The biggest challenge to cramming as many activities as possible into a small window of time is actually being able to enjoy everything on the itinerary. On our recent three-day visit to the Traverse City, Mich., area, we were faced with this situation as we wanted to experience as much of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore as possible, while also visiting other attractions along the Leelanau Peninsula. So in our attempt to experience the beauty of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in just a few hours, we followed this Sleeping Bear Dunes three-hour guide.
First, a little background on Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. The dunes sit high above Lake Michigan, some as high as 460 feet in places. Glaciers carved out the lakes, and as the ice melted the sediment left from the carved bedrock was slowly blown to the eastern shore of the lake from the westerly winds, creating the still-shifting dunes.
The name Sleeping Bear Dunes comes from an Anishinaabeck Indian legend. As the story goes, a wildfire in what is now Wisconsin drove a mother bear and her two cubs into the lake to escape. The three bears swam across Lake Michigan until the mother bear finally reached the shore and climbed to the top of the bluff to wait on the two cubs. But the cubs drowned, and today, what is known as “Sleeping Bear” is the dune where she rests overlooking Lake Michigan. Her lost cubs are South and North Manitou islands seen just off Sleeping Bear Dunes.
There are a number of ways to experience Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore depending on how much energy you feel like expending and how much in nature you feel like being. For us, on a short visit, we didn’t have a lot of time or energy for long hikes. But I did want to get outside a bit while also enjoying the awesome views of Lake Michigan and the surrounding countryside.
We started out at the Philip Hart Visitor Center on M-72 in Empire, just a couple miles southeast of the main entrance to the park. We spent just a few minutes here checking out the exhibits on the geology and history of the park while also paying our park pass admission. We paid $10 for a seven-day pass that admitted everyone in our vehicle into Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.
If time is limited, energy low or you just want a good overview of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, start out with a visit to the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive. This driving loop travels 7.5 miles through the park and some of its most unique scenery and overlooks. The entrance is located about three miles north of Empire.
When pulling into the drive, make sure to get a park guide at the gate. It comes in handy to know what is in store at each of the 12 stops. Highlights of the drive include the covered bridge just after the entrance, a few trails, overlooks and drives in and out of deep forests and the sand dunes.
Our first stop was Glen Lake, where we could see Big Glen Lake and Little Glen Lake down in the distance.
Next is the Dune Overlook, where we were able to look out onto the sand dunes in the distance. This point sits in the middle of a 4-square-mile area called the Sleeping Bear Dunes complex.
The highlight of the drive for us came a few miles after we wound our way through the Beech-Maple Forest and found our way to the Lake Michigan and Sleeping Bear Dune overlooks.
This platform was the closest we would get to the lake at this point.
We enjoyed the views out to Lake Michigan and South Manitou Island in the distance.
We walked above the platform a short distance to get a warmup for the dune walk to come.
A big word of warning here: Don’t attempt to walk down the dune here. Technically, I guess it can be done. But there are signs warning visitors not to risk erosion, injury and rescue fees by going down to the lake from here. It’s a two-hour climb up from the bottom.
After the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive we … went back to Empire to get gas. Yes, we had to detour back to town to fill up the gas tank. My biggest advice is make sure the car has enough gas to enjoy the day. Driving up and down hills can take a toll on a car with great gas mileage.
We were already getting hungry for lunch, but before driving north to Glen Arbor for food we had the highlight of the visit still remaining — the Dune Climb.
I had heard about the awesome climb up the sand dune, but I wasn’t fully aware of what it entailed before we arrived. I thought we would drive right up to the dune where we could walk down to the shores of Lake Michigan before climbing back up.
The reality was so far from that. Yes, there is a parking lot just off M-109. It’s a large parking area with picnic tables to enjoy lunch at before making the climb. And that’s actually where the climb begins.
As we pulled into the lot we saw the massive sand dune in front of us, instead of already being at the top. OK, I thought, we’ll just walk up and be at the top where we can look down at Lake Michigan below. So we started climbing to the top.
Once we got to the “top” I realized it was just the first level.
We then had another climb to what surely would be the top. But once we got to that level I looked in front of us and saw a wide valley of sand before another climb in the distance.
Even if this would have been all that remained between us and Lake Michigan it was still a daunting challenge. So we turned back and slowly made our way back down the dune.
I’m glad we turned around, because I did, of course, discover we had a few miles to hike to make it to Lake Michigan. The hike itself was tiring but it was a thrill. And it was fun watching Colby roll down the dune. He had sand in his ears days later.
This was it for our Sleeping Bear Dunes experience. We could have gone for short hikes on some of the pull offs on the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive. We also could have explored the little village of Glen Haven, which dates to the turn of the 20th century with its blacksmith shop, general store and a Maritime Museum.
If we had a full day, I would have wanted to spend more time on the Dune Climb, possibly hiking the whole way to Lake Michigan. But we’d have to be well-prepared for that with sunscreen, plenty of water and food. The three-plus miles through sand with no shade is no joking matter.
Something that would be difficult to do as a visiting family, especially when staying 30 minutes away in Traverse City, is running or biking the Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail. This paved trail stretches more than 10 miles through the national lakeshore from Empire to glen Arbor in the north. Again, a problem with cramming a lot of activities into small windows of time when traveling means experiences like running and biking are hard to fit in. But as we drove through the park we noticed the trail weave in and out of forests and up and down hills. It looks like a fun, albeit challenging trail.