Iconic Outdoor Attraction: Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore

For years, it seemed, this Great Lakes gem was one of the country’s best-kept secrets—then in 2011, viewers of Good Morning America voted the park Most Beautiful Place in America, and the following summer Sleeping Bear saw a record 1.5 million visitors. But this national treasure on Michigan’s western shore encompasses 71,000 acres of parkland and 35 miles of glorious Lake Michigan coastline across two counties—Leelanau to the north and Benzie to the south— meaning that there’s plenty of space to find your own quiet corner to commune with nature. Benzie County’s portion of the park tends to be less travelled anyway; it hugs Platte Bay and includes a handful of pretty inland lakes, the legendary Platte River (beloved for paddling and offering some of the finest salmon and steelhead fishing around), some of the park’s best beaches, plenty of great trails, and of course, incredible beauty around every bend. One of the best parts about living and working in Benzie County? This four-season outdoor playland is practically your backyard.

Quick access to some of the world’s best freshwater beaches is one of the perks of having Sleeping Bear Dunes practically in your backyard. White-sand shoreline, dramatic dunes and bluffs, the ever-shifting moods and hues of Lake Michigan—these beaches are sublime whether it’s swimsuit season or not. Two popular spots are Platte Point Beach, where the Platte River tumbles into Lake Michigan, and Esch Road Beach, at the mouth of Otter Creek, which has a hidden-lagoon feel. Peterson Road Beach offers more seclusion and dramatic shoreline bluff views at the park’s southernmost end.

Sleeping Bear is also a day-hiker’s heaven. The trails here weave through a diverse ecosystem ranging from dunes to hardwood forests to marsh and swampland. Great wildlife watching abounds. Two favorite trails in the Benzie portion of the park: Platte Plains Trail includes a series of moderate loops ranging from four miles to 15 miles; Old Indian Trail serves up gorgeous Lake Michigan overlooks from both of its easy 2.5-mile loops. Most of the park’s 100 miles of mainland trails are open and maintained in the winter, too, for cross-country skiing and showshoeing. Other favorite activities in Benzie’s Sleeping Bear Dunes include canoeing or tubing the picturesque Platte River, fishing the quiet inland lakes like Loon Lake and Otter Lake, and camping at the popular Platte River Campground.

Paddling the Platte River in Benzie County.

A park entrance pass is required for all areas of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore (annual passes are $20). 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.