Nationally Significant Features of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore

by Bill Herd

Sleeping Bear DunesIt’s always fun to go to a park, whether it’s a local park with swings and a ball field, or a state park with camping, hiking, and fishing. But National Parks are different. Sure there are still lots of ways to have fun there, but that is not the main reason for their existence. In the U.S., when citizens determine that some place is so important to us that it absolutely positively must be saved for future generations, it is frequently entrusted to the National Park System for preservation.

As a park ranger at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, I routinely greeted groups of visitors with an introduction to the park and the National Park System. I found that for elementary school kids “preservation” is an unfamiliar word. But even lower elementary grade students understand the concept if you ask them whether they have something they like so much that they are trying to make it last forever. Surprisingly, the majority have some object, an old toy, doll, blanket, or model that has special meaning to them and that they want to last. They already know that to make it last they need to be extra careful. They may play with it but not as roughly as they play with other toys.

And so it is with Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. Folks have determined that there are important natural and historic features here that need to be preserved as part of our national heritage and passed on to the next generation. We can still have lots of fun in the National Lakeshore but in some areas we need to be more careful so that our fun activities do not harm those features that we agree to protect for our children’s children. Visitors to a National Park area need to know what physical features are considered especially important and why. They can plan their time in the park to experience these resources, learn about them, and get the full value from their travel and vacation experience.

Every employee of a National Park should be able to list and explain what features make that national park unit important to our national heritage. Several years ago I prepared this list of nationally significant features of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore to train our seasonal staff. Some of these significant features were identified in the legislation passed by Congress that created the National Lakeshore. Other nationally significant features have been identified later by required inventories, new discoveries, or new understanding of known features.

Big Blue

  1. Lake Michigan Lake Michigan is the largest body of freshwater totally within the boundaries of the United States. Its size and water quality makes it a national treasure. However, because of human impacts, it is subject to major changes to its ecology. The park extends 1/4 mile out into Lake Michigan. Of course Lake Michigan can be seen from many locations within the Lakeshore.
  2. Lake Michigan Shoreline In the 1960s the primary motivation to create Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore was to protect a large section of pristine Great Lakes shoreline for future generations. The National Lakeshore protects 35 miles on the mainland and another 33 miles around North and South Manitou Islands –68 miles of Lake Michigan shoreline altogether. The park provides public access for recreation and enjoyment. The natural shoreline processes of erosion and deposition continue mostly un-impeded. The shoreline includes special features such as the mouth of the Platte River (the last natural river mouth of any size on the Michigan side of the lake, and one of last on the Great Lakes), a bar lake at North Bar, sand spits at Gull Point and Dimmick’s Point and sometimes at Sleeping Bear Point. The shoreline also provides critical habitat for the endangered piping plover, a small, sand-colored shore bird that nests and feeds along sand and gravel beaches.
  3. Ghost forestSand Dunes The eastern shore of Lake Michigan has the world’s largest collection of fresh water sand dunes. Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore has the greatest concentration and variety of dunes and the largest dune field of any site along this shore. Perched dunes are a rare type of dune formation worldwide and the park has one of the best examples of this type of dune anywhere in the world. Dune types in the park include: shore dunes, perched dunes, falling dunes, dune and swale, dune and swale with river, linear, and parabolic.
  4. Vegetated Dunes (Dune vegetation zones) From active dunes to hardwood forested dunes, Sleeping Bear has excellent textbook examples of plant succession on dunes. In fact, the first ecology textbook was conceived after field work at Sleeping Bear and North Manitou by Henry Cowls. The variety of dune types provides the basis for a variety of vegetation habitats on dunes.
  5. Historic Maritime Landscape The National Lakeshore includes several maritime related historic districts connected by the waters of the Manitou Passage. Within these districts you will find three Life-Saving Service Stations, a lighthouse, two coastal villages, summer cottages, island farms, and a shoreline that remains undeveloped. Mostly outside the National Lakeshore, but part of this maritime landscape, is the Manitou Passage Underwater Preserve which protects a couple dozen shipwrecks. Together these maritime structures and features create one of the best remaining historic maritime landscapes in the nation.
  6. Paddock Candy

  7. Historic Agricultural Landscape The Port Oneida Rural Historic District, which contains 18 farms and 3,000 acres of land, is the largest intact historic agricultural landscaped fully protected from development in the United States. In addition, the park has two more agricultural districts on the mainland and another on each island. While already significant, these historic agricultural districts will become even more important in future years as older farm buildings across the Midwest disappear and rural areas undergo modern development
  8. Glacial Landscape Knowledgeable geologists say that the park has the best examples of the effects of continental glaciations of any unit of the National Park System. The glaciers retreated from the park 11,000 years ago. This is a young land and the marks of the glaciers are still fresh. Of course the park’s major landscape features, such as Lake Michigan, the inland lakes, and the rolling sand-deposit hills found here, are the direct result of the glaciers. Glen Lake was formed when glacial waters melted and the Earth rebounded, closing off the bay entrance.Often it is the smaller almost unnoticeable marks on this young landscape that geologist find most exciting. For example, marks in the hillsides, such as the Alligator’s snout on Alligator Hill indicate the shorelines of ancient ice border lakes. Another example is the ridge in the open fields south of Empire, which reveal the meander bend of a huge melt water river. A long little hump behind the parking lot at the Dune Climb, small ravines in the field by the Windy Moraine parking lot, and a clay pit near Devil’s Hole all have important meanings to geologists and those interested in the Earth’s history .
  9. Kayaking to South Manitou Island

  10. Two Large, Undeveloped Fresh Water Islands: North Manitou and South Manitou Large islands in fresh water lake are uncommon worldwide and publicly accessible large, undeveloped islands in fresh water are rare. Because of their isolation, islands have their own ecology, history, and mystique. They provide an opportunity to protect fragile resources and natural processes.
  11. Diverse Habitats The Lakeshore’s many landforms create a variety of habitats that support a large array of plants and animals. The Lakeshore provides critical habitat for rare, threatened and endangered plants and animals, and the Lakeshore has more species of nesting birds than any other unit in the National Park System.
  12. Non-threatening Habitats that Encourage Visitor Interaction Sand dunes, beaches, forest trails, gentle streams, and open fields invite visitors to get out of their cars and experience the natural environment. For several years, Sleeping Bear Dunes has been voted the best family nature vacation spot in the Midwest. Our park’s natural environment is fun and welcoming. This non-threatening natural environment can support a wide variety of outdoor recreation. More than most National Parks, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore provides safe opportunities for families with limited outdoor skills to have fun and adventure outdoors. Fun outdoors is the greatest single factor in persuading people to take a greater interest in protecting the environment.

There are the ten features of national significance. Later I will discuss each one in more detail with specific information about how and where to best experience each feature.


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