With 35 miles of sandy shoreline and 70,000 acres of protected wilderness, the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is big—think three times the size of Manhattan. With so much land to explore, planning a vacation to the Dunes can feel daunting. Yet, like any vacation hotspot, there are certain enduring destinations that have made the Sleeping Bear Dunes iconic. Between the rivers and lakes perfect for boating, the bountiful beaches just begging to be lounged upon, and the miles of hiking trails, there’s a Northern Michigan outdoor activity for any visitor—both kid and adult. Here’s the definitive guide to 9 Sleeping Bear Dunes attractions, activities and travel ideas that every Dunes debutante should enjoy.
1) The Dune Climb
Ascending the 300-foot-tall face of sand that is the Dune Climb is strenuous work, but Mother Nature was kind enough to reward those who scale the bluff with a stunning vista of inland Leelanau County and several lakes. This mainstay of the Sleeping Bear Dunes is a huge, sandy playpen: launch yourself off the dune after a running start, and land on lightly in the sand after a going airborne. Those with the stamina can hike to Lake Michigan via the Dune Climb Hiking Trail; those with brains can picnic at a Climb-side table. Located on M109 west of Glen Arbor.
2) Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive
This 7.4-mile circuit is an automotive journey through the many ecosystems of the dunes: from beech and maple forests to rolling, shrub meadows and lastly to mountainous dunes over- looking Lake Michigan and the Manitou Islands. With 12 informational stops along the way (including the unforgettable #9 Overlook 450 feet above the water in the image above ↑), visitors of the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive are immersed in Dune-ology, and walk away with greater respect and awe for the ecology and beauty of the Sleeping Bear Dunes. Located south of the Dune Climb on M109.
3) Kayak, Canoe, or Float
With two tranquil rivers flowing through the heart of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, paddling provides a warm, relaxing diversion, and maybe even a bit of exercise. The Platte River—located at the southern edge of the Dunes—is a highway for lounging tubers enjoying the carefree, shallow and sunny river, and is also popular with canoeists. The Crystal River—near Glen Arbor—is navigable by kayak, but can occasionally be too shallow; the Platte is a sure thing, as evinced by the numbers of happy floaters.
Lake Michigan, too, can be kayaked; its clear water, clean coastline and impressive dune views make it a favorite of experienced paddlers.
4) Travel In Time to Port Oneida
With around two dozen subsistence farms, Port Oneida was once an agricultural hub of Leelanau County: while time has passed and the agricultural activity waned, the pastoral legacy of the area has been upheld through maintaining many of the historic farms. Drive along M22 north of Glen Arbor to discover the timelessness of Port Oneida’s barns, fields and farms, and check out the Port Oneida Fare on August 8th and 9th.
5) Summit a Lake Michigan Bluff
Watch the sun plunge into Lake Michigan or the turquoise water shimmer at one of several bluff overlooks along the Sleeping Bear Dunes shoreline; the vibrant lake is fit for a watercolor:
- Empire Bluffs, 5 minutes south of Empire off of M22. Access by Empire Bluffs Trail.
- Pyramid Point, 15 minutes north of Glen Arbor. Access by Pyramid Point Trail.
- Alligator Hill Lookout, 5 minutes west of Glen Arbor. Access by Alligator Hill Trail.
- Bay View Trail Overlook, 5 minutes north of Glen Arbor. Access by Bay View Trail.
6) Learn and Swim at Glen Haven Historic District
Just 5 minutes west of Glen Arbor by M22, Glen Haven Historic District boasts a wealth of educational sites: the Cannery Boathouse Museum, a working blacksmith shop, the US Coast Guard Station Maritime Museum and the Glen Haven General Store. This living historical site is rife with cultural heritage—and the beach in front of the Cannery Boathouse Museum is among the best at the Sleeping Bear Dunes.
7) Visit an Island
North and South Manitou Islands form the foundation of the Native American’s Sleeping Bear myth: a mother bear and two cubs traversed Lake Michigan from Wisconsin, but the two cubs drowned before reaching shore. The Manitou Islands formed as markers for the fallen cubs. Visit either of the islands to camp for an amazing wilderness experience, or take a day trip to South Manitou and visit the island’s lighthouse (see image to the left), Coast Guard station and visible shipwrecks.
8) Bike, Walk or Run the Heritage Trail
Connecting the Dune Climb with Glen Arbor—and passing through the DH Day Campground and Glen Haven—the Sleeping Bear Dunes Heritage Trail is a paved, multi-purpose pathway connecting some of the most popular places in the Dunes. End to end, the trail spans 4.25 miles; within 2014, an expanded trail will connect Glen Arbor and Empire.
9) Get Beached
Many attractions at the Sleeping Bear Dunes require a fair amount of activity (I’m looking at you, Dune Climb). But a good vacation is a relaxing one, and there’s no better way to relax than to lounge on a Lake Michigan beach. You’ve got 35 miles of sandy shoreline to make up your mind, but the following link should help to narrow your search: