Trip to unmentionable state proves worth mentioning

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sleeping bear dunes
Julie Geiss and her family explored Lake Michigan and Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. (Julie Geiss photo)

Being a part of a family filled with die-hard Ohio State fans, there are some states I just don’t mention casually in conversation.

It’s known by many nicknames such as “the mitten” and less affectionately as simply “_ichigan.” After driving north into that other state multiple times this summer, I have also started calling it “the orange cone state” because of all the construction we encountered.

I approached our week-long stay with battling bouts of skepticism and optimism. In between days of air quality alerts from the Canadian wildfires and excessive rain, we had two beautiful days exploring Lake Michigan and Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. From beginning to end, they were near-perfect days embodying the marketing slogan, Pure Michigan.

From our house on Lake Sapphire, we had just about an hour and 20-minute drive west to reach Lake Michigan. Our first stop was at a hiking trail near the town of Empire. The out-and-back trail was short at 1.5 miles, but we took our time looking at the beech-maple forest and wildflowers. The destination was an observation area along a high coastal bluff overlooking Lake Michigan. A wooden boardwalk made walking easier and several benches were located along the viewing area.

Once I was able to look away from the sparkling turquoise waters of the lake, I noticed the picture-worthy view of the double dunes in the distance. As the name implies, the massive dunes resemble slumbering bears on the edge of the water. We stayed on the bluff for a while, taking in the scenery that seemed like a unique mix of woods and forest behind us and tropical waters to the front stretching into the horizon.

After hiking, we felt ready for a drive. Typically my kids all cringe at the words “scenic drive,” but this one was just the perfect distance and time.

The Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive is a 7.8-mile loop with many stops of interest and amazing views along the way. We enjoyed the overlooks of Glen Lakes, Sleeping Bear Dunes and Lake Michigan. The idea for the driving loop was conceived by Pierce Stocking, a lumberman. He enjoyed walking the bluffs and wanted to make the views more accessible. The road opened to the public in 1967.

Scenic dunes

The most interesting section for us was between stops 9 and 10. After a picnic lunch, we walked out toward the Lake Michigan Overlook. The overlook is perched 450 feet above lake level. A severely sloping moraine bluff rises from Lake Michigan. It is composed of rocks and sand deposited when glaciers melted. Climbing the dune is not prohibited, but large signs warn visitors of a $2000 fee for a rescue.

High water levels in Lake Michigan make rescues extremely difficult. People who are unable to climb the dune back to the top have to be rescued using ropes and pulleys or by boat. We made the trip down to the water and climbed up to the top without any issues but witnessed a rescue effort during our time there.

I loved the adrenaline rush of running down the dunes, but if I had the choice again, I would probably skip the climb and enter the water from the nearby beach in the town of Empire. We learned by experience that the view from the bottom of the dune and the view from the public beach are almost the same.

We decided to visit the Traverse City area on our second day of beautiful weather. The distance of our drive was about the same, just over an hour. One of our first stops was at a harbor. Walking up and down the walkways we drooled over the amazing boats and yachts floating in the clear water.

Once the rest of our family arrived we drove out on Old Mission Peninsula, a 20-mile-long finger of land that splits Grand Traverse Bay in half. The drive was a rolling adventure through vineyards and cherry orchards. The atmosphere was tranquil with the sparkling aquamarine waters of Lake Michigan on one side of the road and hillsides of cherry trees and grapevines on the other.

Divine fruit

We didn’t realize it at the time, but we pulled over to what would be the first of several stops at roadside stands to purchase cherries. I’m not a huge fan of cherries, often avoiding the flavor if possible. However, the cherries we purchased on the peninsula were the sweetest, most divine fruit I have ever eaten.

Cherries were first introduced to the area by a Presbyterian missionary in 1852. Even local farmers and Native Americans were shocked when the Montmorency tart cherry orchards flourished. After his success, other farmers followed suit. The tradition continues today and I can make the promise that they are the best cherries anywhere.

Charming lighthouse

Our drive continued until we reached Old Mission Point Park where we walked out to see the historic lighthouse. It was built in 1870 almost exactly on the 45th parallel. What it lacks in height, it makes up for in charm.

From the steps of the lighthouse, we could see people walking out far in the shallow water of the lake. The water was crystal clear and calm, we kicked off our shoes and meandered among the rocks without a care in the world.

Our day was made complete with paddleboarding in Lake Michigan and another picnic dinner. I have to admit my impression of _ichigan was changed by the trip. I’m guessing there will be long weekends in our future spent along the coast of the state up north.

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Julie Geiss lives with her husband and four children in Unity Township, Ohio. Faith and family are first in her life, but she also loves hiking, biking and camping. You can contact Julie at juliegeiss1414@gmail.com.

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