Marvels in the Mitten

You don’t have to go far to reap the rewards of travel and the great outdoors. Check out your own home state, like Michigan for example.

Turns out I grew up in paradise. I didn’t realize this as a kid and as an adult I have a new found appreciation for my own backyard playground. Michiganders don’t need to travel far from home to take in one of the United States’ most stunning natural wonders. And, don’t take my word for it. Good Morning America took a poll in 2011 and asked, what natural wonder is the most beautiful in the 50 states?* The nation voted and the title belongs to The Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, an amazing 30-mile stretch of Lake Michigan beachfront in northwestern Michigan. I had the privilege of growing up less than 10 miles away from this magnificent pile of sand, complete with a 90-mile (can’t see across) view toward Wisconsin. On many school field trips I learned the history and geology of my hometown mountain of sand. We can all thank ancient glaciers and an ice age for carving out this marvel of crushed rocks. Most people think of Michigan as flat but we do have unique dunes on our coasts, flanked by gigantic inland seas, one called Lake Michigan.

As a teen, I successfully completed and survived a Leelanau County rite of passage for every kid in the greater Traverse City area. We would trudge up the steep 400-foot face of the dune and arrive panting, hands on our knees at the top, looking over sweeping views of Little and Big Glen Lakes to the east. After hearts stopped pounding in time to our pulse, someone would yell, “Go!” and we’d all take off down the dune, running at full sprint. The steep slope turned the run down into physical comedy, full of ridiculous head-over-heels sandy spills and raucous laughter. I will never forget the feeling of hurtling down the dune in my bare feet, laughing until spit came out the corners of my mouth. Everyone, including me, would inevitably lose control and wipe-out, tuck-n-roll style. We’d lean forward like a running drunk, not in control of limbs, incapable of keeping up with the mighty Sleeping Bear’s steep pitch. At the bottom, we’d shake our heads like dogs to get the sand out of our hair and stretch our legs from the severe trauma we had just put them through. It was well above average fun and moments that defined my childhood.

Now as a grown woman, I totally want to run down the dune again (hopefully without serious injury) and I have an ever-growing appreciation of my home state. With age has come wisdom. After traveling around the U.S. and to lots of international destinations, I can honestly say that Michigan has a lock on a top spot amongst sand and water destinations… dare I say beach destination. Michigan has a west coast too (though we don’t have much in common with California). We’ve also been dubbed the Third Coast and most recently The Gold Coast, as part of Lonely Planet’s Top-10 United States Travel Destinations in 2014.* It’s labeled as an “unexpected beach getaway” in the guide’s description. The Gold Coast stretches from Saugatuck, Holland then all the way north, through Muskegon and up past Ludington, toward the aforementioned Sleeping Bear Dunes. Lake Michigan beaches are some of the cleanest and scenic in the world. What, you don’t think of Michigan as a beach destination? Sure, snow blankets much of our state for at least three months out of the year. Even so, the winter beach scene is pretty epic and worth braving the brisk winds. Granted, no sunscreen needed for a snow and sand trip but dressed appropriately, you can watch the whitecaps crash on the ice flows that build up on the beach. If you are more of a summer person, the beach and dunes all along Lake Michigan are worthy of a visit and part of the inspiration for the state’s tourism campaign, Pure Michigan. As a beach volleyball player, I’ve spoken to countless Californians and Floridians who marvel at our dense, deep, and amazingly clean sandy beaches on my west coast. Besides, it’s hard not to notice the sand, especially when it squeaks under your feet as you walk. Our beaches can talk!

Even as a Michigan resident, I find it difficult to go more than a week without getting to the beach and looking west out over the big lake. This huge body of water defines life, as I know it on Michigan’s west coast. It gives freely and often and the part I admire the most is the unpredictability. Live in Michigan and you will never get bored talking about the weather. The lake is in charge. It can inspire, one day, with an exotic glowing sunset and send you packing the next, with 40-knot sustained winds, that gives you a Michigan version of skin exfoliation, called sand-blasting. Winter is even more unpredictable bringing with it a phenomenon called “lake-effect” snow. For example, take one run-of-the-mill snowstorm and add Lake Michigan = a full-blown blizzard that dumps inches per hour. It’s impressive.

You’ll still hear people talk about the blizzard of 78’ and how it rendered portions of northern Michigan impassable for the better part of a week. When the local snowplow truck gets stuck you know you are in the middle of an above average storm. I will never forget that storm, mostly because I got to stay home from school for one full week! (A sweet treat for a 10-year old.) My brother and I spent hours digging a tunnel in our driveway through a 15’ high drift that had effectively sealed us in. My Dad and neighbor drove an aging snowmobile to the store for supplies like bread and milk. The Traverse City area and Leelanau County, where I grew up, receives an average of 200 inches of snow per year. Now, I reside in Spring Lake about 200 miles south down the coast of Lake Michigan and about 45 minutes west of Grand Rapids, Michigan’s second largest city. I’ll always be a northern girl though, proud of my small town roots and thankful for my impressive neighbor, the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.

If you are starting to get the idea that Michigan is a big state, you are right on track and trail. Being big is mostly a positive when exploring but timing and logistics in the Mitten are important factors when doing your pre-planning. If you drove from the West Coast straight across mid-state to Lake Huron and Port Huron, you’ll need at least three hours. It’s 215 miles from Muskegon to Port Huron. And, if you start from Detroit and head north toward the Mackinaw Bridge, you’ll need about five hours. That distance is 300 miles plus, depending on your exact starting point. Then, if you head west in the Upper Peninsula on Highway 2, from St. Ignace toward Ironwood in the westernmost part, you’ll need another five to six hours, which will net you another 315 miles. That’s in good driving conditions in the summer. In winter, good luck and God be with you. My point, Michigan is not a state you can pass through quickly unless you are an amazing open-water swimmer. It is not like Indiana, Illinois or Ohio, where you hope to quickly pass through to get to your destination. The great lake state will make you earn your trip. By the nature of its northernmost position of the U.S. map, flanked by great lakes, you’ll need to give the Mitten its due.

As a resident, I love my state for keeping me perpetually on my toes, especially when it comes to our distinct four-season climate. The distinct peninsulas (lower and upper) create a very unique and vast landscape, connected by a massive 5-mile suspension bridge. The Great Lake state is like that pair of hand-knit mittens your grandma made for you, held together by a strand of yarn, to prevent losing the pair. The four seasons keep the state ever in transition so as Michiganders, we are always in the process of rotating tank tops for sweaters. You’ll never have the opportunity to be complacent, nor settle into a tropical summer routine. And, just when winter doldrums start to settle in your bones, the hint of a spring thaw will warm you. If you think the only time to visit Michigan is in the summer, wrong again. I would suggest spring or fall when there is no battle with the crowds on the roads or the beaches. The lush green of spring is worthy especially if you like to golf or pedal. And, fall colors are brighter here, especially when you have the blue of the big lakes as the backdrop. My seasonal Michigan exploration is a work in progress and I find there are many places (especially in the U.P) that I still need to explore. I have yet to make a trip to Michigan’s Isle Royale National Park. Every time I pick up any backpacker magazine, Isle Royale is a feature. It requires a ferry-boat ride from Copper Harbor to get there but the reward is a rugged island full or rocky ridges, wildlife and plenty of hiking adventures with views of Lake Superior.

Looking for trip or getaway ideas – Michigan will always have something up its mitten!

Did you know? The Great Lakes contain the largest supply of freshwater in the world, holding about 18% of the worlds total freshwater and about 90% of the United States’ total freshwater. Source NOAA (National Oceanic & Atmospheric Association).

*Source: ABC News/Good Morning America’s 2011 poll: Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore named “The Most Beautiful Place in America.”

*Source: Lonely Planet, Top 10 US Travel Destinations for 2014.
#1 Destination: Grand Rapids & Lake Michigan’s Gold Coast.
Sleeping Bear Dunes

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