Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is a great place to visit during the winter season. Many people visit this park during the summer during its peak tourist season, but there is something special about Sleeping Bear Dunes during the winter. Gone are the people tubing down the Platte River. Gone are the people driving through the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive. Gone are the people crowding some of the popular hiking trails. There is a stillness at this park during the winter. When you stand out on the snow filled beaches, sounds of waves crashing against ice piles can be heard. When you walk through the snowy trails of Empire Bluffs there is total silence and the only thing that can be heard are a couple of creatures moving around, and the wind whistling between the trees. The scenery of Sleeping Bear Dunes is spectacular during the winter season. If you are looking to visit when the crowds are few then winter is the time to explore this top tourist attraction in Michigan.
If you are not prepared for the winter elements, you can run into a few problems. I have experienced some of those dangerous situations simply because of my lack of knowledge. As with many places up north, there are areas that do not get plowed. Keep in mind that some of the side roads to a few of the beaches do not get plowed. Stop by the Visitors Center in Empire to get an idea of what areas are plowed and safe to drive through. Two counties run through the park and each has their own plowing schedule. The visitors center park rangers should be able to tell you when the best time to head down certain roads are. As with many of my other adventures soft shoulders on the roadside are quite common. Look for a clear plowed parking lot or drive nearby to park the vehicle.
Snowshoes or skis are a must if you are doing some hiking in the park. This is where I had gone wrong in one of my first visits to this park during the winter season. I struggled in two popular hiking areas during the winter. The Empire Bluffs trail is a popular hiking trail during the tourist season. The trail gives you sweeping views of the dunes and Lake Michigan. You can see the village of Empire from the bluff. It is quite the sight to see during the winter, but you must be prepared. The park will give guided hikes in the winter of this trail. They use snowshoes to make the hike. There are many snow drifts up on the higher elevations. One minute you could be walking through a couple inches of snow on the trail and then the next you are knee deep in snow. Without snowshoes the hike is very difficult. I had to find this out the hard way. On the hike going down an incline I also slipped and fell right on my back. I would not recommend this hike without snowshoes.
The biggest mistake I made was out on the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive. During the winter this drive is shut down to all vehicles and is used as a cross country trail. It is recommended that you take the trail with skis or snowshoes. When I visited the park, there had just been a foot of fresh snow. There was a thaw a week before that so the road contained ice frozen over from the meltdown. This made it a lot more difficult. The scenery was nice and parts of the drive were pretty easy to walk by foot. Once I hit the higher elevations within the drive, I struggled a lot more. This is where the snow shoes or skis would have come in handy. Also, part of the drive was blocked off due to drifting snow. This is right at the Dune Overlook areas. The trail gets re-routed through the woods reconnecting back to the main drive in a lower elevation. The area I had the most trouble with was a huge hill heading to the Lake Michigan Overlook. Hiking with no snow shoes or skis was a workout and this hill became what I thought was going to be the death of me. I made it halfway up the hill and almost collapsed. I was so tired and so run down from the hike. I laid in the snow for about 10 minutes trying to gain the courage to keep going. I struggled up the rest of the hill and made it to the overlook. The view was stunning and it was a nice photo opportunity. However, I wished I had the right equipment to make the hike.
There are many times where some of the most simple things like snowshoes get overlooked. I have hiked many trails in the winter, and took it for granted that places like Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is in a league of its own when it comes to winter hiking. These are common mistakes that I have made and I have heard similar stories from others who have made those same mistakes. When going to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, check in at the Visitors Center first. They will always provide you with the right information and tips to make your experience a great one. I made the mistake of overlooking that valuable information. Overlooking information can be costly, and I found that to be true on the ice near the lighthouses on Lake Michigan. Find out what happened in a couple days.