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Sleeping Bear Dunes Winter Vacation Guide

winter in sleeping bear dunes

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Winter at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore

Sleeping Bear Dunes Visitor Center in Empire
9922 Front Street, Empire, MI 49630

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is one of the most well-known treasures of Michigan in the warmer months of the year, but many people don’t realize all of the things to do in Sleeping Bear Dunes in the winter.

Northern Michigan is a site to see any time of year, but the dunes are a must-do activity for the whole family in the wintertime. There’s no need to stay cooped up inside when you have 65 miles of shoreline and 100 miles of trails stretching from Empire to Glen Arbor to experience. 

Located just 30 minutes from Traverse City, Sleeping Bear Dunes is perfect for a winter romantic getaway,  a kid friendly outdoor adventure or even family reunions  and holiday events.

If you’re looking for some perfect winter trip ideas, follow the winter trail to Leelanau County and the snowcovered dunes of Sleeping Bear Dunes. I’m sharing a visitors guide to Sleeping Bear Dunes winter activities, so get ready for some pure Michigan fun.  

sleeping bear dunes winter

Planning Your Trip to Sleeping Bear Dunes in Winter

Since the dunes are a national park, the entrance fee is $25.00 unless you have a park pass on your vehicle. Prices vary for motorcycles and individuals, so be sure to check out their website for more information on passes and any last-minute closures (rare but worth looking out for!)

Don’t forget to stop by the visitor’s center on your way in to the park. The Philip A. Hart Visitor Center is where you can find brochures, maps, and park rangers to tell you about the history of the park and other helpful information. A souvenir is a must on this trip and the bookstore and museum have great options for keepsakes. 

sleeping bear dunes in winter
Blue Ice piling up along the lakeshore in Sleeping Bear Dunes
sleeping bear dunes national lakeshore

What to Do in Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in the Winter

The Dune Climb

First and foremost, when it comes to Sleeping Bear Dunes, the dune climb is a must. This is the most well-known hiking trail in the entire park, and it’s a badge of honor for anyone who completes it. Luckily, snow is easier than sand when it comes to hiking, so you’re able to enjoy yourself even more. 

Winter Hiking

There are plenty of trails all over the park, so remember to dress warmly and bring some trusty boots. The views are breathtaking, and the trails vary in difficulty so you will be able to choose between a leisurely stroll or a more challenging, but satisfying, trek. 

PRO-TIP: The Platte Plains Trail is located just south of Empire has almost 15 miles of hiking and skiing trails  for winter sporting enthusiasts. 

Best Sleeping bear Dunes Camping and campgrounds

Empire Bluff Trail

The Empire Bluff Trail is a picture-perfect site to see all year round, but especially so in the winter months. This mile-and-a-half out-and-back trail has amazing views of snowy trees, open fields, and of course plenty of cliff-side water views. 

Cross Country Skiing

Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail is the best place for cross-country skiing in all of northern Michigan. Cross country is way more fun than I expected it to be, but ever since I found it I’ve done it every winter. When I get to ski in Sleeping Bear Dunes it’s even better.

The Heritage Trail is a groomed trail that is perfect for a skier of any skill level, and it’s a great time no matter how many times you’ve been.  


The dunes and open fields all around the park are prime snowshoeing opportunities. The park offers guided snowshoe hikes as well as self-guided hikes via the NPS Sleeping Bear Dunes app on your phone.

Trails include Old Indian Trail, Platte Plains, Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive, Windy Moraine, Alligator Hill, and Bay View Trail. Be sure to stop by the visitor center to grab any trail maps you need. Watch for glimpses of Glen Lake, and the Manitou Islands in Lake Michigan.

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Before embarking on the dune climb, grab a tube or sled and enjoy the ride down. Anytime the dune is covered in snow the park designates a portion of the dune just for sledding. You won’t be able to find a better sledding hill in all of Michigan. 

Fat Tire Biking

Fat tire bikes are specifically designed for “off-season” terrain like snow and ice, so fat tire bikes are perfect for the dunes in the winter. Hop on one of these bicycles, with their wide wheels and low tire pressure, to traverse the snowy dunes effortlessly. 

Ice Fishing

As one of the most popular winter activities in our state, ice fishing is always a great option when visiting the great lakes. The park allows the use of a power auger with a permit on Lake Michigan, Loon Lake, School Lake, Bass Lake, and Tucker Lake. You can pick up an ice auger permit for free at the visitor center. 

Wildlife Sightings

The wildlife in northern Michigan is at its peak in the dunes, which are home to over 50 species of mammals. You can hope to see whitetail deer, red foxes, and snowshoe hares among other adorable woodland creatures. There is also a chance of seeing black bears, bobcats, and even cougars. 


For the rugged adventure types who don’t mind camping in the winter, Platte River Campground is open year-round. There are more than 40 spots available from October through April, while the rest of the spots are closed for the more fair-weathered campers to return in the warmer months.  

pierce stocking drive

Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive

The scenic 7.5-mile twisty loop in the dunes is well known for the incredible views of the dunes, the water, and plenty of wildlife sightings.

The loop is even better in the wintertime when it is closed to automobiles due to the driving conditions, but open to skiers, snowshoers, and just the casual wanderer. There is a guide to Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive available in the visitor center. 

More to Do in Sleeping Bear Area

  • Strap on the skis for some downhill skiing at The Homestead in Glen Arbor.
  • Explore the historic restored port village of Glen Haven in the winter. It’s pretty in the summer and surrounded by fall color, and even more picturesque with snow covering the ground around the bright red cannery. 
  • Check out the panoramic views of Sleeping Bear Bay with some waterfront dining at Blu, one of the top Glen Arbor restaurants.
  • The Grand Traverse area is home to great local craft breweries: try one of the beer tours or make your own with our guide to the best breweries in Traverse City. 
guide to empire michigan
ultimate guide to glen arbor mi

Where to Stay in Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore

Since the park is situated right in the middle of two of the most charming towns in Northern Michigan, there are plenty of places to stay, including winter rentals near Sleeping Bear Dunes. If you’re planning on staying in Glen Arbor you can choose between several great hotels and inns. 

M22 Inn
5793 S Ray St, Glen Arbor, MI 49636

A very cozy two-story colonial-style house that feels like home. The M22 Inn’s location in downtown Glen Arbor makes it an easy walk to both Lake Michigan as well as the shops and attractions like The Cherry Republic.

Sylvan Inn
6680 W Western Ave, Glen Arbor, MI 49636

Although the house itself is gorgeous and the rooms are very cozy, their delicious breakfast steals the show. The Sylvan Inn is centrally located in downtown Glen Arbor, too.

Empire Lakeshore Inn
11730 S Lacore Rd, Empire, MI 49630

The Empire Lakeshore Inn is an amazing place to stay that just happens to be next to one of the best sandwich shops in Michigan, the Shipwreck Café. It’s a very clean and comfortable spot, with a nice garden terrace, too.

Cottonwood Inn Bed & Breakfast
9583 W Front St, Empire, MI 49630

This precious little B&B has unique rooms, cozy beds, and idyllic views all winter long. Each room at the Cottonwood Inn comes with a private bathroom ,and you’ll find roomy suites big enough for a family.

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About the Author-

Casey Johanson is a senior at Grand Valley State University and is passionate about writing and reading. An avid traveler around Michigan, Casey enjoys gardening and running. Her favorite places are typically the hidden beaches and secret scenic overlooks throughout Michigan that most people don’t know about. She loves trying to find places that people haven’t been before and loves writing about those places even more.