Posted by: kerryl29 | July 2, 2018

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore

Six or seven years ago I began looking into making a spring photo trip up to the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore area, in the northwest corner of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula.  Something happened–I honestly don’t recall the details–that caused me to halt the planning process (which never advanced very far to begin with) and, while I kept Sleeping Bear on my informal photo “to do” list, I never really got back to it.

Fast forward to earlier this year.  I was in the midst of an ongoing conversation with my friend and fellow photographer Danny Burk about possible day trips this year (we eventually ended up at Trillium Ravine in early May) when he mentioned that he was heading up to the Sleeping Bear area some time in the late spring at the invitation of Gary Dardas.  I had photographed with Danny and Gary (and several others) at Acadia National Park in Maine, and again, briefly, in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan back in 2006, but hadn’t seen Gary since then.  Danny said, if I was interested, he’d ask Gary if he minded if I tagged along.  I was definitely interested; Danny spoke to Gary, who said he’d be most pleased if I joined them.  And so, after determining mutually agreeable dates, on the morning of June 18 I drove from Indianapolis to South Bend and, from there, Danny and I drove up to Glen Arbor, Michigan, about 25 miles west of Traverse City, right in the middle of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.

A brief digression:  while the photography portion of our time in the Sleeping Bear area was a terrific experience (see below), other aspects of the trip were memorable as well.  It’s always fun to catch up with Danny–and we had plenty of time on the ride up and back to do so.  It was also great to spend some time with Gary again–despite the 12-year gap it felt as though we’d last conversed no more than a month earlier–and he and his wife Pat were such gracious hosts that I joked, at time of departure, that I was thinking of moving in with them permanently.  As Danny and I literally pulled out of the driveway on the way back to Indiana on June 21, I said “what exceptionally nice people Gary and Pat are.”  And Danny said, a nanosecond after I finished that sentence:  “I was just about to say exactly that.”

*                 *                    *

We had a few days to spend in the area–one afternoon/evening, two full days and one morning.  That would be enough time to, at least, get a sense of what the location had to offer.  I didn’t come in with much background knowledge upon which to draw.  But I figured–correctly–that with a guide like Gary, who knows the park like the back of his hand, my time in the area would be well-served.

The name of the park–Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore–suggests Lake Michigan beaches and dunes…and not much else.  Beaches/dunes are indeed significant elements, but there’s so much more to the area, including:  smaller interior lakes; thick areas of fern-filled mixed deciduous and coniferous forests; bogs and fens; spring and summer wildflowers; open meadows; rivers and estuaries; and numerous unoccupied farms and homesteads that date back to the time before the park was established in 1970.  (Despite the “national lakeshore” designation, Sleeping Bear Dunes is part of the U.S. National Park Service.)

What follows is a tiny sampling of some of the images I made during our time at Sleeping Bear Dunes; I’ll comment briefly on each photograph–something about the experience and/or subject matter.  I’ll follow up with additional posts over the next few weeks displaying and commenting upon other elements of the trip.  I know that we barely scratched the surface of the tremendous potential the area holds–and I hope to further probe the possibilities in the future.

Pine Forest Black & White, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Michigan

There are a number of spots in the park where (apparently formerly managed) red pine forests have nearly symmetrical lines of tree trunks.  The above came from my favorite of these, on the first evening of our visit.  The even overcast light was perfect for the setting and I liked the way the monochrome conversion highlighted the patterned nature of the elements.

Good Harbor Beach Sunrise, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Michigan

We’d had the opportunity to scout this beach location (while swatting away flies and mosquitoes) shortly after our arrival on day one.  That’s when I discovered the driftwood, partially buried amid the sand and beach stones of the river estuary.  The beach, located on the east side of a peninsula that juts into lake Michigan, is well-suited for morning imagery.  There weren’t many other strong foreground elements on this beach so when we arrived–in already dramatically changing light–the following morning I made a beeline for this spot.  The color in the sky was all but gone in a matter of a few minutes after this image was executed.

Homestead Intimate Black & White, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Michigan

The park is filled with old farm sites, and it would be possible to spend weeks simply working them, both from wider perspectives and longer focal lengths.  We visited this particular spot on a mostly cloudy day, so I concentrated on tighter images and was thinking black and white when I made this photograph; I felt that the monochromatic treatment better conveyed the somberness of the mood.

Cottonwood Cluster, Lake Michigan Overlook, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Michigan

I found this composition upon first glance on the afternoon of the third day, during a mid-afternoon scouting session to this overlook off Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive.  The site was crowded with people at that time and, despite some impressive cloud formations, the light was less than favorable.  Fortunately, we had the opportunity to return early the following morning when there was no one else around.  (Also fortunately the clouds that morning were more or less as nice as they had been the previous afternoon.)

Fern Forest, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Michigan

On the second day of the trip, the skies clouded over quickly and Gary suggested that it was worth taking a drive down Lasso Road–an unpaved two-track–because the light would be perfect for the forested location and–he suspected–the area would be shielded from the light breezes we were experiencing that day.  He was absolutely right on both counts.  When we reached this part of the back end of the loop road I caught a glimpse from the passenger’s seat of the setting you see and asked if we could stop…which was difficult because there were few areas where it was possible to pull over.  This was the thickest, most pristine area of ferns, with almost perfectly interspersed pine trunks, that we had seen and, in a light rain, we spent quite a bit of time at this location.  The wind was quiet enough to eventually allow me to compile a six-image focus stack to produce the photograph above.

Good Harbor Beach at Sunrise, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Michigan

This is the same location as the driftwood sunrise image (second from top), but I had moved several hundred feet south on the beach and in this instance I’m shooting toward the estuary, more or less northeast rather than southeast.  (The driftwood is in the frame but, at this size, is almost impossible to see.)  The sun had just barely crested the horizon at the time this image was made but was partially diffused by clouds.  I noted the lack of strong foreground elements on this beach, so I decided to use the shoreline for depth and the patterned look of the beach stones for added interest, with the camera positioned just below waist-level.

Dunes Grass Black & White, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Michigan

I was thinking black and white all the way when I made this image, due to the fairly contrasty late afternoon light and the natural contrast of the sand/grass/cottonwood elements.  I also really liked the sky in this north-facing perspective.

Pastoral Morning, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Michigan

We visited this site, on my request, the final morning of the trip.  We’d passed it–and done one brief from-the-car scout, on the first or second day–and I really liked the combination of the elements here–the barn, the lone tree you see near the left-hand edge of the frame, another pair of small trees just out of frame to the left and another largish lone tree well to the left of the frame.  The sun had just risen (essentially behind my shooting position in the above image) and the face of the barn was just catching this early, angular light.  These were the same attractive clouds that graced the Cottonwood Cluster image above, made within 30 minutes of this photo.

Ferns and Pine Trunks, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Michigan

Yet another red pine trunks location, but this one had scattered ferns.  This image, from the third day, was made with my ultrawide 14-24 mm lens.  I got right up on top of this handsome fern and the wind cooperated long enough for me to eventually produce a three-frame stack.  I completed the set just moments before hot spots, from the rising sun, encroached on the lower portions of the background trunks.

*                 *                    *

I think this small sampling of images highlights some of the variety that the Sleeping Bear Dunes area contains.  I’ll present more images from the trip in the next post.


  1. Such straight lines in that Red Pine forest! I assume planted by humans? I do like the light and textures. That second one is stunning , such a smooth feel to the image. They are all lovely with pleasing points of view and different hues. I enjoyed looking at this group, thank-you, and it was good to hear what a pleasurable experience you had.

    • Thanks, Jane.

      I have to believe that the pine forest was planted and managed at one time given the symmetry of the trunks; there was timber harvesting in this area, once upon a time.

  2. It was great to see all of these as a group. It gives a good overview of the diversity of subject matter of the area. I don’t think I saw the dunes grass black and white before. There are some beautiful contrasting textures in that image.

  3. Great!!

  4. Excellent report with a STUNNING gallery. Well done, Kerry. 🙂

    • Thanks very much, Frank!

  5. […] I mentioned in my last post, among the subjects present at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore are a number of farms and […]

  6. Your pictures have made me want to visit this place. In 2016 I visited Illinois Dunes State Park and found it charming.

    • Thanks, Steve.

      I assume you’re referring to either Illinois Beach State Park, on the northwest shore of Lake Michigan just south of the Wisconsin state line in Zion, IL or Indiana Dunes State Park, on the northeast edge of Lake Michigan near Chesterton, IN. Of the two, Sleeping Bear is more like the latter than the former, but it about twice the size of Indiana Dunes (combining the state park and the national lakeshore property) and is about nine times the size of Illinois Beach. Sleeping Bear is also far more remote than either Illinois Beach or Indiana Dunes. Regardless, Sleeping Bear is well worth a visit.

      • Yes, I meant to say Illinois Beach State Park in Zion. We spent five nights in the hotel on the beach there. Coincidentally, we also later spent one night close to the Indiana Dunes. I got good pictures in both places, so now I’m eager to visit Sleeping Bear. Thanks for your recommendation.

        • You’ve spent more time at Illinois Beach than I have!

          If you are able to get to Sleeping Bear and would like some suggestions about specific spots to check out, let me know and I’ll try to put you in touch with someone who really knows all the nuances of the place.

        • Thanks. I’ll get in touch if it looks like the Sleeping Bear is about to wake up.

  7. […] the distant appearance of one of the main dunes areas, but I digress.)  As I noted in the first post in this series, there’s much more to the region than dunes and beaches, but those are major […]

  8. […] I noted in my initial Sleeping Bear Dunes post, one of the best facets of photographing at the park is the variety of subject matter.  Forested […]

Please feel free to comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


%d bloggers like this: