Located only 30 minutes outside of Traverse City, Michigan, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore encompasses a 35 mile stretch along the Lake Michigan coast line. It is truly a can’t-miss natural wonder when visiting Northern Michigan offering a range of landscapes including forests, beaches, and of course the star of the show – towering sand dune formations. While there are a few accommodations in the surrounding areas, area can easily be explored on a long day trip. You’ll find a variety of hiking options here for all ages and fitness levels – each rewarding you with breathtaking views. I’m sharing 5 of my top Sleeping Bear Dune hikes below:
Empire Bluff Trail
If you’re traveling from the south end of the state, Empire Bluff Trail makes a great first stop on your trip. This is a 1.5 mile out and back hike through the forest with minimal elevation gains making it suitable for all skill levels. Dogs on a leash are welcome on the trail. At the end of the hike you’ll be rewarded with an outlook deck where you can enjoy amazing views of the blue water and curving coastline. There is a small parking area with picnic tables and a bathroom at the trailhead. It will likely be full if you go midday, but we were able to park along the road and make the short walk to the trailhead. Great option if you’re trying to maximize your time and still see picturesque views.
Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive/Cottonwood Hiking Trail
This 7.2 mile loop drive can be explored with or without having to hike. The entrance for cars is located on M-109 between Glen Haven and Empire and there is a $20 fee per vehicle to access the drive. The fee is good for 7 days if you plan to visit multiple times and also provides access to the rest of the lakeshore (including the Dune Climb). On the drive you can stop at multiple overlooks with stunning views of the lakeshore and the insta-worthy covered bridge. A few of my favorite highlights are stop #9 which is 450 above the water and feels like you’re looking straight down to Lake Michigan. There are signs posted all around advising you not to climb down because of the high cost of rescue fees if you can’t make it back up.
There were a handful of people climbing it while we were there but we opted enjoy the views from the top – whichever you decide to do make sure you proceed with caution. A short walk to the right is stop #10 which offers a wooden overlook you can walk out on for even more breathtaking views. Be sure to check the National Park website prior to your visit as the drive was closed for a period of time during the summer of 2020 for construction. If you are looking to hike, check out stop #4 which provides access to the Cottonwood Hiking Trail which is a 1.4 mile loop through the dunes with views of Glen Lake and the Dune Climb.
If you’re looking for the true dune experience, this is your hike! There is a large parking area at the bottom of the dune with restrooms and picnic tables. The $20 per vehicle fee also gets you access to this hike. The parking lot can fill up (we had to wait in a line of cars to get in) so try to get there early if you can. Once you’re ready to hit the dunes, just start climbing! This is a hike through pure wind blown sand with high elevation gains on the way up so be sure to assess your group’s physical ability and bring lots of water. The nice part about this climb is that you can hike as little or as far as you’d like.
The hike does lead all the way to the Lake Michigan shoreline but this is considered strenuous and can take around 3-4 hours to complete. We chose to simply hike to the “top” until we could see Lake Michigan and then we turned around and came back down. On the way down you’ll have gravity on your side making it much easier but be careful not to let your feet get ahead of you if you decide to run as many people end up tumbling down which could result in injury. The sand can also get rather hot depending on how sunny it is so plan ahead for proper footwear.
This is the most recent hike I checked off my Sleeping Bear Dunes bucket list and all I have to say it wow! The 2.7 mile loop trail winds through Beech-maple forest and fields with a dune overlook point located only .6 miles from the trailhead. Due to limited time we decided to just hike to the overlook and it was a perfect short adventure which rewarded us with amazing views of the turquoise water. The trailhead is located off Basch Road from Port Oneida Road and there is sign located in the parking lot so you know you’re in the right spot (our Google map lead us astray the first time we tried this hike). If you’re traveling to the dunes from Traverse City, this is a great first stop of the morning before continuing on M22 through to Glen Arbor.
This is a great way to experience many different areas of the lakeshore as it runs almost 22 miles between Empire and Bohemia Road with plans to extend it up to 27 miles. Most of the trail is paved, aside from a 3-mile section near Port Oneida Rural Historic District which is crushed stone, making it perfect to enjoy on your bike. Trailheads which can be accessed along the way are at Bar Lake Road, Pierce Stocking, Dune Climb, Glen Haven, Alligator Hill, Crystal River, Bay View, and Port Oneida. I would only recommend adding this hike to your itinerary if you plan to explore Sleeping Bear for multiple days as many of the trailheads along the way can also be access via car allowing you to maximize your time and see as much as possible in one day.
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