Five Amazing Days in Michigan's Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore
Hugging the northeast side of Lake Michigan and home to more than 65 miles of shimmering turquoise water lies the crown jewel of Michigan's Lower Peninsula, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. Known for its towering scalable dunes that banket the coast, the park has grown to immense popularity over the last few decades. It's such a beautiful area that ABC's Good Morning America named it the Most Beautiful Place in America, beating out the likes of Grand Teton National Park, Sedona, Aspen, Hawaii's Lanikai Beach and more. Its North and South Manitou Islands are spectacular wildlife refuges, almost completely devoted to wilderness. Historic villages and museums, lighthouses, and rolling woodlands dot the mainland's more than 50,000 acres. The park is named after a Chippewa legend of the sleeping bear. According to the legend, an enormous forest fire on the western shore of Lake Michigan drove a mother bear and her two cubs into the lake for shelter, determined to reach the opposite shore. After many miles of swimming, the two cubs lagged behind. When the mother bear reached the shore, she waited on the top of a high bluff. The exhausted cubs drowned in the lake, but the mother bear stayed and waited in hopes that her cubs would finally appear. Impressed by the mother bear’s determination and faith, the Great Spirit created two islands, North and South Manitou Island, to commemorate the cubs, and the winds buried the sleeping bear under the sands of the dunes where she waits to this day. On this adventure you'll enjoy views of Lake Michigan's Caribbean-like coastline from atop towering bluffs, scale massive sand dunes, beach camp beside a bonfire, backpack one of the park's remote islands, and much more. The best time to live this adventure is June through August.
Day 1: Glen Arbor
Pyramid Point (1 mile/225')
Sleeping Bear Point (2.5 miles/300')
Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive
Kick off the trip with a short hike leading to an incredible view of Lake Michigan's turquoise water and the Manitou Islands from nearly 1,000' up. The Pyramid Point Trail is very popular and the main view is often crowded on weekends, but it's worth it a hundred times over. If you're itching to get away from the inevitable hoards, hike past the point just a bit. People tend to stop at the main view, but those from just past Pyramid Point are just as impressive and come with a fraction of the people. South Manitou and North Manitou Islands, where you'll spend your last two days of the trip, are clearly visible to the northwest.
Another hike that provides more incredible views is the Sleeping Bear Point Trail, twenty minutes west of Pyramid Point. We recommend hiking this one clockwise which saves the short spur trail out to the point for the end. More than half of the trail is unshaded and a good amount of it is through thick sand. You'll have an opportunity to walk down to Sleeping Bear Beach which National Geographic named one of the 21 Best Beaches in the World in 2017. If you're looking for a good bite to eat afterwards, check out Cherry Public House in downtown Glen Arbor. If you need to pickup food and drinks for the trip, Anderson's Glen Arbor Market is a few hundred feet from Cherry Public House on Western Ave.
About an hour and a half before sunset head over to the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive where you'll enjoy spectacular views of all of the lakeshore's grandest dunes with Lake Michigan as their backdrop. There are twelve points along the drive and we recommend at least stopping at the Glen Lake Overlook (#2), Dune Overlook (#3), Dune Ecology (#4), Changes Over Time (#8), and Lake Michigan Overlook (#9). Stick around at the Lake Michigan Overlook as it is one of the finest spots in the state for sunset. No matter the day, the large observation platform gets pretty crowded, so we prefer the sandy area left of the platform pictured below. If you don't already have an America The Beautiful pass you'll get hit with a fairly decent entrance fee at the drive's ranger station.
We've done variations of this trip numerous times and have always stayed at an Airbnb the first and second nights. There are plenty to choose from, but it can get pricey. If you prefer camping, the Sleeping Bear Dunes-Platte River Campground is the way to go. Unlike the DH Day Campground in Glen Arbor, this has hot showers and flush toilets, and Loops 1,2, and 3 have electricity. You'll be backcountry camping nights three and four, so having a little more comfort at the start isn't a bad thing.
Day 2: Honor
Platte & Crystal River paddle
Peterson Road Beach
Alligator Hill (3 miles/400')
If you're a coffee drinker and stayed in Glen Arbor last night, check out Leelanau Coffee Roasting or Ursa Major Bistro & Coffee if you camped at Platte River. After, head over to Honor Trading Post for a morning kayaking the fast moving Upper Platte River. We've done this run a number of times and highly recommend it. No rapids, but it is a fairly fast current. For those looking for a more relaxing experience, give the Lower Platte River a go. L'Chayim Delicatessen is a solid stop for lunch after.
For some rest and relaxation, head north to Peterson Beach, one of the most beautiful and secluded beaches in all of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. You'll have a great view of Empire Bluffs and Platte Point along its soft sandy beach. Parking is fairly limited, so if the lot is filled when arriving you can park on the dirt road leading to the lot.
After some beach time head back north to the Alligator Hill Trail, one of the most underrated hikes in the area. At the trailhead you'll find a number of charcoal kilns built in the 1950s by lumberman Pierce Stocking. Hiking clockwise you'll reach the Islands Overlook at about 1.5 miles. Here you'll have a gorgeous view of the Manitou Islands from the top of the hill. This is the highlight of the trail so after taking in the view return the way you came or pick up the Easy Trail and make a loop out of it. The Big Glen Lookout Trail which you'll inevitably come across isn't really worth the added miles in our opinion, but your call.
Whiskers Bar & Grill in Glen Arbor is a great dinner option. They have awesome outdoor seating, indoor and outdoor firepits, live music, and great food. Reservations are recommended.
Day 3: Empire
Dune Climb (0.5 miles/220')
Cannery Boathouse Museum & General Store
Empire Bluff (3.3 miles/220')
Empire Area Museum
Start today by getting a little sweat on five minutes south of the Glen Haven Historic District at the Dune Climb. The strenuous ascent leads to the top of a dune and eventually to Lake Michigan, but we recommend turning back at the top of the dune. No spectacular views on this one, but you can't leave the area without experiencing one of the lakeshore's biggest traditions.
Two miles north of the Dune Climb, in the Glen Haven Historic District you find the Glen Haven General Store, Cannery Boathouse Museum, and Blacksmith Shop. All have been restored to their appearance in the 1920s and each worth a visit.
Fifteen minutes south you'll find the Empire Bluff Trail, our favorite hike on the mainland. The first three quarters of a mile or so are through forest where you'll find Great Depression-era farm equipment on either side of the trail before reaching Empire Bluff Overlook. The views from the overlook and beyond are some of the best around. You can hike this one as far as you like before turning around, but we recommend making it to Old Baldy Dune about a mile past the Empire Bluff Overlook. Consider packing lunch from Shipwreck Cafe and enjoying between Empire Bluff Overlook and Old Baldy where the crowds are almost non-existent. If the conditions are right you'll find people paragliding from the bluffs nearby which is always cool to see.
If you're interested in more beach time we highly recommend Empire Beach, our favorite beach in the area. It's only five minutes from the Empire Bluff Trailhead and a good spot to look for Petosky and Charlevoix stones. If you're not familiar with these you'll definitely want to read about them. Take a walk down the beach to the Robert H Manning Memorial Lighthouse while you're there. Tours aren't offered, but it's a short walk away and worth the time, especially if you're looking for the elusive stones.
After the beach, check out the Empire Area Museum, a really great museum that houses a turn of the century saloon, blacksmith and wood working shops, an old one room school house, 1911 fire house, stagecoach and a lot more. It's a great way to learn about the area and a spot we've gone to each time we've visited the area. If you're a history buff you'll definitely enjoy this stop.
A good spot for dinner nearby is Empire Village Inn. Not to be confused with the Chinese restaurant Empire Village, the inn has great pizza and a pretty solid burger. After, grab some firewood from one of the area's several firewood spots and head down to Esch Beach where you'll backcountry camp for the night. This is by far our favorite place to backcountry camp in the area not named North Manitou Island. From the fairly good sized parking lot, make a right on the beach and haul your gear and firewood to wherever you'd like to camp. Make a fire and enjoy another amazing sunset on Lake Michigan. Permits are not required.
Day 4: North Manitou Island
North Manitou Island Outer Loop (12 miles/500')
The next two days you'll backpack the North Manitou Island Outer Loop, a 17-mile loop with a bunch of interesting history, beautiful white sand beaches, crystal clear water, and plenty of seclusion. Think of the next two days a break from the rest of the world. No crowds, no cell service, just you, your pack and 15,000 acres of wilderness. The island's gentle trails weave through maple and beach forest, every now and then giving glimpses of an old farming and logging community that once called North Manitou home.
Reaching the island requires an hour or so ferry shuttle from Leland with the Manitou Island Transit. Tickets should be purchased online ahead of time. You'll also need to secure a backcountry camping permit which can be purchased the day of at the transit office. Since the island is part of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore a park fee is also required, but an America The Beautiful pass will cover this. Departure times are seasonal, but in the peak summer months you'll want to head out on the 10 AM shuttle. We recommend arriving early to secure your backcountry camping permit.
When you reach the island, grab your gear and head to the Village for ranger orientation, a poorly marked map, and a visit to only toilets and water spigot on the island. After that it's time to explore. Start your backpack from the Village and hike counterclockwise, heading north for roughly one mile before reaching Vessel Point. Legend has it that outlaws used to hang lanterns at night here to lure ships close, force them aground and loot the cargo. At roughly 2.5 miles you'll reach the site of the former John Maleski Homestead. Three quarters of a mile later, the site of the former Paul Maleski Homestead. Other than a few scattered timbers there isn't much left of the structures. The Maleski family built their first home on North Manitou in the 1870s and lived on the island for three generations making them the longest year-round residents in the island's history. They were also the last property owners to give up their land to the National Park Service. Around 4.2 miles in you'll arrive at Stormer Camp where you'll find several mostly detached 1940s logging truck cabs just inside the woods on the left side of the trail.
At roughly 5.5 miles you'll reach The Old Grade section of the loop and begin to head south along the western side of the island. At times you'll notice rails poking through the ground, remains of the old Smith & Hull Lumber Co Railroad that once ran from Crescent City into the island's northern reaches. At 7.5 miles you'll encounter the ruins of the Crescent City dock. Built in 1907, the once 600' dock served as a shipping point for White's Mill and the island's booming lumber industry. When the Smith & Hull Lumber Co ceased operations in 1917, Crescent City, the largest settlement in the island's history, went with it. All that remains of Crescent City today are its numerous dock pilings, visible from the trail. The beach along this stretch is beautiful and easy to access. If you're thinking of taking a break this is the place to do it. Just past the dock is Swenson's Barn, known to some as the West Side Barn. One of the few remaining structures on the island other than Bournique's Place and Cottage Row, the 1920's barn was posthumously named after a man named Swenson who farmed the nearby land decades prior.
About a half mile past the barn you'll reach a junction with the Centerline Trail where you'll stay right and continue south. Around a mile and a half past the junction you'll find a large clearing that was once the site of the Johnson Place. There are no remains of it today. The park map indicates a spot called Fredrickson Place about a mile after the Johnson clearing, but the home is no longer visible after being completely buried by the dunes' shifting sands. At the trail junction near Fredrickson Place head towards Lake Michigan where you'll find an amazing spot to camp high up on the dune. The views are amazing, sunsets are drop dead gorgeous, and the stars at night are mind-blowing here. Keep your eyes peeled for bald eagles and the endangered piping plover that are frequently seen on the island.
Day 5: North Manitou Island
North Manitou Island Outer Loop (5.5 miles/100')
After a beautiful night sleeping under the stars head back to the trail and head east before reaching the sign post for Fat Annie's. There isn't much left of "Fat Annie" Buckner's home other than a foundation that's nearly been fully consumed by mother nature and stopping here is probably not worth the time. Legend has it that Annie ran a brothel in her home, enticing lumberjacks in Crescent City to visit for some fun. Shortly after the sign post for Fat Annie's you'll encounter a spur trail on the right leading to Stormer's Place, but seeing as there aren't any remains of the structure, it's smart to skip the stop. About 1.5 miles into today and roughly 13 miles overall you'll reach a spur trail on the right that leads to the North Manitou Island Cemetery a quarter mile from the main trail. The cemetery is the final resting place of at least twenty-two souls dating back to 1885. A wooden sign with the names of the dead etched in it can be found nearby.
Less than a quarter mile south of the cemetery is Bournique's Place, a large three dormered grey cottage once home to Alvar and Mary Bournique. The extensive homestead which includes at least four other distinguishable structures was one of the last homestead claims filed on the island and also the largest. The Anderson and Freilen homesteads were once southwest of Bournique's, but there are no traces of remains today.
The next structure that you'll encounter are the remains of the Burdick House. Known as "Tanglewood" in its time, today it's just a pile of timbers beside a tall brick chimney. Soon after this you'll encounter Cottage Row, a series of ten cottages built between 1893 and 1924 on the bluff overlooking the US Life-Saving Service Complex and ferry dock. Head over to the Village and fill up a water bottle or two, kick back, and wait on your return shuttle to the mainland. Your shuttle return time will be listed on the paperwork you received during yesterday's check-in.
A few things to keep in mind when preparing for this backpack. The only two water sources on the island are from the spigot in the Village and the water from Lake Michigan. Bring a water filter if you plan on using the lake. Fires are not permitted anywhere on the island not named the Village Campground. The island has a moderate tick population and you'll be hiking through tall grass at times, so pants aren't the worst decision you can make. There are a lot of bugs on North Manitou in general so bring bug spray. If possible, download the North Manitou Island Outer Loop Trail map on AllTrails and rely on this much more so than the park issued map. The NPS map is one of the most unreliable maps we've ever used.
That's Five Amazing Days in Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. Have a blast and enjoy the views!