Grand Sable Dunes No better example of perched dunes exists in the world than at Lake Superior's Grand Sable Dunes.
Here, the dunes—covering 3,200 acres along a five-mile stretch of the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore—are stacked atop banks of rock the last retreating glacier crushed, ground and spat out as it receded north about 12,000 years ago. Lake Superior, born of the melt the glacier also left in its wake, fluctuated in depth over the centuries. Its ever-changing water levels gnawed the foot of the banks and triggered landslides. Its waves pushed sand up and out. And its prevailing northwest winds dried, lifted and piled the sand into perched dunes that today tower more than 300 feet above the lake.
You can see a lot of Grand Sable's beauty—dunes, bluff, Lake Superior beach, a ghost forest, rock canyon, creek and 75-foot waterfall—in a short distance if you hike the 2.6-mile loop that combines the Dunes Trail and Sable Falls Trail. Find the trailhead one mile west of Grand Marais on County Road H-58. Looking for a lighter walk but equally awe-inspiring view? You'll love the 100-yard boardwalk jaunt to the Log Slide Overlook (parking lot is 8 miles west of Grand Marais on H-58). An observation deck now stands where a 500-foot-long wooden slide built by loggers in the 1800's once stretched to the water, but the panoramic view of the perched dunes, Lake Superior and the Au Sable Lighthouse to the west is no less stunning. Maps and information await at the Grand Sable Visitor Center. 906-387-3700 or nps.gov/piro.
Sleeping Bear Dunes
The 35-mile swath of golden sand stretching along the coast of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is the stuff of which legends are made. Most famous, of course, is the Sleeping Bear, which earns its name from a Native American tale about a mother bear forever waiting on shore for her two drowned cubs. Rising nearly 450 feet above Lake Michigan, this perched dune is the state's tallest.
Here, extraordinary dune phenomena abound everywhere. At Platte Plains, you'll see linear dunes—low-lying beach dunes that run parallel to the shoreline—whose every ridge tells a chapter in the story of Lake Michigan's changing water levels. And while most of the world's linear dunes top out at 30 feet, at Platte Plains, some reach 100 plus. At the heart-thumping, muscle-burning, must-do Dune Climb, you'll find falling dunes, created when wind-whipped sand spills from perched dunes into lowlands. Migrating sand, which often buries then reveals trees in its path, leaves behind chiseled stands of dead trees called ghost forests; the desertscape-like Devil's Hole is an eerily exciting example. When the sand comes to a stop in the lowlands beyond the plateaus—as at Sleeping Bear Point—you're looking at de-perched dunes. To explore the lakeshore's dunes—and forests, meadows, swamps, streams, lakes and ponds—first stop in at the Philip Hart Visitor Center at the corner of M-22 and M-72 in Empire. 231-326-5134 or nps.gov/slbe.