Make Every Second Count During a Summer Day in the Sleeping Bear Dunes


The first time Jay and I had ever visited Sleeping Bear Dunes was after we moved to Traverse City two years ago. We went first to where everyone goes first visiting when Sleeping Bear: the Dune Climb.

It was a hot and sticky July day, and we stood among the swarms of tourists kicking off shoes or brushing off sand at the base of the climb. We looked up. We looked at our recently-turned-two years old twins. We looked at each other. We shrugged in a “let’s give it a shot” kind of way.

If you’ve never done the Dune Climb, it’s a wide swath of sand dune in the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Park. You can hike up the dune and see beautiful views of Lake Michigan. The view from the bottom is a bit of a mirage though. As we quickly learned on that first hike up nearly two years ago, there are several crests you reach on the way up. You reach a crest and think you’re done, and that you’ll be able to see the lake, only to learn you’ve still got a ways to go.

We didn’t make it far on that first trip up the Dune Climb. In fact we barely made it to the first crest. Our then five year old, Maddie, did great and was ready for more, but Jay and I each had an unhappy twin in our arms and it was like walking through quicksand while carrying a thirty pound wriggling sack of potatoes. We turned around and took in great views of Glen Lake to the east, but that was about it.

Last summer was a different story…but not that different. The twins made it up to the first crest, and then wanted to be carried. We made it up the second hill before turning back. Again, Glen Lake, with a slightly better view.

Last week I ventured back to the Dune Climb with the girls for what’s become an annual tradition. My mom was in town, and Jay had to work, so it was a three-generational girls’ day at the dunes. This year it was a much different story. Not only did we make it all the way up the Dune Climb, but I struggled to keep up with the girls as they scampered up the sand. One of our twins, Emma, was the first up the dune. The remarkable thing is that in past years she was always the first to ask to be picked up. No longer. What a difference a year makes!

This is one of the main reasons we love going on adventures as a family. It’s a way for our kids, and us as parents, to learn how much they’re capable of. It’s almost always more than any of us think. Sometimes they confidently plunge into a challenge. Other times they need a nudge. Many times they need to be picked up, brushed off, and hugged before they can go any farther.

They learn and grow in the wild. The twins chase Maddie and emulate her movements and observe how she evaluates risk and reward when it comes to climbing a tree or leaping a creek. And Maddie sees other kids, not much older than her, navigating the trails on mountain bikes or the lakes on paddle boards, and she wants to try that, too. All three of them proudly compare bumps and bruises when the adventure is done.

I sometimes cringe when I see their legs – red and full of scrapes from branches and bug bites. But then I realize that, to them, the scrapes are a badge of honor earned from an adventurous day in the woods. I know that someday, in the not too distant future, they won’t look so fondly at their tattered shins and ankles. They’re girls, after all, and as much as they love time in the woods, they also love hanging out in my closet and playing “dress up” with my shoes.

They’re getting bigger. And for us, being outside is a reminder of how fast they’re growing, how fast time is going, and the urgency to take it all in. It’s hard to fathom that we have a smart, precocious seven year old already. We used to measure our kids’ growth every year by marking their height on the interior of their closet doors with a pencil. Now we mark it with footsteps in the sand. Only 11 more treks up the Dune Climb before Maddie sets sail on her own journey in life. It’s hard to believe, but it’s something we try to remind ourselves of every day so that we don’t lose perspective.

Time is of the essence in summer. Better start climbing!

A Few Tips for a Fun Half-Day in the Dunes

When we set out for the Sleeping Bear Dunes, we like to combine activities in order to pack in as much as possible. There is so much to do and see that you can only scratch the surface during a half day, but if that’s all the time you have you can still have a great experience.

That was the case last Friday as my mom, my girls and I headed west on M-72 for a quick bite to eat in the quaint town of Glen Arbor before parking in Glen Haven.

Glen Haven is a restored port village nestled on the shore of Lake Michigan featuring an awesome beach. There are also historic buildings such as the Blacksmith Shop and General Store that are fun for kids to check out.

We brought our bikes because before we hit the beach we wanted to ride over to the Dune Climb, which is a little over a 2 mile ride from Glen Haven along the Heritage Trail. The Heritage is a mostly paved walking and biking path that spans 22 miles of Sleeping Bear. The bike ride from Glen Haven to the Dune Climb is gorgeous as it winds through forest and meadows. This time of year there are fields of wild flowers and wild raspberry bushes that line the trail.

I didn’t know what to expect when we reached the Dune Climb. As I said, last year we didn’t make it all the way to the top. But the girls seemed excited about trying to make it all the way, so we piled our shoes at the bottom and started climbing. It was an unseasonably cool day, which helped, and we celebrated when took the final steps up to the summit. We did a little “victory dance” and took in the characteristically stunning views.

As satisfying as it was to reach the top, for the kids the best part is always the way down. They ran and tumbled down the steep dune, making it to the bottom in a fraction of the time we spent huffing and puffing our way up.

After biking back to Glen Haven we wrapped up our adventure on the beach, having snacks, splashing in the waves and collecting a few rocks for a painted-rock craft we planned to do later in the week.

It was a great day in the dunes. More than anything it was a reminder of why it’s so important to grab onto these precious summer days in northern Michigan. It’s impossible to make time stand still, but with a little planning you can make every second count.