I’d been wanting to get out to see the new reroute of Empire Bluff Trail and one wonderful winter morning appeared where I had nowhere to be – and plenty to do – and went anyway. I packed up Maple, my dark red Golden Retriever, and set out. The morning was icy, frosty, and fabulous.
And we came upon the most unexpected gift: We were the first to arrive at the trail.
When we got to the trailhead on Wilco Road, just outside of Empire, I hung my trail pass off my rearview mirror and pointed out the absolutely empty parking lot to Maple. She shrugged.
But I need to stop right here and tell you how rare this moment was. ALONE in the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Forest on the most popular trail? I’d never known it was possible. But it wasn’t much past 8 a.m. and 19 degrees, and we had the place to ourselves in February.
As we set out, I started to brace myself for the hike. If the reroute wasn’t enough, the morning’s icy trail would be a remake of last year’s mistake. Then, we had taken our friends from Indiana out to see the best of Northern Michigan…. Only to treat them to a hike so icy that even our spikes and yaktrax and cleats could not stop our slide on the hilly trail.
We had climbed the steepest section of the trail down and backwards on all fours. Other people were hiking through the woods trying to avoid the trail altogether. Everyone, our houseguests, in particular, was making it out to be an adventure. But inside, we were calculating health insurance deductibles.
Today, though, I was delighted to find the new “bench trail” that had been cut into the hillside last fall. Bench trails are so-called because they are L-shaped like a “bench” that has been cut into the side of a hill to make a level walking trail. Instead of going up and over the nemesis hill, the new trail jogged right offering a new view of South Bar Lake through the leafless maple and beech forest, then left, curving around back to the original trail.
At no time did I consider monkey crawling this time.
Instead, I got to enjoy the solitude – and the winter scape – of the Empire Trail. If you haven’t been out there in the winter, please do. It’s an entirely different world. And now, thanks to the new trail, not death-defying.
As we climbed the last little stretch to the boardwalk over Lake Michigan, I saw a deer skitter across the forest. Its tan hide was stark against the snowy hillside. She wasn’t worried about us, but she was moving. Another rare treat, as there are often too many people to see the wildlife along the trail.
By the time Maple and I reached the end of the trail, some 400 feet above Lake Michigan, the sun still hadn’t topped the bluff. I’d never seen the dunes like this – draped in a shadow from behind, revealing new sands and blues and greens in the dawning morning light.
Then – another discovery. The frozen dunes were hardpacked, mostly solid, with a firm footing instead of the shifting sand of summer. Instead of hiking a bit along the dune trail and turning back, I found it easy to keep going. An evident footpath led the way and I checked Strava to discover that the Empire Bluff trail eventually connected to Old Baldy dune in Arcadia. I didn’t want to go that far, but I decided I would hike to the first dip in the dunes where the sunlight had sliced through and touched our side. Maple didn’t argue.
Off we hiked, like walking on water, clipping across the frozen dunes and able to cover more ground than I ever had on the bluffs. And not a grain of sand in the bottom of my boots! Once we reached the sunny spot, we sat and took in the view. From here, the human eye can see about 25 miles before losing sight over the curvature of the earth. (Wisconsin is out there but 60 miles and around the bend.) But I wasn’t looking for cheeseheads - I couldn’t take my eyes off the shades of water that changed and appeared and moved with each new inch of sunrise.
What a delight!
We stayed until the frozen bluff was too cold through my winter pants - and the sun had arrived on our side of the dunes. Heading back down to civilization, we were met with several people on their way up the trail. I’d arrived just in the nick of time to have it all to myself. A rare treat, one I might never have again.
TIP: My recommendation is to try Empire Bluffs EARLY and in the WINTER. You will get an entirely new experience. Head beyond the boardwalk at the bluffs and follow the footpath for a bit and see the swirls of brown and white and dune grass. It’s an entirely different world this time of year. And if you are lucky, you might get there early enough to discover it alone!
TIP 2: Do NOT descend the bluff. It is impossible to climb back up and stranded people have to be rescued each year. Instead, stay up high along the ridge and take in the world from the viewpoint that only the Sleeping Bear Dunes can give you!
For more info on the trail visit here. The trail is 1.5 miles roundtrip and has interpretive numbered posts along the way that correspond with info on the website. Wear cleats for icy days for sure but don’t worry – the big climb is gone! Enjoy!