Ultimate Empire Michigan Travel Guide
The beautiful town of Empire Michigan is one of northern Michigan’s true gems.
Set right in the middle of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore on Lake Michigan, it’s home to breathtaking views, and endless opportunities for riding and hiking, swimming, and outdoor adventure.
It’s a quiet, low-key spot, and therein lies the charm. One of the top travel destinations in Michigan’s lower peninsula, it never quite seems overrun with tourists, like other popular Michigan travel spots.
It’s almost as if everyone who knows about it loves it and wants to keep this special spot in Leelanau County just like they found it.
The Empire beaches are some of the best in the state, and you’ll want to explore the aqua-blue Glen Lake, Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive, the sand dunes, and more in the perfect Michigan travel destination.
I’ve been visiting Empire my entire life and am excited to share some of my favorite spots with you in this guide. Join me as I share the 20 best things to do in Empire Michigan!
About Empire, MI: Explore Empire
Located in northwest Michigan, Empire is one of the top Michigan beach towns.
This Lake Michigan coastal town is a true outdoor adventurers’ paradise. From the Sleeping Bear Dunes to the Empire Bluff Trail, there are enough trails to explore for weeks. Lake Michigan makes for great swimming, water sports, and even surfing.
In addition to all the outdoor activities, the quaint town of Empire provides the perfect balance of an adventurous and peaceful vacation.
You’ll find numerous spots and trails catch the most breathtaking sunsets across the town. You’ll also find some amazing local foods and a mix of eclectic and upscale shopping in downtown Empire.
Empire Michigan Sunsets
There are many Michigan tourist attractions, too. Sleeping Bear Heritage Trailhead, the Manitou Islands off the coast and Glen Haven Historic Village are in and near Empire, MI.
The most important thing to remember on your visit here is to be sure and make it down to the Empire Public beach at dusk, where you can take in one of the best sunsets in Michigan.
Map of Empire Michigan
Where Is Empire Michigan?
Empire Michigan is located 30 miles west of Traverse City, MI on the shores of Lake-Michigan’s Platte Bay.
By Car: From the north or south, you can take Michigan’s famous M-22 scenic highway. From the west, drive west on M-72.
By Air: Fly into Cherry Capital Airport in Traverse City, From there you can rent a car and drive west about 20 minutes.
Best Things to Do in Empire Michigan
The town of Empire may be quaint, but the list of things to do is never-ending. Since it is in the heart of the dunes, you’ll find more than one riding and hiking trail to check out.
1. Michigan Shore to Shore Riding and Hiking Trail
Michigan’s epic 220-mile long Shore to Shore Riding and Hiking trail runs between Oscoda on Lake Huron and Empire. The trail is open to horseback riders and hikers, but not bicycles.
You’ll find hardwood forests and forests as you follow the route along the Boardman River Valley and the AuSable River. Depending on which direction you’re traveling, the trail both begins and ends at the Empire Public Beach.
2. Empire Bluff Trail
While the Empire Bluff Trail is technically a part of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, it’s such a fantastic trail/ experience that we had to include it separately. This 1.5-mile trail is one of those life-changing trails and helps one realize how beautiful our earth truly is.
This is not a challenging trail to hike, making the lookout point accessible to virtually anyone. You can explore past the “endpoint” of the trail into dunes for more of a more strenuous hike. I highly suggest doing so, considering it allows for further views of Lake Michigan and its coast.
3. Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail
The Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail runs 22 miles from Empire to Bohemia Road in Glen Arbor. Built along the ancestral land of the native Anishinaabe people, this multi-use trail travels through some must-see spots in the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, including Port Oneida and the Glen Haven Rural District.
4. Sleeping Bear Dunes
The Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, voted one of the most beautiful places in the world by Good Morning America, is home to hundreds of trails and dunes to climb, and some of the most picturesque views you will ever experience.
You’ll also find some of the best Lake Michigan beaches in the state in the dunes.
Here you will hike some of the most popular trails in the state and climb massive dunes. Make sure you research the trails you are looking to venture down.
There are tons of different trails, and it’s easy to get lost, and there is tons of wildlife along the way. Use our Guide to the Sleeping Dunes Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, because making sure that you are prepared for each adventure in the dunes is more than necessary
5. Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive
Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive is a 7.5-mile loop trail that showcases some of the amazing natural beauty of the dunes. You’ll travel under a historic wooden bridge and through some towering old-growth beech forests to 12 stops along the way.
This is where you’ll find iconic spots like the Lake Michigan Overlook, the North Bar Lake Overlook, and the spectacular Glen Lake Overlook. You definitely want your camera to snap some once-in-a-lifetime views. plan your trip along Pierce Stocking right and you might catch the sun as it sinks into Lake Michigan at sunset.
6. Kayak in Empire
Empire is home to some amazing spots for kayaking in one of the most beautiful settings in the country Bring your own or rent a kayak from Sleeping Bear Surf Co. and head over to Little Platte River, Crystal River, North Bar Lake, South Bar Lake or even Lake Michigan.
7. Lake Michigan Beach Park
Lake Michigan Drive, Empire, MI 49630
The beach in Empire is a great way to relax, bask in the sun, and enjoy the cool waters of Lake Michigan. It is also a great way to space out all the hiking you will most likely be doing in the area. South Bar Lake is here, too. You’ll find beach access to South Bar on the other side of the parking lot.
Several visitors enjoy the sandy beaches, basketball courts, and a playground. On windy days you can find surfers out riding the waves. In the evenings, you will also find people gathered to watch the sunset and snap that perfect golden hour picture.
8. Manning Memorial Lighthouse
Loacted at the Lake Michigan Beach Park is the Manning Memorial lighthouse, a tribute to Empire native Robert Manning. A well-loved local fisherman, Manning often remarked to his friends that he wished that Empire had a lighthouse to guide him in to shore, like many other Lake Michgan ports, such as Grand Haven. When he passed away, his friend built the lighthouse as a tribute to his memory.
9. Glen Haven Michigan
This restored Port Village on Sleeping Bear Bay is a must on any visit to Empire. You’ll find several small buildings including a general store and blacksmith shop, as well as a former cherry canning plant turned boathouse musuem.
The real star, in my opinion, is the amazing beach on Sleeping Bear Bay. Bring a picnic and plan to stay for the day, you’ll find picnic tables and clean restrooms.
10. Empire Area Museum
This unique and fun spot tracks the development of Empire MI from its humble beginnings in the 1850s to current times. You’ll see hundreds of historical artifacts, as well as a replica of a saloon from the 1900’s. You’ll also see a one room schoolhouse and barn frome the era. It’s really a fascinating spot to check out, and fun for all ages,too.
11. Empire Asparagus Festival
The Empire Asparagus Festival is where I had my first taste os asparagusm and Ive been seeing green ever since. This annual Michigan summer festival is held every June, and includes a 5K race, a recipe contest, and everything asparagus. You’ll also find live music, food vendors and more.
12. Dunes Golf Club
This relaxing 18-hole golf course near Glen Lake is in a stunning setting right in the middle of the dunes.
13. Amazing Beaches in Empire MI
Empire Michigan is home to some of the best beaches in the state, thanks to Sleeping Bear Dunes. You’ll find wide, sandy beaches and warm, shallow bays with stunning aqua-blue water.
You can catch a glimpse of the Manitou Islands (both North Manitou and South Manitou) from many of the beaches in the area, too. Here are some of our favorite beaches in Empire, in addition to Lake Michigan Beach Park in downtown Empire.
Esch Road Beach is a beautiful spot. You’ll find a great a swimming beach, picnic tables, and primitive toilets. The Esch Road beach is located right at the mouth of Otter Creek. It’s fun to wade in the warm waters of the Creek, and then follow it up with a jump into the cool Lake Michigan water.
Glen Haven Beach is accessible and features a wide sandy beach on Sleeping Bear Bay with two beach wheelchairs, available for both children and adults. You’ll find an ADA-accessible ramp, too, as well as restrooms and picnic tables.
Peterson Road Beach is a favorite, too. You’ll find a beautiful beach for swimming, right in the middle of the dunes and a primitive toilet. It’s also one of the most secluded beaches in the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. There’s lots of room to spread out, but on busy days be prepared to park along the dirt road.
14. Sleeping Bear Surf & Kayak
10228 W Front Street, Empire, MI 49630
At first glance, Sleeping Bear Surf & Kayak looks like any other beach town store, but it’s so much more. This store not only provides sick threads, boards of all kinds, and kayaks, but it also sells a lifestyle. The lifestyle is loving being out on the lakes and exploring everything Lake Michigan’s fresh blue waters offer
If you are looking for something exciting and new to do besides hiking, Sleeping Bear Surf is the place to go. They have rentals for all things water sports. Paddle boards, surfboards, kayaks, skim boards, body boards, and bike rentals are available throughout the summer.
This shop also has lessons for those looking to learn how to surf. One unique thing about Sleeping Bear Surf is that they also have camps throughout the summer for kids and teens, not only in surfing but kayaking and paddle boarding.
15. Jojo and Buckys
11840 S Lacore St, Empire, MI 49630
This fun art studio features the work of local artisans Jim Hilton and Becky Willis. You find a mix of vintage tourism at it’s best and timeless jewelry pieces. The colorful wall art featuring local scenery will definitely catch your eye.
16. Secret Garden
10206 W Front St, Empire, MI 49630
Featuring the work of more than 200 artists from all over North America, this award-winning gallery also features the work of many Michigan and local artists. It’s a fun and family-friendly spot to explore, with affordable art that is accessible to everyone.
17. The Misers Hoard
10126 W Front St, Empire, MI 49630
Do you love treasure hunting? If so, this fun boutique with an eclectic mix of new and not-so-new items will keep you entertained for hours. You’ll find everything from lawn decor to home goods to jewelry, and everything in between.
18. Grocers Daughter Chocolate
You’ll find some delicious and inspired chocolate confections at this unique spot in Empire. The Grocers Daughter specialized in clean, ethically sourced chocolates and treats. They have developed a huge fan base among people who love their delicious treats like Seasalt Bark and caramel truffles. In fact, they’ve grown so popular that they just opened a second shop featuring clean and ethcally sourced gelato!
19. Empire Outdoors
11690 S. Lacore Rd (M-22, Empire, MI 49630
Looking for an Empire T-shirt or hoodie? You’ll want to check here first. Empire Outdoors offers everything from T-shirts, sweatshirts, beach goods and rental bikes to snowshoes fishing tackle, live bait, charter fishing, ice shanty rentals, and more.
20. Eat in Empire MI (Empire MI Restaurants)
Empire is a very small town and has limited restaurants. Don’t let that fool you; the food and desserts in town are up to big city standards. Empire is a small town with tons to offer, but if you are looking for more food options, Glen Arbor is less than 15 minutes away with more variety of food options. Art’s Tavern is a top restaurant recommended by locals and tourists.You can use this guide to dining in Glen Arbor if you’re looking for something more upscale, too.
Joe’s Friendly Tavern
11015 W. Front Street, Empire, MI 49630
Joe’s Friendly Tavern serves outstanding American Bar food and is the best place to catch a game or two while enjoying hearty food. Joe’s is also great for quenching thirst and hunger after a long hike or day on the beach.
Nothing beats a burger with fries from Joe’s while watching the sunset in one of the most breathtaking places on earth.
Empire Village Inn
11601 S Lacore Rd, Empire, MI 49630
Head to the Village Inn for some delicious pizza, but make sure you call ahead. This popular spot fills up quickly in the summer months. You’ll find burgers and more at this friendly tavern, as well as some grovery staples.
More Empire MI Restaurants
Little Finger Eatery
10213 W Front Street, Empire, MI 49630
Little Finger Eatery has an array of sandwiches, wraps, and salads to choose from. This adorable beachy eatery provides its customers with excellent service and mouth-watering food.
Any sandwich from Little Fingers makes for a great lunch while on a hike, on the beach, or just chilling out at the campsite. The eatery has outdoor seating, and after you are done with your meal, don’t be afraid to grab some of the best ice creams you will ever have.
11691 S Lacore Rd, Empire, MI 49630
Shipwreck Café is a great place to eat for any meal, whether it’s breakfast, lunch, or dinner. Their long menu has many options, making it hard to choose what to eat.
If you are in Empire and craving pizza, this is the place to go, with tons of unique and classic options for toppings and specialty pizzas. Shipwreck makes for the perfect family dinner or date spot for couples!
Where to Stay in Empire MI
You’ll find a unique mix of comfortable hotels, inns, campgrounds, and private cottage rentals. Here are some of our favorites places to stay in Empire MI.
Empire MI Hotels
Empire Lakeshore Inn
11730 S Lacore Rd, Empire, MI 49630
With a perfect location in downtown Empire, The Empire Lakeshore Inn is the perfect place to stay for those who want to experience all of Empire’s outdoors while sleeping comfortably in a freshly made bed. It’s very clean, too, which we always appreciate.
Empire Lakeshore Inn is also split into two separate locations. One is in the heart of Empire, a short walking distance from the beach and all the shops. The second is near the visitors center where you can learn about the area’s attractions.
The Cottonwood Inn B&B
9583 W Front St, Empire, MI 49630
This rambling and comfortable restored farmhouse is a peaceful respite from the hustle and bustle of Sleeping Bear Dunes in the summer. The rooms at The Cottonwood are quite spacious and very clean, with a tasty breakfast every morning. All rooms come with a private bathroom, which is a nice feature.
8720 South Dorsey Road, Empire, MI 49630
The M22 Empire Inn is very comfortable and clean, but it’s the prime location just a block from Glen Lake that I like best. It’s very family-friendly: you’ll find a beach on Glen Lake with kayaks and paddleboards, as well as fire pit out back. A very solid choice for the Sleeping Bear Dunes area.
Campgrounds in Empire MI
Empire Township Campground
7264 W Osborn Rd, Empire, MI 49630
Empire Township Campground is a great and affordable place to stay while in Empire. This campground offers tent sites, full electric, and group sites giving visitors a rustic yet comfortable stay. There are bathhouses throughout the campground, providing tent campers access to water and a bathroom when needed. There is also firewood at check-in available for purchase.
This campground is for those looking for more of a rustic campsite and gives visitors the feeling of being completely out in the wild. It’s a personal favorite place to stay and makes for a great place to sleep underneath the stars.
Indigo Bluffs RV Park & Resort
6760 W Empire Hwy M-72, Empire, MI 49630
Indigo Bluffs is a beautiful RV Park and Resort that offers the best experience for families and those wanting to get the most out of an RV experience. The park provides hookups for all types of RVs, trails, and pull-behinds. Cottages and stationed RVs are also available to rent. Indigo Bluffs has many visitor amenities, including a heated pool, bathhouse, food truck, playground, trail & boat storage, and more.
Later in the evening, the lookout point is the best place to watch the sunset and, for those brief moments, a great way to escape reality.
Leelanau Pines Campground
6500 E Leelanau Pines Drive, Cedar, MI 49621
Leelanau Pines Campground is a family-oriented campground located right on beautful Lake Leelanau. It’s about 15 minutes north of Empire and you’ll find a variety of hookups, as well as clean bathrooms laundry and even a beach right on the lake!
Plan Your Empire Michigan Vacation Now
Empire, MI, is one of the most underrated Michigan travel destinations. Despite its size, it has so much to offer visitors and is one of the most beautiful places in the world. You will see the best sunrises and sunsets of your life. This place will have you questioning whether you should move to the northwest of Michigan to experience its beauty year-round.
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Things to Do Near Empire MI
About The Author ~
Emily Lance is a Content Creator for mymichiganbeach.com. She grew up in the small town of Dexter, Michigan, just outside Ann Arbor, and is currently attending Michigan State University. She majors in Journalism with a focus in Sports journalism and Media Relations and a minor in Media Photography. Emily loves writing and taking photographs/videos of her surroundings and travels. Emily likes to explore new places, kayak, ski, and go boating in her free time.