The crown jewel of Leelanau County and neighboring Benzie County is undoubtedly Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, a 71,000-acre Great Lakes oasis with 35 miles of pristine Lake Michigan shoreline, dozens of sugar-sand beaches, 100 miles of mainland trails, 21 inland lakes, two islands for exploring and camping, and preserved historic sites from the region’s farming, fishing and lumbering past. Folks who live here don’t take this national treasure for granted, so it was a delight—but no surprise—when, in 2011, viewers of Good Morning America voted the park “Most Beautiful Place in America.”
See for yourself.
Among the park’s most popular attractions in Leelanau County: Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive, a seven-mile car route with gorgeous overlooks and access to picnic spots; the iconic Dune Climb, a giant hill of sand that is especially fun for kids to clamber up and tumble down; favorite scenic hiking trails like Empire Bluff and Pyramid Point; and the Crystal River, a slow, shallow and easily navigable waterway ideal for family and group canoe or tubing trips.
Leelanau’s portion of the park also includes North and South Manitou islands: twin islands that gave rise to the Chippewa legend of Sleeping Bear. “The Manitous,” as they’re known locally, are home to ghost towns, ancient cedar stands, historic lighthouses and farmsteads, inland lakes, forested wilderness and incredible beaches. South Manitou Island, which is 16 miles west of the mainland and about eight square miles, includes three rustic campgrounds and access to a lighthouse and historic life saving station. The larger North Manitou Island, 12 miles west of the mainland and 22 square miles, is managed as a wilderness and therefore a favorite destination for backcountry campers. Both islands are accessible via the Manitou Island Transit ferry service, which departs daily from the docks in Leland’s Fishtown.
See the spectacular natural beauty of South Manitou Island in this MyNorth video.
The region’s heritage is an important part of Sleeping Bear Dunes, and it’s kept alive in several locations throughout the park. Port Oneida Rural Historic District is comprised of more than a dozen 19th-century subsistence farmsteads; its the nation’s largest historic agricultural community, and it comes to life through demonstrations, crafts and activities every summer at the annual Port Oneida fair.
At the Glen Haven District, weathered dock pilings still stand just off the shore—remains from a century ago, when this ghost town was home to a lively logging village. The remaining historic buildings include a general store peddling books and vintage goods, a working blacksmith shop, and a former cherry cannery, now a wooden boat museum. Nearby is the Maritime Museum, housed in the 1901-built Sleeping Bear Point U.S. Life-Saving Station; in summer, the museum hosts daily live reenactments of shipwreck rescue drills.
While summertime is certainly the big season for Sleeping Bear, locals know that the park is spectacularly beautiful in fall, winter and spring as well. Autumn turns the hardwood forests here into a palette of fiery fall color—and with the season’s cooler temperatures, it’s an ideal time to head out into the park for a hike or a bike ride along the Sleeping Bear Dunes Heritage Trail. When winter blankets the hills and dunes with snow, it’s time to strap on the snowshoes or cross-country skis; many of the hiking trails become dedicated ski trails, and the Heritage Trail is even groomed. And springtime is a special treat, as wildlife returns and early wildflowers pop up in the woods and meadows.
A park entrance pass is required for all areas of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore (annual passes are $30). More information is available online at nps.gov/slbe or at the park’s visitor center in Empire, at the corner of M-22 and M-72.