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 and covering over 70,000 acres, this park is more than a mark on a map. It’s a destination.
On your visit, hike, swim, boat, and camp among the dunes to enjoy:
- majestic lake vistas
- towering sand dunes
- crystal clear rivers
- emerald-colored inland lakes
- scenic hiking trails
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!
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 kids during summer vacation.
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
What should we Do IF we only have one day at sleeping bear dunes michigan?
If you can only spend one day at Sleeping Bear Dunes Michigan, this list of things to do with take you to the highlights:
- Pierce Stocking Drive. Be sure to stop at the #9 and go to the Lake Michigan Overlook platform. 2 hours
- The Dune Climb. Climb up to the first tier of the dune climb to get fabulous lake views. Or visit after dark for stargazing. 1 hour
- Hike the Empire Bluffs Trail. You’ll be treated to panoramic views from a windswept boardwalk towering over Lake Michigan. 45 minutes
- Visit a beach. The beaches here are varied in features and amenities but they are all epic. 1-3 hours
- Get ice cream in Glen Arbor. Several ice cream places, 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. 1 hour
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.
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 Manitou Islands are typically reached by ferry and are popular backpacking and hiking day trip destinations.
The ferry’s 2022 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.
Where should we start our Visit?
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. 2022 rates: $25 (good for 7 days) or $45 (good for 1 year).
You can also pick up maps and materials for the Junior Ranger program, ask questions, use the restrooms, and explore the exhibits.
Philip A. Hart Visitor Center for Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore
9922 W Front St, Empire, MI 49630
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 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.
Or, climb up the dune climb to the lookout bench (left side of the dune) to be rewarded with Lake Michigan and Glen Lake views.
Visit the Dune Climb in the morning on summer days to beat the heat. It easily feels ten degrees warmer on the dunes than elsewhere in the park.
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.
The Dune Climb is the starting point for a long (3-4 hours), hot hike over sandy, hilly terrain out to Lake Michigan.
Hiking Sleeping Bear Dunes
There are miles and miles of trails at the Sleeping Bear Dunes that you can explore with your family.
Our family loves mixing hiking, biking, and kayaking into a visit at the Dunes, and we have favorite places for each activity.
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 Trails.
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.
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 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.
Riverside Canoe Trips
5042 N Scenic Hwy, Honor, MI 49640
Honor Trading Post
8294 Deadstream Rd, Honor, MI 49640
Crystal River Outfitters
6249 W. River Road, Glen Arbor, MI 49636
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.
Beaches at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore
The Sleeping Bear Dunes Michigan National Lakeshore serves up plenty of beachy options.
Sugar sand beaches and clear waters of Lake Michigan make a day of sun and summer fun a delight.
Many families choose to swim at beaches where rivers empty into the big lake. The river water tends to be warmer than lake Michigan, and often times there are shallower wading areas available.
First-time 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, PDFs are a good idea, especially for children.
A few favorite Sleeping Bear Dunes beaches include:
plate river point beach
Lake Michigan Rd, Honor, MI, 49640
Platte River Point Beach is situated where the Platte River meets Lake Michigan, just down the road from Platte River Campground.
It’s a popular spot for river tubing and kayaking, too.
Platte River Point Beach Parking FYI
Parking here can be a little confusing because there is a National Park parking lot (which is covered in your park pass) and a separate township park, which is an additional fee.
A good rule of thumb: If you’re parked in the same lot as the canoe takeout, it’s the township lot and you need to pay extra. If you’re parked along the road or in the NPS lot, your Sleeping Bear Dunes Michigan park pass will cover you.
esch road beach
Esch Rd, Honor, MI, 49640
Esch Road Beach is located at the mouth of Otter Creek and is a sandy beach popular with swimmers.
DH Day Campground beach
8010 W Harbor Hwy, Glen Arbor, MI 49636
DH Day Campground Beach is primarily used by campers but you can still access this beach if you’re not an overnight guest.
The Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail runs right by the beach access trail.
Glen Haven beach
Glen Haven, Glen Arbor Township, MI 49630
Glen Haven beach is one of the more accessible beaches in the Sleeping Bear Dunes. There is handicap parking and a 6-foot wide hard-surfaced path leading to a beach platform.
north bar lake beach
1030 N. Bar Lake Rd, Empire, MI, 49630
North Bar Lake Beach is usually nice and warm and is a popular place for kayaking.
A dune hike separates the small lake from Lake Michigan, so you have options.
shalda creek access beach
1030 N. Ba1952 W Lake Michigan Rd #1592, Maple City, MI 49664
Shalda Creek Access Beach is a rocky beach in a very remote location.
The creek is warm and swift where it meets Lake Michigan.
Come here for a twist on the typical beach-going experience or if you like to skip stones.
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.
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.
In Glen Haven, you’ll also find a General Store, a working Blacksmith Shop, and the Cannery Boat Museum.
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
6260 W. River Road, Glen Arbor, Michigan 49636
Sleeping Bear Surf & Kayak
10228 W Front Street, Empire, Michigan 49630
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.
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.
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.
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.
Cherry Bowl Drive-In Movies
9812 Honor Highway, Honor, MI 49640. Not located within the park boundaries.
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.
Beach Bards storytelling Nights
One Old Homestead Road Glen Arbor, MI 49636-9720. Not located within the park boundaries.
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, July 8
Friday, July 22
Tuesday, August 2 (at Glen Arbor Arts Center)
Friday, August 5
One Old Homestead Road Glen Arbor, MI 49636-9720. (not located within the park boundaries)
The Lanphier Observatory is home to a 14″ Celestron Telescope, perfect for gazing into the starfilled 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 2022 Schedule: Open Wednesday and Thursday nights, 10 pm to midnight, weather permitting from June 29 – Aug. 25.
Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive at Sleeping Bear Dunes
Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive is a 7-mile scenic driving route that takes you to spectacular overlooks of Lake Michigan, Glen Lake, and the Sleeping Bear Dunes Michigan Lakeshore.
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’ve starred* those that are a must-do if you’re visiting with kids or family.
1 – Covered Bridge
A beloved photo stop. Pull off and take a pic with the lovely wooden bridge in the background.
2 – 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!
3 – dune overlook*
We like to think of this as the “teaser” dune. It’s a nice taste of what’s to come.
4 – Cottonwood Trail
This 1.5-mile loop hike over rolling dunes is difficult.
You’ll see dune plants and wildlife but we recommend you save your energy for the stops ahead.
6 – Leaving the Sand Dunes
This is a transitional area, where the dunes stop and the forest starts. There’s not much to stop for here.
8 – Changes Over Time
Here, you’re asked to imagine what this place looked like just after the glacier melted 12,000 years ago.
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 vista.
Before You Climb Down the Dune
While you can climb down the massive sand dune, it’s not recommended that you hike down. It might only take you 15 minutes to get to the bottom, but the climb back up can take 2 hours and is very strenuous.
There’s a hefty rescue fee if you hike down and get stranded.
10 – Sleeping Bear Dune Overlook
Stop here to see the dune the park is named after, the Sleeping Bear Dune.
It doesn’t have a bear shape like it used to – read more about that here:
11 – North Bar Lake Overlook
A nice look at North Bar Lake off in the distance.
12 – Pine Plantation
As you exit the drive, you’ll go through a plot of land where the pine trees are all similar in size. This is an old pine plantation. It’s a relic of from a time before the land became a National Lakeshore.
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
Where to Stay at Sleeping Bear Dunes: Lodging Options
Some of the links in this section are affiliate links. Thank you for your support.
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
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 area 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.
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
Campgrounds outside of the park might have more availability.
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 & Lodging near 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.
Cottage Rentals near Sleeping Bear Dunes
There are also a considerable number of cottages for rent in the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.
Try looking on AirBnB for vacation rentals. They do book up quite a bit in advance, so if you find a good one, book it ASAP!
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.
It’s common for people staying in Beulah, Traverse City or elsewhere on the Leelanau peninsula to drive over and visit the dunes for the day.
Crystal Mountain and Manistee MI also have good lodging options.
More Northern Michigan Destinations
13 thoughts on “Sleeping Bear Dunes Michigan 101: Tips for an Epic Visit in the Summer, Spring or Fall”
I have 2 four year olds who aren’t used to hiking or a lot of walking at once. We want to come visit here but I’m worried they’re too young… what do you recommend doing at the dunes with children this age?
Wow I’m blown away how many great activities you mentioned that I’ve never heard of! For the past few summers, I’ve spent several weeks in this area , explored, and read many magazines and guidebooks about it. Wish I had found your sites earlier!
I am planning our family trip to North Michigan this summer, and this has to be one of the most comprehensive posts I’ve ever come across planning a trip. I want to do everything mentioned here! Thank you for all of the details, I am saving this link to refer to often as we plan!
I rarely comment on posts but this guide was SO helpful that I don’t really need to read any other articles on what to do in the area. Thank you so much for such a helpful post!
Thanks so much for the kind comment, Amanda! Glad it was helpful!
Thanks for linking our RV Park Melody Wild Cherry Resort in Leelanau County. 231-271-5550
That was very nice of you to do that .
I Hope GR Kids are staying safe.
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how many days do you recommend staying? thanks!!
You can do a lot of the Sleeping Bear Dunes activities in a day, but if you’re able to spend a couple of days, you’ll be able to experience even more. I’ve stayed anywhere between 2 hours and 7 days and each variation has its own benefits.
Thank you so much for sharing all this great information! We are traveling from Pittsburgh to Sleeping Bear Dunes for the first time in August. We have four kids under age 8, this info saved me SO MUCH TIME!!!
Lots of quaint little towns to shop and dine! It’s fun to visit Cedar and Maple City too!!!
Love this area of Michigan! Just a reminder, too, if you have a 4th grader (completed 4th grade the 2015-16 school year), you can get entry into the park for FREE! https://www.everykidinapark.gov/