Almost a century and a half ago, a narrow gauge railroad connected a sawmill on the backwaters of Glen Lake in the shadow of a towering tree ringed sand dune with its vast vistas of Lake Michigan, to the docks of Glen Haven, a once thriving lumber and fishing town nestled along a sheltered harbor on Sleeping Bear Bay.
The railroad, built around 1870, though still pulled by horse power, replaced the wagons or sleds used to haul cut timber to the bay where it would be shipped to ports throughout the Great Lakes. 40 years later locomotives took over the work of horses, cherries from nearby orchards and freshly caught fish also became part of Glen Haven’s flourishing economy. The future seemed bright.
Alas, it wasn’t to be and bit by bit the village including the hotel and cannery were abandoned; the rail gauges dug up and its path overgrown with forest, In time, the land traversed between the sawmill and village became part of the 72,000-acre Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore recently voted the "Most Beautiful Place in America" on ABC's Good Morning America.
But lost history can sometimes be re-discovered and the old rail bed is now part of the first section of the Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail (SBHT) which when finished will be a 27-mile, 10-foot wide trail stretching from just south of the historic village of Empire to north of the 3400-acre Port Oneida Rural Historic District.
“As much as possible, we are minimizing the trail’s impact on resources,” Tom Ulrich, the Lakeshore’s deputy superintendent, tells me as we stand on the abandoned railroad bed surrounded by forests dappled in the jewel tone colors of fall. “The trail will connect many of the meaningful attractions of the lakeshore.”
That includes suggested side trips made easily accessible to non-motorized “wheelers” such as bicyclists, strollers, roller bladders and wheel chairs as well as hikers, walkers, cross country skiers and people who want to enjoy nature but have limited physical abilities to such fun alternatives, as Ulrich calls them.
The list of alternatives include a stop at Art’s Tavern in Glen Arbor (the other of the two villages on the trail) for such offerings, depending upon the time of day, an apple, onion and white cheddar omelet or sautéed whitefish dusted in Parmesan cheese and crushed cornflakes, a latte at Leelanau Coffee Roasting Company and even the chance to rent a kayak at Crystal River Outfitters for a gentle paddle down river into the Lakeshore. While there, take time to stock up on cherry supplies (this is after all part of cherry country) such as pies, bread and diet busting Cherry Boomchunka Cookies at Cherry Republic Bakery & Café and for those who would like to cast a line, On the Narrows Marina, located on M-22 at the bridge on the azure (think Caribbean) Glen Lakes, rents fishing boats and motors, pontoon boats, pedal boats as well as sailboats plus bait and sandwiches.
For those spending the night, The Homestead, a four season destination resort on Lake Michigan with golfing and ski slopes as well as restaurants and large pool, is just down the road.
Other alternatives include Pierce Stocking Drive, a twisting roadway that winds through the woods and dunes offering scenic overlooks of the water and islands and Barr Lake Beach. My favorite, though it is somewhat further off the path than most, is a must stop at Grocer’s Daughter Chocolate in Empire for their house made artisan truffles, caramels and chocolates.
When completed, all of SBHT will be either asphalt, smooth and compacted crushed limestone or, in case of wetlands and bogs, boardwalks. .
Providing a safe, non-motorized and easy usage trail connecting both the natural and historic resources was one of the primary motivators for such groups as the Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail Endorsement Council chaired by former Michigan Governor William Milliken and his wife Helen and Friends of Sleeping Bear, Carol Quarderer who with her husband George are active in fundraising for the trail. Originally from Midland, the couple spends as much time here as possible and George also restores, as a volunteer, many of the old barns that dot the trail.
“Right now the park doesn’t have a trail that runs its length so the heritage trail gives people a chance to explore the park in a way one that doesn’t use up resources and makes it accessible to many more people,” says Ulrich.
Designed to run parallel to existing roads, but never coming closer than ten feet to the roadway, when the trail does swerve away, it follows old logging roads, existing trails or, like the one we’re on, abandoned railroads.
Back in the car, we are heading to Glen Haven when a bobcat runs in front of us.
“That’s the first one I’ve seen in since I’ve been here,” says Ulrich. For me, it’s the first I’ve ever seen outside of a zoo.
Though bobcat sightings are rare, deer, herons, piping plovers, trumpeter swans and common loons are common in the park which encompasses 26 inland lakes, two islands and 65 miles of Lake Michigan shoreline.
Though the trail will connect to Glen Haven where the old general store, blacksmith shop and cannery have been brought back to their 1920s glory and the Sleeping Bear Inn is being restored with hopes that an outside enterprise will re-open it again for meals and overnight guests, another alternative add-on is the U.S. Coast Guard Maritime Museum about one half mile from Glen Haven along a road that traces the shoreline. Established in the early 1850s, Ulrich tells me that the motto of the early life savers was “you have to go out; you don’t have to come back.”