Best Things to Do at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore

Michigan's Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore encompasses a 35 mile stretch of Lake Michigan's eastern coastline, as well as North and South Manitou Islands. The park was established on October 21, 1970, primarily for its outstanding natural features, including forests, beaches, dune formations and ancient glacial phenomena. Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore also contains many cultural features including an 1871 lighthouse, three former Life-Saving Service/Coast Guard Stations and an extensive rural historic farm district.

There's a wide variety of activities for every age - climb the dunes, swim at one of the many beaches, or take a hike through the Maple/Beech forest to some beautiful overlooks. Maybe you will want to spend some time in the museums or tour Port Oneida to learn about the rich history and culture of the area. And, the new Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail provides over four miles of paved trail.

View of Lake Michigan over the dunes at Sleeping Bear Point Trail

What is so striking about this area is the monumental expanse of water that is Lake Michigan. It is much like an ocean, with the stark difference being this is a freshwater lake. But one thing is for certain: Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore will leave you breathless. Not only does it straddle one of the largest lakes on the planet, the area is home to 21 much smaller lakes, all with their own appeal, not least of which are fishing, hiking, picnicking, and other fun outdoor activities.

Start at Phillip A. Hart Visitor Center

As with most any National Park, it pays to gather some good information for your upcoming adventures. Get oriented to everything the lakeshore has to offer, load up on maps, and see an introductory slide show. Strike up a conversation with a friendly ranger and ask for advice on what to do that is in line with your interests.

Go for the Most Scenic of Drives

Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive is a 7.4-mile circuit journey through several ecosystems. From maple and beech forests to rolling meadows full of shrubs to mountainous landscapes overlooking Lake Michigan, there are a dozen informational stops along the way to stretch the legs. Many have gorgeous views, but all have enough entertaining information to immerse oneself in Dune-ology and come away with a greater appreciation for the beauty and ecology of the National Dunes area.

Challenge Yourself with a Climb at Sleeping Bear Dunes

Visitors stand atop the Pyramid Point overlook and take in the view of the azure waters

The Dune Climb beckons those who wish to take on a 300-foot-tall wall of sand. Scaling this huge, sandy playpen is strenuous, to be sure, but when you reach the top, the reward is great: a stunning vista of Leelanau Country dotted by several lakes. If you want to feel like a kid again, get a running start back down the dunes, then launch yourself airborne to land softly in the sand. Or take it further and continue an epic hike on the Dunes Trail. For those who wish to take it down a notch, a lovely picnic area is available at the bottom – bring a packed lunch and prepare for some great people watching. The Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail is another option, just north from the base of the dune.

Glen Haven Historic District

This living historical village boasts a fair number of educational sites. Visit the iconic red Canning company building and Cannery Boathouse Museum, which houses the largest public exhibit of small craft from the Great Lakes. The U.S. Coastguard Station Maritime Museum, a working 1920’s blacksmith shop, and General Store are must-do’s. There is a small logging village that has been restored to its 1920’s glory. Rife with cultural heritage, the beach in front of the boathouse museum is one of the most popular.

Delight in the Inland Lakes

In addition to the mammoth Lake Michigan, 21 lakes are within the boundary of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. Anglers may well be overwhelmed by the sheer number of options available to them, no matter if you choose to charter a boat, paddle out in a kayak, or stand in shallow waters – there are many perfect fishing spots to be had.

A kayaker paddling, surrounded by trees in vivid fall colors

Lakes such as Glen Lake, Otter Lake, and Bass Lake provide amazing spots for catching bluegill, trout, and perch, among others. Deep water anglers can hire a boat and tackle Lake Michigan herself; indeed, many of the lakes allow boats for fishing, but some do not. Be sure to check ahead, as several of the lakes prohibit motorized boats.

Explore an Isolated Island

In the town of Leland, catch the Mishe-Mokwa (a/k/a Mother Bear) ferry at the Manitou Island Transit to South Manitou Island; a wonderful place to roam with the island’s towering lighthouse, shipwrecks, giant cedars, and remote beaches. But before you board the ferry, be sure to stop at The Village Cheese Shanty, where for over 40 years they’ve been nourishing patrons with 60 imported cheeses, fresh sandwiches, and local cherry products. They will gladly pack your lunch to go – as there are no stores on the island.

Glide, Hike, or Snowshoe

Any time of year is the right time to visit Sleeping Bear Dunes. Thirteen distinct hiking trails run throughout many woodland areas, with overlooks such as the soaring Empire Bluffs, and wide expanses of Lake Michigan perfect for a stellar photograph. In the winter, guided snowshoe hikes take place every Saturday in January and February, where the guide will share their knowledge of entertaining park facts. An adrenaline-pumping adventure awaits for those that want to try their hand at hang gliding over the lake.

Take in a Glorious Sunset

With so many miles of west-facing beaches at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, it’s no wonder that the sunsets are tailor-made for this area. One great stop is along the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive at Stop Nine, the Lake Michigan Overlook. Grab a spot on the amphitheater of sand, where the tall dunes provide the perfect setting for watching the golden sun dip into the liquid horizon of Lake Michigan. If you need a romantic spot, this is it.


Click here to see the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore Poster!

Rob Decker is a photographer and graphic artist who had the rare privilege of studying under Ansel Adams in Yosemite National Park when he was just 19 years old. Now, Rob is on a journey to explore and photograph all 61 of America’s National Parks. He’s creating WPA-style posters to help people celebrate their own national park adventures — as well as encourage others to get out and explore!


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