A Day at Sleeping Bear Dunes

I’m not sure what was more amazing; the look on my friend’s face the first time he saw the sweeping view of Lake Michigan from Empire Bluff or the fact that this lifelong resident of Michigan, somebody who has traveled widely around the country and the world, had never been to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.

Jim DuFresne

Jim DuFresne

When John and his wife visited our family cottage in Elk Rapids, I decided it was time to show him his backyard. The day was perfect for a Sleeping Bear tour; clear and crisp with wisps of clouds sailing across a deep blue sky. A light breeze painted the Great Lake with white caps and sent its surf breaking across wide beaches with a bit of thunder. The mid-60s temperature was ideal for hiking.

A ghost forest at Sleeping Bear Point.

A ghost forest at Sleeping Bear Point.

In three steps or less, John went from a pleasant forest at the west end of the Empire Bluff Trail to a panorama that clearly caught him off guard. Standing on the edge of a perched dune, he looked down at the waves 400 feet below him, then to the west at a freighter sailing past the Manitou Islands and north at a shoreline of towering dunes. Finally he stared straight ahead at the endless blue horizon where Lake Michigan merged seamlessly into the sky. This is Michigan?

This is quintessential Michigan.

If you know somebody who has never been to this great national park, shame on them. If you’ve never offered to take them there, shame on you.
It’s your duty as a Michigander to spend a day showing them not only one of the most stunning places in our state or even the Midwest … but one of the most beautiful places in the country. Here’s the perfect one-day itinerary for Sleeping Bear Dunes:

First Stop: Most likely you’ll have to pass through Traverse City on the way to the national lakeshore so pick up supplies for a gourmet picnic lunch. Clustered around the west end of Front Street are a handful of markets where delicious sandwiches, baked goods and even smoked whitefish pate can be found. They include Burritt’s Fresh Markets (509 W. Front; 231-946-3300), Mary’s Kitchen Port (539 W. Front St.; 231-941-0525), Folgarelli Import Market (424 W. Front St.; 231-941-7651) and the Grand Traverse Pie Co. (525 W. Front St.; 231-922-7437).

Second Stop: At the corner of M-22 and M-72 in Empire is the Philip A. Hart Visitor Center (231-326-5134; www.nps.gov/slbe) that doubles as the park’s headquarters. Here you can purchase a vehicle pass, get driving directions check out displays and exhibits and fill the water bottles.

Third Stop: A five-minute drive from the visitor’s center is the trailhead for Empire Bluff Trail, the perfect warm-up to the day. The round-trip hike is only 1.5 miles and ends in a spectacular view that serves as an appetizer to what follows the rest of the day. For a trail map and directions see www.MichiganTrailMaps.com.

Fourth Stop: Head north on M-22 and M-109 to Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive. The highlight of this 7.4-mile, self-guided auto tour are four overlooks of the Glen Lakes, the Sleeping Bear Dunes, the towering perched dunes along Lake Michigan and North Bar Lake. At the Dune Overlook you can hike the 1.5-mile Cottonwood Trail and then enjoy that gourmet lunch at nearby Picnic Mountain.
Fifth Stop: Even if you don’t climb it, the Dune Climb is a sight to be hold. Park officials estimate that more than 300,000 people climb it annually…or try to. This is no easy climb. It’s 130 feet to the top of the first hill at the Dune Climb and another 130 feet to the top of the second hill, or a total ascent of 260 feet. The view of Glen Lake to the east is stunning at the top while the run back down makes everybody, no matter what their age, feel like a kid again.

The view at an overlook from Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive.

The view at an overlook from Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive.

Sixth Stop: Continue north along M-109 and then swing west on M-209 where the road ends at the trailhead for the Dunes Trail – Sleeping Bear Point. If you have the time and any energy left, this is one of the most unusual trails in Michigan. The views of the Manitou islands, Sleeping Bear Point and Lake Michigan are outstanding along this 2.8-mile loop and the ghost forest you pass through intriguing. Most of the hike is through open dune country that at the end of an autumn day are painted in shades of bronze and gold by a sun heading towards the horizon. Again for a map and directions see www.MichiganTrailMaps.com.

Final Stop: It’s been a full day and the scenery has been spectacular. Time to kick back with a cold one and re-experience the adventure. Art’s Tavern (231-334-3754; corner of Lake Street and M-22) in Glen Arbor is the perfect place to order a locally brewed beer and discuss why it takes so long for some Michiganders to discover the scenic magic of Sleeping Bear Dunes.

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5 Responses to A Day at Sleeping Bear Dunes

  1. dcoy says:

    Great post! It’s an amazing place!

  2. Jessica says:

    It’s true, we’re so lucky to have such a gem as Sleeping Bear Dunes in our own backyard!

  3. Nancy says:

    Yes! Have been going to SBD pretty much every year for the last two decades, and couldn’t agree more. In the spring catch the drumming of the grouse and the first wildflowers, and the fall can be colorful and dramatic. So many great places to walk — Tweddle/Treat Farm, Bay View, an unnamed bluff path at Port Oneida that goes past the German cemetery, Otter Lake Loop. : )

  4. CoolMan says:

    Greetings, and thanks for this informative article.
    I was moved to Michigan many years ago (after graduate school) from the Southwest, so I still don’t know Michigan very well (aside from the Southeast, and a little bit of the Holland area), although I have been in MI for nearly 20 years.
    I like the outdoors, and I’m deeply involved in photography, especially nature photography.

    I confess that I have not been to the bridge or the U.P., but I hope to find more blogs and articles that would help me organize a tour of the U.P. someday (as long as it is NOT during cold weather. I hate cold weather with passion!).

    I don’t know if these sand dunes just look spectacular to people who have not been around the desert or if they are some unusual dunes.
    Personally I have seen the desert and the dunes most of my life, including White Sands, and I’m just wondering if I would see any thing in them that I have not seen a million times.

    I have been to many states (no less than 35 of them), but Vancouver remains my favorite spot, then California, especially the Bay area(SF area). LA area has a number of great attractions as well, and my favorite around LA is Catalina Island (about 45 minutes boat ride from Long Beach).

    Some day I hope I’ll make it to the Sleeping Bear dunes (hopefully while the Bear is still sleeping), and decide for myself if I agree with this article (on opinion).
    I certainly hope it won’t be a waste of time for me.

    I wish the blog had included information on camping.
    That would be useful information if people need to spend more than a day at the SB dunes.

    Glad I found this site.

    Thank you.

  5. Jim says:

    The difference is the dunes is that Sleeping Bear they overlook one of the largest lakes in the country. It’s the combination of sand and surf that make them so spectacular as oppose to dunes in the dessert.
    Keep an eye on our website, http://www.michigantrailmaps.com. We should have a new campground book out next spring, featuring the best 150 public campgrounds around the state.

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