Known as Michigan’s “Serene Coast,” Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is one of the most tranquil and peaceful places that you can visit in the Great Lakes State.
These towering dunes are a place of wonder, where people of all ages can explore a landscape unlike anything else you’ll find in the area.
Once considered a best-kept secret in Michigan, the word is out about Sleeping Bear Dunes. Recently, the dunes were named the “Most Beautiful Place in America,” and a record number of visitors climb the dunes each year.
While you won’t have the place to yourself when you visit, you’ll certainly find that the dunes provide a place to escape and forget your worries. When you’re standing on top of a warm, sandy dune and looking out at the pristine blue waters of Lake Michigan, it feels as if nothing else in the world matters.
About Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore
Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is defined by the white, sandy bluffs that tower more than 450 feet above the aqua blue waters of Lake Michigan.
This national park is known as a sightseeing attraction and recreational destination but has long played an important role in the history and development of the state.
After European settlements arrived, the lands surrounding the dunes played an integral role in the shipping and logging industry, which began to put Michigan on the map as a destination for pioneers and settlers.
Protecting the Dunes
Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore was established in 1970, to protect the dune formations and other natural features in this pristine environment. By protecting the land and preventing development upon it, generations have been able to enjoy the natural beauty of this incredible corner of the state.
While a visit can certainly be done in a day, many find that they can explore the park for days on end and never feel like their adventure is complete.
Current Dune Preservation
While the park is now maintained and protected by the government, the National Park Service is dedicated to preserving and upholding the traditions of the past by hiring Anishinaabek peoples to work at the park and provide interpretive and educational exhibits that highlight their stories and connection to these beautiful lands.
The Sleeping Bear Legend
For hundreds of years, the land that makes up Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore was the home of the Anishinaabek peoples. They lived on the land for generations, and the park is named after the Sleeping Bear legend — an oral tradition of the Ojibwe peoples who were part of the Anishinaabek Tribe.
The legend goes:
Long ago, a mother bear and her two cubs were living in the forest along the shore where Lake Michigan meets Wisconsin. One night, a raging forest fire broke out, driving the bears to the lakeshore. In order to escape the flames, the mother bear and her two cubs jumped into the lake and headed for the other side.
They swam all through the night, and eventually, the young cubs grew tired and fell behind. Their mother made it to shore and climbed a high sandy bluff to watch and wait for them, but they never reached her.
According to legend, the Great Spirit Manitou created two islands — North and South Manitou — to commemorate the lost cubs. Winds eventually buried the sleeping mother bear in the sand where she waits to this day on top of the dune that ‘bears’ her name (pun intended).
The Manitous were settled in the 1840s and became an important stopping point for ships sailing on Lake Michigan.
In fact, South Manitou was the only natural harbor from Chicago to Mackinaw large enough to accommodate steamers, and many took shelter from fierce storms there, including the Francisco Morazan. The ship ran aground about 300 feet offshore of the island in late November 1960; its locally famous wreckage is now a memorable sight for visitors.
The South Manitou Island Lighthouse is also a popular spot and is accessible to visitors through tours by the park service. Just a short walk from the arrival dock on the island, the lighthouse was active from 1871 to 1958. A climb to the top of the tower, 104 feet above the water, is a great place to take in an amazing and unique view of the Manitou Passage.
Today, North and South Manitou Islands are part of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore and are available for camping, hiking, and general exploration of their natural beauty.
The islands are accessible via Manitou Island Transit in Leland. The ferry makes regular trips to both islands for campers and day trips to South Manitou.
Things to Do at Sleeping Bear Dunes Michigan
The very name of Sleeping Bear Dunes suggests that the best thing to do at this National Park is to climb the dunes. While that’s one of the most popular activities for people of all ages to enjoy, there are many more things to do too.
The Dune Climb
The Dune Climb is a rite of passage for many Sleeping Bear Dunes visitors. Located about 5 miles outside of Empire on the west side of M-109, this is one of the most popular activities to attempt at the park.
At the base of the climb, you will find the Dune Center, which has valuable information, a picnic area, and modern restrooms. Some people make an entire day out of the climb, eating lunch at the picnic area and watching their kids attempt to climb up the dune and roll back down.
Reaching the Top
The climb to the top can be strenuous, and not everyone can reach the summit. If you attempt it and find that it’s not for you, though, you can easily come back down and enjoy the break that gravity gives you along the way.
If you do reach the top, you’ll be afforded some of the most breathtaking views of Lake Michigan in the entire state. Then, you have two choices— (1) turn back toward the Dune Center or (2) continue to hike to Lake Michigan.
This lake hike is best reserved for experienced hikers with plenty of time on their hands. On average, it takes about four hours to complete — and you’re walking on soft sand the entire way.
A Personal Perspect of the Climb
“The majesty of this 450-foot dune is hard to put into perspective with a 2D image. The viewing platform at the top stands at 20 feet, but from the lake, you can hardly make it out. The trees alongside it aren’t saplings by any means, but from the water, they look tiny.
“The size of these dunes isn’t hard to appreciate while climbing them, but it can be difficult to fully realize their height or just how far they go along the shore until you see them from the water.
“While climbing the dunes, I’ve never thought about how large they are, spending more time concentrating on getting to the next peak and seeing the view of the Michigan West Coast’s very own great lake.”Cailin Ashbaugh
Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive
Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive is a must-do for visitors who want to experience all that the park has to offer. This scenic drive, however, is only open to vehicular traffic from May through November.
The 7.4-mile loop takes visitors to various points of interest in Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, including lookout points, scenic picnic areas, and hiking trails. The Cottonwood Trail, for example, is a gentle hike that allows you to get up close and personal with the flora and fauna of the park while soaking up the spectacular views.
The Lake Michigan Overlook is one of the best places to relax and watch the sunset over Lake Michigan — but be wary of the steep bluffs that lead down to the lake. It’s not prohibited to walk down them, but park rangers warn that it’s very dangerous and not recommended.
Empire Bluff Trail
The Empire Bluff Trail is a popular hike in Sleeping Bear Dunes that leads to a high cliff with a view of Lake Michigan. At the trailhead, a self-guided brochure is provided.
The Empire Bluff Overlook provides a stunning view of the Lake Michigan coastline and South Bar Lake – one of the inland lakes in the area. On a clear day, you may see South Manitou Island as well.
The 1.5-mile round trip hike in Sleeping Bear Dunes also includes 6 numbered markers that correspond to interpretative descriptions of the region along the path.
Safety Note: Do not descend the bluff for your own safety or the sake of the ecosystem. In the winter, due to hazardous ice and snow conditions on the boardwalk and bluffs, the path terminates at post #6.
A Canoe Trip on the Platte River
The mighty Platte River glides through Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, and it’s one of the best places to enjoy a canoe trip.
While it can be difficult to canoe or kayak the waters of Lake Michigan, the Platte River offers paddlers a peaceful and gentle experience. There are many canoe rental outfitters available, and even opportunities to book guided canoe tours down the river.
If you have the chance to kayak on Lake Michigan, though, you won’t believe the panoramic view! Here’s a firsthand look:
“We had perfect weather to be out on the lake because the wind wasn’t too strong, the sky was clear, and the sun was just starting to rise above the peak of the dunes. The water was so clear that I could see the ripples in the sand from the tides.
“From the water, though, in any direction, I could see beautiful views: the lake, the beach, or the bluffs far off in the distance. I didn’t feel the same exhaustion that’s so familiar when climbing the dunes from the heat radiating off the sand, and I was truly able to take in all that this coast has to offer.”Cailin Ashbaugh
Watch the Sunset
Perhaps the simplest and most powerful experience to enjoy at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is watching the sunset.
In the summer months, the sun sets late in the evening — often between 8:30 p.m. and 9:30 p.m., giving you plenty of time to find the perfect spot and watch as the sun drifts down into the lake below.
While there are plenty of spectacular places to take in a Lake Michigan sunset, the best spot is likely at Overlook #9 on Pierce Stocking Drive. This platform rests more than 450 feet above Lake Michigan and offers a quiet, restful place to enjoy the sunset.
Explore the Heritage Trail
One of the newest additions to Sleeping Bear Dunes national park is the Heritage Trail. This 20-mile trail is the only biking trail in the park, and it’s paved for most of the way, except for a small gravel section.
The trail extends between Empire and Bohemia Road. Along the way, you can see the most famous park attractions — including the Dune Climb and the logging village of Glen Haven where you can see a historic general store and blacksmith shop.
Play on the Beach
Many families find that the best way to spend a day at Sleeping Bear Dunes is to simply lounge on the beach.
From young children building sandcastles in the soft, white sand to beachgoers dipping their toes into the refreshing waters of Lake Michigan, you’re bound to find people enjoying the relaxing, clean beaches at the park.
While the entire Lake Michigan lakeshore is open for swimming, it’s important to keep in mind that there are no lifeguards on duty, and rip currents are common in the lake. Some of the most popular beaches at Sleeping Bear Dunes include Platte River Point, North Bar Lake, and Glen Haven Beach.
Visit the Maritime Museum
The Maritime Museum just west of Glen Haven will add a touch of education and history to your trip to Sleeping Bear Dunes. Once a Life-Saving Station, it’s dedicated to preserving the history of the U.S. Life-Saving Service, and visitors of all ages will enjoy interpretive exhibits and guided tours.
Spring at the Sleeping Bear Sand Dunes
Spring is sometimes slow to arrive at Sleeping Bear Dunes because of the lingering nature of Northern Michigan winters. However, the wait is worth it because the park truly comes to life when the snow begins to melt and the first buds of spring begin to reveal themselves.
While spring can be chilly, and sometimes wet, it’s an ideal time to visit if you’re looking for a quieter, less busy time in the park. It’s also the best season to attempt the Dune Climb because the sand is packed down and easier to traverse.
Sleeping Bear Dunes in the Summertime
Summer is arguably one of the best times of the year to visit Sleeping Bear Dunes as there’s so much to do. During this warm, inviting and popular season, you can climb the dunes, drive along Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive, hike the many miles of trails, and play on the beautiful beaches.
It’s also the busiest time of year, so you may want to arrive early if you want to avoid heavy traffic and crowded trails.
Fall Splendor at Sleeping Bear Dunes
If you can’t make it during the peak summer season, exploring Sleeping Bear Dunes in the fall is wonderful. Between mid-September and late October, the leaves throughout the park transform into their autumn hues of gold, red, and orange, making each hike and climb more spectacular than the last.
One of the best places to hike in the fall is the Alligator Trail. While it has rugged terrain with many hills, the effort is worthwhile. You’ll be rewarded with breathtaking views of Big Glen Lake juxtaposed by the colorful leaves.
Sleeping Bear Dunes During the Winter
While some of the most famous attractions in Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore are closed during the winter months, there’s still plenty to do at the park.
When the sandy dunes are covered with snow, you can enjoy your favorite winter sports, including snowshoeing and cross-country skiing. For children, the Dune Climb becomes the best sledding hill in Northern Michigan.
Scenic Hiking Trails Near Sleeping Bear Dunes
If you’ve been to Leelanau County in Northern Michigan and have only taken in the majestic views from Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, you’re doing it wrong.
Do yourself a favor and check out these nearby bluffs and overlooks along the crystal blue Lake Michigan. Before you look west, though, prepare to pinch yourself.
The relatively easy hike from the Stocking Road Trailhead to the Islands Lookout on top of Alligator Hill is 1.5 miles through the beautiful Maple-Beech forest. Pack a picnic to go with the incredible view of the Manitou Islands and you’ll have yourself a picture-perfect afternoon on the lakeshore.
Taking a little over a half-mile hike through the woods leads to one of the best panoramic views of Lake Michigan in Leelanau County.
Don’t be afraid to do some exploring and follow the trails — the whole area is worth a wander! Just be careful if you decide to run down the dune because there are warnings of erosion and a tough climb back up.
Probably one of the quicker and more family-friendly hikes in the area, a trail climbs through the beautiful woods of Whaleback Natural Area to a lovely observation deck. Whaleback itself can be seen looking south from Van’s Beach in nearby Leland.
If Whaleback wasn’t enough for you, follow M-22 north through Leland to the Clay Cliffs, a newer trail about 1.5 miles long. The Clay Cliffs Natural Area is diverse.
You will experience flat and hilly terrain, enjoy a view of Lake Leelanau from the meadow midway along the trail, and hike through the forest to the observation deck overlooking Lake Michigan and the Manitou Islands.
Nearby Attractions to Add to Your Sleeping Bear Dunes Itinerary
There’s so much to see and do within Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore that it would be easy to fill up your entire itinerary with recreational activities. However, below are a few other nearby attractions that you may want to consider fitting into your travel plans.
Fishtown Preservation in Leland
Commercial fishing has long played an important role in the Northern Michigan economy, and Fishtown Preservation in Leland immerses you in the fishing lifestyle.
This preservation is a collection of fishing shanties, smokehouses, and docks. You can walk through the various buildings and learn more about what life is like as a commercial fisherman in Michigan, as well as enjoy shopping and dining.
The Manitou Islands
While you can see the Manitou Islands from a distance when you’re on top of a towering dune, you also have the opportunity to visit and explore the islands on foot.
To get to the North and South Manitou Islands, hop on the Manitou Island Transit ferry in Leland. The ferry makes regular trips to both islands for campers and day trips. If you’d rather not explore the islands but would like to get an up-close-and-personal look, consider taking a shoreline cruise.
The South Manitou Island Lighthouse is also a popular spot and is accessible to visitors through tours. Just a short walk from the arrival dock on the island, the lighthouse was active from 1871 to 1958. A climb to the top of the tower, 104 feet above the water, is a great place to take in an amazing and unique view of the Manitou Passage.
Today, the North and South Manitou Islands are part of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore and are available for camping, hiking, and general exploration of their natural beauty.Katie Von Jena
South Manitou Island Lighthouse
The historic South Manitou Island Lighthouse has an incredible 360-degree view of the mainland, both islands, and the surrounding lake. Walk less than a half mile from the dock, and climb the 117 steps of the tower to see the crystal lakeshore in all its glory. Are you pinching yourself yet?
Cherry Republic Winery
The Cherry Republic Winery is the most famous in Glen Arbor, and it’s a great place to relax and enjoy a sunny afternoon in Northern Michigan.
This family-friendly destination offers wine tastings for adults and soda tastings for children. Plus, you can enjoy whichever tasting you choose inside the tranquil tasting room, outside in the gardens, or on the peaceful deck.
Dining Near Sleeping Bear Dunes
You’re sure to work up an appetite climbing on the towering sand dunes all day, so it’s important to know where to go to get the best meal near Sleeping Bear Dunes. These are a few local restaurants you should check out.
If you’re searching for the classic Northern Michigan dining experience, then Boonedocks is the place to go.
This locally-owned restaurant is just 2 miles away from the park and is situated in the heart of Glen Arbor. Featuring cozy indoor dining and refreshing patio dining, it’s known for its lively, family-friendly atmosphere.
When you’re ready to indulge in a fine dining experience after a day on the dunes, you need to head straight for Blu. Located on the shores of Lake Michigan in Glen Arbor, this restaurant features an exquisite menu of locally sourced food and incredible panoramic views of the Manitou Islands.
Little Finger Eatery
For a quick bite to eat, step into Little Finger Eatery in Empire. This casual cafe is known for its fresh-made sandwiches, salads, and wraps. Eat there or grab some food to go for your dune-side picnic.
Where to Stay Near Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore
Located in Empire Michigan and near many of the top tourist towns in Northern Michigan, there are plenty of places to stay near Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.
Camping Near Sleeping Bear Dunes
If you want to stay within the park’s boundaries or as close to the park as possible, camping is the best option. Here are the main campgrounds in and around the park:
- Platte River Campground — The scenic Platte River Campground is a year-round campground situated near the mouth of the Platte River and Lake Michigan. Featuring RV hookups, tent sites, walk-in tent sites, and modern restrooms, there’s something for every type of camper at this location.
- D.H. Day Campground — This rustic campground is located within Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. It’s a wooded campground conveniently resting near the Dune Climb and Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive.
Hotels Around Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore
For those who want to blend their rugged, adventurous tour with simple comforts and luxuries, there are a couple of hotels near the Michigan national park site, including:
- Empire Lakeshore Inn — This clean, comfortable and charming boutique hotel is located in Empire near the entrance to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. It’s one of the most convenient options for hotels near the park.
- The Homestead — Known as America’s Freshwater Resort, this luxury waterfront resort is situated in the heart of Glen Arbor. Comprised of several boutique hotels and inns, it has a vast range of room styles and accommodations for all types of travelers.
Vacation Rentals Near Sleeping Bear Dunes
For a truly homelike experience near Sleeping Bear Dunes, consider booking a vacation rental in Empire or one of the nearby Northern Michigan towns. Glen Arbor, Traverse City, and Leland are just a few places where you can consider renting a vacation home.
One vacation home that you might consider is the Big Glen Lakefront Su. This sprawling waterfront property can sleep up to 12 people and gives you a slice of Northern Michigan to enjoy for the week.
You can just imagine yourself sitting down for a relaxing bonfire as the sunsets after a day of climbing the dunes in the park.
Frequently Asked Questions About Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore
Where is Sleeping Bear Dunes located?
Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is located in the town of Empire Michigan, which is on the northwest side of the state. It’s considered one of the most popular tourist attractions in Northern Michigan.
Which cities are near Sleeping Bear Dunes?
The dunes are located in Empire Michigan, but some of the largest nearby cities include Traverse City, Leland, Glen Arbor, Frankfort, and Benzonia.
How far is Sleeping Bear Dunes from Traverse City?
Sleeping Bear Dunes is located about 30 miles from Traverse City. By car, it can take about 40 minutes to reach the park from downtown Traverse City.
Does Sleeping Bear Dunes have the biggest sand dunes in Michigan?
While Sleeping Bear Dunes may have the most famous sand dunes in Michigan, it doesn’t have the largest. The largest sand dunes in Michigan can be found in Sturgeon Bay, inside Whitefish Dunes State Park.
When is the best time to visit Sleeping Bear Dunes?
The best time of year to visit Sleeping Bear Dunes is highly subjective based on what you want to see and do while you’re here. For the best weather and to enjoy the beaches, summer is the best time of year to visit. It’s also the most popular time of year to explore and climb the dunes.
Is Sleeping Bear Dunes accessible throughout the entire year?
Yes, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is open to the public year-round. The only exception is that the park is closed on Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day, and New Year’s Day. Also, some trails aren’t accessible depending on the current weather or trail conditions.
Plan Your Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore Adventure
The mountainous sand dunes of Sleeping Bear define the Lake Michigan shoreline in the northwest corner of the state and are constantly shifting and changing, ensuring that each visit feels like the first.
Whether you want a place to enjoy a rigorous adventure or you simply want to find a quiet spot to reflect, nothing is quite like Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.