Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is known for gorgeous views, exciting activities and year-round fun. Explore three different ways to enjoy the dunes—snowshoeing, cross-country skiing and sledding—along with some great Up North restaurants near the Lakeshore that you can head to and warm up with delicious Northern Michigan food and drink.

The thing about a snowy and blustery winter afternoon along Lake Michigan, especially one that happens to fall on a Monday, is that you just might get the bluff, the beach and the bike path all to yourselves—or at least, mostly to yourselves.

A few years back, on the Monday of my three kids’ long weekend/mid-winter break from high school and middle school, we experienced this firsthand. We encountered fellow winter lovers throughout our day in the Lakeshore, but not many. Those we did see all seemed to share a similar fondness for how invigorating it is to be in the midst of winter elements, get our hearts pumping and witness a decidedly quieter Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.

While you may know the summer version of Sleeping Bear best of all, experiencing the park once it’s blanketed in snow is an absolute must. Over the years, we’ve made so many family memories while hiking the snowy trails and dunes, sometimes in snowshoes. We’ve ventured to the beach, too, where we’ve been awed (over and over) by Lake Michigan’s turquoise hues on an otherwise gray, overcast day, reveled in winter’s cornflower blue skies stretching over the Manitou Islands and beyond, and witnessed the most jaw-dropping, gorgeous orange sherbet-and-purple sunset after walking on frozen sand and scouring the shoreline for ice-encrusted driftwood and rocks.

And after these excursions? A hot meal at a local restaurant or coffee shop completely hits the spot. Here are a few ways to enjoy a winter day in the Lakeshore.

The Activity | Snowshoeing in Sleeping Bear Dunes

So many places to explore, so little time! That’s how you might feel given that snowshoeing is permitted on all snow-covered dunes, fields and forests in the Lakeshore (although it is recommended that you stay on well-marked pathways. Also note that if you are snowshoeing along a cross-country ski trail, be sure to stay off to the side of the cross-country skiers’ tracks).

To help with choosing a route, join one of the self-guided snowshoe hikes, which take place from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. every Saturday. Park rangers select a topic and location in the Lakeshore for exploring and discovery. Use the park app—search NPS Sleeping Bear Dunes, available on Android or Apple—for self-guided activities, including “Play Your Way” and “Explore the Shore.”

Crystal River Outfitters Recreational District offers winter rental equipment. Find snowshoes at this Glen Arbor business, as well as fat-tire bikes and cross-country skis.

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in the Winter

Photo by Heather Johnson Durocher

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in the Winter

Photo by Heather Johnson Durocher

Your After-Snowshoeing Food & Drink Plan

Not long ago, our family had our first Pegtown Station pizza (I don’t know why it took us so long; the pizza is so good). Located in Maple City, Pegtown serves up hot coffee, breakfasts and gourmet pizzas and subs daily. Need a bite before your hike? Breakfast is served from 8 a.m. to 11 a.m. Tuesday through Saturday, and from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Sunday. For après-adventure refueling, grab lunch or dinner, which is served 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, and from 1 p.m. to 8 p.m. on Sunday. Feeling especially hungry? Check out The Family Deal, which includes two 16-inch pizzas with up to six toppings total for $46.99 plus tax.

The Activity | Cross-Country Skiing at the Sleeping Bear Dunes

Whether you’re a longtime skier or new to the sport, cross-country skiing is at its best on the groomed sections of the Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail—the paved multi-use trail you likely have enjoyed in warmer weather and that transforms into a lovely wintry playground for exploring once the snow flies. You can find skiing conditions at the Friends of Sleeping Bear Dunes website and on the Sleeping Bear Dunes Facebook page.

While the park’s hiking trails aren’t groomed, some are designated ski trails. These include Old Indian Trail, Platte Plains, Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive, Windy Moraine, Alligator Hill and Bay View. Trail maps (and daily and yearly park passes) are available at the visitor center in Empire; you can also visit the park website for route information. Park rangers recommend staying safe by skiing with a friend. Be aware that pets are not allowed on ski trails while snow is on the ground.

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in the Winter

Photo by Heather Johnson Durocher

Your Post-Cross-County Ski Food & Drink Plan

If you start your ski in Empire, at the southern end of the Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail, head toward the Dune Climb (expect a few challenging-yet-satisfying rolling hills along the way), and then turn around to make it an out-and-back excursion. Celebrate conquering those climbs with lunch at Joe’s Friendly Tavern downtown (that burger and cold brew will never have tasted better). Prefer soup and a sandwich? Visit the Shipwreck Cafe in Empire for sandwiches with fresh, homemade buns baked daily. (Their sack lunch special includes a sandwich, chips and a drink for $12.)

The Activity | Sledding at the Sleeping Bear Dunes Dune Climb

One of my own childhood memories: around age 10 or 11, hauling my blue rolled-up sled up the 260-foot bluff that is the Dune Climb and flying down the hill (my friends swore by their red saucer sleds; I’d agree those got a bit more speed on the descent).

Sure, you’ve climbed this most famous of Lakeshore attractions, but have you sled down it? Though you can gain some decent speed when you start at the very top, younger ones will find safe fun by sledding near the bottom of the hill.

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in the Winter

Photo by Heather Johnson Durocher

Your Post-Sledding Food & Drink Plan

Pack a picnic lunch—why not? On a milder winter day, you can sit outside, at the base of the Dune Climb (you’ve dressed in layers, right?). If it’s too cold or windy, however, stay cozy in your vehicle. Don’t forget to bring a thermos of hot chocolate! Need picnic supplies? Stop by Anderson’s IGA in Glen Arbor for a wide variety of to-go sandwiches, soups, snacks and drinks. If you’re looking for a sit-down meal experience, try Little Traverse Inn Gastro Pub on M-22 across the road from Little Traverse Lake. (Call ahead for hours.)

On that Monday afternoon in the Lakeshore, as our noses reddened and bodies grew warm under layers of clothing, Emma, Andrew, Alex and I navigated wind-swept dunes and carefully strolled ice-encrusted shorelines. The memories of the day remain vivid in my mind, definitely because it was cherished time with my favorite people, but likely also because it was an especially adventurous afternoon, doing what we love in a place that means so much to us.

Photo(s) by Heather Johnson Durocher