Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore: Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive Part III

The Cottonwood Trail is scenic post number four along the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive, a part of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. It was a remarkable hike because the landscape clearly demonstrates the ecological concept of succession, and I had that in mind as I did it.

Being a mountain biker who has been to two IMBA Trails Schools and helped build a few trails, I also had something else in mind: the trail quality. I must start out by saying that I firmly believe that many hiking trails are not suitable for mountain biking. The reason is that they are not built correctly. The Cottonwood Trail is an excellent example of this.


A fall-line trail.

The very beginning of the trail is a fall-line trail, meaning that the trail goes straight down the hill rather than gradually downward along a ridgeline. The problem with this type of trail is that water naturally runs along the trail greatly adding to the rate of erosion. This is not unique to hiking trails.

To combat the loss of trail surface, some hiking trail maintenance crews will place logs across the trail to help keep the soil in place. Eventually this just creates steps that get larger over time. The only real fix to a trail like this is to reroute it.


The dunes are characterized by large, sandy blowouts caused by strong winds.

Now, no one is going to build a mountain bike trail on the Sleeping Bear Dunes because they are nothing but sand. This just isn’t sustainable no matter what you do, and you’d probably have to have a Pugsley just to stay afloat. The dunes are ever-changing, and are greatly affected by wind, which brings me to another point: the importance of grass and the importance of staying on the trail.

The Sleeping Bear Dunes are much like a desert in the sense that the environment is very fragile. Visitors are strongly advised to stay on the MARKED trails. Unfortunately, many do not listen to this and meander all over the dunes. What they do not realize is that they are preventing new vegetation from taking root wherever they walk. The vegetation is incredibly important because it makes the landscape more stable.


I was fascinated by the exposure of this root, and the layers of sand reminded me of the layered cliff walls in Moab, Utah.

Some parts of the Cottonwood Trail are quite eroded. Sections where people may walk are deep and sandy. Unfortunately, people walk along the side of the trail to avoid the deep sand, so they contribute to the widening of the trail. Combined with the wind, this tears away the surface of the dune and exposes roots of adjacent plants.


There are many areas in the dunes where grasses are beginning to grow and stabilizing the dunes. In this picture, new grass is dotting the landscape around a blowout.

In addition to grass, other plants have taken root and are growing on the dunes. “This is one of the few places where you can see a birch tree on the dunes,” says the National Park Service (Cottonwood Trail). “In some places, wind erosion has produced bowl-shaped dunes known as blowouts, while in other places, the build-up of sand has partially buried living trees.”


A clump of trees along the Cottonwood Trail

The dunes are also filled with colorful wildflowers and berries. Juniper berries, bearberries, and buffalo berries can be found here.

I don’t know what kind of bush this is. The berries are red and have growths out the end away from the stem. Any ideas?


A bearberry bush.

Any mountain biker should be able to do the Cottonwood Trail hike. It is a 1.4-mile hike with a mixture of packed sand and loose sand. I ran some of it because my parents were waiting for me, ;-) and it took me about 40 minutes to complete. If I remember correctly, the National Park Service estimates the hike to be about 1 hour for most people. As always, respect the environment: stay on the trail. :-)

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