The hike to Empire Bluffs delivers one of the most spectacular views in all of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, plus it’s a great activity to add to your Northern Michigan vacation must do list. The bonus is that the trail is doable by a wide range of people because it is relatively gentle (a couple of short slightly steeper parts) and only ¾-mile long (1.5 miles round trip).
To reach the trailhead from downtown Empire, follow Wilco Road south and serpentine your way up the incline, tunneled in by thick maple forest on each side. Wind up the road and then swing right into the gravel lot. (As an alternative, you could walk this beautiful stretch from downtown Empire to add a couple of miles to the hike.) For the Empire Bluff hike, you will absolutely want water and a camera. Also, if a bit of chill in the air has you wondering about carrying a jacket, bring it, because the high, exposed bluff can be windy and notably cooler than the parking lot. Peruse the trail map tacked to the bulletin board for last minute info and then set out for the woods.
Step along the wide and well maintained path. Spritz on bug spray to ward off bloodthirsty mosquitos or nettlesome blackflies as the path meanders through the shaded maple and beech hardwoods. Relish the cool walk as sunlight filters through maple leaves. The subdued hues illuminate the lush emerald undergrowth of delicate Canada violet, languid ferns, and lichen on the occasional oak.
Pause near trail marker No. 2 and scrutinize the jagged teeth and bowed ribs of long forgotten farm equipment. Rusted, but stubbornly resilient, the artifacts are remnants of an early farm—land that the patient forest has since reclaimed. Enjoy the easy roll of the trail as it follows the natural contours of the forest floor. Tilt an ear to the glissando and then chatter of a black-capped chickadee, or the dynamic chirps of an American goldfinch.
At the trail’s steeper parts, the Park Service has built staircases of treated wood embedded in the earth, which also prevent erosion and excessive runoff. At about the half-mile point, the curtain of dense foliage parts to an unforgettable view: the thin skirt of Empire beach, South Bar Lake, Lake Michigan, and the Sleeping Bear dune rising in the distance. Settle onto the wood bench for a quick rest, or snap a few photos. The best is yet to come.
Continue along the trail to complete the short jog to the bluff face. Nearing the overlook, the path edges the shoulders of steep forested valleys. Follow along to the sixth marker that signals the transition to the open face of the bluff. Heed the advice of the neatly lettered sign admonishing you to remain on the trail. With loose sand and a steep incline, the bluffs are susceptible to erosion. Keep to the wood walkway.
To the west, spread like a ruffled azure sheet is Lake Michigan. Limitless and improbably immense, the lake stretches to consume nearly one hundred eighty degrees of horizon. To the northwest, six miles from Sleeping Bear Point, South Manitou Island shrinks and grows on the horizon at the whim of refracting light. Beachgoers swim like tiny insects in the surf of Empire Beach. Dial in your camera to make a spectacular panorama, or capture a snippet of video of the seemingly boundless expanses of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. Snap your lens cap back into place, tuck your phone back into your pocket, and for a moment or so, watch the crested rows of waves slip toward shore. Glide your hand along the railing as you make your way back toward the woods, and trace the rough etchings of initials carved into the wood. Make one final look over your shoulder, and in doing so, solidify the guarantee that you’ll be back.