Most Beautiful Place in America?
After several weeks without a camping trip, we were really looking forward to exploring Traverse City, Sleeping Bear Dunes, and the region. Our planning suggested this trip would be a great mix of our favorite outdoor activities - hiking, biking, SUP, beaches, plus - local foods, ciders, and coffees, and a campground with easy access to it all.
Traverse City State Park
The State Park is 343 electric only sites just across from the east bay of Grand Traverse Bay on Lake Michigan. The east bay has a lot of resorts and restaurants dotting the coast, a more tourism focused area, while the west bay is home to downtown Traverse City. Back at the State Park, a bridge offers an easy walk over the highway and on to a quarter mile beach. Within the campground, there are three bathhouses that get a lot of use. The camp host offers a few activities - a scavenger hunt, crafts, and a July 4th bike parade. You'll also find an older playground that always had kids playing. There is also ice and firewood on site for purchase. This is a big, busy campground. There is a mix of all types and styles of camping.
You'll want to pack your bikes for this trip. The campground is large enough that you'll want a bike to get around and to visit nearby restaurants and Bayside Market. An even better reason to pack your bikes is for easy access to the TART Trails, which is a rails to trails path with access from the campground and offers miles of trails. We rode the TART several times for easy access to downtown Traverse City.
Downtown TC is bordered to the north by the bay with a sandy beach and Clinch Park. There is a large marina and this shoreline is popular with boaters. This is also where the Boardman River, a popular paddling destination, empties into Lake Michigan. This area is filled with primarily local stores, shops, and restaurants. We enjoyed coffee at Brew, samples of treats at Cherry Republic, lunch at Blue Tractor, and browsing the shops on Front Street. Hands down, our favorite stop downtown was Taproot, a cider house with a great menu to please BBQ fans and vegans alike. Mitchell was in heaven with a special request pizza that we approved while we enjoyed a cider flight as well as the peas and carrots appetizer with a spicy tahini dip - this tasted far better than it might sound. An area a few miles from downtown is called The Village. The Village is a former hospital that has been repurposed as a mixed use property, offering condos, retail space, restaurants, office space, assisted living, and Higher Grounds Trading Company. Higher Grounds coffees are widely available in the area, but a visit to their coffee shop is well worth it. This was a coffee shop that had a treat for all four of us: single origin pour over coffee, premium tea, and almond milk hot cocoa for the kids. Both Higher Grounds and Taproot were so popular with the whole family that they each earned a return visit during our weeklong trip. As we prepared for this trip, we discovered that we selected the busy week of the year to visit due to the National Cherry Festival.
National Cherry Festival
Said to attract 500,000 visitors annually, the Cherry Fest is a week-long celebration of all things cherries, plus amusement rides, art and craft booths, concerts, and a massive schedules of daily events. We saw a great air show over Lake Michigan featuring the Thunderbirds. We also enjoyed two parades, the kids zone, a car show, fireworks, and - of course - Michigan cherries.
We drove up the Leelanau Peninsula as well as Old Mission. The drive to Mission Point Lighthouse offered great views of cherry orchards, vineyards, and both sides of the Grand Traverse Bay. The lighthouse is on the tip of the peninsula and is staffed by a volunteer couple that lives at the property for the duration of their time as lighthouse keepers. On the way, we enjoyed a great lunch at Old Mission Tavern and then beach hopped for the afternoon at both the lighthouse beach and nearby Haserot Beach. Leelanau Peninsula separates Grand Traverse Bay from the main body of the Lake. We picked eight pounds of perfectly ripe cherries at Gallagher Farm and maybe ate a few while we picked. We found great burgers and a local cider at Hoplot Brewery before heading out of Sutton Bay on a cidery tour. We drove past orchards and Lake views again as we tasted craft ciders at Green Bird Cellars, Tandem Ciders, and Sutton Bay Ciders. Each offered a variety ranging from dry to sweet and some flavored with fruit or hops. We really enjoyed several ciders, but our favorite was a very dry cider at Tandem, available only on tap at the cidery. We also enjoyed Greenman, which is canned and is more widely available in Michigan. But overall, our favorite spot, the crown jewel of the Leelanau Peninsula: Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.
Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore
ABC's GMA declared Sleeping Bear Dunes the most beautiful place in America in 2011. After spending several days hiking, biking, driving, and paddling this famed shoreline, we can't disagree. We started our exploration with the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive. This drive is a great overview of the shoreline, offering views ranging from the dense hardwood forest to Glen Lakes views to dune hikes and culminating with a commanding view from atop a 450' dune towering over Lake Michigan. Point of interests nine and ten puts you at the notorious point where daring soles run down this gigantic sand bluff to the shores of the lake. The downside: a potential two hour climb back to the top. Also within the scenic loop was our first hike, Cottonwood Trail. Most of this 1.5 mile hike is over dunes, offering views of the distant Lake.
Sleeping Bear Hikes
In addition to the Cottonwood Trail, we did two other hikes and the Dune Climb during our visit. The Dune Climb is a good way to experience climbing the dunes as the parking lot is at the bottom; once you are tired, you can easily turn around and get back to the parking lot. Some climb to the highest point of the Dune Climb, which meets the Cottonwood Trail, others walk the 3.5 miles round trip to the Lakeshore. This round trip can take up to four hours. We opted just to climb up about a half mile, far enough to experience the challenge of dune hiking. We also did the Empire Bluff Trail. This is an easier trail that offers a speculator view of Sleeping Bear Dune where the name finally seems accurate. Take time to look for the sleeping bear before you get the the top of the climb. Perhaps our favorite views of the trip were from Pyramid Point. This was a climb up through a maple and beech tree forest ending again on top of the dunes and hundreds of feet above Lake Michigan.
Sleeping Bear Biking
After studying the Heritage Trail map, we selected the perfect route for a bike ride. Starting at the Dune Climb, we rode to Glen Haven, through a campground, into Glen Arbor, and then back. This was about a nine mile ride. On our return ride, we could see a thunderstorm was fast approaching as we got to Glen Haven - about two miles from our car. We decided to go for it and a few minutes later, the rain started. The kids, although tired from a busy day, kicked their bikes into gear and burned up the trail back to the car.
Sleeping Bear Paddle
The day of our bike ride, we'd also planned to paddle board on the Platte River. The storm sent everybody looking for cover and sent us to the Platte Ranger Station for the kids to complete their Junior Ranger Badge. As we left, we realized the storm was clearing, as well as the crowds that were previously on the river. The boys decided to paddle our SUP down the river and the girls would meet us at the beach were the Platte empties into Lake Michigan. This adventure worked out perfectly. The river wasn't busy and the boys had a great paddle down the river. Meanwhile, the girls easily found parking at the beach and headed to the water. The paddle was just over an hour, although there are at least two other access points that could allow up to a half day float. We regrouped at the beach, which made a perfect meeting place. The water in Lake Michigan was probably around 64 degrees while we were there, but moving around in the sun made the water feel great! The Platte River was slightly warmer than the lake and you could feel the difference in water temperatures at the mouth of the river.
Sleeping Bear Programs
The Platt River Campground hosts nightly Ranger led programs during the summer months. We arrived early to the Night Sky's Program and got a few minutes to talk to the Park Ranger, who happened to be an alumni of our alma mater (#SalukiNation). The program, like every Ranger led program we've ever attended, was well done. We all four had fun learning about the night skies. We also spent time in Glen Haven where an NPS volunteer was blacksmithing and educating us on this craft. Finally, we paid a visit to the boat museum, also in Glen Haven, and got to see the vessels designed to navigate the challenging waters of Lake Michigan.
Sleeping Bear Dunes, Traverse City, and this whole area was a beautiful destination. If you haven't considered northern Michigan for your summer camping adventures, we highly recommend it!
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Shane and Jessica
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