Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is an absolute treasure in the northwestern corner of Michigan’s lower peninsula. It stretches along the Lake Michigan shore for miles and offers tons of recreation opportunities and spectacular views of my favorite Great Lake. Yes, I have a favorite. If you’re planning a visit, this list of things to do at Sleeping Bear Dunes will keep you busy and leave you feeling like you escaped from it all.
What is Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore?
The national lakeshore was established in 1970 and was celebrating its 50th anniversary during my most recent visit. Spanning 35 miles of the Lake Michigan coast, it protects (as its name would indicate) large sand dunes, North and South Manitou Islands, as well as some historical spots where you can learn about Great Lakes history.
The name of the park comes from an Ojibwe legend about a mother bear and her two cubs who tried to cross the lake. The cubs didn’t make the crossing and became the two large islands offshore (North and South Manitou) and the mother, waiting on shore for her babies, became a large sand dune that is said to have resembled a sleeping bear, though over time the dune has changed in size and shape. Find out more about the legend here.
Philip A. Hart Visitor Center
Located in Empire, between the two sections of the park, the official visitor center is a great place to start your visit – especially if you’re coming from the Traverse City area. Here you can pay the park entrance fee (good for 7 days), pick up maps, stamp your National Park Passport (an essential for me and my fiance), and get info from rangers and volunteers. You can find operating hours on the NPS website.
There’s also a small museum with exhibits about the history of the park and some of the wildlife found there. During normal times, educational videos play in a small theater. You can be in and out in five minutes if you’re just getting your park pass and maps or linger for an hour or more if you want to see the whole museum.
Pierce-Stocking Scenic Drive
My favorite part of visiting the dunes is the Pierce-Stocking Scenic Drive. This 7.4 mile long road curves its way through forest and up to tall sand dunes and is the best way to experience the park if you’re limited on time. I’d highly recommend grabbing a free interpretive guide from the visitor center or at the entrance to the scenic loop for info about the various stops. There are plenty of scenic overlooks as well as picnic areas for relaxing. You’ll also find bathroom facilities at a couple of the stops, though those can draw long lines during peak times. The drive is typically open from April-November during the day, closing half an hour after sunset nightly.
My favorite stop along the scenic drive comes near the end – the Lake Michigan Overlook. Here you’ll find yourself 450 feet above the lake looking down a steep dune leading down to its brilliant blue waters. There’s also an overlook deck that gives you a view almost straight down into the lake. It is absolutely Michigan at its finest. Climbing down the steep sand dune to the lake for a swim isn’t prohibited, but the climb back up is long and strenuous and the NPS has signs warning that you’ll be charged if you need to be rescued. (A much better option for climbing is listed in the next section.) The dune is so steep that you can’t walk upright on the climb, so most people end up climb/crawling on all fours looking very much like bears, which is fitting for the park.
There are other stops along the way that offer views of Glen Lake, a smaller inland lake, and the original though much eroded sleeping bear dune.
For those of you wanting to try your hand at climbing a sand dune, head a couple miles north of the Pierce-Stocking Scenic Drive to the Dune Climb area. There’s a large parking lot and a ranger station here, in addition to bathrooms and vending machines. This dune is intended for you to climb. Beware: it’s a lot harder than it looks. Because you’re climbing on sand, for every step forward/upward you take, you slide back a bit. So by the time you’ve reached the top, you’ve climbed a lot more than the 460 feet you gain in elevation.
The nice thing about the dune climb is that because the parking lot is below it, if you’re climbing and get tired, you can just turn around and let gravity assist you on the way down, whereas if you’re climbing the dune on the Pierce-Stocking Scenic Drive, you have to keep plodding uphill.
Most people stop at the top of the initial dune and take a break while enjoying the views of Glen Lake. You cannot see Lake Michigan from this spot. There is a trail leading to the lake, but it requires hiking 3.5 miles over sand, so it is definitely a challenge. The lake views are definitely worth the effort though.
Once you’re ready to head back, you can walk, run, roll, or do as my little brother once did – somersault down recreating the scene from The Princess Bride in which Westly tumbles down a slope, complete with an “as you wish” yell. [Actually, I definitely do not recommend this because I was about 90% sure he was going to die or break his neck and hooo boy would I have been in trouble with my parents.]
North and South Manitou Islands
North Manitou Island is located approximately 8 miles from Glen Arbor in the park. It can be reached by private boat or via ferry from nearby Leland, MI’s historic Fishtown area. Upon arrival to the island, you’ll find a ranger station, historic buildings, miles of trails, inland lakes, and plenty of beaches.
North Manitou island has only one small designated campground (8 sites), but wilderness camping is permitted.
South Manitou Island is smaller and just a touch further from land. It’s also accessible by private boat or ferry. South Manitou offers an abundance of recreation opportunities for day trippers or overnight campers. There are plenty of trails to hike with views of the lake and mainland, and South Manitou also has its own lake within it. The historic village houses a visitor center and museum, and there’s a lighthouse that can be climbed for elevated views. Tractor wagon tours are also available. In addition, there are ghost towns and an old Coast Guard station from the area’s shipping heyday. Just offshore, there’s a shipwreck from the 1960s that is clearly visible from the island, protruding several feet above the water.
For those wishing to spend the night, there are three campgrounds located on the island: Bay, Weather Station, and Popple. There’s a total of 58 sites. Note that all three campgrounds require you to bring water filtration equipment or enough water to last for your stay as there are no sources of potable water available.
Beaches at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore
If the Pierce-Stocking Scenic Drive gave you a craving for a swim in Lake Michigan, there are places in the park to go for a dip without the 400+ foot climb. The National Lakeshore has three public beaches along the lakeshore. Esch Beach, Peterson Beach, and Platte River Point Beach all provide much less strenuous access to the water.
Keep in mind that Lake Michigan is typically very chilly until well into the summer. Late July through September is the best swimming season, though even during that time wind patterns can bring cold water from deep in the lake to the shores. If you’re not from the Great Lakes area, beware that they’re more like inland seas than the small lakes you might be used to at home. The lake can have rip currents and decent sized waves can hammer swimmers, so please use caution when swimming.
Lake Michigan has my favorite sunsets, so even if you don’t want to get in the water, the beaches are still worth a visit in the evening.
Historic sites at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore
Glen Haven Village is home to a few historic buildings that are open part time for visitors to tour. The Glen Haven General Store has items related to local history. The Cannery Boathouse nearby began its life as a warehouse, then became a cannery for the cherries the region is known for growing. These days, it’s home to historic boats that were used in the area. The village also has a restored and functional 1920s blacksmith shop where visitors can watch metal being worked and ask questions about the process.
Near Glen Haven, you’ll also find the Sleeping Bear Point Coast Guard Station Maritime Museum. Made obsolete by advancing technology, the station was retired during WWII and underwent historical renovations during the 1980s. Visitors can tour the old station (relocated from its original site when shifting dunes threatened to bury it in sand) and the boathouse and learn about how shipwreck rescues were conducted in the shipping channel there. During the summer, reenactments of rescue drills are performed daily.
Port Oneida is located in the northern part of the National Lakeshore area and features a handful of historic farms. Here, visitors can learn about the farming practices and advances used over the hundred years that this land was used for agriculture. There are other historic cabins and homesteads throughout the park, but you’ll find the most concentration in this area.
Camping at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore
In addition to the campgrounds mentioned on North and South Manitou Islands, there are two NPS campgrounds on the mainland. The D. H. Day campground in the northern section of the park has 88 rustic sites (meaning no electric hookups) within walking distance of the lake.
In the south area of the park, you can stay at the Platte River Campground. It has 179 sites, many suitable for RVs with electric.
Other places to stay
There are numerous small hotels and B&Bs in the area. Look into lodging in Empire and Glen Arbor for the best options right in the heart of things. Both towns also offer food, snacks, and bars. You can also enjoy the park from anywhere in the Leelanau Peninsula or Traverse City area if you don’t mind a bit of a drive.
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