Unlock the Hidden Gems and Thrills of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore
Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, located along the shores of Lake Michigan in northern Michigan, is a premiere summer vacation destination.
With 35 miles of Lake Michigan shoreline, magnificent Michigan sand dunes, and covering over 70,000 acres, this park is more than a dot on a map. It’s a destination.
If you’re a nature lover, you know that there are few things more awe-inspiring than Michigan’s natural beauty. If you’re looking for the ultimate outdoor experience, you won’t want to miss Sleeping Bear Dunes.
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You’ll Never Be Bored at Sleeping Bear Dunes Michigan
Hike, swim, boat, or camp – there are plenty of opportunities to enjoy Michigan’s majestic dune and lake vistas. Imagine yourself scaling towering sand dunes, paddling crystal clear rivers, and taking in the emerald-colored inland lakes.
Look forward to scenic hiking trails that culminate in breathtaking Lake Michigan views. Or swim and relax on the beach, right where the river meets the lake.
Spending time at Sleeping Bear Dunes is an unforgettable, iconic Michigan experience that should be on everyone’s bucket list.
About Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore
Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore can be found in the northwest part of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula, near the town of Empire. The park includes North and South Manitou Islands, which are situated off the coast.
Its remote location means that visitors won’t just happen upon the park. Planning a trip is part of the experience, especially if you want to visit one of the islands.
Legend of the Sleeping Bear
Historically, the Sleeping Bear Dunes were home to the Anishinaabe people, who inhabited and hunted the area before the arrival of Europeans in the 1600s. Ultimately, settlers removed the indigenous people from the land.
Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore owes its name to a specific dune (the Sleeping Bear Dune) that Anishinaabe people used as a landmark.
Storytelling played a crucial role in passing knowledge and meaning across generations, preserving the rich heritage of the land.
One version of the story goes like this: Long ago, along the Wisconsin shoreline, a mother bear and her two cubs were driven into Lake Michigan by a raging forest fire. The bears swam for many hours, but soon the cubs tired. Mother bear reached the shore first and climbed to the top of a high bluff to watch and wait for her cubs. The cubs drowned within sight of the shore. The Great Spirit created two islands to mark the spot where the cubs disappeared and then created a solitary dune to represent the eternal vigil of mother bear.
Becoming a National Park
Sleeping Bear Dunes became a National Lakeshore in 1970 due to its stunning beauty, ecological significance and the need to stave off the increase in development along the coast that threatened public access to the shoreline.
Putting the park in place was not easy. Land owners fought land acquisition attempts at every turn, resulting in a long, expensive, litigious journey for National Park Service management.
Today’s visitors reap the rewards of the conservation efforts of those from decades past.
If You Only Have One Day at Sleeping Bear Dunes
If you can only spend one day at this Michigan destination, here’s how to make the most of it.
This one-day Sleeping Bear Dunes itinerary will take you to the must-do, can’t-miss sand dune attractions, including:
- Pierce Stocking Drive. Be sure to stop at the #9 and go to the Lake Michigan Overlook platform.
- The Dune Climb. Climb up to the first tier of the dune climb to get fabulous lake views. Or visit after dark for stargazing.
- Hike the Empire Bluff Trail. You’ll be treated to panoramic views from a windswept boardwalk towering over Lake Michigan.
- Visit a beach. The beaches here are varied in features and amenities but they are all epic.
- Glen Arbor. Lunch and ice cream places are found here, including the delightful Cherry Republic, serve up scoops in this charming little town. Peruse the shops, buy and buy a souvenir before you head out.
Junior Ranger Program
The National Park Service operates this lakeshore 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.
And, if you have a 4th grader, your family can get in free to Sleeping Bear Dunes!
10 Best Things to Do at Sleeping Bear Dunes Michigan
If you have more time for a visit – hopefully two days or more – you have so many things to explore.
While the park is open year-round, summer is one of the most popular times for a visit.
With that in mind, we’ve put together recommendations for visiting Sleeping Bear Dunes with over the summer.
1 – Philip A. Hart Visitor Center
Philip A. Hart Visitor Center for Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore – 9922 W Front St, Empire, MI 49630
The Sleeping Bear Dune’s Visitor Center in Empire, MI is a great place to begin your adventure.
You can buy the park pass that you need to enter the park here. 2023 rates: $25 (good for 7 days) or $45 (good for 1 year).
Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is now cashless at all staffed locations for the 2023 season. Nine different self-pay locations are available throughout the park for visitors who don’t have a debit/credit card.
You can also pick up maps and materials for the Junior Ranger program, ask questions, use the restrooms, and explore the exhibits.
2 – The Famous Dune Climb
Dune Climb at Sleeping Bear Dunes
6748 S Dune Hwy, Glen Arbor, MI 49636
This is a Must do! A trip to the Sleeping Bear Dunes Michigan 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.
PSA – From the bottom of the dune climb, it’s easy to send kids up and not realize there is a vast world of sand at the top. Also – The Dune Climb is the starting point for a long (2-4 hours), hot hike over sandy, hilly terrain out to Lake Michigan.
3 – Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive at Sleeping Bear Dunes
Grab a free brochure at the entrance and plan on 2-3 hours to complete the tour. (A park pass is needed to access the scenic drive.)
PS – You can bike the drive. If you opt for this, know that it’s extremely hilly.
There are 12 designated stops on the drive. We’re highlighting a few that are a must-do if you’re visiting with kids or family.
A beloved photo stop. Pull off and take a pic with the lovely wooden bridge in the background.
Glen Lake Overlook
After a steep climb through hardwood forest, you’ll come to a pull-off for stop #2.
Hop out and feast your eyes on the turquoise waters of Glen Lake in the distance – It’s your first glimpse of the vast beauty found at the Sleeping Bear Dunes. Take pictures!
Lake Michigan Overlook
Park and walk to the platform overlooking Lake Michigan (this is stop #9.) You’re treated to views of the dunes, Manitou Islands, and splendid lakeshore vista.
While you can climb down the massive sand dune at this overlook, it’s not recommended. It might only take you 15 minutes to get to the bottom, but the climb back up can take two hours and is very strenuous.
There’s a hefty rescue fee if you hike down and get stranded.
4 – Sleeping Bear Dunes Hiking
There are miles and miles of trails at the Sleeping Bear Dunes that you can explore on walks with your family.
We love mixing hiking, biking, and kayaking into a visit to the Dunes, and we have favorite places for each activity. Here are some of our favorite hikes with payoffs in the park:
Alligator Hill Trail
Alligator Hill Trail – Stocking Rd, Empire, MI 49630
This is another top hike in the area.
Our 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 Lake Michigan views from the top of the Alligator Hill Trail.
Pyramid Point Trail
Pyramid Point Hiking Trail – Basch Rd, Maple City, MI 4966
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.
The Pyramid Point Hiking Trail is 1.2 miles to the top of the bluff and back or you can do a 2.7-mile loop.
Empire Bluff Trail
Empire Bluff Trail
Wilco Rd, Empire, MI 49630
The Empire Bluff hiking trail is probably my favorite hike, especially at sunset.
It’s an out-and-back 1.5-mile hike that starts with a climb and then takes you over a rolling, wooded pathway. Once you reach the Lake Michigan overlook, there’s a boardwalk with great photo ops all around.
Plan on about 45 minutes of walking.
This hike is only two miles from the Sleeping Bear Visitor Center in Empire, MI.
If you’re feeling adventurous, you can make it to Empire Bluff overlook via an alternate trail through the Sleeping Bear Dunes Wilderness. It starts at Treat Farm Trail, is about 4 miles long, and requires walking on a trail with a few steep drop offs.
The payoff? Stunning Lake Michigan views while you traverse the mile-long bluff-side stretch.
Do this hike at your own risk – you’re literally in the wilderness on this trail.
Sleeping Bear Point Trail
W Sleeping Bear Dr, Glen Arbor, MI 49636
This off-the-beaten path hike is totally unique. Start out in a dense cedar/jackpine forest.
The steep climb up takes you to a brilliant, endless dune plateau of rolling dunes, steep dune cliffs and sand dune blowouts (bowl-shaped). You’ll be greeted by the aquamarine waters of the Manitou Passage at the end.
Get ready to experience a ghost forest – remnants of once-living trees that were swallowed by the shifting sand dunes ages ago, only to be revealed again.
2.8 mile loop with 0.5-mile spur off to the beach.
Treat Farm Trail
6748 S Dune Hwy, Empire, MI 49630
This hidden gem hike is an alternative pathway to Empire Bluff, with a whole different perspective!
Start at an abandoned farm, hike through meadows and woods to a fantastic finish at Old Baldy Dune. Two miles total (one mile in, one mile out) on a relatively flat, hard-packed dirt trail.
5 – Kayaking, Canoeing & River Tubing Sleeping Bear Dunes
Want to paddle or float the day away at Sleeping Bear Dunes Michigan? You’re in luck!
The Crystal River and the Platte River are Northern Michigan gems located in or near the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.
Both rivers are shallow and easy to navigate, but the Platte has the upper hand because it’s great for river-tubing.
Float or paddle this river for the quintessential Sleeping Bear Dunes experience.
On hot days, kayaking, taking an SUP or tubing down the lower Platte River is a refreshing way to pass the time.
The Platte River empties into Lake Michigan, and playing in the lake or river at the mouth of the river is half of the fun.
Be sure to leave time for swimming (and hunting for petoskey stones) at the end of your visit.
Some people even pack a grill into their canoe for a beach-side BBQ!
This is a highlight of any trip to Sleeping Bear Dunes Michigan with your family.
Sleeping Bear Dunes Kayak, Tube, SUP & Canoe Rentals
Reserve equipment in advance for best availability.
Crystal clear waters in a shallow river with tight turns and obstacles.
Navigate the twisty river and enjoy the forest, wildlife, and the sandy river bottom on this 2-3 hour trip.
Due to the obstacles in the river, this trip is not recommended for tubing.
End in downtown Glen Arbor, a great place for ice cream or a bite to eat.
6 – Beaches at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore
The Sleeping Bear Dunes Michigan National Lakeshore serves up plenty of beachy options. These picturesque gems hiding amongst the dunes offer sugar sand beaches and clear waters, making for a day of sun and delightful summer fun.
Many families choose to swim at beaches where rivers empty into Lake Michigan. The river water tends to be warmer than the big lake, and oftentimes there are shallower wading areas available.
Safety Note: Visitors are often shocked at the sheer size of Lake Michigan. It looks – and can act – like an ocean.
Calm waters can be overtaken by large waves quite suddenly, and rip currents are dangerous and must be respected. If you’re planning to swim in Lake Michigan, personal flotation devices (PFDs) are a good idea, especially for children.
7 – Go Back in Time at Glen Haven, MI
Relive the old days at Glen Haven Village.
Glen Haven is an authentic and old “village” showcasing logging life along the Lake Michigan shoreline from days gone by.
In Glen Haven, you’ll also find a General Store, a working Blacksmith Shop, and the Cannery Boat Museum.
8 – Maritime Museum
You can see a rescue “gun” fire a rescue line daily at 3 PM if you visit the Maritime Museum just down the road from Glen Haven.
You’ll also learn about the history of the U.S. Life-Saving Service, U.S. Coast Guard, and Great Lakes shipping.
9 – Biking Sleeping Bear Dunes Michigan
Hardcore bikers will want to test their mettle on the climbs on Pierce Stocking Drive.
The rest of us will enjoy riding on the newish, paved, scenic – and relatively flat – Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail.
Sleeping Bear Dunes Bike Rentals
Bike rentals and service spots in Sleeping Bear Dunes
sleeping bear heritage trail
21+ miles of trail and shared roadway in Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore
The non-motorized Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail connects attractions throughout the Sleeping Bear Dunes Michigan Lakeshore.
The surroundings vary greatly from one segment to another, from old-growth forests to sand dunes to Lake Michigan. Experience paved surfaces, crushed gravel, and boardwalks on this trail system.
There are many places to get on the trail, but our favorite section is the 2-mile ride from the Dune Climb parking lot to Glen Haven Historic Village.
The ride takes you over a few small hills and through old cedar forests and varied vegetation.
Go another two miles, and you’re at Glen Arbor where an ice cream 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.
10 – Sleeping Bear Dunes Michigan at Night
This area in Michigan doesn’t stop when the sun goes down.
Here are some great Sleeping Bear Dunes Michigan lakeshore nightlife options, including Sleeping Bear Dunes stargazing!
stargazing in the dark park
Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is a designated 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 our favorite spots to go stargazing is at the Dune Climb – open 24 hours a day – but any Lake Michigan beach will be wonderful, too.
You’ll be surprised at just how much the stars light up the evening! Download a stargazing app for your phone, aim at the night sky, and learn constellations with your family.
Nighttime Lake Michigan Beach Bonfire
Various Lake Michigan Beaches in the National Lakeshore
Pack your roasting sticks because beach bonfires are permitted within the Sleeping Bear Dunes Michigan Lakeshore on certain Lake Michigan beaches!
North Bar Beach, Esch Road Beach, Glen Haven Beach, and Good Harbor Beach are popular bonfire spots, but any unposted Lake Michigan beach within park boundaries is fair game.
Perhaps try the beach at Shalda Creek Access for an off-the-beaten-path adventure.
Bonfire Guidelines: Follow all posted signage. You need a valid park pass for beach fires and you need to bring your own firewood. Fires are only allowed between the water’s edge and the first dune. Put out your fire with water when done, and pack out everything you brought in.
Where to Stay at Sleeping Bear Dunes: Lodging Options
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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 lodging during the peak months of July or August, it’s best to book your lodging at least 6-12 months out.
Camping in Sleeping Bear Dunes Michigan
Platte River Campground
We’ve camped numerous times at the Platte River Campground, which is operated by the National Park Service.
5685 Lake Michigan Rd, Honor, MI 49640
It’s a lovely wooded campground. Sites are spaced far enough from each other to afford a good amount of privacy.
Walk-in sites are 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.
Platte River Campground has hot showers and RV hookups – and is in a great location if you want to tube or kayak the Platte River. Reservations open six months prior to your visit’s start date.
The popularity of the Sleeping Bear Dunes campground makes getting a reservation quite challenging – check back often for cancelations or plan to make reservations as soon as the reservation window opens up.
DH Day Campground
D.H. Day Campground is another campground within the Sleeping Bear Dunes Michigan Lakeshore.
8010 W Harbor Hwy, Glen Arbor, MI 49636
It’s located 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 reservations are required from May 1 – October 15.
Camping near Sleeping Bear Dunes
Private campgrounds outside of the park might have more availability – and offer more amenities
Holiday Park Campground, just outside of Traverse City, is a favorite for many families.
More campground options to consider:
- Betsie River Campsite – 1923 River Rd, Frankfort, MI 49635.
- Indigo Bluffs RV Park & Resort – 6760 W. Empire Hwy (M-72) Empire, MI 49630. They accommodate all motorized and towable RVs, trailers and Pop-Ups. Rustic cabins and large, peaceful tent sites are also available. Cottage rentals, too.
- Turtle Lake Campground – 854 Miller Rd, Beulah, MI 49617. Tent and horse camping. Canoe & kayak rentals. 2 Modern bath houses.
- Timber Ridge Campground – 4050 Hammond Rd East Traverse City, MI. Great family camping resort located about an hour away from Sleeping Bear Dunes.
- Empire Township Campground – 7264 W Osborn Rd, Empire, MI 49630. The 60 site rustic campground is located in a wooded area and is 5 miles from the Village of Empire. 9 sites have electricity.
- Sunnywoods Motel & Campground – 14065 Honor Hwy, Beulah, MI 49617. Motels, cabins & campsites.
- Wild Cherry Resort – 8563 E Horn Rd, Lake Leelanau, MI 49653. RV Park. 76 full-service sites that provide you with a cement patios, picnic table, water, electricity 20/30/50 amp, sanitary sewer, and WiFi service.
- Interlochen State Park – 4167 M-137, Interlochen, MI 49643.
- Leelanau Pines Campground – 6500 E Leelanau Pines Dr, Cedar, MI 49621. On Lake Leelanau. 181 Modern camping sites.
- Lake Leelanau RV Park – 3101 S. Lake Shore Dr. Lake Leelanau, MI 49653. 196 full hookup sites.
Hotels, Resorts & Vacation Rentals – Sleeping Bear Dunes National Park
Hotels and B&B’s are in limited supply within the National Park area, although there are a few to be had.
One of the most popular is the Homestead, 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.
Hotels in Nearby Towns
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.
Small Towns Near Sleeping Bear Dunes Michigan
Several small towns are very close to or within the Sleeping Bear Dunes Michigan Lakeshore. Each one has a unique flavor and set of amenities.
glen arbor, mi
Glen Arbor is a small little town that is also 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 soda pop and wine tasting room, and a store filled with yummy cherry products that you can sample and purchase (when we’re not in a pandemic.)
Glen Arbor has a few restaurants – that tend to be very busy in the summer – as well as cute shops, a market, a playground, and a post office.
Lake Michigan Beach Park, located on Lake Michigan in Empire, 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.
Sleeping Bear Dunes FAQs
WHERE IS SLEEPING BEAR DUNES MICHIGAN?
Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is located in the northwest part of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula on the shores of Lake Michigan.
from Traverse City, MI: 40 min
from Grand Rapids, MI: 2 hours 40 min
from Detroit, MI: 4 hours 40 min
ARE THERE ISLANDS AT SLEEPING BEAR DUNES MICHIGAN?
Yes, there are also two islands in the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore: South Manitou Island and North Manitou Island.
The ferry’s 2023 summer schedule begins Memorial Day weekend.
The ferry departs from Leland, MI.
WHAT SHOULD I BRING WITH ME TO SLEEPING BEAR DUNES?
Sleeping Bear Dunes is in a remote part of Michigan. Cell service is spotty.
And 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, water bottles, rain gear, and any other items you’ll need for an extended outdoor adventure.
Cell service is unreliable in some parts of Sleeping Bear Dune National Lakeshore.
WHAT IS THE LAYOUT OF SLEEPING BEAR DUNES MICHIGAN?
Sleeping Bear Dune National Lakeshore covers over 70,000 acres of land.
The park is not one continuous landmass.
Rather, it is comprised of the Platte River District to the south and the Leelanau District to the north, with the town of Empire in the middle.
The Leelanau District of Sleeping Bear Dunes is where you’ll find the towering dunes and the cute town of Glen Arbor.
The Platte River District is flatter and includes a meandering river that snakes along, ending in Lake Michigan.
What else is there to do near Sleeping Bear Dunes?
Cherry Bowl Drive-In Movies: While the Cherry Bowl Drive-In is not officially in the Sleeping Bear Dunes Michigan Lakeshore, this nearby drive-in movie theatre is a treat.
With 50’s style mini-golf, a playground and popcorn, hotdogs, and ice cream, your family will love this place. Plus, you always get two movies for the price of one. Movies start at dusk.
Bring sleeping bags or blankets to cover up with- it can get chilly up north at night. The sun sets after 10 pm in July – plan for a late night! Also, insect repellent is helpful at certain times of the year.
(9812 Honor Highway, Honor, MI 49640.)
Beach Bards Storytelling Nights: On select Friday nights in the summer, the Beach Bards gather to recite poems, tell stories and share music around a big bonfire next to Lake Michigan at the Leelanau School near Glen Arbor.
The public is welcome to come and share By Heart Poetry, Stories, or Music or to simply enjoy the experience of a community bonfire on the shore of Lake Michigan. Storytelling begins at 8 pm with Children’s Hour. Admission is $1
Friday, June 23
Friday, July 21
Friday, August 4
Lanphier Observatory: The Lanphier Observatory is home to a 14″ Celestron Telescope, perfect for gazing into the star-filled sky over northern Michigan. You’ll see plenty of heavenly objects in bright, brilliant detail, and learn from Norm Wheeler, local authority and guide.
Summer 2023 Schedule: Open Wednesday and Thursday nights, 10 pm to midnight, weather permitting from June 21 – Aug. 24. (One Old Homestead Road Glen Arbor, MI 49636-9720)
Are there islands at Sleeping Bear Dunes Michigan?
Yes, there are also two islands in the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore: South Manitou Island and North Manitou Island.
The ferry’s 2023 summer schedule begins Memorial Day weekend.
The ferry departs from Leland, MI.
Share Your Sleeping Bear Questions & Experiences
Have you been lucky enough to make it to this National Park in Michigan?
Share your stories and tips – we’d love to hear them!
If you’re planning a trip, drop your questions below and hopefully we’ll be able to help. Enjoy and have fun!