Your Sleeping Bear Dunes Vacation With Kids
Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, located along the shores of Lake Michigan (in northern Michigan) is a treasure to behold. This park boasts majestic lake vistas, sweeping dune panoramas, crystal clear rivers and emerald-colored inland lakes, islands, and hiking trails cut through hardwood forests.
The park is not continuous; rather, it is comprised of the Platte River District to the south and the Leelanau District to the north, with the town of Empire, Michigan in the middle. The Leelanau District is where you’ll find the towering dunes, while the Platte River District is flatter with a meandering river snaking along to Lake Michigan.
The National Park Service operates this lake shore park, so many of the programs, signage and policies you see at National Parks around the country will be familiar to you. For example, the Junior Ranger Program is available at Sleeping Bear Dunes.
While the park is open year-round, summer is one of the most popular times for a visit. With that in mind, I’ve put together my recommendations for visiting Sleeping Bear Dunes with Kids during summer vacation.
BEFORE YOU LEAVE HOME
Sleeping Bear Dunes is in a remote part of Michigan. Cell service is spotty. While there are small markets and the occasional gas station, you will be hard-pressed to find specialty medications, electronics and other items common in a city. Pack plenty of insect repellent, sunscreen, rain gear and any other items you’ll need for your adventure before setting out.
START AT THE VISITOR’S CENTER
The small village of Empire, Michigan, is home to Sleeping Bear Dune’s Visitor Center and this is a great place to start your adventure. To enter the park, you’ll need to purchase a pass for $15 (good for 7 days) or $30 (good for 1 year). You can get your pass here, as well as maps and materials for the Junior Ranger program.
WHERE TO HIKE, BIKE AND KAYAK WITH KIDS
There are miles and miles of trails at the Sleeping Bear Dunes that you can explore with your kids. Our family loves mixing hiking, biking and kayaking into a visit at the Dunes, and we have favorite places for each activity- although it’s hard to go wrong, no matter where you decide to play.
THE FAMOUS DUNE CLIMB – *Must do* A trip to the Sleeping Bear Dunes with kids is not complete without a stop at the Dune Climb. It’s a giant sandbox that you can climb up and run down and dig, dig, dig.
Most people do not realize that the Dune Climb is also the starting point for a long, arduous hike over the sand out to Lake Michigan. I do not recommend this hike for kids, especially in hot weather. Rather, climb up the dune climb to the lookout bench (left side of the dune) and be rewarded with Lake Michigan and Glen Lake views.
CAUTION: This is a spot where you can easily lose your kids. From the bottom of the dune climb, it’s easy to send kids up and not realize there is a vast world at the top. Give kids specific instructions on how far they can go by using landmarks.
ALLIGATOR HILL TRAIL – Hit hard by the windstorm in 2015, this trail system is still not fully open. No matter- you can hike to the overlook and the “easy” 3 mile loop was just enough for our 5 and 9 year old. You can’t beat the views from the top.
Lake Michigan Lookout at the top of Alligator Hill
PYRAMID POINT TRAIL – Once again, get ready to climb. This hike takes you to the top of a bluff, where you overlook Lake Michigan and the Manitou Islands. It’s 1.2 miles to the top of the bluff and back.
EMPIRE BLUFF TRAIL – This 1.5 mile hike also starts out with a climb. Once you reach the Lake Michigan overlook, there’s a boardwalk with great photo opps all around.
If you didn’t bring bikes along, you can rent them at The Cyclery in Glen Arbor. From there, I recommend riding on the new Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail. There are many places to get on the trail, but my favorite section is the 4-mile ride from the Dune Climb parking lot into Glen Arbor where an ice cream cone stop is a refreshing treat. If you’d like to ride one way on the trail and get a ride back, you can use the local bike-n-ride program to hitch a ride.
KAYAKING / TUBING
The Crystal River and the Platte River are gems. Both rivers are shallow and easy for kids to navigate. On hot days, tubing down the lower Platte river is a refreshing pastime. It’s also a very popular activity, so if you want to rent tubes or kayaks, think about reserving them ahead of time at Riverside Canoe Trips.
Platte River empties into Lake Michigan, and playing the the lake or river at the end is half of the fun, so be sure to plan extra time for this into your visit. Some people even pack a grill into their canoe for a beach-side BBQ. I say, if you can keep it dry, you’ve earned it! This is a highlight of any trip to the Sleeping Bear Dunes with Kids!
PIERCE STOCKING SCENIC DRIVE
This 7-mile scenic driving route takes you to spectacular overlooks of Lake Michigan, Glen Lake, and the Sleeping Bear Dunes. Two picnic areas are also on the route. Get a brochure at the entrance to the drive. There are 12 designated stops – but here are the ones you have to do if you’re visiting with kids:
1- Photo opp at the covered bridge. It’s just pretty!
2 – Glen Lake Overlook. Your first glimpse of the vast beauty found at the Sleeping Bear Dunes. Take pictures!
3 – Dune Overlook.
9 – Lake Michigan Overlook. Park and walk to the platform overlooking Lake Michigan. You’re treated to views of the dunes, Manitou Islands and splendid lakeshore views. It’s not recommended that you hike down. The climb back up can take 2 hours and is VERY strenuous.
GLEN ARBOR STOPS
As I mentioned earlier, Glen Arbor is a great place to stop for ice cream. At the Pine Cone, they serve Ashby’s ice cream and it’s pretty delicious.
Also check out Cherry Republic’s campus – they have a restaurant (with cherry-flavored ice cream options, of course), a pop and wine tasting room, and a store filled with yummy cherry products that you can sample and purchase.
Glen Arbor has a few restaurants – that tend to be very busy in the summer – as well cute shops, a market, a playground and a post office.
LAKE MICHIGAN BEACH PARK PLAYGROUND BREAK
Located on Lake Michigan in the village of Empire, this park has the best playground around. At $1/hour for parking, it is affordable entertainment. The beach is sandy and well kept. Bathrooms and picnic areas round out this great park. Located 3 blocks west of M-22 in Empire, MI 49630
RELIVE THE OLDEN DAYS AT GLEN HAVEN
Glen Haven is an authentic and old “village” showcasing life along the Lake Michigan shoreline from days gone by.
You can see a rescue “gun” fire a rescue line daily at 3pm if you visit the Maritime Museum in Glen Haven.
In Glen Haven you’ll also find a General Store, working Blacksmith Shop, and the Cannery Boat Museum.
SLEEPING BEAR DUNES AREA FUN AFTER DARK
This area in Michigan doesn’t stop just because the sun goes down. Consider these Sleeping Bear Dunes Area nightlife options:
Beach Bards – Every Friday night in the summer, the Beach Bards gather to recite poems, tell stories and enjoy some music around a big bonfire next to Lake Michigan at the Leelanau School near Glen Arbor. One Old Homestead Road Glen Arbor, MI 49636-9720 (not located within the park boundaries)
Cherry Bowl Drive-In – While not officially in the Sleeping Bear Dunes, this nearby drive-in movie theatre is a treat. With 50’s style mini-golf, a playground and popcorn, hotdogs and ice cream, your kids will love this place. Plus, you always get two movies for the price of one. Movies start at dusk. TIP: Bring sleeping bags or blankets to cover up with- it can get chilly up north at night. Also, insect repellent is helpful certain times of the year. 9812 Honor Highway, Honor, MI 49640. (not located within the park boundaries)
Observatory – Open on Wednesday and Thursday nights from Summer Solstice through Labor Day, the Lanphier Observatory sports a 14″ Celestron Telescope. At the Leelanau School near Glen Arbor. One Old Homestead Road Glen Arbor, MI 49636-9720. (not located within the park boundaries)
Starry Night in the Dark Park – Have you ever been in a place where it was so dark the stars seemed to pop out of the sky? That’s what it’s like at the Sleeping Bear Dunes on a clear night. Where can you best see the stars? One of my favorite spots is at the Dune Climb, but any Lake Michigan beach will be wonderful, too. You’ll be surprised at just how much the stars light up the evening!
WHERE TO STAY IN SLEEPING BEAR DUNES WITH KIDS
Lodging options within the park are tricky, as they are few and far between and tend to book up far in advance. If you’re looking for peak July or August months it’s best to book your lodging at least 6 months out.
We camped at the Platte River Campground, which is operated by the National Park Service. It’s a lovely wooded campground. Sites are spaced far enough from each other to afford a good amount of privacy. There are also walk-in sites available… be aware that you are not allowed to roll any items into these sites… all coolers and equipment must be carried in and carried out. On the plus side, this campground has hot showers and RV hookups and is in a great location if you want to tube or kayak the Pine River. Reservations open six months prior to your visit’s start date.
D.H. Day Campground is close to Lake Michigan and Glen Haven and offers rustic camping. During the summer season, there are nightly ranger-led evening programs at this campground. Campsites are available on a first-come-first-served basis only – No Reservations Allowed, so it is best to arrive early in the day to win a campsite. Fee required.
There are also campgrounds outside of the park that require a bit more driving. Holiday Park Campground, just outside of Traverse City, is a favorite for many families.
Hotels and B&B’s
Hotels and B&B’s are also in limited supply in the National Park area, although there are a few to be had. One of the most popular is the Homestead Resort, just minutes away from Glen Arbor and right outside the park borders. The resort has a pool, restaurant, and provides kid’s activities in season.
Check other hotel prices and availability in Glen Arbor.
Chances are, you will not be staying right in Empire or Glen Arbor. That’s okay. You can find accommodations in nearby towns, too, if you’re willing to drive a bit. It’s common for people staying in Beulah or Traverse City to drive over and visit the dunes for the day.
There are also a considerable number of cottages for rent in the Sleeping Bear Dunes. It makes sense to explore this option if you’re staying in the area for a week or more and have a larger family.
Check vacation rental prices and availability in Empire | Glen Arbor
You can also look on AirBnB or VRBO for vacation rentals.