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Trail Guides

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, The Most Beautiful Place In America

Guide to hiking in Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore
beautiful lakes surrounding sleeping bear dunes national lakeshore

This was one of those trips where I left with more than just memories, but with a new found appreciation for a region I now long to return to some day. There are places I drive through, that to be honest I couldn’t recall, even for a million dollars. Years since, if I close my eyes I can still recall how blue the water looked, this crystal clear, almost turquoise blue. Something that belonged in the Caribbean, not Michigan. Tuscan like vineyards sprawling across every inch of valley throughout the finger-like strips of land along Grand Traverse Bay.

turquoise clear waters off lake michigan in sleeping bear dunes national lakeshore

The way you had to lean forward walking along the dunes, forcing your way against the strong winds. The heavy fog we would awake to every morning, so thick we could barely make out our car some 20 feet away in the driveway. A piece of me stayed in the Leelanau Peninsula that summer, and much like the Rockies of Colorado, I’ll have to keep coming back to find it.

view of surrounding lakes from atop sleeping bear dunes

Visiting Sleeping Bear had been on my mind for quite some time. A close friend of ours had family roots up in Leland, Michigan. She would often and very proudly boast of the vibrant turquoise blue shore, the friendly and tough people, and the hellacious weather of the Leelanau Peninsula. Itching for a new adventure, I planned an 8 day trip driving up the coast of Lake Michigan from Chicago, Illinois to Mackinaw City, Michigan, with Sleeping Bear being our main PRIZE. That trip in itself could stretch into several articles, with all of the picturesque small towns and unique historical sites stretching along the coast. Needless to say, we fell in love with the dunes and there was so much to see in the vicinity around Sleeping Bear that we never made it quite to Mackinaw City!

Sleeping Bear Sand Dunes National Lakeshore is located along a 35 mile stretch of Lake Michigan coastline. Its 71,187 acres also encompass North and South Manitou Islands along with several small towns including Empire and Glen Arbor, Michigan. With over 100-miles of trails, it has one of the most extensive trail systems of any National Lakeshore in America. The iconic scenery of the dunes and surrounding peninsula, with its hundreds of ponds and lakes, are bi products of stranded dead ice, leftover from retreating glaciers some 10,000 years ago.

climbing down sleeping bear dunes

Any search on AirBnB or VRBO will yield hundreds of rentals nestled in evergreen forests overlooking your own private lake, complete with boats, kayaks, fishing gear, and the perfect spot to enjoy an evening sunset. I happen to luck out and find the perfect place to stay, a cozy handmade cottage on a private estate nestled on the shores of Lake Ann. From this central location, our daily excursions west to the dunes, north to the peninsula, and east to Traverse City and beyond, could not have been anymore convenient.

wildflower meadow in sleeping bear dunes national lakeshore

The lakeshore is divided into three distinct sections. The southern portion stretches towards the town of Frankfort and Platte Bay, with Point Betsie Lighthouse, the last manned lighthouse on Lake Michigan to lose its keeper to automation, marking the edge of the park. This is one of the least developed areas, containing several back country trails and campgrounds. Old Indian and Platte Plains trails are popular snowshoeing and skiing trails in winter.

pointe betsie lighthouse on a foggy morning

This coastline has been known to receive upwards of 77 inches of snow per year! The park service keeps the roads clear during winter and encourages everyone to get out all year long. The weather here tends to be completely different from bay to bay. It could be sunny up near Glen Haven and within the same afternoon, you can expect to encounter stormy shores near Betsie Pointe.

The town of Empire, Michigan is home to the Sleeping Bear Visitors Center and is really the hub of all operations for the park thanks to its central location. Maps, information, booking a ferry to North and South Manitou Islands, its all done here. Considering themselves to be the stewards of Sleeping Bear, the residents of Empire were staunch opponents to the creation of the park, fearing that tourism would harm the natural environment. The government believing that the Great Lakes were Americas “third coast” and needed to be preserved, won out in October 21, 1970, creating the National Lakeshore. Restaurants, outfitters selling vintage shirts much like our very own, and summer rentals line Empires main street now as its settled into its role as a summer colony.

wildflower grassy meadow in sleeping bear dunes national lakeshore

The central section of the park lies between Empire and Glen Arbor. The shoreline here is stretched between Lake Michigan and Glen Lake which is separated by a narrow channel into Big Glen and Little Glen, surrounded by wooded rolling sand hills. Its waters, filtered by the underlying and surrounding sands, are remarkably clear and pure, and glow with an iridescent indigo blue. The beauty, purity, and lack of large waves make it a popular lake for vacationers, with opportunities for boating, swimming, and sport fishing, quite similar to the lakes around Glacier.

view of sleeping bear dunes from parking lot

This is where you’ll find the main dune climb and Sleeping Bear! Rising to 450 ft, the climb to the top is deceptively strenuous. Walking straight up, moving along in a zig zagging pattern, shoes off, shoes on, or even running, it simply doesn’t get any easier to make it to the top. As you climb, the sand often gives way, taking you a few steps back downhill, for every few steps you take forward. It took us around 30-45 minutes to finish the climb, with plenty of breaks in between to catch our breaths. The Dunes Trail starts once you reach the top, with a 3.5 mile round trip, it takes roughly 4 hours to complete the journey all the way to the shores of Lake Michigan.

trail climbing to top of sleeping bear dunes

If you have any energy left after completing the climb, taking the short drive to The Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive is well worth it. Here lies the Sleeping Bear Landmark the lakeshore is named after. According to Chippewa Indian lore; “Long ago, along the Wisconsin shoreline,a mother bear and her two cubs were driven into Lake Michigan by a raging forest fire. The bears swam for many hours, but eventually the cubs tried and lagged behind. The mother bear reached the shore and climbed to the top of a high bluff to watch and wait for her cubs. Too tired to continue,the cubs drowned within sight of the shore. The Great Spirit Manitou created two islands to mark the spot where the cubs disappeared and then created a solitary dune to represent the spot where the faithful mother bear waited”. Although it has eroded considerably over the decades, this small solitary dune is still visible and marked by several petrified trees, remnants of the forest that once covered the shores.

historic village of glen haven in sleeping bear dunes national lakeshore

Along the main road to the northern shores of Lake Michigan is the historic village of Glen Haven, which existed as a commercial dock from 1865 to 1931. Used as a fuel supply point for ships traveling up and down the lake, the small village supported a general store, blacksmith, cannery, and the famous Sleeping Bear Inn. Just up the road is the Sleeping Bear Point Life-Saving Station operated by the U.S. Coast Guard from 1901 to 1944. The decommissioned station is now a Maritime Museum. During our visit we happen to stumble onto one of the daily re-enactments of a beach rescue using a Lyle Gun to fire a rescue line from shore more than 400 yards to a "ship in distress" to retrieve crew stranded on a ship. The kids particularly enjoyed the use of old Raggedy Ann dolls as shipwreck victims.

boardwalk trail to lake michigan in historic village of glen haven

After visiting the museum, we took a detour to the D.H. Campground Beach just west of Glen Haven. Parking in the campground, we followed the trail to a boardwalk that lead out onto the beach. The light beige sand eventually gives way to a white pebble beach and scenic views of Glen Arbor. Being early summer the water was freezing cold, but we still managed to have fun chasing the waves in and back out to sea. We also used the opportunity to look for the famed Petoskey Stone. Both a rock and a fossil, the pebble shaped petoskey stone is made up of fossilized rug coral, dating back to the ancient Late Permian Sea that once covered this region.

lake michigan shoreline in sleeping bear national lakeshore

Sitting on the beach, we could make out the shores of North and South Manitou Islands, which are part of a chain of islands extending north to the Straits of Mackinac. The islands are the peaks of a ridge created by receding glaciers, which eventually melted, flooding the Lake Michigan Basin and creating the Great Lakes. Although somewhat secluded, the islands have been inhabited off and on since 11,000 to 8,000 B.C.E., by early Native Americans and later European settlers. Commercial logging and the abundant whitefish and trout became a draw for immigrants from Norway, Germany, Sweden, Poland, Ireland, Denmark, Canada, France, and England. Our friends Scandinavian heritage can be traced all the way back to those early settlers.

The islands can be visited by ferry from Leland. You can chose to spend an afternoon hiking through the numerous trails or purchase a backcountry permit to camp overnight from the visitors center in Empire. With its abundance of historic homesteads, secluded beaches, pristine lakes, and wildlife, theres plenty to see and do if you have the time. The Giant Cedars area of South Manitou contains some of the oldest and largest northern white cedars in the world, a few as big as 18 feet around and dating 500 years old. Containing at least 50 shipwrecks, the Manitou Passage is also a popular diving destination during warmer months.

The northern section of park lies between the towns of Glen Arbor and Leland, which originally began as an Ottawa Indian village. The summer colony of Glen Arbor sees its population almost triple every summer with vacationers seeking out its laid back charm. A sprawling beach, restaurants, and the numerous artist galleries made it an ideal place for us to take a much needed rest from hiking. After having lunch at Cherry Republic, we headed out to the Port Oneida Rural Historic District. If you’re still in the mood to hike, the Crystal River, Sleeping Bear Heritage, Bay View, Port Oneida, and Pyramid Point Trails are all found in this northernmost section.

hiker climbing to the top of sleeping bear dunes

Feeling pretty beat and fried from hiking the dunes, we decided to simply wander through the idillic countryside. Narrow roads cut through the 3,000 acres making up the historic district with its 16 preserved homesteads. Having been farmed for over 100 years by early settlers, the farms were passed down from generation to generation. The rural farming community, which is rumored to have been named after the first ship to visit its dock, the SS Oneida, was gradually abandoned due to hard farming conditions and the decline of timber sales. The Port Oneida Fair was established to commemorate the history of the region by displaying crafts and skills representing rural life as it happened during the 19th and early 20th century.

view of lake michigan from the top of old mission lighthouse in sleeping bear dunes national lakeshore and old mission state park

One of our favorite things to do on this road trip was to seek several of the historic lighthouses dotting the coast. The most memorable ones being the harbor in Ludington and Sterns Park Beach, Betsie Pointe Lighthouse, The Leland Harbor with its historic fisherman's shanty town, Grand Traverse Lighthouse, the South Pier Light in Charlevoix, and finally the Old Mission Lighthouse in Old Mission State Park.

old mission lighthouse in old mission state park and sleeping bear dunes national lakeshore

When we needed a break from all of the outdoorsy stuff, Traverse City had all of the comforts of a large metropolitan city, while still maintaining its small town charm. Breweries, wineries, high-end restaurants, public beaches, chartering a fishing trip, theres something here for everyone in your party to enjoy themselves. The rich and famous have been vacationing here for decades, seeking its laid back attitude and scenic vistas, as a place to get away from the intensity of the crowded cities on the East and West Coast. Its no wonder that in 2011, Good Morning America, named the area "The Most Beautiful Place in America".

south pier light and harbor in charlevoix, michigan

Wether you stumble onto it by chance or plan your summer trip around visiting Sleeping Bear Dunes and Traverse City, it'll become your new favorite hangout just as its become one of my own! 

*Some of the History of this region was excerpted from The NPS website, along with the following books; Tending a Comfortable Wilderness by Eric MacDonald, Sleeping Bear - Yesterday & Today by George Weeks and North Manitou Island - Between Sunrise and Sunset by Rita Hadra Rusco.


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