Winter's Sand Sculptures

The rolling sand dunes of Silver Lake State Park take on an interesting transformation when the cold weather sweeps across the sands.

Interesting formations in the sand created by the snow, ice and wind.
Interesting formations in the sand created by the snow, ice and wind.

My visits to Silver Lake State Park have always yielded interesting things, but this visit was special. Arriving in early winter, a few days after a snowfall melted from the dunes, we encountered other-worldly creations in the sand.

When the snow is pushed along the dunes by high winds, sand is also pushed along. The snow and sand mix, but can also be deposited in thin layers. When the snow melted, it wet the sand and froze again in spots. The winds continued to blow, removing the loose sand around the frozen parts. This process left these frozen sand formations behind for us to explore.

This detail shows the layers of snow in between layers of sand.  This is how the formations were built.
This detail shows the layers of snow in between layers of sand. This is how the formations were built.

In places, the snow was still left over, revealing exactly how these formations were created. Many of the layers were as thin as paper, delicate but not too fragile because the sand particles were frozen together.

The wafer thin layers of sand, bending under the stress of gravity.
The wafer thin layers of sand, bending under the stress of gravity.

The dunes stretch on for miles along the shore of Lake Michigan, and many of the dunes are considered “living” meaning the winds blow the sand from one side to the other, where it is deposited. This process effectively moves the dunes away from Lake Michigan. The area looks very similar to the vast desert dunes of Africa, and at times, you can’t see anything other than rolling dunes, and you feel completely along with nature.

The seemingly never-ending expanse of sand dunes.
The seemingly never-ending expanse of sand dunes.

Being alone in nature was exactly what we were on this hike - we didn’t see another person anywhere in the park the entire day. That’s a sharp contrast to summer, where 4x4 vehicles roll on dedicated areas of the sand dunes, and vacationers camp and explore the area.

I prefer to visit nature during the off season - the beach in winter for example. Not only do I not encounter crowds, but I also experience events not commonly seen, like these formations.

Looking across the dune formations toward Lake Michigan, about a mile away.
Looking across the dune formations toward Lake Michigan, about a mile away.
A close up of the ice, sand formations created by the blowing winds.
A close up of the ice, sand formations created by the blowing winds.

Every step along our way, we encountered interesting sculptures; we could have spent hours exploring a single 100 square foot area. Many of these formations reminded us of the rock formations of the American West found in places such as Arches or Monuments National Parks only in miniature. It seems similar erosion processes may have created both.

Many of the sculptures looked a lot like waves atop the rolling dunes, frozen in place by the cold winds off Lake Michigan.

Sand looking a lot like frozen waves on the dunes.
Sand looking a lot like frozen waves on the dunes.
Thin layers of sand, bent into waves on the top of the expansive dunes.
Thin layers of sand, bent into waves on the top of the expansive dunes.

Most of the round formations could be picked up without damage, the sand grains still frozen tightly together. As we hiked carefully through the dunes, we left these creations alone for other visitors to explore and enjoy.

The shapes seemed endless, spread throughout the park’s 3,000 acres. Everywhere we stepped we found more interesting things to photograph.

The sculpted sands with a frozen Silver Lake in the background.
The sculpted sands with a frozen Silver Lake in the background.
Thin lattice-like patterns in the sand.
Thin lattice-like patterns in the sand.
A detail of the sand patterns at Silver Lake State Park.
A detail of the sand patterns at Silver Lake State Park.

Visiting the sand dunes on the eastern side of Lake Michigan always brings surprises, and this was no exception. We had no idea we’d encounter such formations on our hike, but as usual, we were ready for anything that came our way. I’m happy we found them before they disappeared.

The ever-changing, ever-moving dunes of Silver Lake State Park.
The ever-changing, ever-moving dunes of Silver Lake State Park.
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