Strange Frozen Landscapes of Warren Dunes State Park: Autistic Journeys

It was mentioned before in a previous blog post that Saint Joseph was the third time I had ever traveled to the state of Michigan. “Where were the other two trips exactly?” you may be asking. Well today is the day you’re going to find out.

I decided, after looking through a list, to head out to a place called Warren Dunes State Park near Sawyer, Michigan. No doubt you are now wondering when and where was the first time I have ever traveled to Michigan. Funny enough, it was when I went on a trip to Michigan’s Adventure theme park to ride the Shivering Timbers roller coaster. I really loved riding roller coasters years back. I still do, but I have now found something I consider just as enjoyable. Two guesses on what that is. I prepared for the trip in anticipation for what could be in store for me.

It was quite the chilly day at the time. A  few snow storms have passed through the region a week or two ago and wanted to take the road trip as soon as the weather got better. Well, at least as good as it was going to get anyway. Constantly kept checking the forecast to make sure the best date for heading out was chosen, since every day had varying amount of cloud cover. I wanted to head somewhere farther than Michigan City and make it feel more like an adventure into the great unknown. I wasn’t one-hundred percent sure where specifically this location would be however.

Then a good friend suggested I should head to Warren Dunes and even wanted to join me on the trip. Would have been interesting, as he is an excellent photographer that could have pointed out some photography tips and tricks during my time there.  There is always room for improvement after all. This along with the large bonus of having a friend to hang out with during my time there. Unfortunately, the plan fell through at the last minute due to his ever-changing work schedule and he wasn’t able to come along for the ride this time. I didn’t mind though. I knew that being a landscape photographer was probably going to be a journey where I would be doing a majority of my photography solo in the first place. It was also quite a busy time for him so it didn't surprise me in the least that he had to cancel. There will be other times he can join along for future trips if he wanted to do so. I was still grateful for the location suggestion though and decided to head there regardless. I was certainly not disappointed in the trip that is for sure.

Pebbles at Warren Dunes State Park

Traffic that day was typical. Uneventful most of the way with the occasional driver making very poor decisions on the road. Luckily there were no incidents and was smooth sailing, that is if you didn’t count the number of potholes into the equation. As usual, I had studied the map in advance and tried to memorize the exits and turns I needed to take. There were a few times where I was worried I might miss the exit off the long road due to them being far in between, with stretches of forest-enveloped hills bordering the majority of the highway. One miss and I could end up driving a long time before I could get off and turn around to find the right exit again.

Fortunately, I was able to spot it coming in the distance. Made my turn to the off ramp and went through several turns, hoping I remembered the directions right. The Google Maps app was running on my phone for viewing just in case I did make a mistake. I eventually saw the entrance to the park and made my turn towards a new brand new area to explore. Only then did the realization came on how massive these hill are up close as the road zig-zagged around them. The trees that littered the surrounding hills towered towards the sky, with a few homes dotted all over. With the trees being bare due to the season, I can only imagine how this place would look in the months to come. I could tell already that I really need to come here later in the year for the potentially wonderful prospects of awesome autumn landscapes, which are just begging for photographers to come with their cameras. I certainly couldn’t wait for the moment myself.

Arrival at Warren Dunes
Icy great lake shores
Dunes blown inland from the shore.

The woodland hills finally gave way to an open area as I arrived at an icy parking lot. I could see that the previous storms have moved large amounts of sand further inland from the shoreline. The sides of the buildings facing Lake Michigan were partially buried in the blown sand, some of it continuing straight into the parking lot. Only a few vehicles were parked here, but didn’t notice anyone nearby. With the car parked, I made my way past a partially buried fence that was knocked down almost all the way to its side and headed towards the beach just ahead of me. I ended up finding something quite unexpected.

The landscape that stood in front of me felt a little bit alien from what I thought I was going to find. With a lot of the sand blown inland, I could easily see the frozen muddy layer that would have been below the sand itself. In most of the sand’s place were scattered clustered chunks made from what appears to be a mixture of sand and ice all along the barren shoreline that stretched for miles on end. Just beyond the strange sight was a drop off that was almost as high as my waist. I am over six feet tall for comparison’s sake.

I stepped over the shelf of ice and dirt and onto some slippery layers of ice and snow to realize one thing. I was walking on top of Lake Michigan! Certainly was a pleasant surprise as I spent a good amount of time taking photos of this area from different perspectives. With the way the place appeared, I had a number of ideas for photos I could try to capture. One particular spot at the ice and mud shelf looked interesting enough to experiment with different angles to get something akin to an ice cavern entrance. Had to take the gloves off every now and then to take the shots though, despite the wind being bitterly cold and would eventually makes my hands feel numb from being exposed for too long. It can be a little irritating trying to click the shutter button with gloves on.

Clusters of sand and ice on Warren Dunes beach
Large ice shelves along the Lake Michigan shoreline.
Close up of ice shelf at Warren Dunes State Park

Further out, dotted in a line among the frozen landscape ahead, were what appeared to be small mounds of snow. I imagined that beyond them was the unfrozen parts of the great lake. From the corner of my eye I noticed a family using the mounds as sled hills and finally had a comparison to how large they truly were. These seemingly small mounds of snow and ice were actually as tall as a two story building. While I didn’t go climbing up any of the icy hills, another man that arrived did as the family started to head out back to the parking lot. I was questioning whether to have a small chat with the guy and eventually decided not to bother him, instead concentrating on the winter wonderland that was present.

There were heavy amounts of dark clouds that loomed over the the great lake’s horizon like a dark omen. Was beginning to worry about whether I would get precipitation at first, since my camera was not weather proof and forgot to bring a bag to cover my equipment. It was fortunate for me then that it mostly stayed offshore and was very slowly moving northeast away from my position. Once again I was hoping for a clear day for a nice sunset shot for the collection, but it just wasn’t my lucky day. The cloud cover however could make for some interesting composition shots and tried my best to take advantage of that fact.

I headed back a bit to explore more of the desolate beach. A very large and gnarly old tree stood bare with its roots exposed and digging almost straight down into the ground. For some odd reason I kept thinking of a mythical creature when looking at the oddity. Ended up giving it a silly nickname like Chimera tree since it had three main branches sprouting in almost the same general direction. I wouldn’t have been surprised if this tree had been featured in a Tim Burton film before. Leave a comment down below on which movie you think I’m possibly speaking of. I’m rather curious what results I’ll get.

Old gnarly tree on the beach.
Enormous hill at Warren Dunes
Entrance to Warren Dunes parking lot.

Walking back towards the parking lot, I recalled another feature of the area that I noticed the moment the trees gave way to the view of the parking lot. There were huge dunes/hills that dominated the area in the back, with sparse amount of trees growing on top of them. I kept thinking on how I could possibly show the scope of how huge they were and decided to experiment with some shots at different angles and different spots. The only thing around the area that I think could be used for comparison were the trees themselves that vary in sizes and a sign by the metal gate, which blocked the way to the other parking lots further north. Without a tripod, I did my best with unsteady hands to capture a couple different viewpoints, both standing and crouching. This ranged from being up close to the sign to a far away shot showing the entire view in all their glory.

Also noticed an interesting sight as I looked around from where I stood. Thanks to the storms that went through the area, there were quite interesting mixtures of sand and snow that made patterns scattered throughout the landscape. To me, it looked like nature’s very own naturally made sand art. Variances of thick lines made from different materials circled and flowed around the bare trees like an untamed river. I just knew I had to capture them before I could even think of leaving Warren Dunes. Carefully taking my time with each shot, I positioned myself while trying my best to not get any footprints in the spectacle that was in front of my camera lens. Well as much as I could anyway. Some spots already had footprints stomping right on through. Instead of grumbling about it however, I thought about how I could twist this setback into an advantage as I took care of taking photos of them as well. Waste not want not.

Nature's natural sand art.

Turning back towards the frozen shore, I was finally able to see a small break in the clouds towards the southern horizon and noticed that the sun was finally descending. Each step towards the sight increased in speed as I was trying to get to a particular spot in time. On the way there I took a few shots of the smaller dunes with a few trees hanging on for dear life to the top of them. The sky itself at the southern part was already changing to a golden yellow that clashed with the dark blues and grays of the clouds themselves, giving quite an intriguing contrast.

Arrived just in time to the main event as I started to shoot some photos along the coastline while that golden moment was still occurring. This was despite the bitter cold that was making my hands feel a bit numb at times yet again. Kept thinking on how this shot possibly looked from one specific angle or how it would look in a portrait format over landscape as I pressed down on the shutter button every single time. If there was any better time to try something new, it would be now.

Sunset at Warren Dunes
Lake Michigan sunset
Approaching the sunset at Warren Dunes

Did every shot work? Not exactly, but it’s worth trying to get that happy trial-and-error shot than to just go by-the-books and possibly end up missing something wonderful. There are cases where it’s fine to break the rules once in awhile to try something different from the norm. Stagnation will lead you to nowhere very quick and will eventually be left behind in this very competitive world if you don’t learn to catch up and stay ahead of the game. Never settle for less, as this is how we learn and better ourselves. I am always aiming to improve my photography skills with every journey I make and always learn something new every trip. Just another reason why I enjoy what I do.

It eventually started to become too cold for me to handle as I headed back towards the parking lot for the final time. The guy that was on the giant ice mounds was already heading out as well, along with two more men were walking towards the area from the north side of the beach. No clue as to what they were doing, but I could have sworn they might of had a fishing rod with them. Ice fishing possibly? I didn’t bother to stick around long enough as I had enough of the wintry weather.

Funny how I used to love snow as a kid. Building tiny snow “forts” that were more like a caved in mound in the small yard and kept thinking on how I could create a sled hill out of snow that began  from the top of the shed, in order to create a roller coaster-like feel in intensity and fun. Had also thought about the possibility of creating a giant mound in the middle of a small park area in the neighborhood for everyone to sled on back then. Kind of like multiple slides from a water park going in different directions and snaking over and underneath each other. I never did get around to doing that. What kid also doesn’t love having school close due to large amounts of snowfall? It’s also amazing how shoveling the snow and digging vehicles out over the course of a couple of years will eventually make you dislike it as well to say the least.

Beginning of twilight hour at Warren Dunes State Park.

Thus ended another great trip. Despite it still being winter at the time, it was still worth it just to see some of the sights it had to offer that I doubt I might have seen anywhere else. It was a once in a lifetime opportunity I’m glad I didn’t pass on. It’s just a shame I didn’t get to explore more of Warren Dunes, such as climbing towards the top of the giant hills and dunes further inland. I can already imagine a couple of great panoramic shots that could have been taken. I will certainly have to try creating those during the summer trip back. Can’t wait for that day to come!


What will I talk about in the next blog post you may be asking? You’ll just have to wait and see this time around. See you next week!