Little-known Sleeping Bear Dunes 'gateway' road inching forward, but still decades away
If you look at Benzie County on Google Maps, you’ll notice a dark green strip of land about five miles long between Platte Lake and Crystal Lake.
That’s where a long-proposed scenic road would run – between U.S. Highway 31 and M-22 – taking people from Beulah into Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.
The land is mostly dense hardwood forest and it's extremely hilly.
“This is almost a 90-degree descent here we’re going to go down here, so we may want to keep our hands free,” says Andy Norman, a retiree of Michigan State University Extension who lives nearby.
After about three-to-four miles of rigorous hiking, he peaks a ridge and scans the horizon.
In front of him is Platte Lake and beyond that, the expansive blue waters of Lake Michigan. Then the Sleeping Bear sand dunes north of Empire. And if you look closely, you can even spot the Manitou Islands.
“If you walk up here on a day like today, you got to have a good mood when you walk away,” says Norman. “Either that or you’re ready to meet your maker. It’s just gorgeous.”
A “mood setter” is what Congress had in mind for visitors entering the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore when they established the park in 1970 and plans for a scenic road in Benzie County were written into federal law.
“I think they envisioned a very grand sort of entrance,” says Tom Ulrich, deputy superintendent of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.
“So if you can think of Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive for example that’s in the main body of the park, and one of our most popular visitor attractions, you get up there on that hillside and you look out over those views and you’re really struck by why this place is a national park,” Ulrich says.
“If you walk up here on a day like today, you gotta have a good mood when you walk away. Either that or you’re ready to meet your maker. It’s just gorgeous.”
But 50 years later the Benzie Scenic Road project is still nowhere close to being built.
A big reason for that is the way the park service can acquire land for the road. When the main body of Sleeping Bear Dunes was established, the park service could force property owners to sell.
For this scenic road, the park can only buy it from willing sellers. That can take a very long time.
“You really need to have that unbroken string of parcels all the way along the ridge or the purpose of constructing a scenic entrance cannot be realized,” explains Ulrich.
He says because the project was going slowly, park officials brought the idea of the scenic road before the public in 2009, to ask if it still made sense to try to build it.
“Pretty overwhelmingly people said, ‘Yeah, that’s spectacular stuff up there, that should be part of the national park,’” Ulrich recalls.
But not everybody is in love with the idea.
“I think we would all cry a lot of tears if all of a sudden we had traffic – a lot of traffic,” says Pat Denison, an artist who lives with her husband Chip in Lake Township.
They bought 38 acres of land in 1998 – some of it through the proposed corridor. They were aware of the scenic road plans back then, but ultimately didn’t worry too much about it being built.
And they still aren’t convinced it will be anytime soon, but if it is:
“We would just have to trust that it would be done in a smart way,” Denison says.
Instead of a road, the Denisons say they’d be much more interested in something like a bike path or hiking trail.
Tom Ulrich says those ideas have been brought up before and remain a possibility.
“I don’t think it would take an act of Congress, but I think you’d want to vett that with the legislature to make sure that would be acceptable,” he says.
Back on the ridge overlooking Platte Lake and Lake Michigan, Andy Norman stops to take one more photo of the view.
“This is a really good angle here for South Manitou,” he says, pulling out his camera. “I gotta grab that.”
Norman still likes the idea of a scenic road here, and thinks it can be done in an environmentally responsible way. He says just having a bike path would not really line up with Congress’ original intent.
“A bike trail is fine for the physically fit, but that’s a small percentage of the population,” he explains. “The National Park Service is here to serve us all, not just bikers.”
At this point, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore officials estimate that only about 50% of the land needed for the Benzie Scenic Corridor has been acquired.
So, whether it’s a scenic road, bike path – or both; it’ll likely be decades before you can experience it for yourself.