Michiganders know the legend of Sleeping Bear Dunes well. A mother bear and her two cubs tried to complete the long trek across Lake Michigan from Wisconsin, fleeing from a forest fire. The mother bear reached shore first, climbing to the top of a bluff to wait for her cubs. They didn’t make it. The Great Spirit Manitou created two islands, one for each cub, as well as a dune to represent their watchful mother.
In addition to learning the myth, another rite of passage among Michiganders is venturing down that fabled dune, and then climbing (or crawling. Or complaining. Or crying. Or all of the above.) all the way back up. However, the dune climb is not the only thing to do in that lakeshore sliver to the west of Traverse City. A day trip to Glen Arbor and Empire from Traverse City is the perfect amount of time to sample some fresh local cuisine and enjoy a plethora of outdoor opportunities.
As I pointed out in my Traverse City #MittenTrip Guide, Art’s Tavern in Glen Arbor is the ideal place to grab a hearty breakfast before hitting the dunes. What started off as a bar dating back to 1934, the present-day iteration of Art’s has become a local institution. Known for its college pennant-covered ceiling, it’s certainly my favorite place in town for breakfast (try the Western Omelette with apple toast). Oh, and they’re a cash-only establishment, so don’t even think of trying to pay with a credit card — they make that very clear on the website and in the restaurant.
My travel partner, Rose, and I ventured down to Empire, about a 15-minute drive south of Glen Arbor, for lunch. Empire is the epitome of a quaint downtown — one street with a few restaurants and shops sprinkled among the houses filled with locals. Main Street feeds into the beach, one of the main draws of the city. We chose Tiffany’s Cafe for lunch for two reasons: 1. We wanted something light 2. Ice cream. On the nutritional food side, I had one of the day’s special sandwiches — chicken, cheddar cheese, avocado and apple slices on a focaccia. We topped it off with an iteration of Mackinac Island fudge. The counter top and stools gave off an old-timey soda bar feel, and the outdoor seating complete with rocking chairs gave Tiffany’s an authentic up-north feeling.
One look over the edge of Sleeping Bear Dune is not enough—you actually have to take about 10-15 more steps down before you can see the blue waters of Lake Michigan glistening below. And once you’re that far down, you might as well keep going. Finally, after your toes are dipped in the refreshing and rocky water below, you’re truly past the point of no return. Looks like you’ll be partaking in the dune climb today.
I had visited Sleeping Bear Dune, off of Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive, a few years back but didn’t venture down to the bottom. While I’d like to blame it on the overcast day and my unwillingness to risk being caught in the rain, the truth is the climb up did not sound like fun. But this year was different. I had told myself I was going to do it, no matter what. Unless of course it rained again. Then I’d save it for another two years down the road.
We were greeted with a bright, sunny Saturday, so it looked like today was the day. While I didn’t fully believe the sign at the top of the hill warning us that it may take two hours to climb back, I did approach the dune with caution. As you make your way down, you see what Rose dubbed “the zombie apocalypse.” People crawling on their hands and feet, laboring as they make their way up the dune. Children wailed in their child-like agony (it wasn’t that bad, I swear). In-shape-looking bros, sans shirts, steadied their hands on top of their heads while heavily panting, “Bro! Just… bro!” And 20-something girls from the United Kingdom cried out aloud wondering what they were doing in America. I witnessed all of these people while I descended and then ascended the vaunted dune.
As for me? Well, Rose and I took our time climbing back up, taking breaks every 10 minutes or so. While that drew out our time to a 45-minute clamber, we weren’t spent nor gasping for air when we scaled the top. I also didn’t attempt the “zombie” technique of incorporating hands into the climb. I stuck with my two feet as well as my trusty Chacos for support (“Chacos for life,” as my brother-in-law likes to proclaim). If you do dare to make the climb, make sure you bring plenty of water. The aforementioned British girls were struggling in large part to their poor water planning. That and they didn’t have our overabundance of American pride.
After you’ve joined the long list of brave souls to make the climb up the Sleeping Bear Dune, venture over to Empire to take in another of the area’s beautiful natural attractions: Empire Bluff. There’s a beautiful overlook situated about a half mile outside of town, and it’s a leisurely 1.5 mile round trip to and from the overlook. While the early gain in elevation may trigger some apprehension after the dune climb, the trail quickly levels out and turns into a nice jaunt through the woods.
The overlook features a boardwalk and offers a stunning panoramic view of the bluff, Lake Michigan and the surrounding area. We happened to go on a day when it was mostly tourist free, so there was no need to elbow or push to get a spot for the perfect shot. It’s absolutely the type of place where you could spend hours sitting and admiring the natural beauty of the area.
Unfortunately for me, Glen Arbor and Empire were only budgeted as a day trip. But it’s a place that I’ll no doubt be returning to in the near future, and I’ll probably spare myself the 45 minutes and not climb back up that dune again. Once is enough for a lifetime.
Have you survived the dune climb? Let us know how you did it in the comments!