The Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in the pinky finger of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula is already a well-known destination for hiking, sunbathing and beholding the majestic vistas over Lake Michigan’s blue waters. It is also becoming a hot spot for bicyclists.
This July, the Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail, which currently stretches five miles from the village of Glen Arbor to the Dune Climb, will double in length and reach the town of Empire. The Heritage Trail is a paved, non-motorized, multi-use, 10-foot-wide path that meanders through forests, historic farmsteads and dunes. The trail is ideal for bicycles but also suitable for wheelchairs, pedestrians and rollerblades. It is the first of its kind in a national lakeshore anywhere in the United States.
The project is the result of a creative partnership between the National Park, Traverse Area Recreation and Trails (TART), and local fundraisers within the business community. It runs exclusively through park land, but funds to build it come from private donors, including General Motors, Rotary Charities and local businesses.
With additional funding, the national park plans to expand the trail so that, by 2016, it will stretch 27 miles from the Leelanau-Benzie County line into the middle of the Leelanau peninsula, on a path roughly parallel to state highways along the Lake Michigan shoreline. Bicycle advocates hope that, someday, the Heritage Trail will connect with future bike trails, allowing pedalers to travel the perimeter of the peninsula and into Traverse City without using an automobile.
The Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail underscores the state’s intense focus on bike trails — as a way to promote sports and fitness, as a sustainable transportation option, and as a recreational attraction that draws visitors and tourism dollars, the lifeblood of Leelanau County’s economy.
Group bicycle trips to Sleeping Bear are now commonplace. The Lansing-based Tri-County Bicycle Association, for example, brings as many as 200 riders every summer to tour Northern Michigan by bike. And the new U.S. Bicycle Route 35, which stretches from South Bend, Ind., to Sault Ste Marie, Ontario, runs up the west coast of Michigan and through both Empire and Glen Arbor.
Since it opened in the spring of 2012, the Heritage Trail has proven immensely popular with both avid cyclists and amateurs who don’t feel comfortable biking on the shoulders of a busy highway. It has also changed the minds of some locals who initially opposed the idea of paving the trail. The age range of users has varied from toddlers to senior citizens. Wheelchair-bound disabled tourists, too, have enjoyed the Heritage Trail. During the winter, the Friends of Sleeping Bear nonprofit has groomed the trail for cross-country skiing, making it a four-season jewel of the National Lakeshore.
Shortly after the trail opened, National Lakeshore deputy superintendent Tom Ulrich learned of a disabled man who was riding a recumbent bike there. His wife wouldn’t let him ride on the shoulders of state highways M-22 and M-109, but the Heritage Trail gave him a safe space, far from any automobiles. “These are folks with disabilities who otherwise wouldn’t have been able to have this outdoor experience without the trail and its hard surface,” said Ulrich. “People on walkers are grateful for the smooth, easily negotiable surface.”
Bob Sutherland, who founded the booming local retail store Cherry Republic, has been an avid financial supporter of the Heritage Trail. He marvels at the trail’s kid-friendliness. “My son Hawthorn bikes all the way from Glen Arbor to the dunes. He feels independent and charged, and he sleeps well at night, which is great for me as a father.”
Map of Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail is here.
Jacob Wheeler lives in Leelanau County, where he publishes the Glen Arbor Sun newspaper.