Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore was established on October 21, 1970. The national lakeshore includes crystal clear waters and beaches along the 65 miles shoreline, and it includes two offshore islands and mainland in northwestern Michigan. The park also includes 71,291 acres of protected land that is home to spectacular sand dunes that overlook Lake Michigan, inland woodlands, small lakes, farm and agricultural land, and village sites.
Visiting Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore for the first time can be a bit overwhelming because the park offers so many adventures to choose from, including: Pierce Stocking Historic Drive, Glen Haven Historic Village, Port Oneida Historic District, Sleeping Bear Coast Guard Station, a dune climb, and 13 different hiking trailheads that total about 100 miles of hiking trails. There is also backcountry camping for those who like to get off the beaten path. These are just some of the main highlights to partake in while visiting.
As with any park managed by the National Park System, my suggestion is that you always stop by the visitor center. The visitor center is a great resource to help you get the most out of your visit. The rangers at the visitor center will be able to answer any questions you might have and provide you with maps and directions to highlights and events going on within any given time at the park. Some parks are fee areas and require a pass to access the park; these can be purchased during your stop at the visitor center. The visitor center for Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is located in the village of Empire, Michigan.
I have tried to narrow down the top five adventures in the national lakeshore to provide the best exposure to this protected land. My hope is that after your first visit, you will keep coming back and discovering more and more hidden gems with each visit.
Empire Bluffs Trail is 1.5 miles long and takes about an hour to hike. This trail is a moderate hike uphill and downhill on dirt/gravel trails that are well maintained. Your hike starts in a beech-maple forest, and as the trail passes through the forest, it leads to the top of the bluff that is approximately 450 feet above Lake Michigan. The view from the top of the bluff showcases the waters of this great lake, the village of Empire, South Bar Lake, along with the Manitou Islands. This trail has such stunning views that it is a good starting point, and it is a must do on your Sleeping Bear visit.
Pierce Stocking Drive is probably the most visited location in the park. This 7.5-mile loop consists of 12 various stops. Some of these stops include: Glen Lake/Alligator Hill Overlook, where you can see more of the park's beauty and diversity; Cottonwood Trail, which is another 1.5-mile trail through the dunes and which provides another completely different picture of this awesome national treasure; and the Sleeping Bear Dune Overlook, the spot that gave this park its name and that is mentioned in the Legend of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. From the overlook you get a great view of what this protected land looked like to the early settlers in the region. On clear days you can see North and South Manitou Island, the lighthouse on South Manitou Island, and the Manitou Shoals Lighthouse, which is located in Lake Michigan between the islands and the mainland. If Pierce Stocking drive is the only stop you are able to make in the lakeshore, you wont leave disappointed!
Paddle down an easygoing river with a gentle current that is moderately shallow for about a half-hour before entering Loon Lake. The lake, which is equally clear, scenic, and pristine, offers amazing views, interaction with wildlife, and fishing (license required).
A stop at the village in Glen Haven will give you a snapshot of what life was like back when the first settlers made an establishment in this area. A few of the houses are still left standing and are currently being preserved by the park service. The village also has a blacksmith shop that is open to demonstrations during summer months. The demonstrations explain traditional blacksmithing and use traditional live practices to craft products. The village also has the Sleeping Bear Coast Guard Station, An old hotel, and the Glen Haven Cannery, which has since been transformed into a maritime museum. All of the exhibits in the area are open Memorial Day to early October.
Climb one of the high dunes in the area. At the top of the dune climb you will be rewarded with views of Glen Lake and Historic D.H. Day Farm. If you choose for a little more adventure, the Dune Climb Trail heads into the Dunes Hiking Trail. This 3.5-mile hike ends at Lake Michigan, and it is a strenuous hike with no shade that leads through steep dunes. Bring water and sunscreen. You can even bring your bathing suit and take a rewarding swim in Lake Michigan when you reach the shoreline.