Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is located in the northwest corner of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula. Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore encompasses 65 miles of sandy shoreline along the Great Lake Michigan. The surrounding area also includes several lakes and streams, making this National Lakeshore a great summer road trip destination.
Here’s your Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore complete guide!
When to Visit Sleeping Bear Dunes
The fall will bring you bright vibrant orange, yellow, and red foliage making for a spectacular display of color. The winters can be brutally cold, but the snow provides great snowshoeing conditions through the dunes.
How To Get There
Before booking your trip, make sure you protect yourself and your money and purchase travel insurance! You will need to rent a car to get to Sleeping Bear Dunes. It is a 4.5-hour drive from the Detroit Metro Airport (DTW) and a 3.5-hour drive from the Flint Bishop International airport.
Where to Stay
If you’re looking for a closer city outside the park you can find hotels in Empire or Glen Arbor. There are several state parks and private campgrounds in the area. Rent a Fifth Wheel RV for your adventure or bring a tent. You’ll also find rustic cabins in some state parks.
“Tug on anything at all and you’ll find it connected to everything else in the universe.”John Muir
How are the dunes created?
The sand from the steep bluffs along the lakeshore fall or slides into Lake Michigan. This provides massive amounts of sand and gravel to the National Lakeshore. Some individual landslides have dumped a million cubic yards of sand into the great lake in just one single event.
Waves cut away the bases of the bluffs, providing a continuous supply of sand and gravel to the winds blowing against them. The sand continues to get whisked up and deposited on top.
What To Do In Sleeping Bear Dunes
The Lake Michigan coastline along Sleeping Bear Dunes and the offshore Islands are a very large component of the National Lakeshore environment. Small patches of ancient forests buried by sand eons ago continue to be exposed, as the sand moves inland and attempts to bury the forests there today.
The Dune Climb
Climb the dunes or enjoy the sand. The Dune Climb offers plenty of fresh, wind-blown sand for your climbing pleasure. While the climb can be strenuous, the run back down to the picnic area is a blast!
The climb up the dunes provides you with a view of Glen Lake. The Dune Climb is located just about 5 miles north of Empire on M-109. You will need an annual National Park Pass or $25 for parking at the dune climb. For those who have extra time and a lot of energy, take a hike through the dunes all the way to Lake Michigan.
Safety Tips: Take lots of water and remember you’ll be walking up and down the dunes of loose sand the entire way. Hiking through the dunes can be disorienting, so be sure to keep children within sight. If hiking with a group, agree on a time and place to meet up before leaving.
Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive
Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive is a must-do when visiting Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. This 7.4-mile drive loops through the Beech-Maple forest and sand dunes. You’ll gain insight into the history of the area, learn about the different ecosystems found within the park, and, best of all, spectacular overlooks along the way.
Lake Michigan Overlook
The No.9 overlook along Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive provides you with unforgettable views of the mighty Lake Michigan. You’ll see nothing but fresh water for as far as you can see, and the lake starts to look more like an ocean.
Lake Michigan Overlook dunes are very difficult! The massive dune is 450 ft tall, and the shoreline is further down than it looks.
Visitors who can’t make it back up the dune risk having to pay more than $2,000 to be rescued. Record high water levels on Lake Michigan over the summer have complicated rescue efforts.
Visitors are advised not to go down the dune at the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive Lake Michigan Overlook to enjoy the beach. Lake levels are high – the only way out is up. Keep yourself and rescuers out of danger.
When people get stranded, they are pulled up the hill by a rescue crew with ropes and pulleys, or by boat if weather conditions allow. In all my visits over the years, I’ve never ventured down to the bottom of the dune.
Michigan Lakeshore Beaches
Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore has miles of pristine beach! Cool off in the beautiful clear water of Lake Michigan with beach activities like sunbathing, reading, or making sand castles. The whole Lake Michigan lakeshore is open to swimming, but there are no lifeguards on duty, and be aware of possible Rip Currents.
Play in the waves, swim, or just take a stroll along the beach. Lake Michigan is beautiful, but it’s more refreshing than the inland lakes, so be prepared!
Safe popular access points to the Lake Michigan Lakeshore can be found here.
You can hike over 100 miles of designated trails along the Lakeshore. There are thirteen hiking trails on the mainland, most of which are maintained during the winter for cross-country skiing, and snowshoeing. Each trailhead has a parking area, and the trails will be marked with blue tipped posts.
Tip: There is limited or no service throughout the park. To keep your phone fully charged and ready to catch those amazing shots, you’ll need an extra battery charger. I take my Mophie portable charger everywhere I travel, just in case!
visit Traverse City
Traverse City and the Leelanau peninsula are nearby and offer great shopping, delicious restaurants, breweries, wineries, and so much more. Take a half-day guided tour of Leelanau by e-bike and explore the cherry blossoms in spring, or the fall colors in Michigan. There is also a half-day fun pass that gives you access to kayaks, bikes, and paddleboards (SUP)! You can also rent clear kayaks so you can see the water through the boat.
Do a Lazy River Float
Cool off with a relaxing float down the Platte River on a hot summer day. This is one of the most popular summer recreational activities in the area. The river is shallow and clear, moving at a good pace, with no rapids making it perfect for all ages.
You can either bring your own tube, raft, air mattress, etc. or you can rent them from local outfitters. If you need to rent during the height of the summer season, you will want to plan ahead and get reservations.
Watch a Lake Michigan Sunset
Lake Michigan sunsets will take your breath away. Find a good dune to hike along the shoreline and watch the sun slowly set along the horizon. We were able to find our own private viewing area along one of the dune trails. Taking in the glow of the sunset in peace, with the sounds of waves washing below. Glen Lake pictured below is another great sunset viewing spot.