Michigan Legends: Visiting Sleeping Bear Dunes and Traverse City


Looking out at crystal-clear, sparkling water made me feel as though I might actually be on a tropical island, not the (sometimes) chilly shore of Lake Michigan to hike Sleeping Bear Dunes.

My trip to Sleeping Bear Dunes last week didn’t feel as steeped in history and legend as I expected (after reading up about the legend surrounding the dunes) since the dunes don’t seem to form any specific shape when you are in the middle of hiking them. Still, I loved connecting to Michigan’s history and exploring the various habitats surrounding the dunes. There was a forested area, complete with tiny toads hopping all over the hiking path, the sandy dunes themselves, and the rocky shoreline.

During my hike, I spent several hours walking along the shore, looking for unique stones or washed-up pieces of smooth driftwood. (I successfully found a large piece of dried coral and shoved it in my hiking pack. The extra weight was worth saving the pock-marked rock to take it home.)


The beautiful and sad Native American legend surrounding the dunes centers on a mother bear, Mishe Mokwa, and her two cubs. A fearsome fire pushed the bear family to the shores of Lake Michigan from the Wisconsin side where they were driven into the water to escape the flames. (Other versions say it was a great famine instead that drove them to the water).

They swam for hours, desperately trying to reach the opposite shore. By the time Mishe Mokwa reached the other side, she realized that her cubs were not strong enough, and, exhausted by the long swim, had sunk deep into the depths of the Lake. The heart-broken mother bear lay down on the shore to wait for her children. Eventually, the Great Spirit (called Gitche Manitou) put a spell of slumber over the mother bear and drew up the sand to cover her, forming the dunes along the shore. (Alternatively, she is also said to have laid there so long the sands naturally blew over her). Two islands were raised where the cubs drowned, North and South Manitou.

This is meant to explain how the islands and dunes came to be, and to recognize the specific shape of the dunes, which, especially in older photographs, resembles a sleeping bear, laying down on her side. (You can even see her ear sticking up!)


I was also able to explore Traverse City. The city was beautiful and full of hiking paths, beaches by the bay, and delicious food. My favorite moment other than hiking the dunes was definitely exploring the city and finding all of its unique features.

Travler’s Tip: Ask for places to visit around the city at a local resurant!

After eating at a restaurant in town called The Franklin, we got some tips about the best beaches to visit (North Bar Lake, located along the dunes and right next to the lake was beautiful and uncrowded), and the best food to eat (a sandwich called The Gobbler from Mary’s Kitchen Port tasted great after walking all over the city). (And I got to eat it by the bay!)


Traverse Bay

Sources: This website and this website were both very helpful and have lots of good information about the legend!