My calves were burning. My lungs were burning. Everything was burning, burning, burning.
I looked upward, peering toward the top of the monstrous sand dune I was in the middle of climbing. I swore it hadn't looked THIS big from the bottom… But, then again, nothing ever does.
I was at the Dune Climb in northern lower Michigan — a 450-foot sand dune that is part of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.
Elliot and I knew, as soon as we started planning our trip to Michigan, that we had to do a day trip out to the dunes. A couple years ago, this area was voted the “most beautiful place in America” on “Good Morning America.” And you pretty much CAN'T skip a place with that sort of claim to fame if you already happen to be in the area.
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We watched the weather forecast closely and picked the sunniest day to head out to the dunes. We began in the small town of Empire, where the Philip A. Hart Visitor Center can be found. Since the dunes and scenic drive are located within a National Lakeshore (overseen by the National Park Service), you need to pick up a vehicle pass before you can see the good stuff.
First stop? The Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive, a 7.4-mile loop track that takes you through some beautiful lakeside forests and spits you out at quite a few picture-perfect lookout points.
As we drove — slowly — along the one-way road, dappled sunlight flickering on our windshield as it filtered down through the trees, we both kept how exclaiming how PRETTY this place was.
“This is gorgeous!” I would exclaim.
“I want to ride my bike here!” Elliot would reply as we went up or down another steep hill.
We stopped off at a handful of lookout points, getting our first taste of the sand dunes as well as some killer views out over Lake Michigan.
Looking out over the lake, taking in the different, shifting hues of blue, I had to remind myself that I was in Michigan instead of the Mediterranean or Caribbean. It was easy to be fooled; easy to forget that we were still in the Midwest.
After the scenic drive came (dun dun DUN) the Dune Climb. I was fine until about halfway up the giant dune, when I started wheezing and burning and feeling like I would rather lie down in the sand and die rather than make it to the top.
But I am stubborn.
And so I kept climbing and wheezing and burning until I got to the top of the dune and looked back out over nearby Glen Lake. Not bad at all.
You technically can keep going — hike another 2 miles up and down more sand dunes until you reach a beach on Lake Michigan. … I may be stubborn, but I'm not THAT stubborn; we had some fun in the sand at the top of the dune, and then headed back down.
Then it was time to dump the sand out of our shoes, comb the wind-blown knots out of our hair, and agree that, yes, this place definitely IS beautiful.
IF YOU GO
Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore – A vehicle pass is required to visit the Sleeping Bear Dunes. Passes cost $10 and can be purchased at the Phillip A. Hart Visitor Center in Empire, the Dune Climb, or the entrance to the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive.
Getting there – The Sleeping Bear Dunes are located about 25 miles west of Traverse City, Michigan – an easy day trip! You'll definitely need a car to reach the dunes, though.
Where to eat – If you do a day trip to the dunes like we did, drive back via the tiny town of Glen Arbor. We stopped for a pizza at Bear Paw Pizza and Market, and it was DELICIOUS.
Would YOU want to visit these sand dunes during a trip to Michigan?
Amanda Williams is the award-winning blogger behind A Dangerous Business Travel Blog. She has traveled to more than 60 countries on 6 continents from her home base in Ohio, specializing in experiential and thoughtful travel through the US, Europe, and rest of the world. Amanda only shares tips based on her personal experiences and places she's actually traveled!