Located in Michigan’s Northwestern Lower Peninsula, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore provides an amazing variety of activities for all ages. Voted a top destination by media outlets, such as Good Morning America and USA Today, Sleeping Bear encompasses 71,1999 acres and 35 miles of pristine Lake Michigan shoreline. North and South Manitou islands are also included within the park borders and accessible by ferries from the town of Leland. The park is well known for its beautiful sand dunes, but also contains historic village and farms as well as 21 inland lakes and forested areas. Visitors can spend anywhere from a few hours to several days exploring everything the park has to offer.
Planning Your Sleeping Bear Dunes Visit
Your first stop in Sleeping Bear Dunes should be the Philip A. Hart Visitor Center located in the town of Empire. Here you can find maps and information on various park activities and schedules, as well as merchandise. Be sure to set aside a half hour for the small natural history museum to get acquainted with the area. It showcases the geology, flora and fauna, and a bit of local history. Rangers are on hand to answer your questions and give recommendations. National Park entrance fees can be paid here ranging from 7 day to annual and other specialty passes.
Looking at the Sleeping Bear Dunes NL Map, you’ll notice your starting point isn’t exactly part of the park. Sleeping Bear skips around the towns of Empire and Glen Arbor. Frankfort, a popular tourist town in summer, is just to the south and there are many small cottages and villages around the borders. This beautiful section of Michigan is not overly developed, so you will barely notice when you are in the park or pass through private lands. This makes Sleeping Bear both a destination and a day trip for visitors vacationing around the Leelanau peninsula.
Food and Lodging
Visiting Sleeping Bear Dunes takes a bit of extra planning due to the nature of the park’s location. Various camping options are available, ranging from fully serviced grounds to remote locations with zero amenities. There is no lodging within the park, but motels, cottages, and rentals can be found in nearby towns. Make the same preparations for food. Most visitors will be surprised that the park does not have any food service. Be sure to pack for a picnic and bring plenty of water and drinks. Bathroom facilities are generally rustic, so it never hurts to have extra supplies on hand.
Sleeping Bear for Explorers
Sleeping Bear offers ample opportunities to explore both nature and history. The main draw is the giant sand dunes with their beautiful views and crystal blue shoreline. The dune climb area features a 100+ foot climb up the dunes from the picnic area at the base. This is the perfect place to let your kids burn off some energy running up and down in the sand. Visitors may be tempted to trek to Lake Michigan on the far side, but be aware it is over a mile through the dunes and the trails are not clearly marked. There are much better locations to hit the beach in the area.
Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive is the best place to really enjoy the beauty of the dunes. This 7 mile road wanders through dune and forest landscapes and has several vantage points to view the spectacular scenery. The Lake Michigan overlook offers a view of the lake and shoreline from 450 feet above the water. Heed the warnings not to attempt wandering down to the lake. It is much further and steeper than it looks. There is a short trail to another overlook on the dune side which gives visitors a nearly 360 degree sweeping view. You can also trek into the dunes on trails or take a break at one of the picnic areas.
When you’re finished playing in the sand dunes, take a drive up to the forgotten village of Glen haven. Here you’ll find a few old homes and a general store. The store is still in operation, but all you’ll find here are souvenirs and classic candies. Head to the shore at the end of the street and visit the old fruit cannery building, which now contains several old boats. The former Coast Guard lifesaving station is also located here where you can learn about the various methods of rescue. More boats and equipment are in the barn with rangers on hand to tell visitors about the history and operations. Surprisingly, there is only one lighthouse within the park on it’s located on South Manitou island. For a more convenient excursion, and a beautiful little beach, head to the Point Betsie lighthouse and museum just south of Sleeping Bear.
Sleeping Bear for Outdoor Adventurers
Sleeping Bear Dunes has plenty to offer outdoor enthusiasts year round. There are around 100 miles of trails for everything from hiking to cross-country skiing. The paved Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail is perfect for hikers and bikers. Starting near Empire and stretching north past Glen Arbor, the Heritage Trail will eventually span 27 miles. The trails aren’t only for summer fun. Read this Traveling Dad article for all the winter fun to be had on trails and dunes.
Water sports abound too. Canoeing and kayaking are popular on the Platte and Crystal rivers. Scuba divers also come to visit old docks and shipwrecks. Fishing for bass, trout, and salmon can be had along rivers and lakes in and around the park. I was surprised to learn salmon are in Lake Michigan and visited the nearby Platte River Fish Hatchery to learn about how they were brought in from the Pacific to successfully combat an invasive species.
Junior Rangers Program
Looking for a way to get your kids excited about our National Parks, then check out the Junior Rangers program. To participate in the program, pick up a free booklet at the visitor center or download it ahead of time. The booklets contain information about the park’s wild life and history and what it takes to preserve the ecosystem. I have to admit, as an adult I enjoyed reading through the booklet. When Junior Rangers complete a certain number of activities (based on age), a Park Ranger will review it and award a park specific patch and certificate. It’s an excellent incentive for kids, and their families, to visit other National Parks. Learn more about he Junior Rangers on the National Parks website.
Whether you enjoy paddling a kayak down a quiet river or exploring nature with your family, this National park is a gem. The surrounding region from Frankfort, up the Leelanau Peninsula, and over to Traverse City is absolutely stunning and a great place to unwind. You can explore towering sand dunes in the morning, eat lunch in a quaint village, then head to one of the many wineries to sample their creations. Consider adding a visit to the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore to your travel plans this summer.