Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is located on part of the eastern shore of Lake Michigan, not far from Traverse City.  We have friends who live in Traverse City, so we have visited twice now – once in October and once in June.   It’s a favorite place for them, and I can see why they love it so much.  There are so many things to do – hiking, biking, kayaking, swimming, fishing…

The area gets its name from a legend with a sad ending.  A mother bear and her two cubs attempted to swim across the lake from Wisconsin to find food.  The cubs became too tired and drowned.  The mother bear reached this side of the lake and lay down looking out over the water.  The two cubs resurfaced as two islands – and to this day she still watches them.

Mother Bear and South Manitou Island

One of the most popular, and easiest, activities is the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive.  The 7.4 mile one-way road offers several scenic overlooks as well as information on the human and natural history.   (Pierce Stocking was a lumberman.  He privately built the road, which opened in 1967, and operated it until his death in 1976.  It later became part of the Lakeshore.)

One of the best views at Sleeping Bear Dunes is from the Lake Michigan overlook on the Scenic Drive.

Lake Michigan Overlook

From there it looks as though you could easily go down to the lakeshore.  And that’s true…the 450′ DOWN is easy – but the 450′ back UP is another story.  In soft sand it’s two steps forward, one step back.  Steep and difficult, especially in the warm summer months.

Don’t do it!

But if you want to play in the sand…There is a “Dune Climb” trail which goes up and over the dunes.  It’s 3.5 miles round trip to Lake Michigan, and quite strenuous because it’s a slog through sand.  Wear shoes and take plenty of water!  You can opt to make it shorter and go just far enough to get to the top of the dunes – and then it’s downhill all the way back.

There are many trails in the park: these are the two that we have done so far.

The Empire Bluffs Trail is a short (1.5 mile round trip) out-and-back trail through forest that ends at a boardwalk with a view of Lake Michigan.

View from Empire Bluffs trail, about halfway up

Nice wildflowers in the spring, and probably beautiful fall foliage later in the year.

The Pyramid Point Trail in the northern part of the park is a 2.7 mile loop with excellent views of Lake Michigan and both North Manitou and South Manitou Islands (the bear cubs).

Sand Dunes and Rainbow from Pyramid Point Trail

While we’ve gotten a nice overview, we’ve only experienced a small part of the park.  Sleeping Bear Dunes holds many more areas to explore, including North and South Manitou Islands, Platte Plains and the Glen Haven and Port Oneida historic areas.  We look forward to a return visit.


Additional Information:

National Park Service website:

Sleeping Bear Dunes Visitor Bureau – beautiful photos in the slideshow on the main page


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