Empire Bluffs, A Great Fall Walk

By Jane Greiner
Sun nature correspondent
Last weekend on a gray and windy day a group of us walked the Empire Bluffs trail. We had all been up the bluffs before and we all looked forward to the view waiting for us at the top of the trail. A Park officer was checking vehicles in the parking area. We had our $15.00 annual park pass displayed on our dashboard so we escaped the dishonor of receiving fluttery pink slips on our windshield.

The skies were overcast and the wind was gusty as we donned hiking gear ranging from nothing extra to hats, gloves and backpacks. I carried a small pair of binoculars tucked into a pocket.
There were several roughly fashioned wooden walking staffs left thoughtfully against the trail map post for future hikers, and I selected a sturdy looking stick for myself. I would replace it at the same spot on our return for another hiker to borrow. I had seen this done in the Adirondacks and the idea is a good one. It encourages people to share walking staffs instead of everyone cutting a new one.
As we began our ascent we met an older man in a blue jogging suit with a white stripe down the leg coming down the trail. He was breathing well and was wearing a happy smile on his pink face. “A little windy up there,” he said, “but it’s worth it!” His obvious enjoyment confirmed our faith that even a blustery day is a good day for a walk up the bluff.
Our group walked the mile of hilly trail in a mood of expectation. Kevin commented on the poison ivy that lined the trail in one area. Watching kids running through it in the summer makes him cringe, he commented, “but it’s so pretty, all green and shiny,” he wouldn’t want to see it eradicated. I watched for the first glimpse of the big lake through the trees. Lyn commented on the deep ravine we passed and how she would like to draw it.
The first real view, the one at the bench looking toward the Sleeping Bear Dunes over Empire Village is enough to stir most first-timers to a flurry of picture taking. I know because I was one. Those who have been this way before know that it is only a taste of even better vistas to come.
Nearing the top we found the Park boardwalk had been extended further back along the bluff toward the trail to protect the path along the top of the dunes and handrails had been placed along much of it. Additional benches had also been added at the highest lookout point.
We stood and admired the view for a while, passing around the field glasses among us. There was a small ship down there traveling south between the Bluff and South Manitou Island. To the south the dark cloudy sky was pierced in places by shafts of sunlight and lightened in others with a gauzy blue haze. We marveled and pointed as we huddled in our coats, collars drawn up over our ears. The view is always everything you hoped it would be. We were so high we could see for a great distance both North and South along the shore. There was the Sleeping Bear Dune on one side and Frankfort far off down the other way.
The wind was whipping up waves and down along the shore you could see areas where the water was brown from churned up sand. After a few minutes we started down the trail back to the cars. The trip down is always faster than the trip up. Some of that speed is because it is mostly downhill (although there is a steep uphill section). But mostly the difference is in our perception. On the way up we are anxious to get to the top to see the view. On the way down, we savor the experience but no longer charge forward full of expectation and adventure.
The hike up Empire Bluffs is a wonderful event. It is short but invigorating. Ordinary people and children have no problem walking the 2 mile round trip trail which is tended by the Park and has step-like improvements in places for better footing and less erosion. It takes less than an hour to walk up, enjoy the view, and walk back down. But what an hour! Even on a gray autumn day, Empire Bluffs offers a refreshing experience with nature.
The trail head is off Wilco Road just south of the village of Empire.