Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive in the Sleeping Bear Dunes

The Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive in the Sleeping Bear Dunes (just north of Empire) is an attraction not to be missed on a Northern Michigan vacation. On the breathtakingly beautiful 7.4-mile Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive you can imagine the might of the glaciers that sculpted the Sleeping Bear Dunes 10,000 years ago, contemplate nature’s intricate beauty or just kick back and have one of the prettiest picnics in Northern Michigan, if not the world!

Watch this MyNorth video, then scroll on to learn more about the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive:

Before heading to the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive, it’s worth a stop in the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore’s visitor center (corner of M-72 and M-22, 231.326.5134) for maps, guidebooks and a park vehicle pass—although you can also purchase a pass at the gate.

Twelve interpretive stops along the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive bring the natural history of this incredible Northern Michigan attraction to life. Be on the lookout for these stops:

Glen Lake Overlook

This is a glorious bird’s-eye view of the glittering  Glen Lakes, products of glaciers that formed in the Ice Age. From here, you can see across Little Glen to where it joins Big Glen under the M-22 bridge known as the narrows. Off to the north, let your eye trace the tree-filled ridge that meanders down in the shape of an alligator snout—hence its name Alligator Hill. A marvelous trail system marked by two incredible lookouts snakes through this forest. Find trail maps at the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore visitors center in Empire.

Picnic Mountain

Yep, this is the perfect place to spread a blanket and open the food basket!

Dune Overlook

There is so much stunning scenery to take in at this one stop you’ll have to remember to exhale. From this point, you can pick out North and South Manitou Islands across Lake Michigan’s Sleeping Bear Bay, Pyramid Point (so named by sailors for its shape) that marks the north end of Sleeping Bear Bay, the Sleeping Bear Dunes and the Glen Lakes. That stunning white barn you see is the privately-owned historic D.H. Day farm—named for the lumbermen who built it in the beginning of the last century.

Cottonwood Trail

Here’s your chance to stretch your legs and get up close and personal with the dunes. This 1.5-mile hike moves you up and down dunes, across blowouts, past patches of bearberry and buffaloberry and cottonwood trees half-buried in sand. Sand makes a marvelous canvas for animal tracks, so keep your eyes peeled!

Dune Ecology

This is where you’ll learn how in the world plants like the cottonwood tree and juniper bush can survive on the sand dunes with their dry wind and inability to hold moisture.

Lake Michigan Overlook

This is the piece de resistance of all Northern Michigan attractions. Walk out onto the viewing platform 450 feet above Lake Michigan and catch your breath at the sight of glittering water that stretches below you. South, to your left, are the Empire Bluffs—the gateway to Platte Bay. Further down the coast is Point Betsie. The Manitou Islands are on the horizon and Sleeping Bear Point is to the north.

CAUTION: Descending the Lake Michigan bluff causes erosion and is dangerous. The steep grade makes footing difficult and there is danger from falling rocks. The return climb is extremely strenuous!

Sleeping Bear Dunes Overlook

From this view, you can see what is left of the dune that lent its name to the entire 111-square mile Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. The dune was formed some 2,000 years ago by Lake Michigan winds depositing sand from the bluff.  The dune once stood 230 feet above Lake Michigan. It’s classified as a perched dune because it is perched on top of a plateau high above the lake. When the dune was forming, it was not at the edge of the bluff, but somewhat inland. Wind carried sand from the upper portion of the Lake Michigan bluff inland and deposited it to form the Sleeping Bear Dune.

By 1961, the dune was only 132 feet high, and by 1980, it was down to 103 feet. The process is a continuing one. The major cause of the dune’s erosion is wave action wearing away the base of the plateau on which the dune rests. As the west side of the dune loses its support, it cascades down the hill. The wind, too, is a major agent of erosion, removing sand and destroying the dune’s plant cover. What does the future hold? It seems that the present trend will continue and it is only a matter of time until the Bear disappears completely.

North Bar Overlook

The small lake below is North Bar Lake. The name describes how the lake formed: it is ponded behind a sand bar. At times, the sand bar builds up and separates North Bar Lake from Lake Michigan. At other times, a small connecting channel exists between the two lakes. North Bar Lake occupies part of a former bay on Lake Michigan. This ancient bay was flanked by headlands on both sides: Empire Bluffs on the south and Sleeping Bear Bluffs on the north. Shorelines have a natural tendency to become straighter with time. Wave action focuses on the headlands and wears them back, while shoreline currents carry sediment to the quiet bays and fill them in. Deeper parts of the bay are often left as lakes when sand fills in the shallower parts. The same process that formed North Bar Lake also formed many of the other lakes in northern Michigan: Glen, Crystal, Elk and Torch Lakes, for example.

There is a nice picnic area at the North Bar Lake Overlook stop on the Pierce Stocking Drive.

Pine Plantation

Notice that the pine trees at the side of the road are all about the same size and are not mixed with other kinds of trees. This is a pine plantation. You can estimate the age of the trees by counting the whorls of branches. These trees were planted before the land became part of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.

Logging and farming played an important role in Michigan’s history but left many tracts of land depleted. Property owners planted pine trees in an effort to improve their land. Pine trees serve a number of purposes: they prevent soil erosion, provide a windbreak, yield a timber crop and provide some wildlife habitat. Yet, for all their benefits, pine plantations are out of place in Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. The park was set aside to preserve the natural environment. Therefore, native forest growth is more desirable here than pine plantations. In some parts of the park, portions of pine plantations have been cut selectively to encourage a mingling of natural growth among the pine trees.

More Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore

Cornerstone: Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive

Article Comments

  • Gin Kish

    Near the Sleeping Bear Dunes overlook that extends out over the dune’s edge there is a place that some people go down to the lake, although there is a sign saying it is not a good idea because it is very difficult to get back up: ‘Rescue at your own expense.’ This year, Oct. 2015, there was no steep incline, it was a sheer drop off. I was so startled and amazed by the difference this year from years past, with the high water causing no slope whatsoever that I got way too close to the edge, looking over, thinking surely there is a slope down. But, no, it was a sheer drop off to the water below. I hope they fence this area off so that the sand doesn’t give way under someone and they fall. Survival would be a miracle.