This was supposed to be a different post. I was all pumped up for a 10-mile hike on the wonderful Otter Creek / Platte Plains Trail, by Esch Beach. I’d been there when the early spring wildflowers were blooming, and this was going to be my autumnal bookend. But when I got there, my heart sank. The trailhead was flooded, no doubt due to the very high water levels we’ve been experiencing this year. Dang it! And I had turned down an invitation to join my roommates on a boat – yes, a boat – in order to hike on this gorgeous day! The boat gods were punishing me. It was like I was in a choose-your-own-adventure novel, and I’d made the wrong choice.
Oh well, I thought. The day’s still young. Where else can I hike? Hmm. I hadn’t been to the dunes in a while. Why not do the Sleeping Bear Point loop?
And sure enough, it turned out to be a special, memorable, dare I say spiritual experience. As my mom always says, “Everything happens for a reason.” Actually I utterly disagree with that statement! But on this day, it was true.
To access the Sleeping Bear Point trailhead, you pass through historic Glen Haven Village, “the best preserved cord wood station on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan.” There’s a restored general store, a cannery boathouse, and a blacksmith shop which have been turned into museums and are open to visitors Memorial Day through Labor Day.
Speaking of choose-your-own-adventure…Once at the trailhead parking lot, you have some choices. My friend likes to start by hiking up through the dune forest. The entrance to that is an unmarked path leading from the parking lot. If you do it that way, then you reach a breathtaking view of Lake Michigan from atop a sand dune once you’ve exited the forest, and the sudden effect of that is thrilling. But the dune forest – more on that later – is my favorite part of this hike, so I like to save it for last and proceed on the marked trailhead. A little ways down that path, you come to another choice: turn right and head to the beach of Sleeping Beach Point, or keep going on the Dune Loop Trail. Personally, I like to do the whole loop first and then visit the beach as a sort of cherry on top, a coda, and maybe go for a swim after getting all hot. But it’s your adventure, so you can do whatever you want!
I would describe the Dune Loop Trail as strenuous, so be warned. You’re mostly walking on sand, and for portions of it, you’re walking uphill.
Arguably the best views on the trail come early, so pause a moment and absorb it…the dune grasses quivering in the breeze, the turquoise waters, the somehow simultaneously comforting and haunting Manitou Islands. After that, the next big highlight is the ghost tree forest. Say what?
Ghost trees are trees that were swallowed by the shifting sands and reemerged later as grotesque versions of themselves. Many of them spiral to a sharp point, like a screw. The Sleeping Bear Dunes are ever-shifting, so a ghost forest is never quite the same. Ghost trees rise and sink, rise and sink as the months and years go by. They might be my favorite feature of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore – but then, I confess to having a taste for the gothic.
On my way to the ghost tree forest, I was surprised to see some flowers still blooming out of the sand: goldenrod, and some small purple ones I think might’ve been asters(?) Goldenrod, often mistaken for ragweed, is a crucial source of food for pollinators in the late summer and fall. This one had a bunch, maybe dozens, of bugs on it, little guys feverishly trying to get it all in before the winter comes – much like myself on this day! It seemed fitting to witness a bit of flourishing life before entering into a realm of eeriness and…well, death.
Whenever I’m amid ghost trees, I feel a sense of solemnity and spirituality. I feel as though they’re towering spirits or priests, watching me carefully, rendering judgment on me. And as I’m leaving a ghost tree forest, I always feel moved to turn back one more time and say a prayer, make a wish. I dig deep inside myself and ask “What do you really, truly want, at this precise moment in your life?”
So what was my prayer? If told you, I have a feeling I’d be cursed and turned into a ghost tree.
Next, you’ll enter the most strenuous portion of the hike. Walking up a big dune. But push through it and get to the top, and you’ll be rewarded with a great view, and then rewarded again with what I said was my favorite part of the hike: the dune forest.
Lush and peaceful, teeming with life, the dune forest is like an oasis. It’s the perfect antidote to the severity and intensity of the ghost tree forest. You’ll let out a sigh of relief – not least because you’re out of the glare of the sun and finally going downhill again. Ahead of me, I saw an old man walking very slowly with a cane. I hadn’t seen anyone else on my hike. There was something eerie – that word again – about the sight of him. Was he a ghost too?
As I caught up to him, we chatted a bit, and I mentioned that this was my favorite portion of the hike. His eyes widened and he made a noise of approval. “The dune forest is such a remarkable habitat,” he said. "If you stand still for a minute and listen, you'll hear all sorts of wildlife. But they won't come out if you're doing this." He tapped his feet on the ground. I wished him a nice afternoon and started to walk ahead of him, and he said "Yes, young man, stretch your legs. I'll be a while. I can't do the dunes anymore, just the forest. Keep a lookout for the pheasant nest at the bottom of the hill!"
Now that got my attention, because I'd never seen a pheasant, or even known they were in this part of Michigan. Wild turkey, yes. Grouse, yes, But not pheasant. (Funny side-story...It was so cold one winter morning that a grouse was pecking at my window wanting to come in! I would've gladly let him in...to my oven! I confess that whenever I see a game bird, I get hungry. Rabbit too.) Had the old man been smoking funny cigarettes?
At the bottom of the hill, I looked around for a nest of some kind, and didn't see anything. But I remembered what the old man said. Stand still for a minute. And sure enough...What was that noise! A rustling in the brush. I peered into the forest and there was a shape, larger than a grouse and smaller than a turkey, stepping over branches, its back to me, trying to get away from me as quietly as possible. Was it a pheasant? Or was it yet another ghost? I didn't chase after it, because who knows what sort of unspeakably ghastly curse a flustered ghost pheasant might put on you.
The path through the dune forest plops you right back to the parking lot. Feeling like I'd gotten a solid workout, I treated myself with a stroll to Sleeping Bear Point beach. From old pictures I've seen, the point used to extend way further into the bay. Now the dune tapers sharply. When the water isn't too high, you can walk around it, which I would recommend. I love looking at the beautiful ridged patterns on the dune, like ripples in water, which become even prettier as the sun droops and shadows come out to play.
The shadows' entrance meant that it was time for me to exit. I could've stuck around for sunset, but that trek through the dunes had given me an appetite, and I was ready for dinner. I fantasized about – what else? – roast pheasant, served with maybe a raspberry compote and buttercup squash. Mmmmm.