Exploring Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore

Sleeping Bear Dunes

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is a scenic treasure on Michigan's Leelanau Peninsula. Spanning 35 miles of picturesque lakeside on the eastern coast of Lake Michigan, this national park beckons visitors with its mesmerizing sand dunes, exquisite shorelines, noteworthy historical landmarks, and an abundance of exhilarating outdoor activities.

The History

Sleeping Bear Dunes owes its very existence to a historic natural event. According to Ojibwe legend, a mother bear and her two cubs were swimming across Lake Michigan when a storm hit. The cubs made it to shore but the mother bear drowned. The Great Spirit took pity on the cubs and transformed the mother bear into a series of giant sand dunes and the cubs into the North and South Manitou Islands.

The park also preserves the history of early European settlement. The Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive passes several historic farms that have been restored to their early 20th-century appearance. Visitors can tour the buildings and learn about the lives of the early settlers who farmed this challenging land.

The Overlooks

One of the first things visitors should do is stop at one of the overlooks to take in the breathtaking views. Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive winds through the park, passing several overlooks with panoramic vistas of the dunes, beaches, and Lake Michigan. The Dune Climb overlook offers sweeping views from atop towering dunes, while the Pyramid Point overlook looks out over Glen Lake and the Manitou Islands. Sunset at the overlooks is especially magical.

Where to Stay

With so much to see and do, many visitors choose to spend multiple days exploring Sleeping Bear Dunes. There are several options for places to stay within or near the park. The Dune Valley Campground within the park offers rustic campsites nestled in the woods near the dunes. For a more comfortable stay, the historic Homestead Resort sits on the shore of Glen Lake just outside the park entrance. There are also numerous hotels, cabins, and bed and breakfasts in the surrounding towns of Empire, Glen Arbor, and Leland.

Beaches and Swimming

The stunning beaches lining Lake Michigan within the park are truly remarkable, providing ample chances to indulge in swimming, basking in the sun, exploring the shoreline, and engaging in various beach activities. The most popular beaches include:

Platte Bay Beach: A wide, sandy beach with calm waters, making it ideal for families with small children.

Empire Beach: A long stretch of sand with a pavilion, restrooms, and a lifeguard during the summer months.

Good Harbor Bay Beach: A secluded beach tucked away in a small bay, offering stunning views of the dunes.

The magnificent shores that grace the edges of Lake Michigan within the park are absolutely awe-inspiring, offering abundant opportunities to partake in aquatic delights, soak up the radiant sun, venture along the coastline, and participate in a multitude of beach pastimes. 

Be cautious of riptides and swim only in designated swimming areas.

Kayaking and Boating

Kayaking and boating are popular ways to explore the park's coastline and inland lakes. Several kayak launch sites provide access to Lake Michigan and the bays along the shoreline. Glen Lake and Portage Lake within the park offer calmer waters for paddling. Motorboats are allowed on Glen Lake and the Manitou Passage between Glen Lake and Lake Michigan.

Wildlife Watching

Within the park's boundaries, an array of wildlife thrives, encompassing diminutive insects and sizable mammals alike, creating a harmonious habitat.

Occasionally, one may catch a glimpse of black bears, white-tailed deer, beavers, or even river otters, further enhancing the park's diverse and captivating allure. During the spring and fall seasons, the park showcases a remarkable collection of more than 200 bird species, comprising both resident and migratory avian inhabitants, with a specific focus on waterfowl. The Manitou Islands are an important nesting area for herring gulls and double-crested cormorants.

Hiking the Dunes

The Dune Climb Trail: This strenuous 3-mile hike climbs the tallest dune in the park, reaching heights of up to 450 feet. Hikers are rewarded with panoramic views from the summit.

  • The picturesque Platte River Point Trail takes you on a delightful 2-mile journey through a serene forested region, unveiling a breathtaking vantage point that showcases the stunning beauty of Lake Michigan and the captivating estuary of the Platte River.
  • The Glen Haven Trail System: This network of trails ranges from easy to difficult and winds through forests, along the shoreline, and up towering dunes. Hikers can create their own itinerary.
  • The Port Oneida Rural Historic District Trail: This easy 2-mile trail passes through an agricultural area settled by German immigrants in the mid-1800s. Interpretive signs highlight the area's history.
  • The Manitou Passage Water Trail: This water trail follows the Manitou Passage between Glen Lake and Lake Michigan. Kayakers can explore the coastline, islands, and shipwrecks along this scenic 7-mile route.

In summary, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore offers a stunning natural landscape of towering dunes, sparkling lakes, and miles of beaches. Outdoor enthusiasts will find no shortage of hiking, paddling, swimming, and sightseeing opportunities. The park's historic sites and wildlife viewing also make it a cultural and educational destination. With its stunning scenery and diverse recreational activities, a visit to Sleeping Bear Dunes is sure to create lasting memories.