Things to Do Near Sleeping Bear Dunes: The Ultimate Pure Michigan Guide
Some 50 years ago, an act of Congress established the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, the goal that that development could never destroy the “rare scenic beauty and character” northern forests, beaches, islands and dunes within.
The park's 64 miles of curving sand shorelines remain edged with the largest dunes east of the Mississippi. There are also plenty of options for scenic hiking through hardwood forests, up to bluffs and for paddling crystal clear rivers, climbing, biking, beach-going and camping.
Rangers at the park's visitor center in Empire will outfit you with maps and suggestions, but here are a few other suggestions to start your trip:
1. Stargaze Around a Bonfire
The park offers monthly star parties, especially popular during meteor showers. It’s worth timing a trip around these showers as the rangers share the best spots for sky viewing as well as constellation and star lore. Usher in the stars any night with a beach bonfire on the shore, permitted on all mainland park beaches between the water's edge and first dune (though extinguish carefully with water and clear debris when you're done). A park “light inventory” showed the north and west-facing beaches to be best since the bluffs block city lights, lending the best views of night skies and northern lights.
2. Step Back to the 1920s
The historic village of Glen Haven is home to the often-photographed iconic red Glen Haven Canning company building as well as one of the park's prettiest beaches. Watch the smithy hammering hot iron into horseshoes and the occasional trinket for someone in the audience, then pick up penny candy and fascinating history at the general store and neighboring museum.
3. Hunt for Morels
The region's prized delicacy of the woods, morels are best found during spring's warming and gentle rains. The shade of the park's established ash/maple/elm forests provides fertile ground for these tasty mushrooms and visitors are allowed to harvest any they find.
4. Catch a Fish
There are 21 lakes in the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore park, and the park’s shoreline spans for 35 miles along Lake Michigan. Whether you are looking to charter a boat, paddle out in a kayak or stand in shallow waters in waders, there is a perfect fishing spot waiting for you. Inland lakes like Otter, Bass, and Glen Lake provide great spots for catching trout, bluegill, perch and more – and in the fall, you might even snag a few salmon coming down the Platte River! For deep water fishing, charter a boat and get a local’s inside scoop on the best fishing spots on Lake Michigan. Those with a boat can launch at Empire Village Park for Lake Michigan, or at the boat launches on each of the smaller lakes. Be sure to check before you go to make sure your boat is allowed, as many of the lakes prohibit motorized boats. Also, don’t forget to get your Michigan fishing license.
5. Explore an Island
Catch the Mishe-Mokwa (Mother Bear) ferry at Manitou Island Transit in Leland and spend the day roaming South Manitou Island with its tall lighthouse, giant cedars, shipwrecks and isolated beaches. The Village Cheese Shanty will pack your famous pretzel bread sandwich in a brown bag to go, and toting lunch along is a good idea since the island has no stores. Pack the tent (and all the supplies) and head to North Manitou, its wilder cousin. Both islands are the “cubs” in the park's namesake legend of the sleeping bears.
6. Bike a Trail
Hit the tracks on the Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail. The 22 miles of winding beauty conveniently connects must-stops like the kid-friendly Dune Climb, iconic Glen Haven and fun eateries and ships in the artsy beach towns of Empire and Glen Arbor.
7. Spread a Blanket and Lounge
The park has the best beaches in the Great Lakes according to a national beach expert who zeroed in on the clear water, fine sand, soaring dunes and beach abundance. There are 35 miles of shoreline beach on the park's Lake Michigan shoreline, another 30 miles if you count the park's two islands. Esch Road Beach and Good Harbor are two insider day-at-the-beach favorites.
8. See the Landscape from Above
Splurge on the “Sleeping Bear and Beyond Tour” with TC Helicopters. The trip (two riders minimum) soars over Glen Lake, Glen Arbor and the Sleeping Bear Dunes.
9. Sip Wine
Head to Glen Arbor Wines, where fire pits and a bocce court invite lingering, and the wines are themed around Sleeping Bear. Or say cheers with a cherry microbrew at the new Cherry Public House at Cherry Republic, a whimsical and worthy stop for the way it honors the local crop—cherries.
10. Paddle the Day Away
Head to the Platte or Crystal rivers, both notable for frequent sightings of graceful water birds and salmon that head upstream in fall. Several outfitters offer rentals and paddling gear; on the Platte, be sure you leave time to play in the warm, rushing current where the river meets Lake Michigan.
11. Take the Scenic Route
Enjoy the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive, a series of stops at which your scavenger hunt reward is the distinct scenery, forests or dunes you'll find at each.
12. Hike, Glide or Snowshoe
Explore the many woodland trails through the woods or to overlooks like the soul-souring Empire Bluffs. There are 13 distinct hiking trails in the park, and the overlooks with wide expanses of Lake Michigan are popular for photo-taking, engagements and more. Guided snowshoe hikes are held every Saturday in January and February and feature interesting park facts.
13. Sleep Outside
D.H. Day is a favorite, and allows online booking in advance. This rustic spot is in the northern district of the dunes. The Platte River Campground also allows online reservations in advance and is open year-round with a variety of camping from RV spots with electrical hookups to tent-only spots.
14. Watch the Sunset
Sleeping Bear's west-facing beaches are made for sunsets. Or hit to the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive with time to spare to find a spot on the amphitheater of sand at Stop Nine. The tall, sandy dunes provide the perfect spot for watching the sun dip below the watery horizon of Lake Michigan.