From the towns of Pentwater to Pinconning, an imaginary line extends across the upper 1/3 of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula; once you’ve crossed that line, you’re “up north”. Above this latitude exists, arguably, the most beautiful areas of the state. It most definitely IS the least populated, due to its long, harsh winters and lack of amenities (like Starbucks). But mild summertime temps and extensive outdoor activities attracts tourists and lake house property-seekers from the “south” (meaning Detroit, Lansing and Grand Rapids) by the hordes.
This Northwoods tranquility evokes the sort of vibe that leads to reclining (or napping) in a hammock with a good book; drinking beer with friends or family in front of a campfire while roasting marshmallows; jumping off the end of the dock into clear, cool lake-water; stargazing on the beach; paddling or tubing down a lazy, sandy-bottomed river. Where time slows to a crawl, schedules go right out the window and going for a hike always seems to be a better idea than shopping. But can’t you do that anywhere? Nope. It’s not the same. Just listen to “Michigan and Again” by the Accidentals. You’ll get the idea. This tune intones the magic of “Pure Michigan”, the state marketing slogan.
I know I’m “up north” when…
I start seeing fish mailboxes. And if you don’t know what a fish mailbox is, please, just google it. Other dead giveaways:
- tree stump statues carved with a chainsaw, usually into a bear…
- cute little wooden signs at the head of every driveway personifying their lake cottages (or mansions) as “Higgins Hollow” or “Perch Paradise”…
- every other car on the road is a 5th wheel or trailer heading to or from a week of camping “up north”…
- farm stands offering freshly picked blueberries, cherries, sweet corn, smoked coho salmon and baked goodies (just leave your money in the tin can)…
- log cabin, lumberjack or fish references in every restaurant name…
- and miles and miles of densely forested landscape polka-dotted with bass boat-filled lakes. With 3288 miles of Great Lakes shoreline (more coastline than any other state, barring Alaska) and over 11,000 inland lakes, statistically you cannot go more than 6 miles without running into water.
The state of Michigan looks like a right hand (at least the lower portion), complete with a “thumb”, a “middle finger” and a “pinky”. This “mitten” identification is supremely irritating to Wisconsinites who erroneously believe their state is more in the shape of a mitten (except your “thumb” looks like Skeletor’s index finger). If you ask a Michigander where they live, and you are unfamiliar with the town, they’ll immediately indicate the location by pointing to a spot on their open right hand. We just can’t help it.
It had been years since I’d gone camping Up North as a kid and Brian never had been to either side of the upper Lower Peninsula. So we planned a 3 week excursion in V-Ger the voyaging van, in between visiting our parents and family in the lower Lower Peninsula. So… onwards and upwards to fish mailbox country.
First stop: Pentwater State Park. We ate lunch in the van overlooking sparkling Lake Michigan (one of the benefits of touring around in your house). We did a “drive-by” but didn’t stop downtown because of a farmer’s market resulting in NO parking. Oh well. We did stroll along the breakwater and harbor entrance lined with cute vacation homes and B&B’s heading to Pentwater Lake.
Next up, Ludington State Park. This place is one of the most sought after campgrounds in the state, typically booked 6 months in advance. With 5000 acres, there’s a lot of nature to explore: 21 miles of hiking trails, some of which are specifically designed for biking and cross country skiing; canoeing and fishing in Hamlin Lake; swimming in Lake Michigan; tubing down the Big Sable River; round that off with a nature center and the Big Sable Lighthouse… you need a few days to soak it all in.
Since I can’t plan that far ahead to get a site, I wanted to at least visit. On this sultry 90-degree day, the beach parking lot was filled and cars lined the dunesfront drive. So we veered away from the hundreds of beachgoers and hiked instead. I would have liked to visit the lighthouse, but it’s one of the few that isn’t accessible by car…hiking 3.6 miles (yup, 1.8 in & 1.8 out) is your only option. Hmmm. We weren’t game for that much of a hike so late in the afternoon. So instead, we found ourselves rambling through the peaceful sand dune forest without witnessing a single soul. Much better idea. Although we probably ended up hiking well over 2 miles in the dunes… (but what Brian doesn’t know won’t hurt him!) After schlepping up and down boardwalk stairs in the heat, we enviously watched the tubers float down the river towards Lake Michigan. Shoulda gone tubin’!
We stayed for two nights at Orchard Beach State Park, ideally located close to Manistee and situated on a cliff overlooking Lake Michigan. The sunset views here are unbeatable. “Beach access” is via a steep, cliff-side stairway terminating into a scrubby stretch of beach. Sharp little rocks line the immediate coastline here but your reward for a little abrasion and rock slime is hard-packed sand in stand-upable, waist-deep water just 20 feet offshore. Plus, no stingrays to worry about stepping on! After much goading, wheedling & nagging, I finally convinced Brian into taking the plunge into the cool, clear waters. Chicken!
Manistee is a picturesque little seaside village boasting a 1.75-mile Riverwalk, extending from Manistee Lake past the historic Victorian downtown shops and restaurants, out to a lovely, grassy park at the Lake Michigan breakwater. We enjoyed walking much of this peaceful and non-touristy boardwalk lined with flowerbeds, shrubbery, beautiful trees and of course, lots of boat slips!
This is the home of the Mack Dune Rides. A portion of these wild and amazing sand dunes at Silver Lake have been set aside for ‘dune-ing’ enjoyment by personal ATVs, dirt bikes and open-air, 20-passenger, 4x4 vehicles with huge aircraft tires made for sand-running. We got to ride in the front seat of one of these trucks so we had expansive views of the surrounding land with Silver Lake on the one side and Lake Michigan on our other. As we raced up & down each sandy hill, slid around slippery curves and bounded over moguls, we all “Wheeee!”d our way to a spectacularly empty Lake Michigan beach. This was such a cool little side trip - I had initially decided against it, but made Brian turn around. (Bah, I’m a woman…I can change my mind!) Glad I did.
Sleeping Bear Dunes
Despite having been born in Michigan, even after living here over 20 years, Brian had never seen the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Shoreline. I had been here as a kid and felt he was missing out. It’s a definite must-see for any Michigan native or visitor alike, as it’s arguably the most beautiful region in the entire state.
The Legend of Sleeping Bear – as found on www.nps.gov
“Long ago, along the Wisconsin shoreline, a mother bear and her two cubs were driven into Lake Michigan by a raging forest fire. The bears swam for many hours, but eventually the cubs tired and lagged behind. Mother bear reached the shore and climbed to the top of a high bluff to watch and wait for her cubs. Too tired to continue, the cubs drowned within sight of the shore. The Great Spirit Manitou created two islands to mark the spot where the cubs disappeared and then created a solitary dune to represent the faithful mother bear.” The two island “cubs” are the Manitou Islands (North & South) and the high cliff “mother bear” dune is still visible.
The parks’ main lure is the 7-mile Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive which threads hiking trailheads and scenic overlooks, winding initially through beech-maple forest, opening up to expansive dune views. A short walk gets you to an observation deck built 450ft high above Lake Michigan on a spectacular bluff overlooking the warm and inviting shoreline. From the cliff edge, we can see tiiiny beings easily sliding down to the shore below…and then truuuudging back up those steeeep 450ft, ever so slooooowly. It looks like such a cool thing to do. Except I know better…
The Longest Hike
As a kid, we hiked a nearby trail for what felt like hours towards the lake, trudging through soft sand and fragrant juniper, buffalo berry and jack pine. “It’s just over that next bluff, I can smell the water”, my dad said. The next hill came and went and still no water. And…again. And…again. “No really, I know we’re close.” Finally we get to Lake Michigan. Except it’s 400ft down (just like this overlook). And at a 60-degree angle (just like this overlook). Shining up like a siren from below, my dad couldn’t help it…he went down the slope… well, slid really. Mom and I waited. And waited. And waited. It’s so steep you can’t see the bottom in some areas so for awhile we couldn’t see him. We waited and waited some more. Well over an hour later, he finally heaves himself back up, exhausted…and we still have to slog all the way back to the car. Yeah. I remember that, and I’m not going down there.
See, going down is the fun part. Whoohoo! Run, run, run! Or more likely, slide on your butt. But… they say, if you go down, expect to take at least 1-2 hours of trudging in soft sand to get back up. Take one step up, slide down a ½-step or ¾-step. People are apparently rescued all the time because they underestimate just how HARD it is. At the above particular overlook along the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive, lots of people do this very thing (despite the discouraging warning signs). We didn’t. It was uber-hot that day and I didn’t want to spend 2 hours climbing. So we left it to the uber-crazies.
Not uber-crazy, but mildly-crazy?
Brian would say right here “Wait…YOU are the crazy one because you made me do The Dune Climb that same day!" OK, that’s true. The climb down to the water would have been excruciating in that heat. The angle was very steep and the sand swallowed up your entire foot with each step. I knew we were not up to THAT task. But we HAD to climb a dune. I mean, what the heck were we DOING here if we didn’t, at a minimum, perform the requisite DUNE CLIMB. EVERYbody’s doin’ it.
The Dune Climb
The Dune Climb is an easily accessible, not horribly steep, dune with slightly more compacted sand, where EVERYBODY who wimps out on the Lake climb goes to climb a dune to say you’ve done it. 2-year-olds do it. Pregnant women do it. Old men do it. Because that’s what you DO. But no one realizes just how much it’s still going to kick your a** until you’re in the middle of the hill. I witnessed overweight women and thoroughly fit women alike, stopping at every other step, longingly looking up to the top, swearing and shaking their head. One very athletic woman (not me) said, “I thought I was in decent shape”. Yeah, I hear ya.
So of course it’s hot. And we are both dying. And the sand is burning our bare feet. And it takes forever to get to the top and Brian is mostly-fake-whining the entire way just to make it plain that this here 1-step up/½-step back scenario is all my doing. Finally, we get to the top and the view is amazing. So totally worth the effort and severe dehydration. Brian: “Don’t listen to her…run away.” Then I wanted to continue over to the next bluff; Brian did not. Me: “But I think we can see Lake Michigan from that dune over there…” Hmmm…like father like daughter. Brian: Puts foot down. Party pooper. So we both ran back down the dune to the parking lot like little kids (OK, I did) and downed an entire Gatorade in seconds. Dune climb… check.
We could have spent more time here but the campgrounds were packed and I had an agenda. This place is a hiking and biking dreamsicle in summer. Nearby, paved bike trails run for miles and sandy hiking trails meander along bluffs and into the forest. Next time, I’d like to canoe or kayak down the Platte River and do some more hiking. Autumn would be a beautiful time to explore this area.
Part of the Sleeping Bear Dunes is the Glen Haven Maritime Museum and Lifesaving Station. You know, the kind that used open whaling boats trolled out to sea with a line and reeled back in once the rescued were on board. Most wrecks here happened close to shore, so connecting the boat to the station with a long rope actually worked much of the time. Anyway, I was walking down the wooden boardwalk to the beach and noted the last step was nearly covered in blowing sand. I even TOLD Brian to watch his step. After taking pictures, do ya THINK I’d remember my own advice just one minute ago? NOOO. Headed back up the stairs, that first sand-covered step reared up out of nowhere, I tripped and took a nose dive…elbow-first.
It was one of those slo-mo moments when you instantly think…someone is probably taping this and I’ll end up on YouTube tomorrow. Of course, I instinctively protected my expensive camera by cradling it in my right hand…landing full force on my elbow. Touchdown! Fortunately for me, I landed in fluffy sand. Otherwise, I’m pretty sure my elbow would be broken. But I DID manage to gouge out said elbow real good and blood started pouring. It took me 10 minutes to wash all the sand out of my raw skin. Fun stuff. Luckily, this was the only casualty the entire trip.
Shocked, shocked, shocked at the amount of tourists swarming in this TINY town. We had lunch and ran through The Cherry Republic store which sells all things cherry…cherry salsa, chocolate cherries, cherry wine… and cherry pie (which I HAD to take home for later).
Even more shocked at even more tourists clamoring all over the dinky hamlet of Leland, one of the only working commercial fishing villages still in existence in Michigan. We had to park a ½ mile away and walk to downtown. Here at the mouth of the Leland River lies the historically preserved, miniature fishing village called Fishtown. Small fishing boats and grey, weathered wooden shanties linked by a crooked boardwalk hovering over the water on stilts, pays homage to what these commercial villages looked like over one hundred years ago. Except in addition to the fisherman and their catch, smokehouses and drying fishing nets… we stroll past several quaint shops in rustic, clapboard shacks selling cheese, wine, ice cream, art and “up north” decor. It’s really a cute place and a definite ‘must-stop’…but we were overloaded by the heat and the crowds and…well…we were just DONE. Time to get to the campground…
Our next campground was Leelanau State Park, situated at the tip of the Leelanau Peninsula; if you look at the Michigan outline, it’s the mitten’s “pinky”. The Grand Traverse Lighthouse is located on site. Despite its proximity to the Lake, campsites are nestled in thick woods and there’s not much of a beach – most of the shoreline is rocky marsh. This is a rustic campground, meaning NO electricity, no water and pit toilets. But with our solar panel, despite the 100% tree cover, we can still manage for a day, maybe two, without plugging in…a nice feeling. And you can’t beat $14 a night! With lots of open sites, this is a great place to go for serene seclusion.
Travelling down the east side of the Leelanau Peninsula we walked through the charming town of Northport, strolled along the marina watching the boats, and purchased a loaf of delicious cherry breakfast bread from a local bakery. After a yummy lunch in the neighboring town of Suttons Bay, we did some wine tasting at French Valley Vineyards overlooking the Traverse Bay. If you like wine, come to the ‘Pinky’. With a wine trail of over 25 different wineries in the immediate area, wine aficionados go Loopy for Leelanau!
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More trip to come...!