Pierce Stocking had an idea.
Born in 1908, the Michigan lumberman was an avid admirer of his state’s natural beauty. He would walk the bluffs along Lake Michigan, taking in their majesty and wishing others could share the experience.
In the early 1960’s planning began on the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive, a road that would provide visitors the ability to take in the history, diversity and, of course, the exceptional views, of Glen Lake, the Sleeping Bear Dunes and Lake Michigan.
Pierce Stocking’s drive to share the beauty of this part of Michigan (worst pun in the history of the world) resulted in a 7.4 mile self-guided driving tour that takes visitors through 12 scenic viewpoints.
The Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive is an obligatory activity when visiting Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. Here are our favorite viewpoints along the trail.
The Covered Bridge
This 13-foot, 6 inch covered bridge is the first stop on the drive. You’ll feel compelled to stop right there in the middle of the road to take it in! But drive just past it and you’ll find some street parking on the shoulder. From here, you can get situated and snap that perfect picture of the covered bridge.
Being a born and raised Floridian, I thought covered bridges were built for aesthetics. Little did I know they served a functional use. Uncovered bridges are suspect to rotting from harsh winters of snow and rain. Rather than continually repair the bridge itself, covered bridges are designed so just the roof can be replaced, which is much cheaper.
Merely a bonus that they’re attractive.
After you get your photo, venture down into the ravine next to the road. It looks as if many, many years ago there was a river that flowed through here and under the bridge. Fallen tree limbs are covered in ferns and moss. Each step onto the soft layers of decomposing leaves makes you wonder if you’ll sink right into the ground.
It was peaceful to get a bit away from the traffic and take in the scenery. It’s a bit of a steep climb, so go slow as to not have a super embarrassing moment. Or hurt yourself.
Probably not hurting yourself is more important.
Glen Lake Overlook
The next stop is Glen Lake Overlook. Peering out, you see Glen Lake in all its glory. It appears there are two lakes separated by a thin strip of land. The body of water in the foreground is called Little Glen Lake, which is only 12 feet deep. Big Glen Lake in the distance reaches depths of 130 feet.
Interestingly, Glen Lake and Lake Michigan were once connected. Post Ice Age, a sand bar developed and eventually separated the two. The hill to the left when you’re looking towards the lake is called Alligator Hill due to its snout-like shape.
What struck me most about this spot was the vastness of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. Everything you’re looking at on this second drive stop is part of the 111-square-mile park.
This stop whets your appetite for more impressive nature, which the drive will deliver.
This was a popular spot on the drive as it gives you your first taste of the sand dunes. Being from Florida, sand dunes are nothing new, but the size and vastness of these dunes takes your breath away. You look off into the distance and see people climbing up and down. It reminds you of one those old school ant farms as people scurry up, over and around the dunes.
Standing on the platform you are about 200 feet high and you can see it all: North and South Manitou Islands, Pyramid Point, Sleeping Bear Bay and Dunes and Glen Lake. The Dunes themselves cover an area of four square miles.
Is it ironic that the highlight of a scenic drive is a hike? I don’t know; I never got irony either.
From the Cottonwood Trail head it is a 1.5 mile path around the dunes. The guide says it is a loop, and I know we started out on it, but I’m not sure if we finished on it. So I’m not sure whether to tell you there is a nice lookout point at the halfway point of the trail or at the end!
But once you get to the lookout point, you can watch hikers young and old attempt a dune climb. Whoever thought dune climbing was a way to have an enjoyable vacation must be a masochist. I was sure we were going to see someone call mercy, give up and just roll back down the hill.
Relax on the bench at the lookout point and feel good about how you decided against the climb.
If you can, let other hikers pass so you can be alone on the trail for a moment. The sound of the wind rustling the shrubbery may be the most relaxing thing I’ve heard.
Leaving the Dunes, Into The Forest
This isn’t a stop, but the way the scenery changes from sand dune to full-fledged forest isn’t easy to ignore. The diversity of the region is on full display as you take the winding road to the next stop.
As you leave the dunes, you enter the adjacent beech-maple forest.
It’s hard to believe you were just hiking sand dunes and now barely a mile away is a thick forest you can hardly see into. Consisting of American Beech, maple, black cherry, hemlock and basswood trees, the shade of the forest is welcome after trekking the sun-exposed dunes.
Lake Michigan Overlook
This is what you’ve been waiting for. Everything up to this point was an appetizer and the Lake Michigan Overlook is the main course.
Perched 450 feet above Lake Michigan, this stop provides incredible views of the lake and the shoreline. Looking out, you forget this is a lake and not an ocean. Wisconsin is on the other side, a full 54 miles away.
From here you can venture down the bluff to the lake. If you decide to, do so with caution. It is super steep. As you can tell from our pictures, the dunes appear to drop into nothingness. The caution is not so much for the descent, it’s more for the climb back up. Think about climbing 45 flights of stairs. Feeling winded? Now picture climbing 45 flights of stairs if they were sand instead of concrete.
Needless to say, we enjoyed the view from the top.
This is where you’ll want to spend most of your time. We saw many visitors reading under a tree or setting up chairs to take in some sun.
The Pierce Stocking Legacy
Pierce Stocking continued to maintain the scenic drive until he died in 1976. One year later the road was incorporated into the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. A few years later, based on public opinion, the drive was named the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive. His dream to bring the beauty of bluffs to the public was now realized.
We worked with the Grand Rapids and Traverse City tourism boards in arranging our trip to Michigan, as well as with individual companies and organizations. No one reviewed the stories we wrote in advance of publication. All opinions expressed here are our own.