22 Things To See at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore
It only takes a few moments of soaking in the views from the top of the Sleeping Bear Dunes to realize why this area was named the Most Beautiful Place in America by Good Morning America in 2011. The park is blessed with 35 miles of stunning Lake Michigan shoreline, with some of the tallest and largest sand dunes in the entire Great Lakes region. Visitors will find endless opportunities for outdoor recreation, two campgrounds, the Manitou Islands, scenic drives, clear inland lakes, historic homes, lighthouses, villages and more. Over the past few years this has become one of our favorite places not only in the Lower Peninsula, but in the entire state. We put together a list of 22 Things to See at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore to help you plan your trip. Head over to https://www.nps.gov/ for more information about park fees, rules and regulations as well as special events planned this year for the National Park Service’s 100th anniversary.
Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive – this 7.4-mile drive features 12 interpretive stops focusing on the formation of the dunes, dune ecology, history of the area and national lakeshore and more. Some of the best views of the Sleeping Bear Dunes come from this one-way loop, which begins with the covered bridge shown above. The scenic drive also provides access to trails that go over and through the dunes, as well as multiple picnic areas.
Lake Michigan Overlook – one of the highlights of the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive is stopping at this scenic area that features a viewing platform with amazing views of the dunes. Some brave visitors may wish to make the descent down to Lake Michigan, but as a sign warns, it may take up to an hour to make the trip back up. The overlook is 450 feet above the lake, and this is stop #9 on the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive.
Glen Lake – visitors flock to Glen Lake due to its warm temperatures, clear and pure waters and sandy bottom. This is a great place for swimming, boating, fishing and other activities. M-22 splits the lake into two parts, and a picnic area on Little Glen Lake (west) just off of M-109 is a great spot for a rest when visiting the park.
Dune Climb – one of the most popular stops for day trip visitors in the dune climb, where you can travel to the top of the dunes and run back down. There are restrooms and picnic facilities here, as well as access to the Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail. A hiking trail leads to Lake Michigan over the dunes, but can take up to three hours round trip – prepare accordingly. The Dune Climb can be found north of Empire on the west side of M-109.
Visitor Center – the Philip A. Hart visitor center is located in the village of Empire, and it should be one of the first stops for all park visitors. Here you’ll find park passes/vehicle permits, camping information, maps, a gift shop and more. Interactive nature displays and frequent programs will appeal to younger visitors. Located on W. Front St. (M-72), just east of the intersection with M-22.
Pyramid Point – a short, moderately challenging hike leads to amazing views of dunes and the Manitou Islands at Pyramid Point. Most people only visit the lookout here, but the full trail is almost three miles long and passes through fields and beech-maple forest. Trailhead parking is off of Basch Rd. in the Port Oneida Historic District.
Platte River Point – one of the park’s most popular day use areas is found where the Platte River empties into Lake Michigan, just down the road from the Platte River campground. The river is popular for tubing and kayaking, and the point features a sandy beach with excellent swimming water and stunning dune views. From M-22, follow Lake Michigan Rd. to its end.
Empire Bluffs – a popular day hike near the visitor center is the Empire Bluff Trail, a 1.5 mile round trip of moderate difficulty that provides stunning views of Lake Michigan and the Sleeping Bear Dunes. Six numbered posts correspond with a trail map that gives information on the surrounding area’s history and ecology. Trailhead is off of Wilco Rd. southwest of the village of Empire.
Port Oneida Rural Historic District – farming took place in this area for more than 100 years, and some incredibly well-preserved examples of “land use practices, architecture and evolution of agricultural technology common to subsistence farms of the upper Great Lakes region” can be found in the Port Oneida Rural Historic District near M-22. More information at: https://www.nps.gov/slbe/planyourvisit/portoneida.htm.
Good Harbor Beach – visitors to Good Harbor Bay will not only find a spacious swimming beach, but also a 2.6-mile hiking/skiing loop between Lake Michigan and Little Traverse Lake that spans several different kinds of dune and forest ecosystems. Take CR-669 west from M-22 to its end.
Glen Haven – this restored port village features a popular swimming beach, a historic tug boat, a former cherry canning facility that has been turned into a museum, a blacksmith shop, and a general store. Located off of M-109 west of Glen Arbor and north of Empire.
Maritime Museum – just down the road from the Glen Haven beach you will find a restored Coast Guard Station and boathouse, filled with displays and mementos that help tell the story of what it was like to work for the lifesaving service here. Open from Memorial Day to Labor Day each summer, the museum also offers historical re-enactments of the breeches buoy rescue drill.
Dune Overlook – the third stop on the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive provides views of the Manitou Islands, Pyramid Point, and more. The 1.5-mile long Cottonwood Trail can be reached here, and it provides an interesting look at dune vegetation and its role as a stabilizer.
D.H. Day Campground – you can’t reserve sites (they’re handed out on a first come, first serve basis each day) and there are no electricity or shower facilities (just pit toilets) yet the D.H. Day Campground is almost always full and is a favorite camping spot for many visitors. There are 88 sites with plenty of space and the seclusion some are looking for, as well as access to an amazing stretch of Lake Michigan beach. The campground is located on W. Harbor Hwy., off of M-109 to the west of Glen Arbor.
Platte River Campground – those looking for a modern camping experience will find more than 130 sites at the Platte River campground, where some sites have electrical hookups. Showers and bathroom facilities are spread throughout the campground, and the tent sites without electric hookups are still beautiful and spacious. The Platte River, one of the park’s most popular spots for floating/tubing and kayaking, can be reached from multiple drop-off points less than a mile from the campground.
South Manitou Island – this uninhabited island is a favorite for both day hikers and backcountry campers, who take a ferry there from Leland to see a historic lighthouse, the wreck of the Francisco Morazan, sand dunes, an old growth forest of Northern white cedars, secluded beaches and more. Find out more about transportation at: http://manitoutransit.com/.
North Manitou Island – this much larger island is a dream location for backcountry campers looking for a remote and secluded wilderness experience. More than 20 miles of hiking trails await visitors, with forests, dunes, fields and remnants of old farms among the sights to take in while looking for a secluded wilderness campsite or heading to the Village Campground. Freelance designer and ArtPrize artist Michael Ingle named this as one of his 5 Favorite Places in Michigan. Find out more at http://manitoutransit.com/ or at https://www.nps.gov/slbe/planyourvisit/northmanitouisland.htm.
Sleeping Bear Point Trail – this 2.8 mile trail has a spur that leads to a stunning and rarely busy stretch of dunes and Lake Michigan beach. The main trail passes through rolling dunes that are surrounded by various kinds of dune grasses, shrubs, and wildflowers. It also passes a ghost forest and the Devil’s Hole. Parking can be found by following signs from Glen Haven to the Maritime Museum, then continuing on for about a quarter mile.
Loon Lake – a big lake with a sandy bottom, Loon Lake is also one of the few spots in the national lakeshore that allows motor boats. It is a popular spot for fishing and it has a boat ramp, picnic pavilion and restrooms. The parking area is off of M-22, just south of the Platte River and the Riverside Canoe Trips store.
Esch Beach – one of our favorite beaches at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Esch Beach features plenty of sandy frontage on Lake Michigan near where Otter Creek empties into the lake. The Empire Bluffs provide an amazing backdrop to the north. You can find this beach by taking Esch Rd. west from its intersection with M-22 and following it to its end.
Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail – this paved, multi-use trail will eventually run all the way from Empire to the north end of the national lakeshore. It is currently completed from the Dune Climb to Port Oneida, passing many of the park’s top attractions along the way. Most parking lots have access to this trail, which is great for those looking to explore the park on a bicycle, rollerblades, or on foot. Stay up to date on trail progress and construction/closures by visiting http://sleepingbeartrail.org/.