Western Michigan’s beach dunes attract summer tourists.
Most of the topography in the entire state of Michigan was formed by glacial activity that began nearly two million years ago. The state features diverse landforms, from low mountains in the north to sand dunes along the western shore to fertile farmlands in the southern part of the state. Long before geologists interpreted Michigan’s glacial history, American Indians spun their own stories about some of Michigan’s more dramatic glacial landforms.
The Sleeping Bear Legend
The Sleeping Bear Dunes captivate visitors with their beauty, but an Indian legend weaves a magical spell and commemorates the reason for the park’s name. Long ago, a mother bear and two baby cubs were driven into Lake Michigan by a raging fire on the Wisconsin shore. After swimming for hours, the bear cubs fell behind. When the mother bear reached land, she climbed a bluff on the Michigan shore and anxiously watched for her cubs to arrive. The mother bear fell asleep while she waited, and the cubs drowned in sight of the shore. The Great Spirit, Manitou, marked their watery graves with two islands, and the giant dune overlooking the islands covers the sleeping mother bear.
Wisconsin Glacial Age
Folklore gave way to geologic study. Scientists now know that most of Michigan’s land formations occurred during the Wisconsin Glacial Age between 9,500 and 15,000 years ago. Glacial ice functioned like a semi-plastic medium, deforming and flowing under pressure. Picking up rocks along the way, the glacial flows formed hills, plains and coastal dunes. The rock movement carved out the Great Lakes basins and blocked normal river drainage. The Wisconsin ice dramatically changed the face of Michigan’s landforms.
Five major landforms emerged after the glacier’s receded. Till plains of fertile soil form a gentle, rolling landscapes. Lake clay plains prevail in southeastern Michigan and feature rich, clay soil. Northern Michigan’s outwash plains consist of poor soil. The upper peninsula features many rock outcrops, forming hills and mountains in the western Upper Peninsula and the flat limestone features of the eastern upper peninsula. Throughout northern Michigan, hills, streams and lakes shape Michigan’s private and public recreational land. Sand plains stretch along the state’s entire western shoreline, creating numerous sandy beaches that rival Hawaii’s famous Waikiki Beach.
Back to Sleeping Bear
The Sleeping Bear Dunes manifest one of more dramatic types of sand dunes left by glaciers. Called a perched dune, the Sleeping Bear sand mass rests high on a plateau and overlooks Lake Michigan and the Manitou Islands. The lakes, lowlands and bays prevalent in nearby counties help make tourism Michigan’s second largest industry. As the glaciers retreated from Michigan, the land rose up and formed the undulating forests and lakes typical to the area. Some of Michigan’s dune lands continue to shift, covering live forests and then uncovering them again, leaving barren ghost forests scattered throughout a constantly changing landscape.