Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is one of the crown jewels of Northern Michigan. Situated along the eastern shore of Lake Michigan this land offers abundant natural beauty; jaw dropping landscapes, pristine beaches, and a wide variety of activities for visitors of all ages – making it a haven for outdoor enthusiasts. In this travel guide, we’ll take you through everything you need to know to make the most of your visit to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore and ensure a perfect a day in this wonderful slice of nature.
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Best Time to Visit Sleeping Bear Dunes
This depends on your individual preference. Many people prefer the peak summer months when the weather is warmest and the dunes and beaches are most enjoyable. Others prefer Spring and Fall, with milder temperatures, less crowds, and more of a shoulder season pace. And if you’re really into the cold, well, Northern Michigan definitely has strong winter wonderland vibes. There are four very distinct seasons here. Each is heavily influenced by winds crossing over Lake Michigan, having a cooling effect in the summer, and a warming effect in the winter. While everyone has their own preference, a common theme is how magnificent spring blossoms and fall colors are here.
Even summer at its peak is quite lovely, temperature-wise. With highs typically around the high 70s to mid 80s and lows in the 50s-60s, it’s simply exquisite. Winter on the other hand boasts highs only in the 30s, with lows in the 10s to 20s. Snow is typically on the ground from November through March. Spring and Fall as you’d imagine are both pleasantly in between. Bringing layers for versatility is always a wise choice.
Getting to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore
Getting to Sleeping Bear Dunes is pretty straightforward, as it’s located in the northern part of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula. Most visitors get to the park via Traverse City, a charming city with its own attractions. If you’re driving and your cell service in the area is strong, just pop Sleeping Bear Dunes into your GPS and you’ll be good to go. But there’s always a chance you might have terrible service there, so do make note of the following beforehand:
- From Traverse City, take US-31 North to the town of Honor.
- In Honor, turn left onto M-22, which will take you through the heart of the national lakeshore.
Here’s is a great alternative if you’d rather kick back as a passenger and not worry about getting lost along the way. This round-trip, Daily Guided Tour to Sleeping Bear Dunes will take you from Traverse City and cover the most beautiful areas and outlooks. Snacks and drinks and lunch in Empire Village are also included, and you’ll see Empire Bluffs, Scenic Pierce Stocking Drive, Glen Lake Overlook, and Sleeping Bear Dune Overlook – all with a guide!
Parking & Fees
According to NPS.gov at the time of this writing, a Standard Entrance Pass is $15-$25, and is required by all visitors. However, they also say “may not apply in some cases.” They go on to say “Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore charges a variety of fees, depending on how a visitor arrives at the park, and whether they’re part of a commercial tour group or not.”
- Private vehicle – $25
- Motorcycle – $20
- Per Person (on foot, we presume) – $15
- Annual Entrance – $45
- Education/Academic Group – $0.00
As for there being exceptions, as a point of note, we visited on a Wednesday in mid August. We have an America the Beautiful annual parks pass, which in theory would have gained us admission. However, there was no one working the booth at the entrance to the parking lot right at the foot of the Dune Climb – neither when we arrived, nor when we left a few hours later. So, anyone who might have visited that day who didn’t have an annual pass, would have gotten in for free.
There are also a handful of free days every year, on the following holidays – check for the specific day each year as some may vary:
- January – Birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr.
- April – First Day of National Park Week
- August – The Great American Outdoors Act
- September – National Public Lands Day
- November – Veterans Day
There are a handful. Check NPS.gov for the details of each:
- Phillip A. Hart Visitor Center – located on M-72 just east of the intersection with M-22 in Empire, MI.
- South Manitou Island Visitor Center – the former general store for the island now serves as a visitor center.
- Port Oneida Heritage Center – is housed inside the Charles and Hattie Olsen house
- The Dune Center – located at the base of the Dune Climb off of M-109
- Glen Haven General Store – located in the historic village of Glen Haven, on M-209 between the Dune Climb and Glen Arbor.
Things To Do at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore
Do the Dune Climb
The Dune Climb is arguably the most popular thing to do at Sleeping Bear Dunes. If nothing else, it’s the most widely talked about attraction there, and for good reason. The views from the top are pretty spectacular. As you climb higher, the panorama expands, the vastness of the dunes and the lush forests that surround them reveal themselves. When you get to the top of the dune, turn around and you’ll see Glen Lake and On the Narrows Marina. Keep on hiking and you’ll eventually reach the stunning vistas of Lake Michigan – including North and South Manitou Islands. Hang out there for awhile and just take it in. After that climb and hike, you’ll definitely have earned it.
Hike Down To the Beach and Swim In Lake Michigan
If you’re an ambitious hiker, this should definitely be on your list of activities at Sleeping Bear Dunes. But be advised, it’s not for the faint of heart, and you should research and plan this out before trying it. As exhilerating an adventure this hike down the sandy trail is, it’s quite the physical challenge. But it’s the climb back up that can really get you in trouble. In fact, signs warn of the risks of getting stuck as well as the cost of a rescue – $3,000+! All that aside, the the majestic grandeur of the dunes as you descend inspires awe. The freshwater breeze invigorates. Reaching the pristine shoreline gives a great sense of achievment, and the plunge into the crystal clear lake is a more than refreshing respite from the day’s hike. Hiking and swimming at Sleeping Bear Dunes is an experience that bonds you with nature and one you’ll not soon forget.
Hiking the Empire Bluff Trail
Another popular hike at Sleeping Bear Dunes is the Empire Bluff Trail, located near the Hart Visitor Center. This 1.5-mile round-trip hike takes you through a lush forest to a stunning overlook. Another one? Yep, there’s no shortage of vistas here! The panoramic view of the dunes meeting the clear, turquoise waters of Lake Michigan is simply awe-inspiring – every single time.
Pyramid Point Hike
The Pyramid Point hike at Sleeping Bear Dunes is a gem. Located about ten to fifteen miles to the northeast of the Dune Climb, this was easily our favorite hiking experience of our time at the lakeshore. Easy, for one, but we especially love how you’re immediately enveloped by the tranquility of the forest. Sun, shade, and an intoxicating fresh smell. The trail ascends gradually allowing for a leisurely pace with minimal effort. Hints of what lies ahead can be seen in glimpses through the trees. Suddenly, a breathtaking panorama of Lake Michigan unfolds. Have a sit in the sand atop the dune and bask in the wonder of it all. The sense of serenity and the gorgeous views make Pyramid Point a pleasant and unforgettable hike.
- Stay hydrated throughout the day, especially during physical activities like hiking and dune climbing.
- Wear sunscreen and protective clothing to shield yourself from the sun’s rays.
- Follow park rules and guidelines to protect the natural environment.
- Download offline maps in case you lose cell service.
- Comfortable walking shoes or hiking boots.
- Reusable/refillable water bottle.
- Snacks, including some salty ones for hydration.
- Sunscreen, sunglasses, lip balm, and a hat.
- Beach towels, swimsuits, and snorkeling gear if you plan to swim.
- Binoculars for birdwatching and wildlife spotting.
- A camera and/or your phone
Practice “Leave No Trace”
- Leave nature as you found it; don’t disturb plants or wildlife.
- Pack out what you pack in. Seriously.
- Dispose of trash properly in designated bins only. If you packed it in, pack it out.
- Stay on marked trails to minimize erosion and damage to sensitive areas.
Where to Stay and Eat Near Sleeping Bear Dunes National Park
There are two villages within the National Lakeshore – Glen Arbor and Empire. They’re both very small, with roughly only 900 and 400 year-round residents, respectively. There are numerous seasonal homes on the lakes, however, making the seasonal populations jump dramatically. Both are super-charming, cozy little towns, and well worth a visit and stay. Below are a couple of recommendations for each.
Where to Stay in Glen Arbor
Glen Arbor is less than five miles of the Dune Climb, to the northeast on M-109. Right in the heart of town is Glen Arbor Bed and Breakfast and Cottages, an historic inn with modern amenities, warm hospitality, and delicious breakfasts. It’s just steps from unique shops, gourmet restaurants, delis and taverns, sugar-sand beaches, hiking and biking trails and great water sports.
Where to Eat in Glen Arbor
Michigan being the top cherry producing state in the U.S., you’ll see no shortage of their mention while in the Northern region. The Cherry Republic is a must visit for when you’re ready to eat. This isn’t just some cute little cherry snack stand, either. Cherry Republic has something for everyone – a beautiful little “campus,” if you will. Charming, crooked pathways meander under cherry trees and through lovely gardens between the different buildings. There’s The Great Hall, a gift shop with over 200 cherry products, including plenty of samples. The Winery, across the path from the Hall offers tastings of “wine for the tall and pop forth small.” The Cherry Public House serves inventive cherry-inspired lunch and dinner items, craft beers on tap, freshly baked pie, and shareable desserts – all cherry, of course! You can dine indoors or outside in the spacious patio areas, stroll through their gardens, and if ice cream’s your jam, pop out back to their Red Box Creamery stand for some scrumptious, homemade, not-only-cherry-flavored scoops. Oh, and they’ve even got an “olympic-sized cherry spitting arena,” if you’re into such old-timey, germ-y fun. *wink.*
Where to Stay in Empire
Empire is about the same distance from Sleeping Bear Dunes as Glen Arbor, but to the southwest, on M-109 and M-22. Cottonwood Inn Bed and Breakfast is nestled on a quiet side street just minutes away from Empire Beach, a pristine and scenic beach along the northern Lake Michigan shore. Shops, restaurants, golf courses, and hiking and biking trails are all nearby. Cottonwood Inn Bed and Breakfast is a quaint historic Victorian farmhouse offering an at-home feeling. You can choose from one of their six updated B&B guest rooms or their Carriage House. Fun fact: not only is Empire a quaint town, but it’s also where you’ll find the official headquarters of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Park.
Where to Eat in Empire
The Empire Village Inn is a family friendly place for pizza, local craft beers, cocktails and sandwiches. Leave your fancy pants at the door, because here it’s all about a relaxed, old school inn vibe (but without feeling old) where the food and service does the talking. Built in 1958, the Inn’s original pine paneling on the bar still remains in all its intended glory – thanks to the current owners uncovering and exposing it when they purchased the place in 2006. There’s also an attached little grocery store on one end, where you can grab beer, wine, souvenirs, and take-out to go.
Grocer’s Daughter is actually what brought us to Empire during our visit to Sleeping Bear Dunes, and in turn lead us to lunch at Empire Village Inn as it’s right across the street! The Grocer’s Daughter came highly recommended by friends (one of which is a native of Traverse City) when we spent a day together in Leland, a.k.a. “Fishtown” – which we strongly recommend! But I digress. Back to The Grocer’s Daughter. This shop has an amazing story of three women who built Grocer’s Daughter into what it is today. When the founder is from Denmark and the chocolatier is from (and makes the chocolate in) Ecuador, you know you’re getting quality chocolate. The shop is full of super creative flavors and beautiful looking chocolates, not to mention cute gifts and swag for any chocoholic. Getting caught up in the interesting flavors, we threw caution to the wind and picked up the chocolate covered “whiskey figs,” because they sounded so different than anything we’d normally go for – and wow, were they fantastic!
Bonus Stay in Empire – On the RV Tip!
Since we’re team #vanlife we thought we’d include a stay for our fellow road dogs. We didn’t spend the night here ourselves but we did come across Indigo Bluffs RV Park & Resort, right there in Empire. They boast “accommodations you need for all the ways you camp.” An RV park and an RV Resort if you’re bringing your own rig, and they also have cottages and RVs to stay in if you’re not.
A day at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is wonderful time spent in one of northern Michigan’s most picturesque landscapes. Remember to respect the park’s natural beauty by following Leave No Trace principles and staying safe while enjoying the great outdoors. With its stunning vistas, sandy shores, and outdoor adventures, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is a true gem waiting to be explored.
Is there anything we didn’t cover that you’d like to know about Sleeping Bear Dunes? Have you been and want to gush about your experience there? Drop us a comment below, we’d love to hear from ya!
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