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Backcountry Camping in Sleeping Bear Dunes? Good Luck

Posted on April 24th, 2019

A prescribed burn at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore will temporarily close the only place in April and early May where you can enjoy backcountry camping in Michigan’s most popular national park unit. And that’s a shame, writes Jim DuFresne in the latest Trail Talk Blog from MichiganTrailMaps.com

For those planning their Isle Royale adventure, this summer MichiganTrailMaps.com just completed a two-year project of producing the most detailed maps of the island and its trail system in a set of 30 maps. Each map measures 10 by 8 inches, allowing us to provide information and detail unmatched anywhere else. You can download them from our web site onto your smartphone or other mobile device or print them out and carry them along on your hike. Click Here and then click the tab “Trail Guide” for a list of individual maps.

By Jim DuFresne

Sometime soon, possibly beginning this week, the National Park Service (NPS) will conduct a prescribed burn at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, the first staged fire to be held at the National Lakeshore.

Jim DuFresne 

The NPS is using fire as a tool to restore habitat in the park, in particular, dry northern forest, wooded swale and other fire-dependent plant communities. The burn units cover 917 acres in the park’s Platte River District in Benzie County, between Esch and Peterson Roads and west of M-22. For safety, NPS officials will close White Pine Backcountry Campground located in that area to visitors during the active burn period.

And when I think about that, it’s unbelievable. A national park that includes 71,000 acres and 35 miles of Lake Michigan shoreline will offer no opportunities for a backpacking adventure or spending the night at a walk-in campsite.

Not that Sleeping Bear Dune ever offered that much, to begin with. Most backpackers head to the park’s North Manitou Island, but ferry service to the 14,753-acre island only begins in mid-May and ends in early October.  For years backcountry camping on the mainland, which represents 72 percent of the park’s acreage, amounted to six sites in White Pine Campground and five at Valley View. Then Valley View was closed after the gale wind storms of 2015.

Now we’re down to six sites for an activity that is a staple in every other national park in the country, including our own Pictured Rocks and Isle Royale.

The lack of walk-in campsites and backpacking opportunities has always been an issue at Sleeping Bear Dunes and in 2009 was addressed in the park’s General Management Plan when such a trail was proposed. I had a ringside seat to the creation of the Bay to Bay Trail because for two years I served on a steering committee overseeing its development.

Backpackers in Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.

Backpackers at North Manitou Island in Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.

The idea behind the Bay to Bay was to build a hiking and paddling route that follow 35 miles of Lake Michigan shoreline from Platte Bay to Good Harbor Bay.  It would be both a backpacking route and a water trail, that would include a posted and signed single-track trail, lake access points, and backcountry campsites close to the shoreline that hikers and kayakers would share. Many of us envisioned the Bay to Bay to being similar to Pictured Rocks’ Lakeshore Trail.

Most important Bay to Bay would offer for the first time a “wilderness and backcountry recreational experience” in the heart of Michigan’s most popular national park.

In 2013, a team of graduate students from the University of Michigan School of Natural Resources spent the summer gathering data on possible backpack and kayak routes, lake access points, and backcountry campsites. A route was developed, campsites were identified and the following year the NPS staged a public comment period and an Environmental Assessment hearing on the proposed trail.

Then the bottom fell out.

Camping at White Pine Backcountry Campground.

Camping at White Pine Backcountry Campground.

The Glen Arbor Township supervisor objected to the proposed trail wondering how trail users and their activities would affect private property within Sleeping Bear Bay. “While we recognize everybody’s right to water activities in Lake Michigan and along the beachfront to the high-water mark, as a practical matter intrusion, trespassing and congestion will occur,” John Soderholm wrote to NPS officials.

In other words, while backpackers have a legal right to walk the beach from Platte Bay to Good Harbor Bay, people who own million-dollar shoreline cottages around Glen Arbor don’t want to see them on their beach. It might ruin the view.

I was told in 2015 that plans for the Bay to Bay Trail were “shelved” by the NPS and that chances of the project being resurrected anytime soon were slim to none.

I don’t know what happened in the back room and I’m certainly don’t understand politics, but to me, it appears that a few owners of million-dollar cottages on the beach easily outmuscled backpackers – and touring kayakers – who sleep on the ground.

So for the next few weeks before heading north first check with the NPS in Empire to see if there is any place in this designated wilderness you can pitch a tent away from the road. Most likely there won’t be.

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