When it comes to planning a vacation to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, there are tons of great lists already out there — but most don’t go beyond the can’t-miss shortlist of, say, hiking this one trail or visiting that one beach.
In honor of Sleeping Bear Dunes’ 50th anniversary — which it marks on October 21 this year — we wanted to go beyond the basics. We wanted to create a sweeping list that included peaceful activities and wild adventures, little-known spots and classic stops, to encourage people to get out and truly make the most of this 71,000-acre wonderland.
Of course, no National Park to-do list could ever be truly complete, but we believe this one’s a pretty good start. It’s arranged in no particular order and can be used as a lifelong, multiple-visits checklist or simply for cherry-picking ideas for planning one trip.
Just don’t forget your park pass, and be sure to call ahead or check online when it comes to scheduling details or changes in operation both at the park and at nearby businesses.
1. Hike to the top of Pyramid Point. The spectacular overlook at the top of the Pyramid Point trail (either .6 miles or 2.7 miles depending on which route you want) is a short-list must-see at Sleeping Bear.
2. Have a picnic. Beautiful spots abound in the park; try the aptly named Picnic Mountain if you’re planning on visiting the Dune Climb that same day.
3. Marvel at Lake Michigan from atop Empire Bluff. Easily one of the best hikes in the entire park, Empire Bluff Trail is less than 1.5 miles round-trip but delivers an incredible view over the Big Lake.
4. Catch a Sleeping Bear sunset. With so much west-facing waterfront, there’s no shortage of great sunset spots here. A few tried-and-true bets include Good Harbor Beach and Esch Road Beach, Empire Beach Village Park in Empire, and Stop No. 9 along the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive.
5. Tumble down the Dune Climb. It’s a Sleeping Bear Dunes tradition: Hoofing it up the iconic Dune Climb hill of sand, then careering back down as fast as you can.
6. Hike the Dune Climb. If that first climb wasn’t enough of a challenge, you can keep on walking westward all the way to Lake Michigan. But be warned: Even though it’s only 3.5 miles round trip, the Dunes Trail is the park’s most strenuous hike, as shifting sands, summer heat and zero shade can render the trek remarkably grueling. Bring water, wear proper shoes, and plan accordingly.
6. Step back in time at Glen Haven. With a blacksmith shop, cannery boathouse, and general store, this restored 1920′s village offers a look into local life from another era.
7. Day trip to South Manitou Island. Old-growth cedar forests, a historic lighthouse, a ghost town, a shipwreck: There’s tons to see and explore on South Manitou, and if you don’t want to stay and camp, a day trip is a great way to get a taste. Note that the Manitou Island Transit ferry service is not running in 2020.
8. Backpack North Manitou Island. For a truly rustic experience, North Manitou offers 15,000 acres of wilderness, including beaches, dunes and inland lakes. Camp at the designated Village Campground, or get a backcountry permit to immerse yourself in the wild. Note that the Manitou Island Transit ferry service is not running in 2020.
9. Take a geology tour. How much do you really know about the land at Sleeping Bear Dunes? Find out on a self-guided geology auto tour, which explores how this region came to be what we know it as today. Pick up a brochure at the Phillip A. Hart Visitor Center.
10. Swim at Platte River Point: The places where a river meets a Great Lake are often magical. This spot is truly special, albeit busy in the summertime, and is a great place for families — just swim with caution, as there are no lifeguards in the lakeshore.
11. Enjoy a lazy beach day. With 35 miles of Lake Michigan mainland shoreline, Sleeping Bear Dunes boasts some of the best beaches in the entire Great Lakes region. Take your pick of a number of great spots, and if you forgot your beach umbrella and chairs, you can find rentals through Crystal River Outfitters in Glen Arbor. (If you’ve got a dog with you, just be sure to check ahead on which parts of the park are dog-friendly.)
12. Attend a Star Party. These popular astronomy events celebrate the National Lakeshore’s stunning dark skies, and there are often enormous telescopes on-hand to get incredible views of distant planets, stars and even the moon. Stay tuned to the park’s website and social media for updates and schedules.
13. Cruise M-22. Lauded as one of the most scenic drives in the country, this iconic two-lane highway winds right along the shoulder of Sleeping Bear Dunes, making it a great anchor for a road trip through the Lakeshore.
14. Take a fall color tour. Most folks know Sleeping Bear as a summer destination, but the park’s forests, dunes and fields are absolutely stunning come autumn. Plan your trip for roughly mid-October, when peak color usually hits this region.
15. Bike the Heritage Trail: Take a spin along this 22-mile (soon to be 27-mile) non-motorized, multi-use trail, which winds past park attractions and lovely scenery, and through the town of Glen Arbor (a great spot to stop for lunch).
16. Visit the Philip A Hart Visitor Center. Multimedia exhibits, regionally inspired art and other cool finds await in the park’s official Empire location, making it more than just a spot to stop for park passes and brochures.
17. Visit the Glen Haven Maritime Museum. The fascinating history of the U.S. Lifesaving Service and U.S. Coast Guard is on display here, both in the form of artifacts and exhibits, like 1900′s rescue boats, as well as reenactments in the summer season.
18. Paddle the Crystal: Beautiful, peaceful, and easy enough for all ages, the Crystal River delivers a low-key canoe or kayak trip for anyone looking to while away an afternoon on the water. Multiple regional outfitters offer rentals.
19. Learn about the area’s Native American history. Sleeping Bear Dunes owes its very name to an Ojibwe oral tradition, and yet the stories of the Anishinaabek — the people who first called this place home — have been largely obscured over time. Park officials are currently working to develop better resources for sharing this important part of Sleeping Bear Dunes’ history, but in the meantime, visitors can find stories and signage online, at the park’s Phillip A. Hart Visitors Center, at certain stops along Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive, and at the Platte River Picnic Area.
20. See the bucolic beauty of Port Oneida. Another place for learning about local history, Port Oneida is a collection of 18 historic farmsteads, with farmhouses, schools, sugar shacks, and beautiful old barns. It’s also a lesser-known spot for gorgeous landscape photography.
21. Slow-cruise Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive. This seven-mile loop is a lovely way to experience many of the park’s incredible resources, including scenic overlooks, trailheads and picnic areas. Stop in at the visitors center to pick up a self-guided tour map.
22. Check out the new(-ish) Kettles Trail. When this three-mile loop opened in 2019, it was the first new trail that the park had added to its 100-mile trail system in years. The moderately challenging trail winds through a section of the park known as Bow Lakes — a geologically distinct area featuring kettle lakes formed by melting ice when glaciers retreated from the region.
23. Check out the Empire Area Museum Complex. All kinds of fun curiosities await here, including a blacksmith shop, one-room schoolhouse, ghost town artifacts and other items from the town’s rich history.
24. Bike the backroads. While biking isn’t allowed on trails other than the Heritage Trail, you can cruise the park’s scenic dirt roads to your hearts’ content. Try out Peterson Road, Lasso Road, Aral Road, Hillis Road, or Shauger Hill Road; more info here.
25. Go birding. Founded in 2013, the Sleeping Bear Birding Trail spans the entire 123 miles of M-22, with Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore smack in the middle. Many birders come to the park just to see the Great Lakes piping plover, an endangered (and adorable) shorebird that nests along undisturbed beaches.
26. Take a guided kayak tour. Visitors love gazing out at Lake Michigan from the dunes, but have you ever gazed out at the dunes from Lake Michigan? All About Water in Glen Arbor offers guided kayak tours along the lakeshore, no kayak experience necessary.
27. Or, take a bicycle tour. Another way to see a fresh side of the Lakeshore is on a group bike tour. SBD Tours based in Empire has tours that touch on topics like wildlife, wildflowers, geology and the history of the area.
28. Or, take a helicopter tour (yes, really). Bucket list item, anyone? On its “Sleeping Bear and Beyond Tour,” TC Helicopter Tours will fly you over the region for an unforgettable perspective.
29. Explore an inland lake. When it comes to lakes here, Lake Michigan tends to steak the show, and for good reason. But the park is home to more than 20 inland lakes, with many much less busy than that big beauty to the west. Boat, swim or fish the day away in six distinct regions, including the Manitou Islands.
30. Float the Platte. Few activities here are as peaceful as tubing the pretty Platte River, whose shallow, steady, clear waters offer a stress-free float through some beautiful sections of the park.
31. Plan a summer camping trip. Summer camping at Sleeping Bear is a beloved tradition for many. Enjoy more traditional setups at the Platte River or D.H. Day campgrounds, or rustic overnights on the Manitou Islands.
32. And then plan a winter camping trip. With the right gear and mindset, winter camping can be a magical experience. Platte River Campground stays open year round, with showers and restrooms.
33. Ski or snowshoe Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive. In the winter months, when sections of its roadway remain unplowed, Pierce Stocking becomes the Scenic Drive Ski Trail, a wonderland for winter adventures. Ski, snowshoe or just winter hike eight total miles of loops.
34. Sled the Dune Climb. Another reason to visit the park in winter: When the snow flies, the landmark that’s arguably the most well-known spot in the park becomes the ultimate sledding hill.
35. Explore the snowy woods on a ranger-led snowshoe tour. Sleeping Bear’s group snowshoe hikes have become a popular new addition to the events calendar in recent years, and are a great way to see new sides of the park (or try snowshoeing for the first time). See the park’s events page or follow on social media for schedule updates.
36. Check out Friends of Sleeping Bear Dunes. This non-profit and its 700-plus volunteers work closely with park staff to do everything from building trails to creating visitor guidebooks. The organization’s website also has a wealth of information about the park. Join, donate, or learn more about its mission at friendsofsleepingbear.org.
36. Learn to surf. Yes, freshwater surfing is very much a thing, and you can learn how with the National Lakeshore as your backdrop. Sleeping Bear Surf & Kayak offers rentals and lessons, check website or call for schedules and availability.
38. Take a wildflower walk. The park is home to abundant and occasionally rare wildflowers, and searching for them is a great all-ages activity on a walk or hike. Wildflower guides are available at the Visitors Center and online.
39. Wander the weathered shanties of Fishtown. This historic fishing village in Leland isn’t part of the National Lakeshore, but it’s a sweet stop nearby for lunch, shopping and photo ops.
40. Beach comb. Sleeping Bear’s shorelines are home to all manner of surprises, including Petsokey stones and Charlevoix stones. It’s fun to treasure hunt, but remember that it’s illegal to remove natural features from the park, including rocks.
41. Be awed by the Valley of the Giants. Among the many wonders to be found on South Manitou Island, the grove of massive old-growth cedars known as the Valley of the Giants is a must-see. The National Park Service calls the hiking trail that winds through the trees “a mystical walk.”
42. “Discover” a shipwreck. In November 1960 the Francisco Morazan, a steel-hulled freighter bound for the St. Lawrence Seaway, ran aground just 300 feet off of South Manitou Island. The wreck still sits in those waters and can be seen from an overlook on the island’s southwest shore.
43. Help a kid become a Junior Ranger. Kids can earn a Junior Ranger certificate and patch or badge by finishing an activity book, available in person at the visitors center, Dune Climb Book Store or Glen Haven General Store. A special 50th anniversary edition is available online here.
44. Go fish. With miles of Lake Michigan shoreline, 26 inland lakes and ponds, and four streams, Sleeping Bear Dunes is an angler’s paradise. (Just be sure to have a fishing license, and check the Michigan Fish Advisory for safe consumption guidelines.)
45. Bring home a memento. Looking for postcards, maps, books or other souvenirs from your time at the dunes? There are three spots in the park to stock up: The visitors center in Empire, the Dune Climb Book Store and the Glen Haven General Store.
46. Hike Alligator Hill. This series of looped hiking trails provides a unique vantage point overlooking both Lake Michigan and Glen Lake. Particularly lovely in the fall.
47. Keep an eye out for the new mobile visitor center. Just in time for the park’s 50th anniversary, Sleeping Bear Dunes unveiled a custom-built van that will act as a hands-on educational outreach source in the park and, eventually, around the state. Visitors who spot the van are asked to snap a photo and share it on social media with the hashtag #SleepingBearOnTheRoad.
48. Take a wine tour. We’d be remiss not to mention that the park is just a hop-skip from the Leelanau Peninsula wine trails, including the Sleeping Bear Loop, which includes nine wineries nearby. Find maps and wine trail details at the Leelanau Peninsula Wine Trail website.
49. Try stand-up paddleboarding. This newly popular watersport is a delightful way to spend time on the water, whether it’s on a Lake Michigan beach day or on an inland lake. Rentals can be found in Empire at Sleeping Bear Surf & Kayak, and in Glen Arbor at Crystal River Outfitters.
50. Tour a town. There’s so much to see and do at Sleeping Bear that you could certainly anchor your entire vacation here — but if you have a few spare hours or an extra day (or two), it’s worth it to explore the nearby towns and cities. The park is essentially bookended by Frankfort and Elberta to the South, and Leland to the North, with Empire and Glen Arbor in the middle. And there are plenty more great towns in Benzie and Leelanau Counties, and of course, Traverse City to the east — a must-stop just about 45 minutes away.
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