America's Lakeshore: Behind The Dune Climb

by Bill Herd

IMG_0090The Dune Climb at the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is perhaps the best known natural feature in Michigan. A surprising number of people haven’t just seen a picture of it or viewed it from an overlook – they know it from having had direct personal experience with it. They have struggled to the top, felt the sand between their toes, and – when a run down the dunes ends abruptly -tasted it in their mouth. They have vivid memories of their family and friends having fun together there. Usually when they say “Sleeping Bear Dunes” they mean the Dune Climb. While they know the Dune Climb from personal experience, it is just the tip of the “sandberg” it is much more then a big wonderful pile of sand to climb. Here are some of the most interesting things about this favorite Michigan landmark.

The Dune Climb is different than almost all other dunes along the Lake Michigan shore. Most dunes are created when the wind takes sand from Lake Michigan beaches and piles it up. But the sand at the Dune Climb has never been in Lake Michigan or on a Lake Michigan beach, and the wind has actually piled it DOWN. The sand at the Dune Climb came from dunes higher up on the Sleeping Bear Plateau. The dunes on this plateau, which is a moraine deposited when the last glacier melted, are called perched dunes because they are not down at lake level but perched on top of a hill. The hill, which happens to be a very sandy hill, provides the sand. Simply, strong winds from Lake Michigan hit the exposed bluff and drive some of the finer grains of sand up hill where they pile up as perched dunes. As the wind continues day after day and year after year, some perched dunes migrate inland until they fall off the backside of the hill. These are called falling dunes, which is what the Dune Climb is. Perched dunes are uncommon and falling dunes are rare. I know of no falling dunes anywhere that compare in size to the Dune Climb and those dunes adjacent to it.

It is 130 feet to the top of the first hill at the Dune climb and about another 130 feet to the top of the second hill. Jockey’s Ridge on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, the largest dune on the Atlantic coast, is just a little over 100 feet. Compare that to the 260 feet of the Dune Climb. That height would not be so difficult to climb if it were solid ground, but it is soft sand that gives way under each step. As you step up 12 inches you lift your body weight to this spot but the sand gives way under your foot and it slides down 8 inches. You have done enough work to go up 12 inches but have only moved up 4. So in reality you will climb the 130 feet three times to get to the top of the first hill. While the angle of the slope may seem like 45 degrees, its actually less than 20. The Dune Climb is a little easier to climb in the spring when the sand just below the surface is still damp but it gets harder as hundreds of happy feet churn up the sand to dry in the summer sun. Of course the easiest time to climb is just after a good rain. In fact a cool day after some rain is the perfect time to head to the Climb but come down if there is lightning in the air. Sleeping Bear Dunes seem to have a special affinity for lightning so don’t take a chance.

Sleeping Bear DunesIf you get to the top of the first dune you will have a good view of Little Glen Lake and if you get to the top of the second hill you will get an even better view but you will not see Lake Michigan on the other side. From the top of the second hill it is still 1 ½ miles up and down across five big dunes to the lake. This is easily the most strenuous hike in the Lakeshore and will take most folks three hours. It is a great hike if you are prepared with water, sun protection, foot ware and time, but it is a not so fun of a hike if you are to head out unprepared, which unfortunately many people do.

The Dune Climb is an active dune that moves. A measuring stick was placed at the base of the dune at the north end of the Dune Climb several years ago. You can find the exhibit there and with a little arithmetic calculate that the Dune Climb moves toward the parking area about three feet a year. This is not just a little sand blowing across the ground but the full 130 foot wall of sand moving ahead 3 feet a year. The parking lot has been moved back twice during the 35 years I was a Park Ranger. It will need to be moved back again in a few years, Hopefully the engineers that designed the new paved parking lot took that into account. The trees you see part way up the hill used to be in front of the hill, and are actually just the tops of much larger trees that are being buried as the dune advances. Folks often ask if the dune will eventually reach Little Glen Lake and begin to fill it in, but since the dominant wind is from the southwest, the dunes are headed more toward Glen Haven. I often joked that the reason Little Glen Lake is so shallow is because for 100 years folks have been playing at the Dune Climb and then going for a swim in Little Glen to wash off the sand. DuneClimb_3242By the way, the sand you get in your hair, nose and ears, the National Park Service will let you take home as a souvenir but don’t try to fill up your pick-up truck as a fellow did one day.

Another frequently asked question is if there are houses buried under the sand. The answer is no. The area at the bottom of the Dune Climb was once a corn field so there may be buried fence post but the foundation of the farm house can still be seen inside a large clump of Lilac bushes. The all persons, handicapped accessible Duneside Trail at the north end of the Dune Climb goes near the site and one of the sign points out the spot. While there is not a house buried under the Dune Climb, there definitely is a county road under it. In the early years of the 20th century the road ran along a section line. Where the steep dune face came almost to the edge of the road. It was a convenient place for local folks to park their car or buggy and climb to the top. The dune at that time was so steep that sometimes it was called the “dune jump”. After scrambling to the top on all fours, folks jumped off the top (the ladies in their long skirts) and landed a long ways down the slope where they jumped again. Today that section line is well past the top of the first hill and the road is covered by at least 150 feet of sand.

How has the Dune Climb changed while folks have been climbing on it for the last 100 years?

For one, it is not as steep as it would have been as you can see by comparing it to the dune face on either side of it. Second, nearly all of the vegetation is gone although old photos show that there was very little vegetation there because it was such a steep moving dune. Returning visitors, especially those who have not been here for several years, are struck not by the change in slope or the lack of vegetation at the Dune Climb but by how much more vegetation is on the dunes. Despite all the folks hiking and climbing, the Sleeping Bear Dunes are getting greener. Another change is the steady spread of gravel on the surface of the second hill just below the bench in the Cottonwood grove. His is not the result of climbers but other human activity. In the mid 1960s Pierce Stocking constructed his seven mile scenic drive. One section looped across the open dunes just above the Dune Climb following the route of what is now the Cottonwood trail. The road on the open dune was too difficult to maintain and was only open to vehicles for a few years before being abandoned. By the time the park service acquired the scenic drive many areas of the road had been buried under moving sand. They removed as much of the clay and gravel as they could get to without digging out the road but most of the road material remains. As the sand under the road erodes away, the gravel slowly moves downhill leaving a veneer of gravel on top of the fine dune sand. The gravel is now spread over an area almost 100 yards down the slope changing the physical condition of the landmark dune. A sand dune is supposed to be made of fine clean sand, not mixed with rocks.

Folks climbing the dunes have had positive impacts that I believe far outweigh the limited negative impacts. Dune climbers have developed affections for the dunes that resulted in the Sleeping Bear Dunes being protected first as a state park and later as a National Lakeshore that included protection for dunes along Platte and Good Harbor Bays and the Manitou Islands. Moreover, Michigan families’ love of sand dunes has made the state a national leader in the protection of shoreline dunes. What began as a buggy stopped behind a corn field to climb the “Dune Jump” has grown into a statewide desire to protect the largest collection of freshwater dune in the world.

Photo Credits

2 replies
  1. Shirley Hoagland
    Shirley Hoagland says:

    Thanks to Bill Herd for such an informative article. I live in the area and have enjoyed hiking the trails and of course listening to many excellent concerts there, but never knew the full history.

  2. Kathleen Stocking (256-0041)
    Kathleen Stocking (256-0041) says:

    Dear Mr. Herd, I am a new ranger at the NPS (doing Heroes) and have some questions for you. I must missed you at the Port Oneida Fair. If you have a moment, could you call or email? I’d love to chat with you. Thanks, Kathleen Stocking

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