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June 4, 2009

Camping at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore

You Can Have It Your Way and Inexpensively.

by Bill Herd

Platte River National CampgroundCamping is as American as apple pie—oops, I mean cherry pie. It’s part of our pioneer heritage. Not too many generations back, we were all outdoor folks, hunters in the forest, shepherds on the hillsides, herders on the plains, farmer tilling the soil, fishing folk and sailors at sea. For many of us, being outdoors is part of our genetic makeup. When the weather turns fair we long to be out of the city and back in the countryside. A tent and a campfire are two of our favorite companions.

Except for recreational vehicle campers that require full hook ups, camping at Sleeping Bear Dunes has something for everyone, so you really can “have it your way.” From vehicle camping with modern restrooms and electric to backpacking on a remote wilderness island, you will find opportunities for the type of camping you seek for your next trip. Best of all, camping is inexpensive. A site with electric and a Lakeshore pass will cost just $150 for seven nights, a small fraction of what a modest cottage on an inland lake would cost for a week. In these tough economic times, camping may be just what we need.

I did not realize just how important camping might be this year until I read two articles in the same newspaper. The first article talked about the stress the current economic crisis is having on individuals and families. The article recommended that families think about alternative vacations, and have fun simply spending time together. The second article reported that a large numbers of families would not be taking a vacation this summer because of the economy. So, just when families need a vacation for their mental health, they will not be taking one. But a camping vacation to Sleeping Bear Dunes can provide an enjoyable, fun-filled vacation and still save a large amount of money, not to mention a number of activities that are available at little or no expense.

The Platte River Campground is the park’s premier campground. Campers who have camped at many different National Parks often remark that is the nicest campground in the entire system. The campground has paved roads, which keeps dust from smothering you, your campsite and the nearby vegetation. Campsites are generous and spaced well apart and take full advantage of the terrain with abundant vegetationbetween sites. Campground staff keep the modern restrooms immaculate and “These are the cleanest restrooms I’ve ever seen” is often heard by Park staff. The ultimate luxury for a camper is a hot shower, which is available for a small fee. (They are a $1 for six minutes—let your teenagers use their own money for any additional time they feel they need) Some of the Platte River Campground sites have electric hook-ups and some can be reserved ahead. From the back of the campground there is a half-mile trail that leads to Lake Michigan and a nice sandy beach. aDSC_9776.jpgOne of the big advantages of the Platte River Campground is that poison ivy is not common and most years mosquitoes are few because of the well drained sandy soil, which are actually ancient dunes.

The campground also features 25 walk-in sites, which give campers a rare opportunity to get away from vehicles and traffic and get closer to nature with a short hike that's not farther than a city block. Once set up, life at your walk-in site takes on a relaxed pace and atmosphere. Parents of young children do not have to constantly watch to be sure the kids are not in the campground road. They can also enjoy themselves as the young ones amuse themselves in nature’s playground. Campers are often reluctant to use these sites fearing the extra work required to carry their gear to the campsite. Usually, however, they are pleasantly surprised to find that the close-to-nature experience is worth the extra effort. Here is a hint: it is not necessary to carry all your gear to the campsite. Rangers suggest that campers store food in their vehicle at night, so just take the food you need for the next meal. Likewise, you will be returning to the parking area to use the rest rooms and showers so just leave your clean clothes and towels in the vehicle. I cannot think of any other place where you can camp away from traffic and still have easy access to modern restrooms and hot showers. You get the best of both worlds. If that's not enough, at the back of the restroom is a kitchen sink with hot water where you can wash dishes. I encourage you to consider the walk-in sites. However, full disclosure requires me to inform you that the walk-in sites were my idea when we were developing the design plans for the reconstruction of the campground.

The D.H. Day Campground on Lake Michigan near the Sleeping Bear Dunes provides traditional rustic campsites—no electric, no flush toilets, no showers. It has been a favorite campground for Michigan families for generations. Highlights of the campground are its simple, widely spaced campsites, airy pine and oak forest and its close proximity to the Lakeshore’s main attractions. D.H. Day Campground is named for local lumber and shipping entrepreneur David Henry Day, who owned most of the adjacent forest, and donated 32 acres of land along the shore of Lake Michigan to the state for Michigan’s first state park in 1920. You can visit his company town of Glen Haven, which is now a historic village, just a short walk from the campground. One disadvantage of this campground is the large amount of poison ivy. Just about every plant that is not a tree is poison ivy, so beware and stay on the campsite, paths and roads. Since the early part of the last century the National Park Service has provided high quality ranger programs in its campgrounds. Both campgrounds continue this National Park tradition with evening amphitheater programs or hikes.

Boat to the IslandFor those who wish for a more adventurous camping experience, the Lakeshore has two hike-in campgrounds on the mainland and two on South Manitou Island. Hiking distance is about a mile to a mile and a half depending on the one you choose. On the mainland the White Pine Backcountry Campground is the most popular since its sites are near Lake Michigan. The six sites are in the pines just back of the dunes at the middle of Platte Plains, close to the lake but not so close that you will have sand in your sleeping bag and food. The Valley View Campground on the edge of the Port Oneida Historic District seldom gets used since its sites are not on a body of water. They are located in a sunny meadow surrounded by mature hardwood forest, and if you want to camp in solitude, this is your place. The hike-in campgrounds on South Manitou Island are the Bay and Weather Station; both are close to Lake Michigan.Tent Crescent City A normally overlooked hike-in campground is on North Manitou Island not far from the dock. Since most campers to the north island are backpackers who want to put some miles on their boots, you can usually have the campground to yourself. Set up camp and enjoy the beach, forest and historic village. If your family is not up to backpacking because of age, this may be the best place in the park. On one of our family camping trips to this campground, campers ranged in age from one year to 80. All campers on North Manitou need to be prepared to purify their drinking water, including those camped in the campground.

Backpackers who want to hike farther have two choices: Popple Campground on the north side of South Manitou and North Manitou Island. The Popple Campground is slightly over three miles from the dock. On North Manitou backpackers can select their own camping spot on the 15000 acre island, an opportunity not allowed on most other public lands. However, there are some important restrictions the ranger on North will tell you about when you register for a backcountry permit. Campers on either Manitou Island need to remember to take everything they need. There are no stores on the islands so if you forget batteries for your camera or insect repellant you will have to do without. On the other hand, the islands are about as safe as backcountry camping venue as you will fine anywhere. There are no dangerous animals, you can not get lost for too long before you find a known landmark, rangers are nearby if someone gets hurt or sick and, if needed, for emergency evacuation the Coast Guard helicopter is just a few minutes away in Traverse City.

For detailed information about camping fees, reservations and rules check the camping pages on the official Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore web site and also the camping fees & reservations page. Group sites are also available at both main campgrounds and on both islands.

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