A guest post from Sherry of Traveling Michigan on Sleeping Bear Dunes, one of the most scenic places in Michigan.
Thirty-five miles of sparkling Lake Michigan coastline make up the National Lakeshore that is Sleeping Bear Dunes. But there’s more to Sleeping Bear than just sand; the area is also rich in rivers, forests and small towns.
Located in northwest Michigan near the small town of Empire, Sleeping Bear Dunes is one of the most popular spring, summer and fall destinations in the state. Every year, the area draws thousands of hikers, road trippers, and photographers alike to climb the majestic dunes, explore scenic hiking opportunities and experience out-of-this-world views of Lake Michigan and beyond. The National Park Service estimates over 1,600,000 visitors travel to Sleeping Bear Dunes each year.
To help you make the most of your trip, here’s a quick weekend guide to Sleeping Bear Dunes.
Weekend guide to Sleeping Bear Dunes, Michigan
- Best time of year to visit Sleeping Bear Dunes
- Where to stay around Sleeping Bear Dunes
- Car passes for Sleeping Bear Dunes
- What to pack for Sleeping Bear Dunes
- Things to do in Sleeping Bear Dunes
Best time of year to visit Sleeping Bear Dunes
Sleeping Bear Dunes is beautiful all year ’round, so the best time to visit is up to you!
Summer (May to August) is the best time of year to visit if you want to swim and enjoy the beaches. Summer months bring the warmest temperatures at Sleeping Bear Dunes… but summer crowds come with them.
Fall (September-November) is the best time of year for photography in Sleeping Bear Dunes, when all of the leaves turn brilliant shades of red and yellow. Timing is tricky, though—when the leaves change color depends on the weather that year.
Where to stay around Sleeping Bear Dunes
While visiting Sleeping Bear Dunes, the closest lodging is in nearby Frankfort, Michigan. Frankfort is a fantastic beach town with lots of opportunities to hike and bike the Betsie Valley Trail, enjoy the beach, and relax after a successful day of exploring.
We recommend staying at non-chain hotels to truly experience the area:
Hotel Frankfort and Restaurant is a much-beloved historic hotel in the center of town. Its rustic charm, friendly staff, and comfortable beds make a perfect—and appropriately picturesque—base for exploring Sleeping Bear Dunes. Make sure to book ahead, as it can get busy in-season. Check availability for Hotel Frankfort.
Harbor Lights Resort is a cute resort with views of Lake Michigan that can’t be beat. It’s right on the water, and its condos offer some of the best views of the lighthouse, beach, and pier you’ll find in Frankfort. Check price of Harbor Lights Resort.
Getting a car pass for Sleeping Bear Dunes
Visitors who travel by car are required to buy a day pass or annual pass from the National Park Service. A vehicle park pass for Sleeping Bear Dunes is $25 per week. The pass can be purchased at the entrance to Sleeping Bear Dunes or local Visitor Centers. Please note that daily passes are not available.
The pass allows you to park at any beaches, climb the dunes, and explore the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. You’ll have access to both parking lots and roadside parking. It’s best to leave your pass in your vehicle’s windshield for your entire stay at Sleeping Bear Dunes so it is visible to park rangers.
What to pack for Sleeping Bear Dunes
Planning a trip to Sleeping Bear Dunes takes a bit of pre-planning. You’ll need to pack lots of water, snacks and as many meals as necessary for your trip; food is not readily available near the dunes. We recommend bringing a cooler and snacks that can safely sit in your vehicle for several hours.
Besides food, be sure to pack:
- Sun hats
- Toilet paper – porta johns tend to be out of toilet paper during busy seasons
- Hiking shoes
- High-quality binoculars
Things to do in and around Sleeping Bear Dunes
The Dune Climb
One of the most popular visitor spots at Sleeping Bear Dunes is the famous Dune Climb. This incredible dune soars 460 feet (160 meters) above Glen Lake and covers four square miles!
The Dune Climb is located just about 5 miles north of Empire on M-109; you can see it on the west side of the road. Even if you don’t actually climb the dune, it’s still worth visiting just to see.
Bike Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail
If you bring your bike (and a bike lock), the Sleeping Bear Heritage Trailhead is a great place to stretch your legs and go for a scenic ride. The trailhead is located at the base of the Dune Climb so you only need to park once.
The Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail is a hard-surfaced pathway offering an awesome way to navigate the area. It connects several scenic locations including the small village of Glen Haven, only two miles away from the trailhead. One of my favorite things to do is bike to Glen Haven and grab dinner at Cherry Republic; their wines are excellent, the food is great quality, and the restaurant offers quaint outside seating. Win-win in my book!
Shopping and ‘smithing in Glen Haven
Glen Haven is home to a fully restored 1920’s blacksmith shop that offers fascinating demonstrations. You can watch a blacksmith transform a piece of iron into useful tools, and ask as many questions as you want. It’s a great place to learn about the ancient art of blacksmithing… and maybe spark your interest in a future hobby!
While visiting Glen Haven, be sure to pop into a couple museums and several cute downtown boutique shops. Most of the shops and sights are within walking distance of the downtown area and Cherry Republic. If you’re feeling particularly ambitious, you can continue biking to Alligator Hill and Bay View trails, both boasting incredible panoramic views of Lake Michigan and the surrounding area. The overlooks are incredibly beautiful in the summer as fields of wildflowers dot the landscape with color.
Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive
When visiting Sleeping Bear Dunes, we love to explore Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive. This incredibly picturesque drive is a 7.4-mile loop through beautiful beech and maple forests with majestic views of the sand dunes. There are several designated picnic areas along the drive with scenic views to enjoy while eating your lunch. There’s also a historic covered bridge that vehicles can pass through along the drive. Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive is especially beautiful during the fall; the trees create a tunnel of reds, yellows and oranges in several areas along the way.
Pierce Stocking Drive has several spectacular overlooks with views of the Glen Lakes, the Sleeping Bear Dunes, and Lake Michigan. One of our favorite dune hikes is the Cottonwood Trail. If you go, be sure to bring lots of water and wear sunscreen; it’s easy to get sunburned along this trail due to lack of shade and sun reflecting on the sand.
One of the most spectacular dune views on the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive is the Lake Michigan Overlook. After you park your car, take a short walk along the top of the dunes to the viewing platform. The wooden platform extends over the bluff and is simply breathtaking. If the weather is cool enough, bring a camp chair to enjoy the views or simply stand on the wooden platform. It is entertaining to watch eager enthusiasts slide down the hill to the crashing waves below, then slowly trudge back up the steep dunes (it’s not as easy as it may look at first glance!). Tip: sunsets from the Lake Michigan Overlook are outstanding.
Want more weekend travel inspiration? Lubec, Maine is the perfect offbeat destination for your next northeastern adventure.