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Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore: Ultimate Travel Guide

sleeping bear dunes national lakeshore best beach

Explore Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore

Did you know that Michigan is home to one of the country’s best-kept secrets? A beach voted the MOST beautiful place in America?

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.

sleeping bear dunes overlook

Visit Sleeping Bear Dunes

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.

About Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is more than just towering sand dunes – although they are pretty spectacular.

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.

north bar lake in sleeping bear dunes

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. Try it, you’ll LIKE it!

More to Explore in Sleeping Bear Dunes

There’s also islands within the dunes (South Manitou and North Manitou), as well as a historic village; a sprawling historic farm district; and a couple of cute beach towns to explore, Empire and Glen Arbor.

The areas surrounding the dunes are popular vacation spots, too, and well-worth a visit. Both Benzie County and Leelanau County are home to fabulous beaches, lighthouses and even more fun beach towns.

Use our guides to Frankfort, Leland and Suttons Bay to help you plan your trip.

PRO-TIP: You’ll want to take time to explore the area carefully: hike the sandy paths under canopies of hardwoods, and be awed at the gorgeous Lake Michigan vistas. We took a guided, interpretive tour with Sleeping Bear Tour Co., the only tour company in the park with permission to access designated “wilderness areas.”

How the Dunes Were Formed: The Legend of Sleeping Bear

Formed during the Ice Age when glaciers moved across North America, these majestic dunes have taken on mythical status among Michigan natives through a story passed down over the years.

Ojibwe legend holds the 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 Dune.

What to KNOW Before You GO to Sleeping Bear Dunes

There’s a few things to know before you start heading to the dunes.

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.

Sleeping bear dunes overlook is one of the top things to do in Michigan
Sleeping Bear Dunes Overlook

Sleeping Bear Dunes Must-Visits

There are just some things that are MUSTS when you visit Sleeping Bear Dunes.

We’re sure you’ll have a list of your own MUSTS by the time you’re done with you visit, here our favorite things to do when we’re in the dunes.

Catch a Sunset at Empire Beach
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.

Try Some Artisan Chocolate from the Grocer’s Daughter
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, sourced from the ethically-sourced from Ecuador.

It’s pricy but WORTH.EVERY.PENNY. They’ve expanded from truffles and hand-dipped chocolates to baked good items and frozen treats like Fudgesicles too. One word: YUM.

Visit Cherry Republic
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.

Kayak, Tube or Canoe the Platte River
The spot where the Little Platte River opens in to Lake Michigan is one of the prettiest spots in the entire state.

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 others, 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.

South Manitou and North Manitou Islands
North Manitou

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

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 a lighthouse. Camping is allowed here as well.

Reach both island 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.

Hotels in Sleeping Bear Dunes

WHERE TO STAY
You can find both hotels, BnB’s and campgrounds within the areas surrounding Sleeping Bear Dunes.

HOTELS in Sleeping Bear Dunes

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.

Here’s a few other places you might want to check out:

Empire

M22 Inn Empire
8720 S Dorsey Rd,
Empire, MI 49630
231-334-3413

Lakeshore Inn
11730 S Lacore Rd,
Empire, MI 49630
231-326-5145

Frankfort

Harbor Lights Resort
15 S, 2nd St,
Frankfort, MI 49635
231-352-9614

Hotel Frankfort
231 Main St,
Frankfort, MI 49635
231-352-8090

Glen Arbor

The Homestead
1 Woodridge Rd,
Glen Arbor, MI 49636
231-334-5000

Sylvan Inn
6680 W Western Ave,
Glen Arbor, MI 49636
231-334-4333

Camping in Sleeping Bear Dunes
There are multiple campgrounds within the national park, and there is an additional fee required. You can learn more about the fee and the campground here.

What to See in Sleeping Bear Dunes

The breathtaking natural beauty of this national lakeshore is almost overwhelming: the wide-open azure blue of Lake Michigan contrasted with vast silver sand dunes and the endless blue of the sky really is a sight to remember.

If you decided to vacation in Sleeping Bear Dunes, it’s helpful to have some destinations in mind before you go.

You’ll want to know what to see in the dunes, the best Lake Michigan beaches and which beach towns to check out.

sleeping bear point in sleeping bear dunes national lakeshore

More to See in Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore

Pierce Stocking Drive – This is a 7.5 mile scenic drive within the national lakeshore featuring amazing views of the dunes, Lake Michigan and Glen Lake, with a number of spots along the way to take in some unforgettable panoramic views.

Empire Bluff Trail – An easy 1.5 mile round-trip hike through a beech maple forest and over few hills leads to high bluff and boardwalk overlooking lake Michigan.

Pyramid Point Trail – 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.

Glen Haven Village – Visit this one-time “company town” and logging village and you’ll feel like you’ve stepped back in time. There’s some beautiful Lake Michigan beach to wander here, too.

Platte River Kayaking or Tubing – Take a kayaking or tubing trip down the lower Platte River through some beautiful duns 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.

For a more in-depth guide, take a look at our TOP 15 Things to do in Sleeping Bear Dunes.

sleeping bear dunes sunset

Visit Theses Beach Towns in Sleeping Bear Dunes

There’s more to Sleeping Bear Dunes than just the natural attractions.

You’ll also see historic lighthouses to admire, fresh local produce at farmers markets, wineries offering wine tours, great Michigan breweries, restaurants with waterfront dining, and charming boutiques.

All of this and more can be found in some of the most loveliest counties in the state: Benzie County and Leelanau County.

Benzie County

Frankfort, Benzonia and Beulah offer visitors a prime slice of natural Michigan beauty. The dunes themselves begin at the northern tip of Frankfort and extend north along the Lake Michigan coast, all the way into the lower portion of the Leelanau peninsula.

Here, you’ll find some of the most beautiful and clear inland lakes in all of Michigan: Crystal Lake, Platte Lake, Little Platte Lake, Lower Herring Lake and others.

Leelanau County

It’s one of the most-visited tourist destinations in Michigan for good reason.

In addition to dunes that tower up to 450 feet, lush forests and popular lakes like Glen Lake, Lake Leelanau, Little Traverse Lake and more, there’s towns like Empire, Glen Arbor, Glen Haven Historic Village and Leland.

Best Beaches in Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lake Shore

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”

ADA accessible beaches in traverse city

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 michigan

Dog-Friendly Beaches in Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore

Dogs are allowed on these beaches:

Empire Village Beach Park

Please note that dogs are allowed in other specific areas of the park.

Click here to see a detailed map of dog-friendly trails and beach areas.

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.