The Geology Auto Tour is designed to take you to view points where you can see evidence of the geologic origins of the area. You can pick up a brochure and maps at the Philip A. Hart Visitor Center. This section of the web site will give you a virtual tour, but you can get a much better appreciation for the size of these features when you climb the hills and walk the beaches and dunes.
Geology Auto Tour
Platte River Point
For a panoramic view of the shoreline, take a short stroll north along the beach. The vast size of Lake Michigan reflects the size of the glacier that formed it. The Lake Michigan lobe of ice was just a small part of a great continental ice sheet that once covered much of North America.
Glacial ice, like water, seeks valleys and lowlands. The front of the ice takes on a lobate shape as it conforms to the terrain. Imagine glacial ice twice as thick as the highest hills you can see. As the ice melted, the runoff waters carried sand and gravel that had been frozen into the ice. This debris was deposited between lobes of ice to form highlands. Looking north from Platte River Point, you can see two such highlands. Empire Bluffs and Sleeping Bear Bluffs. The pattern of bay and bluff is repeated along the park's entire shoreline, reflecting the earlier array of ice lobes and interlobate moraines.
North Bar Lake
North Bar Lake lies within the Empire Embayment, a former bay on ancestral Lake Michigan, now a lowland surrounded by hills. The lake developed when a sand bar closed off the mouth of the bay.
At the north end of North Bar Lake you can see beach dunes formed by wind blowing beach sand onshore. The wooded hills on the far side of North Bar Lake are also dunes but much older, formed a few thousand years ago during the Lake Nipissing stage, when the water level was higher in the Lake Michigan Basin. Lake Nipissing was the result of a gradual rise in water level. Over a period of several thousand years, the shoreline advanced inland. Onshore winds carried sand in front of the rising water to form high beach dunes. The Nipissing and recent dunes show some of the different sizes, shapes, and types of vegetation that dunes can display.
Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive
You may notice some dead trees within the eroded bowl of the dune. This is called a "ghost forest" and tells a story of alternating stability and change. After an initial phase of active sand accumulation, a period of stability followed when trees began to grow on the dune. Later, more sand moved in and buried the trees. Two layers of buried soil within the dune indicate that there was a second period of stability and growth followed by another period of sand build-up and then the final growth of the trees and shrubs that now cover the sheltered portions of the dunes.
The Dune Climb
To learn the rate of dune movement, stop at the measuring beam at the base of the dune at the north end of the parking lot. Also notice that the dune is composed of particles of uniform size, unlike the rocky glacial deposits of the Lake Michigan bluffs. Pick up a handful of sand and look at it closely. You will see different colors of the different minerals in the sand. Most of the sand is composed of quartz, a hard mineral that is resistant to chemical and physical breakdown.
Miller Hill Lookout
From Miller Hill you can also see Sleeping Bear Point at the western end of Sleeping Bear Bay. In 1914 and again in 1971, landslides occurred at Sleeping Bear Point. Each time about 20 acres of land slid into Lake Michigan. A smaller slump occurred in early 1995. Because of geologic conditions, it is likely that landslides will occur again in the future. Shoreline currents and wind carry sand to the Point where it accumulates until it becomes unstable. The sloping bottom of Sleeping Bear Bay can tolerate only a limited amount of accumulation. When too much sand builds up, storms or saturation with melting snow can trigger a landslide.
Good Harbor Bay
Looking off to the left, you will see Pyramid Point. The high, sandy spot is a dune, made of pure sand sorted out by the wind from the layered sand and gravel deposits of Pyramid Point.