Sleeping Bear Dune Rides: Remembering the Dunesmobiles

Taking a truck loaded with people tearing around the Sleeping Bear Dunes would land you in jail. But long before the days of endangered pitcher thistle plants and piping plovers, back when most people thought that a fragile ecosystem was something you better pack with extra styrofoam, there were the Dune Rides.

It all began, according to the brochure:

“In 1935 Louis C. Warnes equipped a car with special motor and giant tires for personal pleasure trips into the vast sand lands near his home. Friends begged him to take passengers. Soon he added other cars and trained drivers….”

The website Oh Ranger!adds more detail, noting that Marion Warnes (D.H. Day’s youngest daughter) was a gig part as well of Sleeping Bear Dunesmobile Rides out of Glen Haven.

They started the rides with a used 1934 Ford that took four people at a time to the crest of the dunes and back for 25 cents each. By the time the rides ended in 1978, there were 13 dunes wagons each carrying 14 passengers on a 12 mile, 35 minute excursion.

I haven’t been able to find anything specifically on the “Dunesmobiles” themselves, but to the left is a photo of a Travelalls made by International Harvester. The book A Nationalized Lakeshore by Theodore J. Karamanski notes that Warnes, backed by his new ten-year concession agreement, purchased ten brand-new Oldsmobile 88 in 1956. They used balloon tires and the two that I’ve seen around Leelanau are both Olds 88s.

For over 40 years the Dunesmobiles rode over one of the most breathtaking landscapes in the world, bringing those to young, old or lazy to walk closer to the beauty that dwells in the heart of the Sleeping Bear. With the coming of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, the days of the dune rides were numbered and in 1978 the dune rides ceased altogether.

Today, the trucks have been pressed into service by Manitou Island Transit and far fewer people get back into the “real” dunes. The result is certainly best for the health of the dunes, but it also means that for folks who won’t journey more than a few hundred feet from their cars, memories of the Sleeping Bear Dunes will consist of a few runs up and down the dune climb.

There’s a couple of photos from the brochure below and you can see some more (with a few from the dune rides at Silver Lake Dunes thrown in) from Don Harrison’s postcards of the dunesmobiles. The photo above is Sleeping Bear Dunesmobile by Seeking Michigan (click to see it bigger!)

Sleeping Bear Dunesmobile Headquarters
by UpNorth Memories
The Bear
The Bear — which has since disappeared
To the Dunesmobile, Robin!
A “Dunesmobile” on the
specially constructed gravel road
5 replies
  1. DH
    DH says:

    What wonderful memories this brings……..great time in the 60’s for me,,,,Hot sun, fun,,,sunburn!!!(Ouch) Eating sweet cheries,til you could not eat anymore,AND the wonderful Dune rides,we road the dunes at Silver Lake,,,What really ‘clean’ fun we had,,,,,even skipped school in the spring a couple of times (ha!) Please explain the sunburn,,,when you were suppose to be ”’sick”’!

  2. Christine M.
    Christine M. says:

    As a child in the 1960s, I pretty much lived on the Dunes each summer. My family owned a cabin on Little Glen Lake, directly across the water from the dunes. As soon as school was out, my Grandpa would drive up to Glen Arbor from Pontiac, MI and drop my Gram, Mom, and us four kids off at our cabin. What great fun.

  3. Eddy Garver
    Eddy Garver says:

    I owned #5 back in the 1970’s. My wife and I were in our 20’s with two small children. We used to go up to the dunes with our car. We would visit the Warnes’ and we were given a tour of the shop. It was closed by then. Louis Warnes was a very kind man and we enjoyed our visits with he and his wife. I even have a photo of my wife and Louis Warnes standing by our dunesmobile. Those years were very precious and we certainly enjoyed our convertible..a 56 Oldsmobile.

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