to have this idea. Jutting tree roots serve as an unofficial handrail. The last part of the descent is a short jump onto a pile of the dry red leaves carpeting the trail. They make the shaded path glow in the filtered afternoon light.
We step over downed trunks and try not to slip on the lichen-covered limbs as we make our way to the bridge. Our journey ends at the wall of spider-webs protecting the shadows beneath the wooden structure. Above us car doors slam and parents warn children to watch for cars as they photograph the bridge.
A quick climb back up the hillside and we’re among them, trying to get our own perfect shot.
We pass a picnic area and try to find a parking spot near the Dune Overlook, a popular stop along the tour.
The crowded wooden boardwalk sits atop one of the tallest dunes in the park. After elbowing through the onlookers, we get our first taste of Lake Michigan. From the 200-foot perch we can also see South Manitou Island and to the east, Pyramid Point. There’s Glen Lake, Sleeping Bear Bay, and the massive white barn of the D.H. Day farm.
The dunes here are off limits to visitors, but the nearby Cottonwood Trail takes us through the scrubby meadows that surround the hills of sand.
A few minutes in, the large family that had been noisily trailing us catches up. We let them pass and after the last kid disappears over a knoll, we are alone. The only sound is the wind as it rattles the bearberry and buffaloberry shrubs. It smooths over a proclamation of eternal love – “KJ loves RK 4FR” – carved with a stick into the sand.
Somehow we slip off the trail and find ourselves at the tip of the Dunes Climb. Below us tiny ants take on a human shape as climbers ascend from the parking lot at the base of the sand mountain. We find a shady spot to watch as they crawl toward us.
Some make it to the top, sweaty and complaining of the burn in their calves. Others give up along the way. The kids roll back to the bottom, the adults attempt to descend more gracefully.
A Lake That Looks Like An Ocean
Back in the car, the arid dunes give way to a forest of beech and maple trees. The transition from sun-drenched plains to dripping forest is jarring. Again we pull over, stepping out to inhale the wet air. It smells like grass and dirt.
The trees clear again and we find ourselves at the end of the state. They say the mainland of Michigan looks like a mitt. Standing here, we are at the tip of the pinky.
Beyond the parking lot all we can see is blue sky.
Walking a sandy trail, we follow the sound of laughter and shrieks to the Lake Michigan Overlook. The previous sites along the Pierce Stocking Trail were just appetizers. This is the main course. And dessert too.
Below us the barren yellow earth spills 450 feet down to Lake Michigan. The water stretches as far as we can see in every direction. A cloud hovers over the scene, turning half the glittering lake a milky grey.
Around us families munch on picnic lunches. A few early birds have set up camp on the edge of the cliff, waiting for the sun to settle into the water below. To our right we can see a woman reading in a temporary hammock.
It’s tempting to follow the sloping dune to the water below. But the fear of a 45-story return climb on stairs made of sand keeps us near the top of the hill.
So we kick off our shoes and sit on them. We watch kids play in the sand. The cloud that covered half the lake moves on and Lake Michigan glows like a sapphire. This is the view that Pierce Stocking wanted to preserve for future generations.
We thank him before returning to the car.