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  • Writer's pictureDan Wagner

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 trip we enjoyed views of Lake Michigan's Caribbean-like coastline from atop towering bluffs, scaled massive sand dunes, beach camped beside a bonfire, backpacked one of the park's remote islands, and more.

Day 1: Glen Arbor

Pyramid Point (1 mile/225')
Sleeping Bear Point (2.5 miles/300')
Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive

We began the trip with a brief hike that led to a breathtaking vantage point, offering stunning views of Lake Michigan's vibrant turquoise waters and the Manitou Islands from an elevation of nearly 1,000 feet. While the Pyramid Point Trail is a popular spot with a crowded main view, the experience is undeniably rewarding. While most people stop at the main view, the vistas just past Pyramid Point are equally impressive and attract significantly fewer visitors. The South Manitou and North Manitou Islands, where we spent the last two days of the trip, are distinctly visible to the northwest.

Sleeping Bear Dunes

After this, we explored more breathtaking vistas on the Sleeping Bear Point Trail, located twenty minutes west of Pyramid Point. We opted to hike clockwise, reserving the short spur trail to the point for the grand finale. Over half of the trail exposes you to unshaded terrain, including stretches through dense sand. During the hike, we strolled down to Sleeping Bear Beach, recognized by National Geographic as one of the world's top 21 beaches in 2017.

Approximately an hour and a half before sunset, we made our way to the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive, where we were treated with even more spectacular views of the lakeshore's majestic dunes, framed by Lake Michigan. The drive features twelve points, with recommended stops at the Glen Lake Overlook (#2), Dune Overlook (#3), Dune Ecology (#4), Changes Over Time (#8), and Lake Michigan Overlook (#9). We stayed a while at the Lake Michigan Overlook, a premier spot in the state for sunset. While the observation platform tends to get crowded, the sandy area to the left of the platform offers a more serene experience.

Sleeping Bear Dunes

This evening, we spent the night at the Sleeping Bear Dunes-Platte River Campground, which unlike the DH Day Campground in Glen Arbor, has hot showers and flush toilets, and Loops 1,2, and 3 have electricity.

Day 2: Honor

Platte & Crystal River paddle
Peterson Road Beach
Alligator Hill (3 miles/400')

On the second day, we kicked off the morning with a paddle on the briskly flowing Upper Platte River, launching from Honor Trading Post. While the river doesn't have any rapids, its swift current provides a fun experience.

Continuing northward, we reached Peterson Beach, a hidden gem within Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. This pristine and secluded beach offers unparalleled beauty. From its soft sandy shores, we enjoyed a splendid view of Empire Bluffs and Platte Point, immersing myself in the serene surroundings.

Sleeping Bear Dunes

Following a relaxing afternoon at the beach, we retraced my steps northward to hop on the Alligator Hill Trail—an often overlooked gem in the region's hiking options. At the trailhead, we discovered several charcoal kilns, crafted in the 1950s by lumberman Pierce Stocking. Opting for a clockwise route, we reached the Islands Overlook approximately 1.5 miles into the hike. From this vantage point atop the hill, we were treated to a stunning view of the Manitou Islands, enhancing the overall allure of the trail.

Day 3: Empire

Dune Climb (0.5 miles/220')
Cannery Boathouse Museum & General Store
Empire Bluff (3.3 miles/220')
Empire Beach
Empire Area Museum

We started day three by breaking a sweat just five minutes south of the Glen Haven Historic District at the Dune Climb. The challenging ascent takes you to the summit of a dune and eventually to Lake Michigan. However, we turned back at the top of the dune, as there aren't remarkable views beyond. Nonetheless, the climb is a must for anyone wanting to take in one of the lakeshore's prominent traditions.

Moving two miles north of the Dune Climb, within the Glen Haven Historic District, we visited the restored Glen Haven General Store, Cannery Boathouse Museum, and Blacksmith Shop, all reminiscent of the 1920s and well worth a visit.

Venturing fifteen minutes south, we stopped to hike the Empire Bluff Trail. The initial three-quarters of a mile wind through a forest adorned with Great Depression-era farm equipment on either side of the trail before reaching the Empire Bluff Overlook. The panoramic views from the overlook and beyond are among the finest in the region. We ended up hiking all the way out to Old Baldy Dune, located about a mile past the Empire Bluff Overlook, which I highly recommend doing if time permits.

Sleeping Bear Dunes

After that, we headed out to Empire Beach, my favorite beach in the area. It's conveniently located just five minutes from the Empire Bluff Trailhead and serves as an excellent spot to search for Petoskey and Charlevoix stones. If you're unfamiliar with these unique stones, they're definitely worth looking into. While at the beach, we took a leisurely stroll to the Robert H Manning Memorial Lighthouse where I ended up finding a few Petoskey stones afterall.

Sleeping Bear Dunes

After some beach time, we explored the Empire Area Museum—a truly remarkable museum featuring a turn-of-the-century saloon, blacksmith and woodworking shops, an old one-room schoolhouse, a 1911 firehouse, a stagecoach, and much more. It provides a great way to delve into the area's history, and it's a place I make a point to visit each time we're in the area. If you have an appreciation for history, this stop is sure to be enjoyable.

Afterward, we grabbed some firewood from one of the nearby firewood vendors and headed to Esch Beach, where Jackie and I camped for the night. This location stands out as one of our favorite spots for camping in the area, second only to North Manitou Island. As of the time of this writing, no permits are required to camp there.

Sleeping Bear Dunes

Day 4: North Manitou Island

North Manitou Island Outer Loop (12 miles/500')

Over the next two days, we backpacked the North Manitou Island Outer Loop, a 17-mile loop rich in history, featuring pristine white sand beaches, crystal-clear waters, and tons of seclusion. We considered these two days as a respite from the outside world—no crowds, no cell service, just the two of us, our backpacks, and 15,000 acres of wilderness. The island's gentle trails wind through maple and beach forests, occasionally revealing glimpses of the bygone farming and logging community that once thrived on North Manitou.

We began our backpack from the Village, headed counterclockwise, northward for approximately one mile until we reached Vessel Point. Legend has it that outlaws used to hang lanterns at night here to lure ships close, force them aground, and plunder the cargo. At around 2.5 miles, we reached the former site of the John Maleski Homestead. Three-quarters of a mile later, we encountered the former site of the Paul Maleski Homestead. Although only a few scattered timbers remain, these structures once housed the Maleski family, the longest year-round residents in the island's history, spanning three generations. They were also the final property owners to relinquish their land to the National Park Service. Approximately 4.2 miles in, we arrived at Stormer Camp, where several mostly detached 1940s logging truck cabs can be found just inside the woods on the left side of the trail.

Sleeping Bear Dunes

Around the 5.5-mile mark, we reached The Old Grade segment of the loop and began heading south along the western side of the island. Throughout this stretch, we noticed rails emerging from the ground—the remnants of the old Smith & Hull Lumber Co Railroad, which once extended from Crescent City into the northern reaches of the island.

At the 7.5-mile point, we came across the ruins of the Crescent City dock. Erected in 1907, this once 600-foot-long dock served as a shipping point for White's Mill and the thriving lumber industry on the island. When the Smith & Hull Lumber Co ceased operations in 1917, Crescent City, the largest settlement in the island's history, met its demise. Today, all that remains of Crescent City are numerous dock pilings visible from the trail. The beach along this stretch is not only beautiful but also easily accessible.

Just beyond the dock lies Swenson's Barn, also known as the West Side Barn. One of the few surviving structures on the island, alongside Bournique's Place and Cottage Row, this 1920s barn was posthumously named after a man named Swenson, who farmed the nearby land decades ago.

Sleeping Bear Dunes

Approximately half a mile past the barn, we encountered a junction with the Centerline Trail, and stayed to the right, continuing to head south. After covering about a mile and a half from the junction, we came across a sizable clearing that once marked the site of the Johnson Place. Unfortunately, no remnants of it remain today. The park map mentions a location called Fredrickson Place approximately a mile after the Johnson clearing, but the home is no longer visible, having been entirely covered by the shifting sands of the dunes.

Upon reaching the trail junction near Fredrickson Place, we headed towards Lake Michigan, where we discovered an incredible spot to camp atop a dune. The views were breathtaking, the sunset was absolutely stunning, and the nighttime sky offered a mind-blowing display of stars. During the day, we also spotted numerous bald eagles and the endangered piping plover.

Day 5: North Manitou Island

North Manitou Island Outer Loop (5.5 miles/100')

After a serene night spent beneath the stars, we returned to the trail and headed east until reaching the signpost for Fat Annie's. Unfortunately, not much remains of "Fat Annie" Buckner's home—just a foundation nearly overtaken by nature. Legend has it that Annie operated a brothel in her home, attracting lumberjacks from Crescent City back in the day for some after hours fun.

Shortly past the signpost for Fat Annie's, we came across a spur trail on the right leading to Stormer's Place. However, since there are no visible remains of the structure, we skipped this stop. About 1.5 miles into today's journey and roughly 13 miles overall, we encountered another spur trail on the right leading to the North Manitou Island Cemetery, a quarter mile from the main trail. The cemetery serves as the final resting place for at least twenty-two souls dating back to 1885. A wooden sign with the names of the departed etched in it can be found nearby.

Sleeping Bear Dunes

Less than a quarter mile south of the cemetery is Bournique's Place—a spacious, three-dormered grey cottage that was once the residence of Alvar and Mary Bournique. This expansive homestead, encompassing at least four other identifiable structures, represented one of the final homestead claims filed on the island and stood as the largest. While the Anderson and Freilen homesteads were once located southwest of Bournique's, no remnants of these structures are visible today.

Sleeping Bear Dunes

The next structure we came across was the remains of the Burdick House, once known as "Tanglewood." Today, it stands as a collection of timbers beside a tall brick chimney. Following this, we reached Cottage Row—a sequence of ten cottages constructed between 1893 and 1924, positioned on the bluff overlooking the US Life-Saving Service Complex and ferry dock. After Cottage Row, we headed to the Village to refill our water bottles, take a break, and await our return shuttle to the mainland.

A few considerations for preparing for this backpacking trip: The only two water sources on the island are the spigot in the Village and water from Lake Michigan. If you plan on using the lake water, bring a water filter. Fires are not allowed anywhere on the island except for the Village Campground. North Manitou has a moderate tick population, and since you'll be hiking through tall grass at times, wearing pants is a wise choice. Bugs are quite prevalent on North Manitou, so bring bug spray. If possible, download the North Manitou Island Outer Loop Trail map on AllTrails and rely on it more than the park-issued map, as the NPS map is one of the most unreliable maps we've ever used.


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