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Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive: 12 Must-See Stops

pierce stocking drive

Discover the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive

It may well be the most scenic drive in Michigan, and that’s saying a lot for a state known for its stunning natural beauty.

Set in the heart of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive is a 7.4-mile loop through the heart of dunes, taking you through hardwood forests filled with beech, maple, and birch to breathtaking vistas of Lake Michigan, Empire, Glen Haven, Glen Arbor, and the surrounding inland lakes and dunes.

There are 12 stops along the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive. These are spots for you to pull over, take in the natural beauty, and learn a thing or two about how these Michigan dunes were formed.

If you’ve started a travel bucket list – for either Michigan or the world – we suggest you move the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive to the top of your list.

sleeping bear dunes on lake michigan

Things to Know about the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive

COST (Fees for Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive)

Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive is a part of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, part of the national parks system, and you must purchase a pass to enter national parks.

This means you will be expected to pay an entry fee at the start of Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive if you have not yet purchased a pass for the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore or other national park.

You may purchase the pass at the staffed kiosk at the start of the scenic drive.

A seven-day national parks pass is approximately $25. You can see current fees here. You can also buy the pass at the Sleeping Bear Dunes Visitor Center.

SPEED LIMIT on Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive

The speed limit for the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive is 20 miles per hour. You won’t want to go any faster; there are so many beautiful things to see.

Yes, this a backhanded reminder to the (ahem) person from Washington who was attached to my bumper between two very scenic stops on the drive. Don’t be THAT guy.

12 Must-See Stops Along the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive

pierce stocking drive

Stop 1: The Covered Bridge

You might instantly recognize this picturesque bridge from photos; it’s one of those instagrammable spots that looks inviting even on a cloudy day.

While covered bridges are uncommon in northern Michigan and typically associated with Indiana and Pennsylvania, this 13’ 6’” bridge was a planned addition to the drive by Pierce Stocking himself.

Covered bridges provide additional protection against rain and snow, which can cause wood to rot, so it’s cheaper, in the long run, to simply cover the bridges!

Good to Know: There is a pull-off right before the bridge to allow you to snap some pics for Instagram, Facebook, or just for yourself.

pierce stocking scenic drive

Stop 2: Glen Lake Overlook

Lakes don’t get much prettier than Glen Lake, with its stunningly aqua-blue water. You’ll definitely want to get out and take in the panoramic (we’ll be using that word a lot) views from the viewing platform.

Glen Lake is divided by the M-22 at the narrows, forming two gorgeous lakes, Big Glen Lake and Little Glen. At only 12’ deep, Little Glen Lake is the shallowest, while Big Glen Lake reaches depths of 130’.

Be sure to keep your eyes open for Alligator Hill on the other side of Little Glen. Alligator Hill is named for its reptilian appearance, a result of it’s formation during the Ice Age.

Stop 2a: Picnic Mountain

After you leave the Glen Lake Overlook, look for Picnic Mountain. Watch out for Yogi Bear, bring your picnic baskets, and spread out and enjoy some pure Michigan dunes.

pierce stocking scenic drive

Stop 3: Dune Overlook

This third stop along the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive is where you start to see the majesty of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.

Park your car in the big parking area and walk the few steps to the 200’ platform and you’re almost at the top of the dunes.

From here, you’ll take in sweeping vistas of North and South Manitou Islands, Pyramid Point, Sleeping Bear Bay, the Sleeping Bear Dunes, Glen Lake and Alligator Hill, the Little Glen Lake Mill Pond, and the historic D.H. Day farm. The Sleeping Bear Dune Overlook is one of Northern Michigan’s most scenic overlooks.

Stop 4: Cottonwood Trail

It’s a 1.5-mile trail loop that is strenuous in several spots, but if you’re up to it, it’s a great way to experience the dunes.

You’ll hike up and down the dunes, passing many a cottonwood tree and other dune flora. Keep your eyes on the open sand for the fauna: it’s a great spot to find animals tracks.

Stop 5: Dune Ecology

Ever wondered how these massive dunes on the shores of Lake Michigan were formed? Pull over at the stop and learn how these marvels of nature have managed to survive – and thrive – over time.

Stop 6: Leaving the Sand Dunes

Notice the absence of pine trees as you leave the dunes. Now, you’re heading into a beech-maple forest, on the edge of the dunes.

The dunes are built by the continued strong winds off of Lake Michigan, and as the wind moves inland, it is not powerful enough to continue building these dune formations.

Stop 7: Beech Maple Forest

Enter into a beautiful, shady forest full of sugar maple trees and beech trees, along with some black cherry, hemlock, and basswood trees.

They all provide a leafy canopy of green, and in the fall they’re alive with bright reds, golds, and yellows. You might be lucky enough to see some local forest residents: deer, squirrels, and chipmunks call the forest home.

Stop 8: Changes Over Time

The last glaciers in the area melted about 11,800 years ago, and this stop offers an opportunity to reflect on the changes that have occurred to the surrounding landscape.

sleeping bear dunes climb things to do in northern michigan with kids

Stop 9: Lake Michigan Overlook

This is the spot you’ve been waiting for: a panoramic view of the spot where the golden sands of Sleeping Bear Dunes meet the aqua blues of Lake Michigan.

The dune overlook platform stands 450 feet above Lake Michigan and you’ll be able to catch views as far away as Point Betsie in Frankfort, south some 15 miles away; the Manitou Islands offshore, and Sleeping Bear Point in Leelanau County to the north.

Good To Know: Descending the Lake Michigan bluff causes erosion and is dangerous.

The steep grade makes footing difficult and there is danger from falling rocks. The return climb is extremely strenuous!

Stop 10: Sleeping Bear Dune Overlook

From this spot, you can see what remains of the actual Sleeping Bear Dune, which was formed about 2,000 years ago by winds from Lake Michigan.

At one point, the dune stood 230 feet tall; natural erosion is wearing away at the dune over time.

According to the NPS, by 1961, the dune was only 132 feet high, and by 1980, it was down to 103 feet. The process is a continuing one. The major cause of the dune’s erosion was wave action wearing away the base of the plateau on which the dune rests.

As the west side of the dune loses its support, it cascades down the hill. The wind, too, is a major agent of erosion, removing sand and destroying the dune’s plant cover.

What does the future hold? It seems that the present trend will continue, and it is only a matter of time until the Bear disappears completely

pierce stocking scenic drive

Stop 11: North Bar Lake Overlook

North Bar Lake was formed when water behind the dunes formed a pond that eventually grew to become North Bar Lake.

At times, the sand bar builds up and separates North Bar Lake from Lake Michigan. At other times, a small connecting channel exists between the two lakes.

Running between the warm waters of the North Bar and the much cooler Lake Michigan is a favorite summer pastime for visitors over generations.

In addition to gorgeous panoramic views of both Lake Michigan and North Bar Lake, you’ll also get a great view of Empire Bluff.

Be sure and have your camera with you, the North Bar Lake Overlook is one place you’ll want a picture or two.

Stop 12: Pine Plantation

A glance at the rows of tall pine trees will tell you that these were all planted at about the same time, long before Sleeping Bear Dunes became a national lakeshore.

According to the national park service, pines were planted in an effort by property owners to improve their land, as pine trees prevent soil erosion, provide a windbreak, yield a timber crop, and provide some wildlife habitat.

Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive Trip Ideas

Summer is the busiest season, think about planning your visit in autumn and take in the brilliant fall colors.

Little over an hour away, it’s a great day trip from Traverse City, Michigan.

Make this a stop on your Lake Michigan Lighthouse tour: Point Betsie in Frankfort, MI is just 15 miles south.

If you visit in early July, head over to National Cherry Festival.

Be sure and stop by Glen Haven, a picturesque, restored port village on Sleeping Bear Bay.

Spend some time visiting Glen Arbor, a charming town just north of the scenic drive. If you go, be sure and grab a burger from Art’s Famous Tavern.

Take a ride north along the Lake Michigan coastline and into the Leelanau Peninsula, were you can explore Leland’s Fishtown and Suttons Bay.

Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive F.A.Q.

How long does the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive take?

The 7.4 miles drive through Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive takes about two hours if you stop at all 12 points along the way. This can vary depending on how much time you spend at each of the stops; some stops, such as the Dune Overlook, might take longer if you decide to take the short hike to the platform overlook.

Are dogs allowed Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive in the Sleeping Bear Dunes?

Yes, leashed dogs are allowed on the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive.

How steep are the dunes at Pierce Stocking?

The dunes are about 450’ high at the Lake Michigan Overlook.

What town is closest to Sleeping Bear Dunes?

The charming towns of Empire, MI, and Glen Arbor are nearest to Sleeping Bear Dunes.

Do you have to pay to get into Sleeping Bear Dunes?

Yes, to enter the Pierce Stocking Scenic route, you must purchase national parks pass which costs around $25.

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