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Sand Dunes

Sleeping Bear Dunes Lake Shore - Photo Credit Lucky Lugan
Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy

Sand Dunes

Michigan’s sand dunes are a unique natural resource of global significance. They represent the largest collection of freshwater dunes in the world.

The combination of topographic relief, vegetation and climate are only found in Michigan. The dunes support a wide diversity of habitats from temperate coastal forests of maple and hemlock trees to the harsh environment of the open dunes, to quiet interdunal ponds found in dune and swale complexes.  These natural communities support many threatened or endangered plants and animals.

Michigan's dunes play an important role in our quality of life and economy.  the critical dune areas preserve the coastal dune resource by regulating the impacts from development.  Sand dune mining has long supported industry and manufacturing. 

Critical Dune Area Program

In 1989, approximately 74,000 acres along 265 miles of coastline were identified where development would be regulated. Learn more about the resource on the Critical Dune Areas Story Map.

Sand Dune Mining

EGLE regulates sand dune mining in the sand dune areas up to two miles inland from Great Lake shorelines.

Why does Michigan have sand dunes?

At the end of the last ice age, melting glaciers left behind abundant sand across the Great Lakes region. Rivers carried this sand to the Lakes where waves moved it to the beach. The predominant wind out of the west blew the sand inland from the beach along Lakes Michigan and Superior. Over thousands of years this has resulted in the sand dunes we now know. This process is continuing today, and the dunes are constantly changing.

What are the different types of dunes?

Foredunes

Foredunes are low grass covered ridges that form along the beach when Great Lakes water levels are low and erode away when they are high.

The example here is from a Critical Dune Area in Laketown Township.

Image of a critical dune area in Allegan County Michigan.

Parabolic Dunes

Parabolic Dunes have a distinctive U-shape that results from vegetation anchoring the dune along its sides and wind moving sand through the inside of the U.

These are the predominant dune formation along Lake Michigan in the Lower Peninsula.

Sand dunes at Hoffmaster State Park

Perched Dunes

Perched Dunes found "perched" atop bluffs varying in heights from 90 to 360 feet.  Perched dune formation is directly related to changes in water level.

These dunes can be found at the famous Sleeping Bear Dunes in the Lower Peninsula and the Grand Sable Dunes in the Upper Peninsula.

An extremely steep sand dune at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore; the sky is blue and the turquoise Lake Michigan in the background is sparkling

Dune and Swale

Dune and Swale Complexes formed as water levels fell over thousands of years and consist of many parallel ridges with low areas often containing wetlands in between.

The example shown here is from Schoolcraft County in the Upper Peninsula.

Schoolcraft county wooded dune swale

Which natural communities are found in the dunes?

Mesic southern forest natural community

The dunes support many rare natural communities.

The Open Dunes are a grass and shrub community where burial by sand and extreme temperatures are the norm.

In low areas, Interdunal Wetlands are often found. In the southern Lower Peninsula, you’ll find Mesic Southern Forests and Dry-Mesic Southern Forests dominated by oak, maple, beech and hemlock trees further from the lake.

In the Northern Lower Peninsula and the Upper Peninsula, you’ll find Great Lakes Barrens, Mesic Northern Forests, and Dry-Mesic Northern Forests of oak, pine, and hemlock trees.

What kind of threatened and endangered species live in the dunes?

A small piping plover on a gravel beach with green foliage in the background.

The natural communities found in Michigan’s dunes support numerous threatened or endangered species.

  • The Pitcher’s Thistle is a flowering plant that thrives in the hot and windy beaches and open dunes. This plant is easily trampled highlighting the importance of staying on marked trails.
  • The Piping Plover is a small shore bird that feeds and nests on beaches. There are three distinct populations in North America including one that nests and breeds only along the shores of the Great Lakes. These birds rely on having natural, unarmored, sandy beaches for their survival. A complete list of Michigan’s threatened, and endangered species is available at the Michigan Natural Features Inventory.