Ah, vacationing with small children can hold so much excitement and happiness; seeing things through their eyes is simply the best. But, also… there is pressure. Parents don’t want to take all that time packing and planning (not to mention the spending) on so-so memories. No! We only want the best memories for our children.
If you’re feeling the pressure to vacation or make memories this last month of summer, check out the Summer #MIAwesomeList!
Between my husband being on active duty military and having babies, my family has seemingly been under house arrest in California for years. My guy completed his Navy commitment, we’re back in Michigan (yay!), and our kids are done napping. To kick off this new stage of our family life, we decided to take a quick trip to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.
The first thing I do when I plan anything in Michigan is search our Awesome Mitten website. I know this seems like a shameless plug, but truly I used this website to plan my trip! Specifically, these articles:
This one helped me find Empire Bluff about a half-mile outside of Glen Arbor. An extremely doable (yes, even with young kids!) 1.5-mile out-and-back trail that leads to a high bluff overlooking Lake Michigan. My family did this as a confidence booster the day before hitting the dunes. Truth be told, it may have done too good a job increasing our hardihood. No worries, we were knocked back down to size less than 24 hours later at the Dune Climb!
This article mentions the Empire Bluff Trail, too. It also shares a surprising number of things to do on the National Lakeshore as well as other nearby attractions that are more leisurely, less outdoorsy. Think shopping and dining. This guide is packed with great information (‘ULTIMATE’ is in all caps for a reason).
1. Hike the Empire Bluff Trail
Once a loose plan was formed (versus a solid plan, one must manage expectations when traveling with children 😊) we left for Empire Bluff Trail. We were surprised the trailhead was rather packed with cars on an overcast Friday. Luckily, the trail itself was not congested. The terrain is hilly and the foliage consists of beech-maple forest, fields, and dune plants. A beautiful variety for one rather short trek.
Empire Bluff Trail has 6 posts marking the trail with no visible explanation, so my husband made up his own! A memory game of sorts to exercise our minds while working our bodies. At each post we would declare a landmark and recount the ones prior, this really helped the kids stay engaged and motivated along the way.
If you would like to learn more than our simple descriptions of the markers, like “old farm equipment” at post 2, visit the National Park Service website.
2. Eat, Stay & Play in Traverse City
We left the trail and headed to the Hampton Inn, Traverse City. My husband has points, what can I say? The hotel looked average on the outside but the rooms were modern and the location had everything we needed and more as parents of young children. For instance, Traverse City State Park Beach is right across the street and has a playground.
We didn’t know about nearby Pirate’s Cove Adventure Park otherwise we might have made time for mini-golf, zip lining, or water rides. But we did make time for a sweet treat at the Dairy Queen conveniently located next to said park after a great dinner at Smoke and Porter Public House.
Smoke and Porter Public House
Now that I think of it, DINNER at Smoke and Porter Public House was an even better treat than the DQ ice cream that followed. My husband and I devoured our meals and shared a bottle of wine to be finished back at the hotel. Their website does not list the kid menu but trust me, it includes all the standard kid-fare and crayon activities. I was happy (and surprised) to see healthy, simple kid-side options, like carrot sticks.
Really, why don’t more kid menus include carrot sticks as a side?!
Third Coast Bakery
The next morning, on our way out of Traverse City and before the Dune Climb, I was sure to get caffeinated by Third Coast Bakery (also dangerously close to our hotel!). All Third Coast Bakery products are gluten-free and dairy-free; most are also soy-free and vegan. My iced “The Sandbar” latte was delectable and effective.
3. Climb the Dunes
Now, I went to the Sleeping Bear Dunes as a child and from what I recall, it was a fabulous time. I wonder if my parents had as much fun as I did because let me tell you, now that I’m on the flip side of the parent-child coin, there were moments on the dunes that made me question everything.
Spoiler alert: we did not make it to Lake Michigan with our 5 and 3-year-old in tow. No way, no how. The only thing that got my husband and me through our partial Dune Climb with our sanity intact was a pack of sour gummy worms. Seriously.
Best Hiking Hack Ever
Shout out to a dear, adventurous friend and mom of three for teaching me this simple yet effective hiking-with-kids trick. Every so often while blazing a trail, hand out a small candy to boost morale. Best choose a non-melting indulgence, especially for the Dune Climb at Sleeping Bear as it is about a four-mile roundtrip in desert-like conditions.
Fun fact, this stratagem works for all ages! Several adult passersby would cheerfully, and without expectation, ask for one of our gummy worms! Even we, mom and dad, needed one at the top of particularly tall dunes. 😉
All friendly banter aside, there are serious precautions one should take before attempting the Dune Climb.
I had the opportunity to speak with Jesse Lewit, a Coordinator of the Preventative Search and Rescue (PSAR) team at Sleeping Bear Dunes. As a retired Police Officer and former Emergency Medical Technician (EMT), Lewit is one of the few volunteers who will assist the National Park Service in searches and rescues.
PSAR started in 2016 as a reaction to the number of rescues conducted on the dunes. Of the top 100 parks across the country, Sleeping Bear was ranked 13 in the number of rescues needed. PSAR has had great success bringing the number down from more than 60 a year to 9. During pandemic years Sleeping Bear has seen record-setting attendance. Just think how many more rescues have been avoided thanks to PSAR.
The PSAR consists of about 15 volunteers that, based on age and physical ability, will locate themselves appropriately across the trail. The team has water and socks at the ready, they also ask those returning from the lake if anyone was struggling so they can go meet them.
Why socks? The team recommends some kind of foot covering because, depending on the day, the sand can heat up to 150 degrees! I’m proud to say I had convinced my family to keep their tennis shoes on for the Dune Climb even before learning about the alarming sandhill temps. The shoes will fill up with sand but it’s better not to have blistered feet!
For the record, Lewit approved the gummy worm idea and even recommended Skittles (in addition to other snacks). Sugar and corn syrup provides an instant energy boost and are the first two ingredients in both candies, you can’t go wrong with either one! Though your dentist will not approve…
4. Explore North Bar Lake & Lake Michigan
After completing what we could of the Dune Climb and feeling defeated our efforts did not result in water fun (as we all foolishly hoped), we needed to get lakeside fast! We cooled off and collected distinctive rocks on Lake Michigan via the North Bar Lake entrance.
5. Experience Broomstack Kitchen & Taphouse
From there we were homeward bound but had to stop at Broomstack Kitchen & Taphouse in Maple City for some delicious eats. Sure, it was off the super-crowded, beaten path in say, Glen Arbor – but when you have physically beat kiddos verging on hangry, who has time to find parking and drag them through foot traffic? This was an emergency!
Located in an old, charming schoolhouse, Broomstack is a lovely sight for weary eyes. The aroma, a pleasant greeting for growling stomachs. You can sit outside or in, which is a nice option if you have restless children. Hey, I said ‘IF’. And my husband said the pork tacos were the best he ever had (we have lived in south Texas and central California sooo…).
Check their site for live music events!
Stephen Brotschul, Manager of Broomstack Kitchen & Taphouse, showed me around the old schoolhouse which is surprisingly large. Broomstack uses the space creatively, renting an “old-school” (get it? Brotschul’s words, not mine! 😀) gym to a personal trainer and also houses a curling facility for rent. Groups come in all year round for lessons or parties, both private and corporate. A unique venue and experience indeed.
The pebbled ice sport involves a ‘broom’ and a ‘stone’; the broom is used to control the trajectory of the stone toward a target. For those who don’t know, myself included, when one is done curling the brooms get stacked. Hence, ‘Broomstack’ Kitchen & Taphouse. Thank you for the explanation, Brotschul!
Many More Michigan Adventures Ahead
That concludes our family’s first of many Michigan adventures! Now, if you will excuse me, I’ll be cleaning sand out of the car and car seats well into the winter months if I don’t start now… or is that flecks of flavor blasted goldfish? Eh, they’re both a pain to clean. Wish me luck!