Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is a truly magical place. The park encompasses 35-mile of Lake Michigan’s western coastline, as well as the North and South Manitou Islands. While the drive up Michigan’s lower peninsula takes some time, the trip is worth it! Sleeping Bear boasts miles of soft sandy beaches, bluffs that reach nearly 450’ above Lake Michigan offering breathtaking views, hiking through hardwood forests, crystal clear lakes and rivers for paddling, and numerous historic sites.
To make the most of your trip to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, it’s essential to narrow down the endless options for outdoor adventure. We at Road Trip 7 have visited the park on a number of occasions. In this guide, we offer our favorite destinations and activities for anyone visiting the dunes for the first time. Whether you are spending a weekend or a week, here we provide our picks for the places that you won’t want to miss during your time in Sleeping Bear Dunes.
Philip A. Hart Visitor Center
A great place to start when visiting Sleeping Bear Dunes is the Philip A. Hart Visitor Center in Empire, Michigan. Named for the U.S. Senator whose efforts helped to preserve the dunes as a National Lakeshore, the center has multiple exhibits on the area’s natural history, geology, and wildlife as well as a short informational film shown at regular intervals. Additionally, the center includes a souvenir shop as well as a ranger station, which can provide you with a brochure and map.
Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive
Next, we recommend heading north for a cruise along the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive. Named after a lumberman from Michigan who regularly hiked along the bluffs above Lake Michigan. Stocking wanted to share the beauty of the dunes with others. He designed, constructed and operated the picturesque road as Sleeping Bear Dunes Park until it was purchased by the National Park Service in the late 1970’s. The park service has since reconstructed the drive, adding a number of features. Today, the 7.4-mile loop leads through beech-maple forests and over sand dunes, with a dozen points of interest. Placards located at many of these pull-offs provide information about the history, ecology, and geology of the area. Along the way, visitors can drive through a covered bridge originally built by Stocking, hike along the 1.6-mile Cottonwood Trail, and enjoy stunning views of the Glen Lakes, the Sleeping Bear Dunes, and Lake Michigan.
Glen Haven Village
Next to the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive, a visit to Glen Haven Village is essential to any trip to Sleeping Bear Dunes. This small, historic village is located on the southern shores of Sleeping Bear Bay. The village has a rich history as a fueling port for steamers on Lake Michigan as well as the site of a sawmill and canning company. Today, many of the historic buildings have been preserved, including Glen Haven General Store, the Cannery, the Sleeping Bear Inn, and the blacksmith shop. Visitors can learn about the history of the village from informational placards as well as park volunteers.
Cannery Boathouse Museum
Originally the Glen Haven Canning Company, a cannery and warehouse for Michigan cherries back in the 1920’s, the Cannery is now a museum. In addition to exhibits on the building’s first intended use as a fruit processing facility, the museum also houses a number of historic boats once used around Glen Haven. Volunteers working in the museum graciously provide visitors with detailed descriptions of each watercraft’s history.
Sleeping Bear Point Coast Guard Maritime Museum
Just up the road from the Cannery, is another excellent museum, the Sleeping Bear Maritime Museum. Located within the original Sleeping Bear Point U.S. Life-Saving Station, the museum has exhibits covering the U.S. Life-Saving Service, U.S. Coast Guard, and Great Lakes shipping history. Parts of the building depict what life was like for members of the surfboat crew stationed there.
In the nearby boathouse, life-saving equipment used during the early 1900’s is displayed. Again, museum volunteers are more than eager to explain the use and history of each piece of equipment. We also recommend taking the time to watch the museum’s short film depicting a re-enactment of a buoy rescue drill with actors dressed in period clothing.
Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail
The 22-mile Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail connects the entire national lakeshore. Running from the southern portion of the park, south of Empire, MI to the northeastern section, lining Good Harbor Bay. The hard-surface, multi-use trail is open to bicycles and pedestrian traffic. In between are eight access points, often adjacent to trailheads. It’s important to note that stretches of the trails have steep grades, which are marked with warning signs on the trail. Additionally, a 3-mile portion of the trail that runs through Port Oneida north of Glen Arbor is composed of crushed stone. Both of these sections are indicated on the Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail Map.
During our visit, we spent an entire day biking the portion of the trail between the Dune Climb and the Port Oneida Historic District. Since traveling with bikes for a family of 7 is often burdensome, we chose to rent our bikes from The Cyclery, a local Glen Arbor bike shop. While you can often rent bikes the day of, if you desire youth bikes or trailers, it is advised to book in advance. Helmets are included.
Trail Length: 22 miles
Elevation Gain: ~600 ft
Pyramid Point Trail
One of our favorite hikes in Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore is the Pyramid Point Trail. This trail offers a little bit of everything: deciduous forest, pine plantation, meadows, dunes, and breathtaking views of Lake Michigan. A good portion of the trail leads through a beech-maple forest, which offers welcome shade cover during the warmer summer months.
Trail Length: 2.8 miles round-trip
Elevation Gain: 570 ft
Considered the most strenuous trail in the park, the Dune Climb trail is entirely sand. This out-and-back 3.6 mile trail climbs up and over a series of dunes, heading west, before reaching Lake Michigan. In warmer weather, we recommend hiking the trail at dawn or dusk when temperatures are cooler. No matter what time of day you choose, however, pack plenty of water and a hat.
Trail Length: 3.6 miles round-trip
Elevation Gain: 636 ft
Sleeping Bear Point Trail
Looking for a less strenuous hike over the dunes than the Dune Climb? We recommend the Sleeping Bear Point Trail. This moderate 2.5-mile loop circles around the dunes of Sleeping Bear Point, and has a branch 0.5-mile trail that provides access to Lake Michigan. Be forewarned though, like the Dune Climb, this trail is almost entirely sand.
Trail Length: 2.5 miles
Elevation Gain: 314 ft
Empire Bluff Trail
Located in the southern portion of the park, just southwest of Empire, this moderate 1.5-mile hike offers breathtaking views of Lake Michigan from Empire Bluff. Much of the hike is through a beech-maple forest, which provides plenty of shade cover on hot summer days.
The last portion of the hike follows a wooden boardwalk that runs along the bluffs, themselves. Although the views are exceptional, pretty much any day of the year, we recommend hiking on a clear day, early in the morning or later in the evening. With the right lighting, the waters of Lake Michigan are the most amazing color of blue.
Trail Length: 1.5 miles round-trip
Elevation Gain: 170 ft
Paddle the Crystal River
Running through Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, the Crystal River, with its gentle current, sandy bottom, and crystal-clear water, is a true joy to paddle. Crystal River Outfitters, located in Glen Arbor, offers both kayak and canoe rentals, which include transportation to a point upstream. From here, a paddle trip back to the outfitters takes approximately 2-3 hours, depending on the river current. Along the way, look out for deer, herons, turtles, and fish, including salmon, which darted under our kayaks like torpedoes!
For kayakers, a highlight of this trip is when you “Shoot the Tube”, or pass through a culvert at an ever so slight decline, akin to riding on a log ride!
Tubing Platte River
Floating the Platte River is a great way to experience the southern portion of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. Located on the Platte River, Riverside Canoes offers a wide variety of trips: kayak, canoe, paddleboard, and tubing. We chose a 2-3 hour tubing trip from an upstream point along the river to the Platte Bay on Lake Michigan. Both closed-bottom and open bottom tubes are available as well as tubes to carry a cooler. To say the trip was leisurely would be an understatement. With a strong breeze blowing onshore from the lake, the tubes had a tendency to drift upstream rather than downstream with the current. Thankfully, we had a beautiful day and made the best of our rather slow trip by enjoying the scenery and playing in the river.
If you desire a more active experience, we recommend a kayak or canoe paddle trip. For more information on booking any type of float trip, the cost, and what to expect please visit Riverside Canoes.
Platte River Point Beach
Nestled along the southern edge of Platte Bay, Platte River Point Beach offers stunning views of Sleeping Bear Dunes and Empire Bluff. The beach is fairly popular since it is located at the end-point of anyone paddling or tubing down the Platte River. While there is ample parking, it does fill up by mid-day, in which case you can park along the road. That said, the beach is most definitely worth a visit. The river’s mouth is shallow and flows rapidly into Lake Michigan, making it a fun spot for tubing or riding a small raft. Our kids spent the better part of a day riding down the river!
North Bar Lake
Where North Bar Lake empties into Lake Michigan, you’ll find one of Sleeping Bear Dunes’ most unique beaches because it is essentially two beaches in one. The narrow beach along North Bar Lake is calm with shallow, warmer water. Over the dunes, the beach along Lake Michigan is wider, but the water is much colder and can be wavy at times. Where North Bar Lake empties into Lake Michigan you’ll find a large sand bar, perfect for swimming or simply wading around.
This beautiful, secluded beach is found just south of Empire, Michigan on M-22. The beach extends to the south and north of the parking area, providing ample space for strolling and beach-combing. To the south you’ll find the mouth of Otter Creek, which offers a unique opportunity for creek stomping. For the more adventurous, follow the Otter Creek Loop trail southeast to Otter Lake and back. Be prepared, however, this hike is ~5.7 miles.
Although not part of Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore, Empire Beach is worth a visit, especially if you have children. Directly west of downtown Empire, the beach has parking lots, public restrooms, and best of all, a large playground. It also boasts one of the newest working lighthouses on the Great Lakes. One thing to note, however, is while there is plenty of sand along the shore, the surf can be fairly rocky. Not necessarily a problem if you enjoy searching for Petoskey stones.
Glen Haven Beach
This popular beach on the north side of Glen Arbor not only provides lovely views of Sleeping Bear Bay, the Manitou Islands and Pyramid Point, but is adjacent to the historic Glen Haven Village. A short stroll from the beach’s parking lot you will find the Cannery Boathouse Museum, Glen Haven General Store, and Blacksmith Shop. A longer walk or brief drive along the beach to the east is the Sleeping Bear Point Coastguard Museum.
This expansive beach on Good Harbor Bay offers beautiful views of Pyramid Point to the northwest and Whaleback Sand Dune Natural Area to the northeast, with plenty of shoreline for strolling and sunbathing. The beach is accessible via Bohemian Road, its namesake, also known as County Road 669. Since there is no parking for this beach, most visitors simply park along the side of Bohemian Road, which is gravel. Due to the lack of facilities and parking, Bohemian Beach is generally less busy than other beaches. Personally, it’s one of our favorite beaches because it is typically deserted. Also, our kids love to play in the warm waters of Shalda Creek, which empties in Lake Michigan along the beach.
Good Harbor Bay Beach
To the east of Bohemia Beach is the equally beautiful, Good Harbor Bay Beach. This beach has two access points, accessible by County Road 669 and County Road 651. The western access is located off of County Road 669 and Lake Michigan Rd. While a paved road leads to this section of the beach, there is no parking lot or facilities. If you wish to access the trail or beach from this area, you will need to park along the road.
Inland from this portion of the beach is the Good Harbor Bay Trail. This 2.8-mile, mostly flat trail heads east from the parking lot, following a section of low dunes before turning away from the lake. The trail then continues through a wooded area with pine, oak, beech and maple trees. It leads through a swampy area, crossing over a creek via footbridge and boardwalks.
To the north is the portion of Good Harbor Bay Beach located off of County Road 651. This section of the beach has a paved parking lot and pit toilet. Like Bohemian Beach, a small creek on the western side of the beach, Good Harbor Creek, feeds into Lake Michigan. It provides the perfect spot for kids to splash in warmer water as well as go exploring for frogs and minnows.
Entertainment & Dining
Cherry Bowl Drive-In Movie Theater
No visit to Northern Michigan is complete without a visit to the Cherry Bowl Drive-In Movie Theater. The historic theater is one of only seven remaining drive-in theaters in Michigan. Every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday night in the summer the Cherry Bowl offers a family-friendly double feature. Additionally, there is a playground and 50s-style mini-golf to keep restless kids entertained. A snack bar offers almost every movie theater snack imaginable. The gates open at 7:30 pm, although the movies are not shown until dusk. When we visited in mid-July, the first movie did not start until 10:00 pm. Thus, it’s wise to bring some games to keep kids entertained. Also, we recommend taking a few chairs, blankets for chilly Michigan nights, and insect repellant for any pesky mosquitoes.
One of our favorite places to visit when at Sleeping Bear Dunes is Cherry Republic. Our kids like to eat at Cherry Public House because everything on the menu seems to be cherry-inspired. Even the grilled cheese comes with a side of cherry jam. However, if you don’t have time for a full meal you can drop by to simply enjoy some homemade cherry pie or cherry ice cream, pick up cherry jams from the store, or taste cherry wine and sodas at the winery.
If you are heading out for an outdoor adventure, we recommend picking up sandwiches from the Shipwreck Cafe. Trust us, you won’t regret it! Each sandwich comes on a fresh, homemade pretzel, Italian herb, and or plain bun, baked daily. The ingredients are some of the freshest, with local greens when in season. Plus, they sell some amazing cookies and bars.
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