The top of the Dune Climb offers one of the most spectacular views in the Sleeping Bear Dunes. But here’s something a lot of visitors don’t know: You don’t have to march up 450-vertical feet through ankle-deep sand to check it out. There’s a slightly less torturous option—think of it as a backdoor to top—the 1.5-mile Cottonwood Trail. Read on. 

The midway highlight of Cottonwood Trail is the shady lookout atop the Dune Climb that gives a birds-eye view of tired souls trying to hike up the face of the massive dune from the bottom.

When tackling something like the Trail Trekker Challenge, you would think the strategy—if you had any at all—would simply be to get out and hike; just start at the top of the list and bang out one path at a time until you worked your way through all 13 mainland trails.

I guess it really all depends on who’s hiking with you and how long you expect the challenge to take. Because here’s the deal: If you plan on hiking—not cross-country skiing (which is totally okay by TTC rules)—there’s at least one trailhead on the Lakeshore’s mainland that you basically can’t even get to in winter; at least, not easily.

The 1.5-mile, Cottonwood Trail is located off Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive, which closes to road traffic every year around the first week of October and doesn’t open again until summer. But this is okay because, frankly, very few people would want to experience the Cottonwood Trail in winter, anyway.

One of the Lakeshore’s so-called “dune trails,” the entire loop is basically devoid of tree cover and exposed to the elements, which in winter would mean ripping cold winds and drifting snow.

Our family hiked the trail in early August when we only had the glaring sun to contend with. We reached the trailhead mid-morning, hoping to beat the crowds and the hottest part of the day.

The trail map warned that the loose sand on Cottonwood Trail provided a “strenuous” hike. Up and down over the dunes, the trail wound its way through shallow bowls and shady copses of birth trees—something rare to see on the dunes.

We wondered about my mother, up for a visit to see her grandchildren. She had a hip replaced a couple years before and rarely walked on anything besides macadam anymore. But she had no trouble with shifting sand underfoot, or the many ups-and-downs of the trail.

The numerous stands of birch trees along Cottonwood Trail provide plenty of shady breaks for children and grandmothers, alike.

Definitely the highlight of this short hike is the middle, a popular stopping point. It overlooks Glen Lake and Dune Climb parking lot. Making the top of the Dune Climb is a kind of “rite of passage” for Lakeshore visitors. Cottonwood Trail provides an alternate way of taking in the towering view.

My son also discovered the Cottonwood lookout provides pretty good mobile coverage.

Even after stopping at the lookout, we finished the Cottonwood Trail in roughly an hour. The trail was well marked, super-easy to follow. The only thing I can is—in addition to water—bring your sunscreen. In a hurry to get started, we forgot ours in the car. Only a 1.5 miles round trip, a quick little hike, but everyone had a little sunburn.