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Fall in Northern Michigan, with its brilliant colors and fresh-start feel, is the perfect follow up to summer; and fall in Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is not to be missed. Read on to discover fall color drives and hikes in Sleeping Bear Dunes, and don’t forget to tack on a sunset to your fall color day!

Some of my most memorable and restorative outdoor adventures in September and October have taken place in Sleeping Bear. Aside from the fall races, runs, hikes and bike rides I’ve savored during this time of year, there’s the extra-special memory—22 years ago this September—of spending our wedding night in a quaint B&B and taking in the just-turning fall colors the next day in Glen Arbor.

From on-foot excursions in the woods and along the dunes and shorelines, to leisurely bike and car rides on winding country roads, fall truly is an opportune time to explore the Lakeshore. Here are a few of the best ways to take in the fall color during your autumn visit to Sleeping Bear and the surrounding area.

Photo by Sleeping Bear Dunes Visitors Bureau

Take To the Trails

There’s nothing quite like getting lost (in all the right ways) in the woods. These trails offer jaw-dropping fall views.

Find your vista: Both Pyramid Point and Empire Bluff trails are well known for their exceptional views and minimal climbing. At the top of each of these trails, you’re treated to panoramic views of Lake Michigan in all of its varying shades of blue, depending upon the day’s cloud cover, temperatures and wind.

  • Most people take Pyramid Point’s 1.2-mile round trip trail to the sandy perch where Lake Michigan opens wide and the Manitou Islands dot the horizon. The path travels through beautiful stands of beech and maple, particularly gorgeous in fall color flame. This is a steady climb up, getting steeper as you go. Want to immerse yourself even more in the colors of fall? Walk the entire 2.7-mile loop. Get here by taking M-22 north out of Glen Arbor and turn left on Port Oneida Road.
  • The 1.5-mile out-and-back Empire Bluff Trail is just outside the village of Empire. This is a steady uphill made completely worth it when the woods open to the boardwalk on the top of the dunes, from which a huge vista appears taking in North Bar Lake, Lake Michigan, Pyramid Point and more. There is a bench for sitting at the top and just taking it all in. Definitely photo-ready!
  • Bay View Trail offers eight miles of easy and intermediate trails, divided into numerous loops, meaning you can spend the entire afternoon here or just an hour. Bay View offers it all; views, meadows, woods, preserved farmsteads and more. Don’t want to explore the whole thing? Walk .5 miles from the Thorson Road trailhead to see the gorgeous view of Lake Michigan, or park at the end of W. Miller Road for the quickest route to the overlook. The Bay View Trail can also be accessed right from The Homestead, a resort in Glen Arbor.
  • Even with its loss of towering trees in the historic August 2015 storm, Alligator Hill, accessed from Glen Arbor, remains a very pretty space and provides a satisfying, hilly route and view. The trek is challenging at points, but the view at the top is well worth the effort. There are nine miles of trails, but they’re divided into several loops.

Photo by Sleeping Bear Dunes Visitors Bureau

Photo by Sleeping Bear Dunes Visitors Bureau

Run, walk (or watch!) a race: I mentioned racing earlier, and I’d be remiss not to share a little more about the Sleeping Bear Marathon, Half Marathon and 5K held in Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in the fall. Runners and walkers start in Empire and head onto the Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail, a 21+-mile route (paved with some limestone) that connects Lakeshore amenities and attractions such as Glen Haven, DH Day Campground, the Dune Climb and Port Oneida Historic District. Not a runner? No worries! I’ve also spectated this early October race—my best friend ran the challenging, stunningly beautiful marathon a few years ago—and, following her progress, I stopped at various places along the route to cheer her on, bringing me alongside changing foliage in the woods, near the Dune Climb and next to Glen Lake. It was beautiful.

Photo by Sleeping Bear Dunes Visitors Bureau

Cruise the Roads

These picturesque drives offer awe-inspiring views of fall’s vibrancy—and much more.

  • Don’t miss Sleeping Bear Dunes’ Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive in the fall. This 7.4-mile drive has 12 stops charted along the way for spectacular views, picnic spots and ecological points of interest. Take your time to do them all, but be sure you stop at overlook #9 for absolutely heart-stopping views. From Empire, take M-22 north for two miles to M-109, then left on M-109 for two miles.
  • Three miles north of Glen Arbor, take Thoreson Road off M-22 for views of old farmsteads and the old “Circle H” horse farm/livery. Just a few miles north of Thoreson is Port Oneida Road, which will take you past a century-old cemetery and schoolhouse as well as several farmsteads, one of which is still in operation. Keep driving toward the former, legendary Camp Innisfree (now Leelanau Outdoor Center), which is near the end of the road that circles back eventually to M-22. If you’re up for a hike, this is where you can find Pyramid Point!
  • Heading in the other direction on M-22, a couple of miles north of Glen Arbor, take Westman Road about a half-mile to Darwin Road, which heads up on Miller Hill. There is an incredible lookout (Miller Hill Lookout) at the top overlooking Tucker Lake and the Manitou Islands out to the north and west—a great spot for a sunset.
  • In nearby Maple City, head west on MacFarlane Road (County Road 616) toward the bottom of Big Glen Lake, making sure to stop at the roadside park—Inspiration Point—at the crest. Keep going across the causeway to Glen Arbor. Lots of turns and ups and downs, and totally gorgeous.
  • From the village of Cedar, head northeast on South Lakeshore Drive toward the town of Lake Leelanau. Follow this route along the west shore of Lake Leelanau. Your color tour will include lots of cows, lake views and vineyards, including Bel Lago.
  • Heading south from Glen Arbor, take M-109 for about a mile and a half to Stocking Road, which leads you to Day Farm Road. Take a right to pass the D.H. Day Farm. If you take a left on M-109 again, you’ll travel past Little Glen Lake, the Dune Climb and the can’t-miss Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive with its impressive views, including a truly spectacular one overlooking Lake Michigan.

Photo by Sleeping Bear Dunes Visitors Bureau

Whether you’re taking in the seasonal color on the roads during a drive, meandering through the woods on your bike or on foot, or your adventure is more of the beach-and-dunes-strolling variety, there’s no shortage of ways to immerse yourself in all of fall’s amazing glory in Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.

Related Read: 6 Great Family-Friendly Activities at Sleeping Bear Dunes

Searching for More Fall in Northern Michigan?

Visit our Northern Michigan Fall page for everything from fall hiking color tours to gourmet Fall mushrooming and so much more. You can also preview and purchase our digital issues or subscribe and get Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine delivered to your door each month.

Photo(s) by Sleeping Bear Dunes Visitors Bureau