Get the backstory and advice to help you join a rare group of sightseeing adventurers.
The Sleeping Bear Dunes had over 1.7 million visitors last year, but only 36 can lay claim to hiking every mainland trail in the park proper—that’s 13 trails that cover almost one hundred miles. It’s called the Trail Trekker Challenge.
Started in 2011 by Glen Lake area high school students, Bonnie Ricord and Lena Cruz, the challenge was created to help inspire and motivate visitors to see amazing places within the national lakeshore beyond the Dune Climb.
You can pick up a free copy of the free Trail Trekker Challenge brochure/logbook at the Philip A. Hart Visitor Center in Empire. Sleeping Bear’s flat to gently rolling terrain makes the challenge doable for people of almost any age or physical capability. Here’s some advice to help ensure your success:
There are 13 trails in the Trail Trekker Logbook. To get some miles under your belt while also conditioning yourself for some of the longer hikes such as Bay View Trail (7.5 miles) and Alligator Hill (8 miles), kick off the challenge by tackling some of the smaller hikes first.
The three shortest on the list—Empire Bluff Trail, Windy Moraine, and Cottonwood trails—are all just 1.5 miles, round trip. Starting small is a good confidence builder for families with small children; likewise, if you’re trying to hook friends into doing the entire challenge with you.
Give Each Hike A Theme
Hiking can be a bore, especially for kids, if your only purpose in being out there is to rack up miles. So use all your senses, and look for something new every time you go out. That could mean drawing up a list of items like in a scavenger hunt. Or it could mean simply bringing along a guidebook that will help you learn about songbirds, fungi, animal scat, wildflowers, or animal tracks.
Time To Reconnect
In the world of digital overload, spending a little time disconnected can allow you to better reconnect with important people and the beautiful world around you. Unless you’re using your smart phone for its mapping software or an app to help you identify birds or flowers, try turning it off. You'll get exercise, fresh air, and a great way to reconnect all in one.
Hiking With Kids?
When hiking with children, the best piece of advice is to simply let go of expectations when it comes to how much ground you’re looking to cover. Try to relax and be open to stopping for nature discoveries and lots of snack breaks. Bring along some “tools,” such as a camera and/or magnifying glass, to help make the experience really interactive when hiking with small children.
The Toughest Trails
What’s the toughest trail on the Trekker list? That would be the Dunes Hiking Trail (3.5 miles) that runs from the top of the Dune Climb all the way to Lake Michigan. Many unprepared visitors have tried to tackle this hike thinking Lake Michigan was “just over the next hill.” The rolling terrain is pretty deceptive, and, without a map or water, a lot of people end up giving up.
The trail can be especially tough in the heat of summer since there’s no shade coverage on the dunes. So, bring plenty of water, and try to tackle this one early in the morning or later in the evening well before dark. Wear or bring a swimsuit so you can go for a dip once you reach Lake Michigan. Other tough trails (in terms of length) are Alligator Hill and the Sleeping Bear Point trail (which also runs mostly through shade-less dune terrain).
Never Leave the Trailhead Without It
Beyond packing an ample amount of water, be sure to never start a hike without sun/bug protection and multiple layers of clothing (and maybe some packable rain gear). Free maps are no longer available at the trailheads of lakeshore hiking paths. Most people simply download all the maps on their smartphones, which is more convenient and cuts down on waste. A couple good apps to consider are Experience 231 and AllTrails, both for Android and iOS devices.