There is one bear where hibernation is not part of an annual hibernation ritual: the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. Many people don’t realize that the National Lakeshore is open year-round. Word to the wise: if you miss a visit in winter, you are missing out on a remarkable experience.
As you begin any trip to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore; it is always good to check-in at the Welcome Center. There you can find out the latest weather conditions, learn about ranger-led programs, and find the best locations to experience wildlife.
This is a 72,000-acre park and some locations can be pretty wild. If you are headed to a remote area, make sure someone is aware of your plans and check in with them after you’ve completed your outing.
Most park visitors know the exhilaration when taking on the Dune Climb in warm weather and running down the steep slope faster than your feet can carry you. In the winter, the Dune Climb is a different experience. It could be the steepest and fastest sledding hill you’ve ever experienced. Timing is critical. Get to the Dune Climb when there’s a good five to six inches of snow on the ground. And realize that stiff westerly winds can blow the snow away. But when conditions are just right, you are sailing down the hill. “It’s quite the thrill,” said Merrith Baughman, Director of Visitor Services for the park. “It’s fun to watch the kids. It’s long and people have a lot of fun screaming down the hill.” It’s also a great way to tire the kids out. “It’s a blast, but after three or four runs, you’re done.” The park marks off the runs to keep sledders distanced from those climbing up the hill. Still, Baughman says people need to be alert and stay safe. She says many people wear goggles and helmets
The park has seen a steady increase in people using the Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail for cross-country skiing or snowshoeing. Volunteers from the Friends of Sleeping Bear work during the winter to groom a trail that extends from the Dune Climb to Glen Arbor. The roughly five-mile leg of the trail is mostly flat, and it takes you past scenic views of Lake Michigan. Once you get to Glen Arbor there are plenty of places to rest and grab a well-deserved refreshment.
In the past, the park has offered organized snowshoeing programs and even has snowshoes available to borrow. Call or stop in at the Visitor Center to see when those programs are being offered.
The popular Pierce Stocking Drive is closed to car traffic in the winter, but the drive still attracts hikers and snowshoers. Convenient parking is available at the Shauger Hill Trail. “You will probably have the Pierce Stocking Drive to yourself, and the views are stunning,” says Baughman. The snow hangs heavy on the trees and the covered bridge is like a scene form a Norman Rockwell painting.
The sun goes down early in the winter months, but that doesn’t mean the park is closed. On any given night, Sleeping Bear will attract large numbers of visitors who are keeping their eyes on the sky. Sleeping Bear is a long way from major population areas, so light pollution is at a minimum. That means when the sky is clear, sky watching is at its best. When the Northern Lights fill the sky with vibrant colors, skywatchers will gather around Good Harbor Beach or Glen Haven to watch the fire in the sky.
Ice fishing brings a lot of families to the park. Plowed parking creates easy access to many lakes. Families will bring the kids in search of northern pike, panfish, bass, and bluegill.
With fewer people in the park, the wildlife can be more active. Baughman says there are more opportunities to see animals and birds or to search for their tracks. She adds that rangers at the Welcome Center can give you an idea of which tracks to look for.
“Every season is beautiful and has unique features,” said Baughman. “Winter is quiet and peaceful. You can walk through fresh snow that no one has walked on. There is so much to see and to do. It’s different.” Not everyone gets to experience winter at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, but those that do cherish the opportunity.