When I think of our family’s many day trips, weekend camping excursions and other treks through Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore over the years, the experience always includes an essential component: food. More specifically, the question, ‘Where are we going to eat?’ always, always comes up.
Of course, the kind of day you’ve mapped out in the Lakeshore often dictates the type of dining and sipping experience that’ll hit the spot. An afternoon with your kiddos, soaking up the sun and playing in the waves, might call for ice cream followed by family-friendly noshing (sometimes you’ve got to have dessert first!), while a leisurely river paddle with friends, a quiet beach stroll and sunset for two, or even an early-morning running race (the latter of which I’ve done more than a few times in the Lakeshore!) call for entirely different apres-outdoor activity re-fueling.
For some great food and drink options during your next Sleeping Bear adventure, let’s consider a few outings that likely are on your bucket list this summer:
The excursion: A packed day of fun in the sun with family and friends.
One of our most treasured memories is of a time a few years back when Jenn, my longtime friend from our days as college roommates at Michigan State University, traveled from the East Coast with her husband and their two school-age kids to spend a week with us exploring Northern Michigan. Midweek, we started late morning with a drive from our place in Traverse City to Empire, where we stopped by the Philip A. Hart Visitors Center on M-72 just east of the intersection with M-22. The kids loved checking out the gift shop and park displays (i.e. the various kinds of animals that can be found in the Lakeshore) and Jenn and Nick picked up a few treasures to take back home. From there, we headed to the nearby Empire Bluff Trail, knowing the kid-friendly out-and-back trail and breathtaking Lake Michigan views at the top would wow our visiting friends. Cue an abundance of picture-taking by my photographer bestie; that view never disappoints. From there it was off to the Dune Climb, where we enjoyed our picnic sandwiches and chips, followed by an afternoon of snorkeling and swimming the clear-blue waters at Glen Haven Beach.
The food & drink: After so much activity, everyone was ready to sit and enjoy a yummy summer dinner, which we planned to have in Glen Arbor, just two miles from Glen Haven. Boone Docks offers ample outdoor seating and live music, so we put our names in at the busy corner restaurant. With shops nearby, the older kids took the younger ones for a stroll along the main drag through the village while the adults waited for our table (and enjoyed a cocktail at the outdoor bar). Another go-to Glen Arbor spot for our family: Art’s Tavern, which also has outdoor seating—just be sure to bring cash as this eatery doesn’t take credit cards. Looking for a cold treat after your day in the sun? Check out The Pine Cone, with its 24 flavors of hand-dipped, premium soft-serve, shakes, flurries and floats, or head down the street to Cherry Republic, where you’ll find homemade cherry ice cream and plenty of other cherry-inspired treats. And certainly don’t forget about The Homestead. Just two miles outside of town, the Glen Arbor resort has several onsite restaurants that are open to the public, including Whiskers, a revamped experience that features an Argentinian-style wood-burning grill, outdoor fireplaces and spaces for relaxing with good food and friends. Opting for a picnic at the beach? Drop into Cavanaugh’s, a grocerant at The Homestead with ready-to-eat foods, groceries, beer, wine, liquor and sweet treats—or eat your goodies in one of the outdoor spaces nearby.
The excursion: A ride along the Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail, a 22-mile pathway connecting Empire, toward the southern end of the park, and Bohemian Road, north of Glen Arbor.
Most of this multi-use non-motorized trail is asphalt, but a 3-mile section that goes through the Port Oneida Rural Historic District north of Glen Arbor is crushed stone. One of our favorite ways to use this trail is to park at Glen Haven Beach and ride our bikes south, toward the Dune Climb, and on to Empire. As you near the village, expect to climb some hills but know that a great spot to rest and refuel is just ahead. You’re also treated to gorgeous wooded views, as this section snakes through towering trees. On your ride back after dinner, don’t forget to stop by Empire’s public beach for lovely views of the water and tall, sandy bluffs, which our youngest son Alex often referred to as “sand waterfalls.”
The food & drink: Empire provides the perfect mid-bike pause, with Joe’s Friendly Tavern promising delicious fare. In the mood for a juicy burger? Order Joe’s Famous ⅓-pound cheeseburger, or the restaurant’s Beyond Burger if you’d like something plant-based. Sandwiches, salads and wraps round out the menu. Also on Front Street, you’ll find Tiffany’s Cafe, serving up premium Michigan-made ice cream, freshly made waffle cones, hot fudge cream puff sundaes and the ever-popular homemade stroopwafels. And around the corner on M-22, the frozen custard at Shipwreck Cafe is also fabulous.
The excursion: A quiet walk in the woods and a peaceful shoreline visit.
On a recent sunny Sunday, my husband and I headed to the Lakeshore, our three kids happily back in Traverse City on a golf course with their grandpa, for a mini-escape. We decided to check out a new-to-us trail—the 2.4-mile looped Shauger Hill Trail near Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive—and then head to the beach with snacks (we picked up some cheese dip and bagel chips from the deli at Anderson’s Market in Glen Arbor) for a (refreshingly cold) swim in Lake Michigan. I also looked forward to sitting for a bit with a book I was having a hard time putting down. Sunshine, toes in the sand, lapping waves, an afternoon away … perfection.
The food & drink: One of our more recent finds that we can’t get enough of is Little Traverse Inn Gastro Pub, located on M-22 in Maple City. Sitting outside under the patio lights, sipping wine and enjoying one of this restaurant’s widely varied dishes is pure bliss on a summer night—especially after a day exploring the Lakeshore. We’ve met friends for a meal at Little Traverse Inn after a day of hiking, and we’ve also dined just the two of us after a satisfying afternoon combing the beach for rocks, boating and paddling in Glen Lake, or spending time on the nearby trails. The menu features “A Taste of India” items and beef fare, as well as seafood and “Classics and Old Country,” which include my favorite, the Shepherd’s Pie.