Welcome to one of America’s national lakeshores!
A trip to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore means a trip to the Great Lakes and a trip to Lake Michigan! (And a trip to Northern Michigan.)
4 of the VERY BEST things to do in Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore
Best places to see sand dunes in Michigan!
If you are going to do just ONE hike in Sleeping Bear Dunes, you might want to make it the Empire Bluff Trail! This is one of the classic pictures of Sleeping Bear Dunes you’ve probably seen.
If you are going to see just ONE overlook that you can basically drive to, you will want to make it the Lake Michigan Overlook! This is another one of the classic pictures of Sleeping Bear Dunes you’ve probably seen. This requires a drive along the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive.
3. Dune Climb
Hike the Sleeping Bear Point Dune Loop Trail to get grand views of sand dunes down below you with Lake Michigan in the background.
So those are the very top things you must consider when you’re going to Sleeping Bear Dunes.
There is a list of more activities below that includes hiking trails and beaches, which means more opportunities to see (and experience!) the Lake Michigan shoreline and sand dunes. If you’re interested in exploring Michigan history, there’s some of that too. See the list below!
How did the Sleeping Bear Dunes shoreline on Lake Michigan come to be?
In short, it has to do with glaciers, ice sheets, the changing of water levels, rough waves, and erosion throughout the very ancient years.
The Sleeping Bear Dunes shoreline continues to change today for some of the same reasons of water levels, crashing waves, and erosion.
Drive-in camping in Sleeping Bear Dunes
Another top thing to consider at Sleeping Bear Dunes is camping. There’s tent camping and RV camping available.
Drive-in camping is also called “frontcountry” camping, meaning you can drive straight up to your campsite and set up camp.
The Sleeping Bear Dunes campground near Glen Arbor MI does not have any “modern” amenities. This means that there are basic no-flush toilets, and there are no showers.
The Sleeping Bear Dunes campground near Empire MI does have these modern amenities, which include regular bathrooms, showers, and some campsites with electricity.
If your Michigan road trip will take you to other parts of Michigan, also see some more camping spots near the Great Lakes.
Backcountry camping in Sleeping Bear Dunes
On “mainland” Michigan, there is one backcountry campground. This is part of the Platte Plains Trails, and it’s located about a half mile from Lake Michigan. You can make this an overnight backpacking trip.
If you want a bit more of a backcountry experience, then there are more backcountry campgrounds located on the Manitou Islands that are also a part of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.
These islands require a ferry to get to from Leland MI, and there is the North Manitou Island and South Manitou Island. It is also possible to kayak IF you are an experienced kayaker, and preferably if you’re an experienced SEA kayaker. Lake Michigan may be a lake, but it’s big lake and in many way can act like an ocean.
And speaking of Lake Michigan…
Swimming in Sleeping Bear Dunes?!
Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore has many Lake Michigan beaches.
Does Sleeping Bear Dunes have beaches for swimming?
Yes, there are beaches that you can find many people swimming at during the summer.
Although, some people may consider the water temperature to be a bit cold. Maybe you can expect the water temperature at the Sleeping Bear Dunes beaches to be in the mid to high 60s in the summer months.
There are NO lifeguards anywhere on the beaches in Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.
And again, know that Lake Michigan in some ways can act like an ocean. Rip currents exist.
Take care when swimming!
Take care not to step on dune grass!
As you are touring Sleeping Bear Dunes, you are sure to come across dune grass that’s growing in the sand. This dune grass is said to be fragile and an important part of the coastal ecosystem so take care not to step on it!
Cost to visit Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore
There is an entry fee for Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.
But all of the Sleeping Bear Dunes activities are located in a “fee area.”
You can get your Sleeping Bear Dunes park pass at the visitor center. The 7-day park pass is $25 per car. See current fees here.
There are also pay stations at a number of locations throughout the national lakeshore park, including at many of the popular spots in the park.
You can also get an annual pass right now online for $45.
If you plan to visit many national parks within a year that have an entry fee, then you may also consider getting the America the Beautiful national park pass. This is an annual pass and it will work at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore too.
Not all national park sites have an entry fee. Pictured Rocks (MI), Cuyahoga Valley (OH), and the Great Smoky Mountains (TN NC) have had free entry for example, so you’ll want to check the national parks you plan to visit for current fees to see if a pass will be worth it. Although, it’s always a good thing to support your national parks. 😉
Here's some info on Michigan vacation prep! Top Michigan vacation spots:
- Best of Michigan's national lakeshores
- Best of Tahquamenon Falls State Park
- Best of Porcupine Mountains State Park
- Michigan waterfalls road trip
- Lake Superior lighthouse road trip
- Best of hiking in Pictured Rocks
- Get a waterproof phone case if you'll be heading out on the water!
- The perfect type of shirt for swimming in Michigan
25+ things to do in Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore park
This list will generally take you from south to north.
Empire MI can be considered a gateway town on the southern side of Sleeping Bear Dunes.
Glen Arbor MI can be considered a gateway town on the northern side of Sleeping Bear Dunes.
These are both pretty small towns.
Although both of these towns are more or less scattered kind of within the national lakeshore park. The park boundary isn’t continuous as you’re driving.
About 30-40 minutes away to the east is Traverse City, and many people stay here for a trip to Sleeping Bear Dunes.
Now, starting from the south of the park!
1. Old Indian Trail
This hiking trail starts off in the forest and will take you to a spot where you can see Lake Michigan. After you spot Lake Michigan you can head back, or you can continue your hike by walking across sand dunes to get to a Lake Michigan beach!
Lake Michigan is not generally known for being able to find colorful rocks like along the shores of Lake Superior, but you can try searching at this Old Indian Trail beach.
Only look, don’t take, though! As a national lakeshore, the nature here is protected by the National Park Service.
This is a spot where you can see a river that empties out into a lake. Platte River meets Lake Michigan!
It’s popular to go tubing or kayaking down the Platte River, and then spending time at the Platte Point Beach along the shores of Lake Michigan.
Platte River Point: See more about this Sleeping Bear Dunes activity
This is the “modern” campground that has regular bathrooms and showers. There are campsites that have both electricity and campsites that don’t. You’d drive down the road a few minutes to get to the Platte Point Beach, or you can hike across sand dunes from the campground to get to another Lake Michigan beach.
Platte River Campground: See more about this Sleeping Bear Dunes activity
This is at the end of a mostly gravel road down Peterson Road. Once you’ve made it to the parking area, you’ll walk across sand dunes for a couple of minutes to get to the shores of Lake Michigan.
Peterson Beach: See more about this Sleeping Bear Dunes activity
5. White Pine backcountry campground
This is the backcountry campground that’s located on the mainland side of the park. It’s a part of the Platte Plains Trails. There are a few different trails that can lead to this campground.
6. Bass Lake Loop Trail
This is one of the trails that is a part of the Platte Plains Trails. There is also a kayak launch spot from the Bass Lake trailhead.
7. Esch Beach
It’s a pretty easy drive down Esch Road to get to the beach.
Esch Beach: See more about this Sleeping Bear Dunes activity
This is the hike that you’ll want to do that will give you a classic Sleeping Bear Dunes image that you’ve probably seen.
Empire Bluff Trail: See more about this Sleeping Bear Dunes activity
Now continuing north, you will be driving through the small town of Empire MI. In this town you can also find Empire Beach and the Robert Manning Memorial Lighthouse.
9. Philip A. Hart Visitor Center
The Sleeping Bear Dunes visitor center is located in the town of Empire. You can get your Sleeping Bear Dunes park pass here, and you can learn a bit more about sand dunes in Michigan at the little mini-museum.
Bring along some cash in dollar bills too so you can make a “donation” for the informational brochures about different aspects of the park too.
10. Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail
This is a multi-use recreational trail that can be for walking and biking. It’s a leisurely trail that continues for around 20 miles through the park. There are many parking areas throughout the park where you can get on this trail.
This is the drive in Sleeping Bear Dunes that you must do so you can go see the Lake Michigan overlook. (Coming up on the list!) This is a slow-going one way road that is less than 8 miles long, and there are also other scenic stops that you can make along the way.
Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive: See more about this Sleeping Bear Dunes activity
12. Cottonwood Trail
A stop along the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive that you can make. This is a hike across sand dunes. There’s an overlook along the way where you can get some views of the inland lake of Glen Lake, along with views of Lake Michigan off in the distance. This overlook is also where you can see the famous dune climb from above.
Cottonwood Trail: See more about this Sleeping Bear Dunes activity
This is THE stop to make on the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive! Stand on top of a tall hill of sand and get grand views of Lake Michigan! There’s also a boardwalk to walk out to for views too.
Lake Michigan Overlook: See more about this Sleeping Bear Dunes activity
14. Dune Climb
This is THE famous dune climb in Sleeping Bear Dunes. There are many ways you can experience this area of the park. The most popular thing to do here is to walk up the first hill of sand. And, you can walk across more sand! (Next on the list!)
Dune Climb: See more about this Sleeping Bear Dunes activity
15. Dunes Trail
From the Dune Climb, you can continue further by walking across sand dunes all the way to Lake Michigan! There’s a small sandy shoreline here.
Dunes Trail: See more about this Sleeping Bear Dunes activity
16. Little Glen Lake picnic area
This is a nice picnic spot right on the shores of the inland lake of Glen Lake that is located across the road from the Dune Climb.
17. Glen Haven Historic Village
If you’re interested in how people in this area of Michigan lived back in the day, you can head to the Glen Haven Historic Village. This is a street that has some historic buildings preserved and you can walk around and read the informational signs to learn more about the history.
18. Cannery Boathouse Museum
At the end of the Glen Haven Historic Village street is what used to operate as a canning company.
19. Glen Haven Beach
Also at the end of the Glen Haven Historic Village Street is the Glen Haven Beach which is another Lake Michigan swimming beach. There are also picnic tables here.
Glen Haven Beach: See more about this Sleeping Bear Dunes activity
20. Sleeping Bear Point life-saving station
This is a former life-saving station which is the equivalent to the modern day U.S. Coast Guard. There is now another historic site here, where you can visit the Maritime Museum and learn about how this spot was used back in the day. There is beach access here as well.
Another great spot to visit to see sand dunes along the shores of Lake Michigan! There is a trail across sand dunes that leads to the beach. But be sure to also do part of the dune loop trail while you’re here!
Sleeping Bear Point: See more about this Sleeping Bear Dunes activity
This is the campground that has no “modern” facilities. There are basic no-flush toilets, and there are no showers or electricity. But one of the perks of staying at this campground is that there’s a short trail from the campground that leads to Lake Michigan!
DH Day Campground: See more about this Sleeping Bear Dunes activity
This hiking trail can take you to 2 lake overlooks, Lake Michigan and Glen Lake.
Alligator Hill Trail: See more about this Sleeping Bear Dunes activity
And now continuing the drive, you will be passing through the small town of Glen Arbor MI. Stop by Cherry Republic for all things cherries, what the region is known for! There’s a restaurant and small shop.
24. Port Oneida Rural Historic Village
This is another historic area that you can explore. You can also explore this area by biking along the Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail.
25. Bay View Farm Trail
This is a hiking trail that you can do in the Port Oneida area.
This is another spot you may consider for grand Michigan sand dunes. You’ll be on top of a high bluff which makes it another overlook with great views of Lake Michigan.
Pyramid Point: See more about this Sleeping Bear Dunes activity
Another Lake Michigan beach in Sleeping Bear Dunes!
Good Harbor Bay: See more about this Sleeping Bear Dunes activity
And those are some ideas on how to spend a few days in Sleeping Bear Dunes!
If you’re making a day trip to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore and you only have one day, then take a deeper look at the top Sleeping Bear Dunes activities to see what interests you the most! If you are ready for a packed day full of hiking, then you can do most, if not all, of these things if you REALLY want to. 2 activities in the morning, 2 activities in the afternoon! Pack a picnic lunch!
If you do have extra time, you can take a deeper look at the hikes and beaches:
Plan more of your Michigan road trip:
- Muskegon State Park
- Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore
- Circle the UP road trip route
- Best UP campgrounds
- Tahquamenon Falls State Park
- Porcupine Mountains State Park
HAPPY VISIT TO SLEEPING BEAR DUNES AND LAKE MICHIGAN!