Snowshoe Sleeping Bear Dunes This Winter—It’s a Secret Snowy World

Walking into the wild snowscape of the dunes reveals a secret world this winter-loving writer always imagined. The beauty is, it really exists. Snowshoe Sleeping Bear Dunes for an experience you’ll never forget. 

Featured in the February 2019 issue of Traverse Magazine. Get your copy. 

One sunny winter day a few years back, I was driving M22 through the Port Oneida area and was checking out the ridges that rise to the north. I thought, I wonder what this valley looks like from on top of that ridge? I knew that no trail went there, so I figured I would round up a friend and snowshoe off-trail and see. But I didn’t do it.

So maybe a year later I was again driving that stretch and looking at that ridge and I had the same thought again, but this time it went bigger. I thought, I wonder what all of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore looks like off-trail. What would I experience if I snowshoed the entire length of the mainland, not on the shore and not on the trails, just moseying along through the forest and across the dunes?

And this time, I decided to go for it.

I sent out an invitation to about a dozen people who I felt might be willing to do this with me—snowshoe the entire length of Sleeping Bear. I suggest we would do a little section each weekend, and the purpose would be to just, in fact, head through the woods and explore. It would decidedly not be a workout. It would decidedly not be intense. It would be a roving picnic, a walk and talk.

To be honest, I figured the only person who would do this would be my friend John Velis, because we’ve known each other since 10th grade and our history would compel him, guilt-trip him into going with me. I figured others would join for one or two or at most three little segments and tire of it. Or maybe I’d just end up going solo if John Velis did not feel obligated after all.

The first Sunday confirmed these thoughts. Despite emails to a dozen people, only John and Jim Schwantes joined me at the park’s northern boundary, and we headed west through the woods to County Road 669, 3.5 miles away. We meandered through valleys, wandered among trees, climbed over low ridges, balanced across a beaver dam. It was a slow-moving conversation. We talked a lot about the anti-gerrymandering ballot initiative, because Jim had been working on that.

Good to Know: Cold Temps Will Kill Your Phone Battery

Even if you are not a woodsman or woodswoman, don’t worry about getting lost off the trails. You are walking between a Great Lake to the west and a highway (M22), so with a compass, if you get disoriented, just head to M22. But the key is having the compass and map with you. Don’t trust your phone because the cold will kill the batteries quickly.

I sent the emails again. Gave time and location for next Sunday’s gathering.

Lo and behold, about 10 people showed up. We headed off in the same sauntering spirit, and I think it was on this day that the name Sleeping Bear Saunter took hold.

We ambled through a swamp, saw a giant oak nearly gnawed through by a beaver, but still standing, wood chips all around.

We walked along Shalda Creek, crossed a frozen Shell Lake. And … full disclosure, we ended the last section on an actual trail, leading to Camp Leelanau where we’d left some cars.

That second Sunday was also the day the Sleeping Bear Saunter took on the momentum that carried it the rest of the way. Each Sunday after that, between 8 and 14 people gathered to walk and talk a section of the national park. People began to call the roving picnic “church.”

We called it a saunter.
We called it church.
We called it unforgettable.

The third Sunday, we began at Camp Leelanau and crossed the heritage farm fields of Port Oneida, headed back into the woods, clambered over blow-down trees from the August 2015 storm near Glen Arbor. The fourth Sunday we actually did mostly trails, because we hiked Alligator Hill, ground zero for that big wind storm. We would have needed five chainsaws and a Bobcat to get through it any other way. But seeing the devastation in the bare of winter left us in awe at the force of that summer’s day.

The biggest day of hikers, with 14 people, was the day we snowshoed the entire length of the namesake dunes, about 5 miles, starting at Glen Haven and heading south toward Empire. Photographer Andy Wakeman accompanied us that day and his amazing images are what you see before you.

About halfway across the dune, we settled into a little gully and people busted out food—sausage, cheese, beer … John unpacked big boiled shrimp. There was very little wind that day, and the thinnest scrim of cloud-cover diffused the sun and cast a mystical shroud over the barren, wind-sculpted landscape. We often walked over to the dune-cliff edge to stare at Lake Michigan 40 stories below. The dune is the centerpiece of the park, and on this winter day, the sandscape far surpassed even our high expectations. I thought it would be really good, maybe even great, but it was full on fantastic!

At this point, we were about halfway through the park, and for me, since I live near the northern boundary, the southern part of the park had always been a lesser-known stretch. While there were many surprises big and small on the saunter, I think the biggest surprise was discovering how amazingly beautiful the southern tier of the park is.

Tremendously steep forested dune hills are back in there, and gorgeous low dunes too. Fields that seemed like manicured parkland are adorned with well-spaced jackpines. The final stretch of wide, low, open dune that runs from the Platte River to the southern boundary was wonderful classic Great Lake dunes—but also by then it was near the end of a winter that had thin snow. We took a canoe to ferry people across the Platte and then hiked in boots, carrying our snowshoes up, down and across the sand ridges and flats.

It was unforgettable.

Key Items for Your Backpack
  • Ace bandages in case somebody twists an ankle or knee (not likely, since snowshoes are so stable, but never know).
  • Two liters of water per person (keep in inside pockets so won’t freeze).
  • High-calorie food like nuts, sausage and cheese to keep the body furnace stoked.
  • Crackers and energy bars for more instant energy.
  • Map.
  • Compass.
  • Really good homemade beer (thank you, Tim Johnson).
How to Dress
  • Dress in thin, breathable layers.
  • Avoid cotton.
  • Know the weather and if rain is a possibility, be sure to have rain gear—essential—to stay dry.
  • Beware of overdressing in big bulky heavily insulated clothing because you will get drenched in sweat and then chill down. If you start to sweat a lot, peel a layer and stuff it in your backpack.
  • Snow pants strategy: peel when you start to walk; pull them on as soon as you stop for a break.
  • Recommend ski poles for the hills.