by the My Michigan Beach Team
- Explore Michigan's Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore
- About Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore
- Legend of Sleeping Bear: How the Dunes Were Formed
- Best Things to Do in Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore
- Beaches in Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore
- Hiking Trails in Sleeping Bear Dunes
- Charming Towns to Explore Near Sleeping Bear Dunes
- More Things to Do in Sleeping Bear Dunes
- Hotels Near Sleeping Bear Dunes
- Camping in Sleeping Bear Dunes
Explore Michigan’s Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore
Did you know that Michigan is home to one of the country’s best-kept secrets?
A spot where towering sandy dunes overlook miles and miles of pristine, unspoiled Lake Michigan shoreline? It’s true.
Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in northern Michigan was officially named “the most beautiful place in America” by ABC-TV’s Good Morning America a few years back. The truth is, we didn’t really need all those voters to tell us what we already knew: Sleeping Bear Dunes is true natural beauty at its best.
It’s one of the those places that you truly have to see to believe: sweeping vistas of an aqua-striped Lake Michigan with a backdrop of light golden, glittering sand and the deep greens of lush forest. Do yourself a favor: start planning your trip to the Sleeping Bear Dunes now….you’ll be so glad you did.
Read on to discover everything you want to know about the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.
National Parks Pass
First, as one of the 423 parks in the National Park System, you’ll need a pass to access the trails and other areas within the dunes. A seven-day pass to the dunes costs $25 and an annual pass costs $45. Both passes can be purchased here.
About Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore
Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is more than just towering sand dunes that stand more than 450 feet above Lake Michigan.
You’ll find thick, verdant hardwood forests, stunning soft-sand beaches and even crystal-clear inland lakes, and an amazing collection of flora and fauna throughout the dramatic landscape. You’ll also find historical sites and charming little towns on the shores of Lake Michigan, offering shopping, dining and cozy places to stay.
We’ve put together this complete visitors guide for your vacation getaway or day trip to Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore and included the best things to see and do in this pure Michigan travel destination. If you’re planning your visit and need more detailed information, we have individual guides to all of the attractions near Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore including Fishtown, Glen Arbor and Empire, Michigan.
The Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in northwest Michigan’s lower peninsula is a 35-mile stretch of Lake Michigan coastline, and is one of the most-visited spots in the midwest. These Michigan sand dunes are a tranquil spot, offering an opportunity to commune with nature all four seasons of the year.
Legend of Sleeping Bear: How the Dunes Were Formed
For many years, the area that now forms Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore was where the Anishinaabek people lived. They called this land their home for a long time, passing it down through their families. The park got its name from the Sleeping Bear legend, a story that the Ojibwe people, who were part of the Anishinaabek Tribe, told through spoken tales.
Ojibwe legend holds the Sleeping Bear Dunes got their name from a mother bear, Mishe-Mokwa, and her two cubs. According to legend, the trio was driven from the shores Wisconsin (on the other side of the Lake Michigan) due to fire and a lack of food. Mishe-Mokwa and her cubs tried to swim across the lake to Michigan, but after many miles of swimming, only the mother bear made it to land.
Mishe-Mokwa waited on the Lake Michigan shoreline day after day for her cubs, but they were lost at sea. She finally lay down to sleep and to wait for them eternally. The Great Spirit, Manitou, was impressed with the mother bear’s love for and dedication to her children. He created two islands, South Manitou and North Manitou, to honor the bear cubs lost at sea.
The Great Spirit Manitou then gently covered Mishe-Mokwa with sand, creating the Sleeping Bear Dunes.
Best Things to Do in Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore
Take the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive – M-109, Empire, MI, 49630
You’ll get the “lay of the land,” and idea of just how special this area is as you drive along the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive. This 7.4-mile loop trail through the heart of dunes with 12 special stops and overlooks that take you through hardwood forests filled with beech, maple, and birch to platforms with breathtaking vistas of Lake Michigan and the surrounding dunescape. This is where you’ll find the iconic Lake Michigan Overlook, so bring your cameras.
PRO-TIP: Bring a small cooler, blanket or folding chair and head for the Lake Michigan overlook at dusk: this is one of the best spots in Michigan to catch a sunset.
Make the Sleeping Bear Dune Climb – 6748 Dune Hwy, Glen Arbor, MI 49636
The Sleeping Bear Dunes Dune Climb is a must for anyone visiting the area. The 284-foot tall sand dune presents a challenge that is hard to resist, as the rewards for climbing the dunes are stunning views of Lake Michigan and Glen Lake. Located just five miles north of Empire, MI, you’ll find a parking lot, complete with picnic tables, restrooms and a bookstore.
Though you’ll likely see other people scampering up the dunes (especially during the summer), the Dune Climb is not for the faint-hearted. You’ll need to plan three to four hours time to hike around 3.5 miles over the soft sand dunes and back to the vistors centers parking lot. Be sure to come prepared with water, sunblock and appropriate clothing and gear for hiking under the hot sun.
Hike the Empire Bluff Trail
This popular hike is an easy 1.5 mile round-trip hike through a beech maple forest and over few hills, leading to high bluff and boardwalk overlooking Lake Michigan. The view here is pretty amazing: You’ll see South Manitou Island and the Lake Michigan coastline all the way to Point Betsie in Frankfort. You might even catch a glimpse of South Bar Lake, an island lake in the national lakeshore.
Be sure to scan the QR code the trailhead map for a map detailing six stops along the path.
Tour Historic Glen Haven
Back in 1857, the Village of Glen Haven appeared on the shores of Lake Michigan. It helped supply fuel to steamboats that traveled across the Great Lakes. Among all the spots along Lake Michigan’s eastern coast, Glen Haven stands out as the most well-preserved cord wood station. It might even be the best-preserved one around the entire Great Lakes.
Glen Haven used to be a town run by a company. As time went on, it branched out into different things like farming, canning fruit, and welcoming tourists. If you explore the district, you’ll come across a few interesting places. There’s a general store, a cannery that was once a warehouse and later became a high-tech cannery for cherries in the early 1920s. Now, it’s the Maritime Museum showcasing historic boats used around Glen Haven and the Manitou Islands. Don’t miss the fully restored blacksmith shop from the 1920s where you can watch demonstrations.
And hey, there’s a nice Lake Michigan beach right there too. Perfect for swimming or taking a leisurely walk. And if you need a place to change or freshen up, the restrooms have got you covered.
Tube or Kayak the Platte River
The crystal clear Platte River meanders nearly 30 miles through the northern Michigan before entering the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. Take a gentle kayaking or tubing trip down the lower Platte River through some beautiful dunes landscape. The best part comes at the end, though, when the river dumps you out into Lake Michigan right in the middle of two sand dunes.
You can take a canoe, kayak, tube, or even paddleboard down this pretty, slow-moving river. We always rent our gear from Riverside, but there are other outfitters, too. Be sure you know how much time you want to spend on the river: you can do four-hour trips; two-hours trips and more.
There’s also a beautiful Lake Michigan beach here, with picnic tables and restrooms. Plan to spend some time here splashing on the pristine shores.
Swim in North Bar Lake
This is one of our favorite spots in the dunes, especially in the autumn when the bright blues of the water are set against the fiery autumn foliage. It’s a small lake separated from Lake Michigan by a spit of land, and there’s nothing quite like running back and forth across the beach between the warm inland waters and the cool, refreshing Lake Michigan.
Bike the Heritage Trail
The Heritage Trail at Sleeping Bear Dunes national park is about 20 miles long, and it’s the only trail for biking in the park. Most of it is covered in smooth pavement, but there’s a small part that’s covered in gravel.
This trail stretches from Empire to Bohemia Road. As you go along, you’ll get to see some really famous stuff in the park, like the Dune Climb and Glen Haven.
Join the others sitting in their cars or on the beach waiting for the amazing spectacle of nature that IS a Lake Michigan sunset.Have your camera ready; there’s nothing quite like seeing that giant ball of fire sink into the beautiful blue lake.
Visit South Manitou and North Manitou Islands
These picturesque, uninhabited islands in Lake Michigan are part of the national park. You can reach both islands by ferry from Leland. These boat tours will educate you about the history of the islands and provide stunning views you simply can’t get anywhere else.
North Manitou Island – About 12 miles off the Leelanau Peninsula’s Lake Michigan shoreline is North Manitou Island: 22 squares miles of uninhabited wilderness. You’ll find a sandy shoreline; hiking trails, turquoise waters and ghost towns. Camping on the island is allowed.
South Manitou Island – South Manitou is 16 miles off of the Lake Michigan shoreline and less than half of the size of it’s northerly sibling island. There’s many fun things to explore here: You’ll find dunes, a ghost town and the South Manitou Island lighthouse. Camping is allowed here as well.
See the Farms of the Port Oneida Rural District
Located on M-22 near Glen Arbor,this 3,400-acre rural historic district is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. In the Port Oneida Rural Historic District, you’ll find farms where German and Bohemian immigrants worked hard to establish a community along the shores of Lake Michigan during the 1850s. This district boasts an impressive collection of up to 200 historic structures, each with its own story to tell.
Beaches in Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore
Chilling out on the beach is another awesome way to spend your day at Sleeping Bear Dunes, and the park has some super clean and relaxing beaches. Here are some of our favorite spots to dip our toes in the water.
- Bohemian Road Beach
Beach, ADA-Accessible (Beach Wheelchair available at location); Swimming, Vault Toilets
- Esch Road Beach
Beach, Swimming, Picnic Tables, Primitive Restrooms
- Good Harbor Bay Beach
Beach, Swimming, Picnic tables, Primitive Toilets
- Glen Haven Beach
Beach, ADA-Accessible (Two Beach Wheelchairs available for both Children and Adults); Swimming, Handicapped Accessible Ramp nearby
- Lane Road Beach
Beach, Swimming, Secluded Beach, Stairs to Beach
- North Bar Lake
Beach, Swimming, Primitive Restrooms
- Peterson Road Beach
Beach, Swimming, Dunes, Primitive Toilet
- Platte River Beach
Beach, Swimming, ADA-Accessible Restrooms
- Tiesma Road Beach
Beach, Swimming, Dunes, *Google Maps designates Tiesma Road as “Isle View Road”
Just remember, while you can swim all along Lake Michigan’s shore, there aren’t any lifeguards around, and sometimes the lake can have strong currents. Some of the top beaches at Sleeping Bear Dunes are Platte River Point, North Bar Lake, and Glen Haven Beach. So, whether you’re biking the trail or just hanging at the beach, there’s a ton of fun waiting for you at the park!
ADA and Wheelchair Accessible Beaches in Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lake Shore
Glen Haven Beach Wheelchairs
Glen Haven Beach offers Wheelchair accessibility in the form of two beach wheelchairs available for both children and adults.
Bay View Trail Track Wheelchair
Beginning in Spring 2020, Sleeping Bear Dunes will offer accessibility to trails with Track Wheelchairs. This is a “First-of-its-kind Accessibility Program at a National Park” and provides an opportunity to visitors who need hiking assistance to explore designated trails in the Park.
Dog-Friendly Beaches in Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore
Dogs are allowed at Empire Village Beach Park.
Hiking Trails in Sleeping Bear Dunes
If you’re looking for the most dramatic view in Sleeping Bear Dunes, you’ll most likely find it here, at the top of Pyramid Point. There’s some steep hills to climb along this 2.7 mile trail, but it’s worth the work.
Alligator Hill Trail
Embark on a pleasantly straightforward 1.5-mile hike from the Stocking Road Trailhead to reach the Islands Lookout crowning Alligator Hill. Meandering through the enchanting Maple-Beech forest, this hike offers a serene journey. Enhance your adventure by packing a delightful picnic to accompany the breathtaking vista of the Manitou Islands – a recipe for a truly idyllic lakeside afternoon.
This trail is truly picturesque, featuring a gentle uphill journey through hardwoods that, during the fall season, transform into a splendid canvas of colors, perfect for a scenic tour. At a designated viewpoint, a platform treats you to awe-inspiring vistas of Lake Michigan.
While enjoying this adventure, please be mindful that the lands flanking the access trail are privately owned and not open to the public. The hike takes approximately 1.5 hours, offering a rewarding challenge, thanks to the steep access trail leading to a flat 3/4-mile loop atop the hill. For those needing a breather, benches are thoughtfully placed along the steep portion of the trail.
Take the route along M-22 heading north, leading you through the charming town of Leland until you reach the Clay Cliffs. This relatively new trail stretches for approximately 1.5 miles. The Clay Cliffs Natural Area promises a diverse adventure.
You’ll encounter both level ground and undulating terrain. Delight in a picturesque glimpse of Lake Leelanau from the serene meadow situated halfway along the trail. As you continue through the forested path, a captivating observation deck awaits, treating you to a panoramic view of Lake Michigan and the enchanting Manitou Islands.
Charming Towns to Explore Near Sleeping Bear Dunes
The areas surrounding the dunes are popular vacation spots, too, and well-worth a visit. Grand Traverse County, Benzie County and Leelanau County are home to fabulous beaches, lighthouses and even more fun beach towns. These towns include:
More Things to Do in Sleeping Bear Dunes
There are just some things that are M when you visit Sleeping Bear Dunes.
Try Some Artisan Chocolate from the Grocer’s Daughter in Empire MI
Stopping in to see what’s new in the Grocer’s Daughter always brings a tasty surprise: these are true artists and their medium is some of the world’s best chocolate, ethically-sourced from Ecuador. It’s pricey but well worth it. They’ve expanded from truffles and hand-dipped chocolates to baked good items and frozen treats like Fudgesicles too. One word: YUM.
Visit the Cherry Republic in Glen Arbor
Their motto is life, liberty, beaches, and pie, and it’s one you be sure to adopt after you visit this fun spot in Glen Arbor. A visit to this iconic northern Michigan spot is a bit like stepping into a cherry-themed amusement park . You’ll find cherry chocolates, cherry salsas, cherry jam, T-shirts with cherries on them…you get the picture. They’re all good, too. There’s also a wine tasting room, so plan accordingly.
Hotels Near Sleeping Bear Dunes
The Homestead – 1 Wood Ridge Road, Glen Arbor, Michigan 49636
Our favorite place to stay is The Homestead, a full-service resort located right in the middle of the dunes. It’s a very comfortable spot with a variety of lodging options and wonderful amenities including golfing; a luxury spa; pools; restaurants; skiing in the winter; a prime stretch of Lake Michigan beach and more. Most importantly, dogs are allowed in the Fiddler’s Pond rooms, so you can bring your best friend with you.
M22 Inn Empire – 8720 S Dorsey Rd, Empire, MI 49630
You’ll find clean, no-frills accomodations at this cozy inn in Empire.
Lakeshore Inn – 11730 S Lacore Rd, Empire, MI 49630
Located in downtown Empire, this is a perfect spot for exploring the dunes. You’ll find clean and comforatable rooms, and its an easy walk to the Lake Michigan beach.
Sylvan Inn – 6680 W Western Ave, Glen Arbor, MI 49636
This historic, 14-room bed and breakfast in downtown Glen Arbor is very clean and comfortable, with a delcious hot breakfats served daily.
Camping in Sleeping Bear Dunes
There are multiple campgrounds within the national park. Here are two of our favorites:
D.H. Day Campground – 8000 W. Harbor Hwy, Glen Arbor, MI 49636
Platte River Campground – 5685 Lake Michigan Rd, Honor, MI 49640
More Michigan Travel Destinations to Explore
- Ultimate Guide to Tahquamenon Falls
- Popular Camping Spots in the Upper Peninsula
- Find Your Best River Campgrounds
- Top Crosscountry Ski Trails in Michigan
- Explore the Porcupine Mountains
About the Author–
Bella DiMascio is a Content Editor for mymichiganbeach.com. She grew up in the Detroit suburb of Westland and later attended Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo where she majored in Communication Studies and minored in English: Writing. Creative writing has been a hobby and interest of Bella’s since she was in elementary school and she is thrilled to be using her talents to highlight the Great Lakes State. Outside of writing, Bella enjoys getting outside with her two Australian Shepherds, playing video games, and binging shows on Netflix.