Cottonwood Trail

Thin trail on a yellow-vegetated dune winds towards a grove of small trees and a blue lake

Climbing towards a grove of cottonwoods

Quick Facts

Historical/Interpretive Information/Exhibits, Scenic View/Photo Spot, Trailhead

Leashed pets allowed on trail. Pets are NOT allowed in the dunes trail system outside of the Cottonwood Trail loop.

Want to really experience the dune plateau? The 1.5-mile Cottonwood Trail is a great place to get out of your car, loop through the perched dunes, and see the sublime scenery up close. The Cottonwood trail loops over unique dune landscapes and offers spectacular views over golden sand dunes of the azure sky, aquamarine Glen Lake, white D. H. Day barn, ultramarine blue Lake Michigan, and distant verdant green of the Manitou Islands.

The trail winds through the Sleeping Bear Plateau, a 4 square-mile highland that raises more than 400 feet above Lake Michigan and is covered with a veneer of perched dunes. Much of trail, particularly the first half, is through loose sand and hilly. Both can be tiring, but overall it is an easy hike that is good for small children. It will give you a close look at the beauty and diversity of the these shifting hills of open sand: cottonwood trees shading the path; native vegetation such as bearbeary and buffaloberry tendrils hugging the sand and stabilizing the rolling dunes; blowouts-areas of wind erosion where it looks like the wind has scooped the sand away; partially buried living trees. Colorful wildflowers dot the trail, and tracks in the sand reveal the elusive wildlife of the dunes.

Protect your park
Please stay on designated trails. This will help prevent erosion and damage to vegetation. Off-trail hikers can quickly produce paths that take years to revegetate. Avoid disturbing plants and animals: threatened and endangered species occur in the park.

Cottonwood self-guiding hiking trail

Welcome to the Cottonwood Trail-an interpretive trail with nine posts that tell the story about life on the dunes, describes the plant life and geology of the area, and explains why the mounds of advancing sand in this ever-changing land are so special and so fragile. Allow about an hour to walk this 1.5-mile loop. Portions of the trail go through loose sand and are strenuous.
At stop #7 you will find a bench where you can relax and enjoy the view of Glen Lake.

The dunes are an ever-changing landscape. If we could view a time-lapse movie of the dunes, we would see them growing and advancing across the land; we would see plants taking root and holding the sand in place; and we would see wind eroding the dunes, leaving behind irregular, broken surfaces. As you walk along the Cottonwood Trail, you will have a chance to see all of this, captured for a moment in time. Enjoy!

#1 Watch out for poison ivy along the beginning of the trail
You can develop a rash from touching the plant or even from touching your shoes, pants, or pets after walking through a patch of poison ivy. All parts of the plant contain an oil, urushiol, which causes the rash.

#2 The blowout
Notice the bowl-shaped dune ahead and to the right of the trail. It is called a blowout. Prevailing southwesterly winds ate at the dune, eroding it after time, and forming the blowout.

Originally this area was a sand hill, or dune. Gradually, grasses grew on the dune and held the sand in place. Winds blew on the dune from the same direction, blowing away sand on one side of the dune. Notice that the cover of grass remains on the part of the dune protected from the wind.

#3 The old road
This section of the trail travels over part of an abandoned loop of the old Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive. You can see the gravel from the old road. As you walk along you will discover why the route was changed. Several feet of sand has buried the old road's surface in some places.

The clay and gravel surface of the old road is quite different from the pure sand of the dunes and brought in roadside wildflowers. These wildflowers include white sweet clover, spotted knapweed, and Queen Anne's lace. These not native American plants originated in Europe. Alien plants frequently take over disturbed locations like roadsides and old farm fields. The different soil along the road helped give the alien plants an advantage over the natives.

#4 Dune restoration study area
The dunes are a fragile environment. Hikers can quickly damage the plant life, leaving paths that take years to revegetate. This is why we ask you to remain on designated trails in the dunes.

The Dune Restoration Study Area was set up in 1984 to study various methods of restoring native plants to damaged dunes. Among the methods tried were planting of beachgrass, adding fertilizer, and setting up a snow fence to trap sand.

#5 Sand
Pick up a handful of sand and study it closely. Notice that all the grains are just about the same size. They are small enough to blow about in the wind, but heavy enough to come to rest quickly when the wind stops blowing.

The grains of sand are not all the same color because several different minerals are present. Quartz is the most common and appears either clear or rusty from a coating of iron oxide. Quartz is very hard and resistant to breaking down chemically or physically. Other colors in the sand represent different minerals present in minor amounts. The grains of sand come from the breakdown of larger rocks.

Dune sand is typically well-rounded and shows a frosted surface from contact with other sand grains.

#6 Grasses and flowers of the dunes
Quite a variety of grasses and wildflowers live on the sand dunes.

Beach grass (marram) is one of the first plants to grow on a newly-formed dune. Its roots form a dense network that helps to hold the sand in place. When sand piles around its stalks, beach grass can grow rapidly to avoid being buried.

Sand reed is another important sand binder. The feathery seed heads are quite different from the tight clusters of seeds in beach grass.

Little bluestem grows on stabilized dunes. It is a bunchgrass, forming distinct clumps rather than a continuous cover. It is not as well suited to preventing erosion as is beach grass.

Wormwood belongs to the same group of plants as western sagebrush. The flowers, blooming from July through October, are pollinated by the wind. They are not showy because there is no need to attract insects for pollination. Perhaps you will see a small brownish plant growing at the base of the wormwood. This is broomrape, a Michigan protected wildflower. Lacking chlorophyll for manufacturing its food, the broomrape lives as a parasite on the wormwood.

Beach pea blooms in July and August. The bright pink flowers resemble the garden sweet pea. Like other members of the legume family, the beach pea is a nitrogen fixer, improving the soil for other plants.

#7 View from the benches
From here you can survey the dunes, Glen Lake, and the surrounding countryside. The Dune Climb below, where thousands of people climb each year, lies along the western edge of the dunes. The sand advances there at a rate of about 4 feet per year.

If you stop at the Dune Climb later, look for the exhibit on sand movement. In 1985 a horizontal beam was placed at the edge of the dunes so you can see just how far the sand has advanced. It is located just north of the main climbing area at the start of the Duneside Trail and has had to be moved as the sand encroached on the beam.

Actually, the rate of movement of these dunes in minor compared to some desert dunes. The wind off Lake Michigan loses strength over distance and cannot move sand further than a mile from the shore.

#8 An active dune
The cottonwood trees on this dune tell a story of change. Some of the trees are being buried in sand, while others have had their roots exposed. You can follow some of the runners along the surface of the dune to places where new trees (clones) have sprouted.

Feel a leaf of a cottonwood. Would you describe it as waxy or plastic-like? This type of leaf is common to many different plants in dry locations. The leaf surface helps prevent water loss. Actually, the dunes are not a desert. They receive around 30 inches of rainfall in a year. However, the dunes are somewhat drier than the neighboring forests because of strong sunlight, wind, and the lack of a moisture-holding humus (decayed plant matter) layer. Water drains away quickly though sand. Therefore, dune plants have some of the same adaptations as desert plants that receive little water.

#9 Shrubs of the dunes
As you walk along this section of trail, look for some of the typical shrubs of stabilized dunes. Try to spot a paper birch, a small tree with white bark.

Why is the plant community here so different from what you saw earlier? This location is more sheltered from the wind, and the underlying glacial deposits which provide more moisture and nutrients than pure sand are closer to the surface.

Common juniper is an evergreen shrub that occurs in two forms: an upright form 3-5 feet tall, and a low form that covers the ground.

Bearberry forms a low ground cover. It is a broad-leaved evergreen with tiny pink flowers in the spring and red berries in late summer and fall.

Buffaloberry stands 3-5 feet high and has small clusters of orange berries. The shrub contributes nitrogen to the soil through bacteria that live on its roots.

Sand cherry is a small shrub with white flowers in the spring and blackish cherries in late summer. A black fungus sometimes grows on the twigs.

We hope you have enjoyed your walk on the Cottonwood Trail. There are several other trails in the National Lakeshore, and we hope you take time to explore them as well.

Hike safely

Before you take off down the trail, take time to prepare for a successful hike. Make sure the trail is appropriate for your ability, and travel with a companion and notify someone of your route and expected return time.

  • Take plenty of drinking water, bring sunscreen, wear a hat, and be prepared for mosquitoes.
  • Be careful of your footing-trails have uneven ground, exposed roots, etc.
  • Sand slide danger is always present on steep dunes. Stay off steep bluffs to avoid falls and dislodging rocks that can injure people below. Because of heavy treefall, avoid forested trails on windy days.
  • Remember, deer rifle season is November 15-30. Other hunting seasons occur throughout the year. Wear bright-colored clothing to be seen and safe in the woods.

And please stay on designated trails and help prevent erosion and damage to vegetation. Off-trail hikers can quickly produce paths that take years to revegetate. Threatened and endangered species occur in the park, avoid disturbing plants and animals.

Poison Ivy: leaves of three, leave it be!
Poison ivy grows plentifully in many areas of the Lakeshore as a vine or low shrub. The leaves are red in early spring, shiny green in summer, and an attractive red or orange in the fall. Each leaf consists of three leaflets. Most people are sensitive in varying degrees to the sap of this plant, which makes the skin itch, blister, and swell.

Avoid contact with all parts of the plant. Avoid plants with three leaflets.
If exposed, wash the affected skin with soap and water as soon as possible.

Take the Trail Trekker Challenge

Do you think you can hike all of the trails in one year? Want to explore the landscape of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, exercise, and have fun all at the same time? Join the Trail Trekker Challenge! Earn a prize and bragging rights by successfully completing each of the 13 mainland trails in the National Lakeshore. Hiking is a great way to get daily physical exercise and promote health while also discovering the beauty of the area. What better way to get your muscles warm, your heart pumping, and your senses savoring the views!

Pick up a copy of the Trail Trekker Challenge brochure/logbook at the visitor center in Empire.

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore

Last updated: May 22, 2024