Looking for something completely different from the National Park Service? Head for the Great Lakes to see the three national Lakeshores – Sleeping Bear, Pictured Rocks and Apostle Islands. And stop by Indiana Dunes National Park while you’re in the area.
The lakeshores provided focus for an otherwise random springtime ramble across the Upper Midwest. We booked some boat rides and got some sand in our shoes. We coped with mosquitoes, mayflies and plenty of “Dad jokes.” Dan’s sister and brother-in-law, who reside in Michigan, joined us at Sleeping Bear and Pictured Rocks. And by the end of the trip, we had added plenty of push pins to our travel map on the office wall. We had a pretty fine time.
Signage at the Sleeping Bear Overlook makes it clear that the trek to the base of the 450-foot dune is a bad idea. It succinctly states that rescue costs $3,000. And yet, as we arrived at the sandy overlook on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan, we spotted a man old enough to know better struggling to climb back up the dune.
The overlook is one of a dozen stops on the 7.4-mile Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive. If you don’t have time to tarry, the circle drive through a beech-maple forest and wildflower-studded grasslands to the park’s namesake overlook provides a nice sampling of the park. But the dune trekker on his knees in the sand got all the attention on the morning we visited.
He was not alone. In addition to several dozen gawkers, he had friends or family topside. A child scampered down the dune and back twice – with ease – to bring him water. But crumbling sand stymied the much heavier adult’s progress. He eventually rolled from his knees to his back. And that’s where we left him, in the hands of his companions as the late-morning air temperature crept past 80 degrees. It was hotter on the dune. Presumably the trekker lost nothing more than $3,000 and a bit of dignity.
You need a boat to properly view the pictured rocks along the Lake Superior shoreline of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. We saw kayakers and a pleasure craft or two. We booked $52 seats on a charter out of Munising.
The two-hour evening cruise traveled 16 miles along mineral-laden bluffs streaked with yellows, oranges, reds and browns to Spray Falls and back. Punctuated by occasional “Dad jokes,” the captain’s monologue explained the geology, called out popular rock formations and recent rock falls, and thrilled the passengers by sailing us into a narrow cove … and out again. It was OK.
The next morning we considered a moderate daylong hike atop the bluffs. But with year’s first tranche of mosquitoes lurking in the woods, we settled for a pair of short and easy hikes, to Munising Falls and Miners Castle Overlook. The sun-dappled woods were nice. The spring blue bonnets scattered across the forest floor were beautiful.
As we boarded our boat to the Apostle Islands at Bayfield, WI, we watched with trepidation as a group of about 60 schoolchildren began walking onto the pier. Fortunately, they marched past our boat to a separate charter. Whew.
Unfortunately, our charter only took us past the islands – all 21 of them. No shore landings. We cruised past a lighthouse or two. The craggy sea caves and delicate arches visible along the Devil Island shoreline were moderately spectacular. And we saw a couple of bald eagle nests in very very distant trees.
But mostly we cruised well offshore while our guide read from his script and tossed out a few variations of the “Dad jokes” we heard on our Pictured Rocks cruise. Meh. The cruise line does offer trips with lighthouse stops and hiking, but not the day we visited. Alas.
Indiana Dunes graduated from “national lakeshore” to “national park” status in 2019. Located on the southern shore of Lake Michigan, the park is bisected by US Steel Corp’s Midwest Plant. Dan was born not far away. He figures he must have visited the popular dunes as a child but can’t recall any detail. So we created a memory of our own.
We arrived midday beneath storm clouds and walked toward the West Beach: Dune Succession Trail‘s boardwalk into a light drizzle. The sturdy boardwalk on the one-mile loop weaves, dips and rises through the lightly forested dunes to the lake, ending at the beach. The walk gave us a nice feel for the park.
Light drizzle transformed into light rain at the waterfront. We briefly debated hanging out at the beach house snack bar in hopes the rain would let up, but decided for forge ahead. Smart move. Just as we reached the car, the light rain morphed into a downpour. Perfect timing.
NOTE: Isle Royale National Park in Lake Superior was on our “to do” list, but we were too late to find a reasonably price boat ride out. Book early!
We spent three weeks enjoying friends, family and the wonders of the Great Lakes region of the United States in May and June 2023.