Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is the showpiece of the northwestern Lower Peninsula. Spanning miles of the Lake Michigan shore and packed with scenic views and recreation opportunities, it’s easy to see why so many locals adore it. This guide is full of great things to do and tips to help you plan the perfect visit.
What is Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore?
Stretching along 35 miles of Lake Michigan shoreline, the national lakeshore was first established in 1970. The park, operated by the National Park Service, protects – you’ll never guess – huge sand dunes, North and South Manitou Islands, and some historical sites relevant to Great Lakes history.
The name “Sleeping Bear” is derived from an Ojibwe legend about a momma bear and two babies who were trying to swim across the lake. The bear cubs couldn’t finish the swim and became the two major islands in the park (North and South Manitou) and the mother became one of the large sand dunes as she waited in vain for her babies. It’s said that the dune once resembled a sleeping bear, though over time the elements have changed its shape. Find out more about the legend here.
Highlights of Sleeping Bear Dunes
You can see the best of Sleeping Bear in one day if you’re short on time, or hang around longer to really soak up the beauty and explore. Here’s the best of the best.
Take the Pierce-Stocking Scenic Drive
The Pierce-Stocking Scenic Drive is the highlight of a Sleeping Bear Dunes trip for many people. The road winds its way through 7.4 miles of forest and dunes and is the best way to experience the park if you’re limited on time. If you only have an afternoon, this is the thing you want to do!
You can grab a free interpretive guide from the visitor center with info about each stop along the route. Bathrooms are available at a couple of the overlooks, but they’re pretty limited and draw long lines on crowded summer days. The drive is typically open from April-November during the day, closing half an hour after sunset nightly.
The Lake Michigan Overlook is the most popular spot on the Pierce-Stocking Scenic Drive. A short, sandy walk will take you to views of a sand dune dropping sharply down 450 feet to the lake’s sparkling blue waters. Head toward the right when you’re at the top to walk out on a wooden overlook that gives you views almost straight down into the lake. It is absolutely Michigan at its finest.
As you can see in the picture above, some adventurous visitors choose to climb down the steep sand dune for a swim. While this isn’t prohibited, the climb back up is long and strenuous and you’ll spot signs warning that there is a charge if a rescue is needed. The dune is steep enough that you can’t walk upright, so most people end up on all fours looking very much like bears, which works well considering the park’s name. If you really want to climb a dune, keep reading until the next section for a much better option.
There are other stops along the way that offer views of Glen Lake, a smaller inland lake, and the original though much eroded sleeping bear dune.
Climb a dune
The designated Dune Climb area is located a couple miles north of the Pierce-Stocking Scenic Drive. It’s hard to miss the giant parking lot for it, and there’s a ranger station, vending machines, and bathrooms available as well.
Because you’re starting at the bottom of this dune and working upward, if you find that you’re too tired to continue, you can just turn around and head back down to the parking lot instead of being stuck waiting for a marine rescue like you would at the dune on Pierce-Stocking.
Most visitors make it to the top of that first dune and enjoy the views of Glen Lake before heading back down. If you’re expecting to see the big lake from here, you will be disappointed. For that view, you’ll have to take a 3.5-mile trail – over sand – so it’s a bit of a workout. Bring lots of water.
Once you’ve made the trek out to the lake or just enjoyed the view from the top for a while, you can make your way back down to the bottom at your own pace. Or, as my brother once did throw yourself down in a recreation of the scene from The Princess Bride in which Westly somersaults down a slope, complete with an “as you wish” yell. [Note: I 100% do not recommend this because I was sure he was going to die or break his neck and leave me in massive trouble with my parents as the older sibling.]
North Manitou Island
North Manitou Island is located approximately 8 miles from the mainland in the park. You’ll need a private boat or a ticket on the ferry from nearby Leland’s historic Fishtown area. The island features a ranger station, historic buildings, miles of trails, inland lakes, and plenty of beaches.
North Manitou island has one small designated campground with 8 sites for overnight stays, but wilderness camping is permitted.
South Manitou Island
South Manitou Island is smaller and just a little bit further from the mainland. Like North Manitou Island, it’s also accessible by private boat or ferry. South Manitou has loads of recreation opportunities whether you’re just on a day trip or camping overnight. There are lots of hiking trails with views of the lake and mainland, and South Manitou also has its own little lake within it. The historic village on the island features a visitor center and museum, and as well as a lighthouse that can be climbed. Tractor wagon tours are also available. In addition, there are ghost towns and an old Coast Guard station left over from the area’s shipping heyday. Just offshore, you can spot a shipwreck from the 1960s protruding out of the water.
For those wishing to spend the night, there are 58 sites located in three different campgrounds: Weather Station, Bay, and Popple. Note that there is no potable water available, so all of the campgrounds require you to bring enough water for your entire stay or filtration equipment to purify your own safe drinking water.
Beaches at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore
If the Caribbean-blue waters of Lake Michigan have tempted you for a swim, there are places at the National Lakeshore to go for a dip without having to climb back up a 400+ foot dune like the one along the Pierce-Stocking route. Sleeping Bear has three public beaches along the lakeshore. Peterson Beach, Esch Beach, and Platte River Point Beach all provide much less strenuous access to the water.
If you’re not a Great Lakes local, it’s worth noting that Lake Michigan is typically very chilly until well into the summer. The best swimming season doesn’t start until late July, though even during that time shifting winds occasionally push colder water from deeper parts of the lake to the shore. Beware that the Great Lakes are more like inland seas than the smaller lakes you find in other places. Rip currents aren’t common, but can happen, and it’s not unusual to have decently large waves breaking on the shore. Caution should always be used when swimming.
Lake Michigan has the best sunsets in the whole state, so even if you don’t want to go for a swim, the beaches are still worth a visit in the evening.
Historic sites at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore
If you want to learn about local history, head to Glen Haven village to see some of the historic buildings. They’re only open part time, so be sure to check their hours before you head out. Stop at the Glen Haven General Store to view a small collection of artifacts from the area. Nearby, the Cannery Boathouse was converted from a warehouse to a canning facility for the region’s famous cherries. No longer in operation, it now houses historic boats that were used in the area. You can also visit a functional 1920s blacksmith shop to watch metal being worked.
Just a bit down the road from Glen Haven, can also visit the Sleeping Bear Point Coast Guard Station Maritime Museum. The station was retired during WWII thanks to more advanced technology that made it obsolete and underwent renovations during the 1980s to restore it to previous eras. Visitors can tour the old station – which was fascinatingly relocated from its original site to avoid being buried by shifting sands – and its boathouse. One of the most interesting things to do here is to learn about how shipwreck rescues were conducted back in the day. During summer months, reenactments of rescue drills are performed daily for visitors to watch.
In the northern part of the National Lakeshore area, Port Oneida features a few historic farms. Here, you can learn about the farming practices used over the hundred years or so that this land was farmed. There are other historic cabins and homesteads in other parts of the park, but you’ll find the highest concentration in this area.
Philip A. Hart Visitor Center
Located in Empire, between the north and south sections of the park, the official visitor center is the best place to start your visit – particularly if you’re heading west from Traverse City. You’ll want to pay the park entrance fee here – which gets you 7 days of admission, grab maps or other guides, get your National Park Passport stamps (an essential for me and my fiance), and request any info you need from the park rangers or volunteers on staff. You can find operating hours on the NPS website.
The visitor center also contains a mini museum where you can learn more about the park’s history and some of the animals that reside here. Depending on your timing, you may be able to catch a short video about the park. This can easily be a quick, five-minute stop if you’re only paying for your park pass and grabbing a map, or you can spend an hour or more if you really want to explore the museum.
Camping at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore
In addition to the four campgrounds already covered on North and South Manitou Islands, there are two NPS campgrounds on the mainland. In the northern section of the park, the D. H. Day campground has 88 rustic sites (meaning no electric hookups) within walking distance of Lake Michigan.
In the south area of the park, the Platte River Campground has 179 sites. This campground offers electric hookups and many sites are suitable for RVs.
Other places to stay near Sleeping Bear Dunes
You won’t find any big chain hotels or resorts right around the park – look half an hour east to Traverse City for that – but there are numerous smaller hotels and B&Bs in the area. Empire and Glen Arbor are the best options right in the heart of things. Both of these small towns also offer food, snacks, and bars. You can also easily get to the park from anywhere in the Leelanau Peninsula to the north or Traverse City area if you don’t mind a slightly longer drive.