Sleeping Bear Dunes: Cottonwood Trail
Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive is a 7.4-mile, one-way loop within Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore that is often called “the slowest, shortest, but most scenic stretch of pavement in the state.” The speed limit is only 15 miles per hour on this single lane road but it passes four stunning overlooks that include the national lakeshore’s famous perched dunes, Lake Michigan shoreline and Glen Lake. So spectacular is the scenery that most people don’t want to leave the road and pass up the Cottonwood Trail that departs Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive at stop No. 4.
That’s a shame.
Cottonwood Trail is worthy of having a trailhead along the drive, featuring several scenic viewing points of its own. The 1.7-mile loop winds through the perched dunes above the Dune Climb and provides a close look at the beauty of these shifting hills of open sand as well as the vegetation such as bearberry, buffaloberry, beachgrass and cottonwoods that are slowly stabilizing them.
Cottonwood is an interpretive trail with nine posts that correspond to a self-guided brochure available at the trailhead or can be downloaded from MichiganTrailMaps.com. The brochure describes the plant life and geology of the area and explains why the mounds of advancing sand in this ever-changing land are so special and so fragile.
The rolling dunes that surround the trail are part of Sleeping Bear Plateau, a 4 square-mile highland that raises more than 400 feet above Lake Michigan and is covered with a veneer of perched dunes. The price for this unusual scenery is that much of trail, particularly the first half, is through loose sand and hilly. Both can be tiring, the reason this loop of less than 2 miles is rated moderate in difficulty.