Although much cooler today, we still had a fun trip to the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive.The Scenic Drive was named after Pierce Stocking, who spent his youth working as a lumberman in the northern Michigan forests. He loved the woods and spent most of his spare time there developing a self-taught knowledge of nature. He used to walk the bluffs above Lake Michigan, awed by the views of the dunes, Lake Michigan and the Manitou Islands. He wanted to share this beauty with others and developed a road to the top of the dunes. The road, then known as Sleeping Bear Park, was opened to the public in 1967. Stocking continued to operate the Scenic Drive until his death in 1976, and the following year the road became part of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. Several years later it was named Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive.
Glen Lake is famous for its beauty due to the many hues of blue and aqua which show up best on a sunny day. The colors are caused by the varying depth of the crystal-clear water above the light-colored sand. You will see the same effect when you get to the Lake Michigan Overlook. The lake was once connected to ancestral Lake Michigan. Glacial erosion carved out the lake during the last Ice Age.
We enjoyed seeing the perched dunes and the plant life that flourishes on this harsh landscape. The sand dunes here are called “perched” because they are sitting on top of glacial moraine bluffs made of sand and gravel. They are formed by the prevailing westerly winds blowing the sand out of the moraine and depositing it on top of the bluff. The overlook is on the eastern edge of the dunes about 200 feet high. In some places the dune fronts advance a few feet per year, while in other places the dunes are stabilized by plants and show no movement at all.
We headed over to the observation deck and looked down at Lake Michigan 450 feet below. From here you can see that the bluff is made of a mixture of sand, gravel, and rocks. That dark line on the bluff is topsoil created by decayed plants and represents the top of the bluff before the sand was blown up to cover it with a “perched” dune.
Lake Michigan was formed during the last Ice Age when a huge lobe of glacial ice advanced down the continent digging out the basin and then melting. It is the largest lake completely within the United States and is the fourth largest fresh- water lake in the world. It has a profound influence on the region, including the formation of the sand dunes. In recent times, the bluff has been eroding at a rate of about 1 foot per year. Waves wear away at the base of the bluff and sand and rocks slide down to the beach.
The Sleeping Bear Dune is the large dune about 1 mile north of the observation deck along the edge of the bluff. It hardly looks like a bear now, because it has been eroding rapidly in recent years. Around 1900, it was a round knob completely covered with trees and shrubs.
The Sleeping Bear Dune is estimated to be about two thousand years old and has a fascinating history. It is classified as a “perched” dune because it is perched on top of a plateau, high above the lake. When the dune was forming, it was somewhat inland – not at the edge of the bluff, as it is today. Wind carried sand from the upper portion of the bluff and deposited it to form the dune. Over time, the bluff eroded away and the dune is now on the edge of the bluff and is beginning to erode away itself. For many years, Sleeping Bear Dune was about 234 feet high with dense plant cover, but by 1961 it was only 132 feet high and it continues to erode away. The major cause of its erosion is wave action wearing away at the base of the bluff on which the dune rests. As the west side of the dune loses its support, it cascades down the hill to the beach. The wind is also a major factor in removing sand and destroying the dune’s plant cover. It is only a matter of time until the “Bear” disappears completely.
I walked over to the observation deck and looked at the small lake below. It was formed behind a sand bar at the edge of Lake Michigan. At times the wave action builds up the sand bar and separates North Bar Lake from Lake Michigan. At other times, a small connecting channel exists between the two lakes. This little lake occupies part of an ancient bay on Lake Michigan flanked by Empire Bluffs on the south and Sleeping Bear Bluffs on the north. Shorelines have a natural tendency to become straighter with time. Wave action focuses on the headlands and wears them back while shoreline currents carry sediment to the quiet bays and fill them in. Deeper parts of the bay are often left as lakes when sand fills the shallower parts. The same process that formed North Bar Lake also formed many of the other lakes in northern Michigan: Glen, Crystal, Elk, and Torch Lakes for example.
North Bar Lake is ideal for swimming in the summer. It is warmer than Lake Michigan because it is smaller and the sun can warm it up more quickly, and it is surrounded by pure sandy beaches. Children like to play in the small creek that flows from North Bar Lake to Lake Michigan, and the older kids can enjoy the Lake Michigan wave action.
Last, but not least, we saw the famous dunes that everyone climbs up and slides down. No, we didn't join them.