The Absolute Best Sleeping Bear Dunes Day Trip Itinerary

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Are you planning a visit to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, and you just don’t know where to start? It is easy to be overwhelmed. There is so much to do in the area!

First, you should know how long you have to spend on your visit. Whether it is one day or one week, you can certainly fill your time.

You can definitely see some of the highlights of Sleeping Bear Dunes on a day trip, but a trip this short will probably leave you wanting more.

This itinerary covers one day in Sleeping Bear Dunes. It is going to be a very busy day. Get plenty of sleep and bring plenty of snacks.

If you have more time to spend exploring the lakeshore, the complete guide to Sleeping Bear Dunes will give you more ideas to fill your days with adventure.

But a Sleeping Bear Dunes day trip? What should you do? We’d say catch the highlights, fill in the gaps, and hope you find another time to visit again!

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore: Where is it?

Sleeping Bear Dunes is located on the northwestern side of Michigan’s mitten, or the hand-shaped part of the state. The lakeshore sits on the edge of Lake Michigan. The closest city (with an airport for access) is Traverse City, about 30 minutes to the east.

What Should You Do With Only One Day at Sleeping Bear Dunes?

You can certainly spend multiple days in the area, and it will take multiple days to do all the things there are to do within the national lakeshore, but you can see the highlights in one day.

While this will likely only ignite your desire to explore more, even one day is a good amount of time to get your feet wet and appreciate what Sleeping Bear Dunes has to offer.

Keep in mind that many of these spots are easy to access and are popular, so we’ve taken both that and drive times into account in the recommended order.

Here we go! Here is the best way to get the most out of your day trip to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.

It’s going to be a packed day, so you’re going to want to start early!

Start by Tackling the Dune Climb

Time: 1 hour
The Dune Climb is one of the most popular activities in Sleeping Bear Dunes and starts off with this massive sandy climb.

Begin your day in Sleeping Bear Dunes with this hike on the Dune Climb for 3 reasons. 

  1. It is located toward the northern end of the lakeshore, so it is the most time efficient.
  2. This area gets busy! There will be fewer visitors earlier in the day.
  3. On warm summer days, the sand on the dunes gets very warm. Conquering the dune climb before the afternoon heat will be much more comfortable.

You can choose to tackle the whole climb up to the top of the dune, or you can simply admire others who are climbing while you stand at the bottom. 

If you’d like to continue on the whole way to the edge of Lake Michigan, that is possible, too! While we wouldn’t recommend continuing on during just a one-day visit, the possibility is there.

Get in a Bike Ride

Time: 1 hour
Multipurpose asphalt surface of the Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail in Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore

Use this as double duty! The Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail is a great paved bike path.

The best part is that it connects you between the Dune Climb and Glen Haven, next on your itinerary. 

It’s about 2.5 miles, one way, between the two. We allowed one hour for the entire ride to and from the village.

While this is just a short section of the bike trail, this is just a taste of Sleeping Bear Dunes, too.

If you don’t have a bike or do not enjoy riding, you are welcome to drive between the two attractions. They’re only a few minutes apart by car.

Go Back in Time at Glen Haven

Time: 1 hour

While in the northern areas, make a short stop to visit the Glen Haven Historic Village. You’ll be able to learn about the history of the area, and living along the coast of one of the Great Lakes.

A general store, a boathouse, and a blacksmith shop are some of the highlights.

The boathouse and blacksmith shop are both typically open to visitors from Memorial Day to Labor Day from 11-5.

Take a Hike!

Time: 1 hour
One of the most popular views on any Sleeping Bear Dunes Travel Guide

There are many beautiful spots for hiking in Sleeping Bear Dunes, but you can’t cover them all in one day.

A short hike that provides a lot of bang for your buck can be found on the Empire Bluff Trail.

It is only 1.5 miles long in total, and the hike leads to a stunning view over Lake Michigan from the boardwalk. 

While the trail is easy to follow from the trailhead, the terrain is hilly, so plan appropriate footwear. Flip flops wouldn’t be a good idea on those inclines!

Get on the Water

Time: 3-4 hours

There are plenty of options for getting out on the water in Sleeping Bear Dunes.

For this itinerary, though, we’ll choose to take an adventure down the Platte River. 

Take a canoe, kayak, paddleboard, or intertube from the outfitters located just off of M-22 at Riverside Canoe Trips.

From the outfitters, you can float down the Lower Platte on your chosen method of transportation. End your trip at the beach on Lake Michigan after the float and plan to enjoy more time in the sun!

While this isn’t the most thrilling, adventurous activity to do in the area, floating down the Platte is a great way to enjoy a few hours in Sleeping Bear Dunes, especially if it is a hot day.

Plan to spend the entire afternoon on the water.

Spend Some Time on the Beach

Time: 1+ hours
Sleeping Bear Dunes beach on Lake Michigan

After you finish your float to Lake Michigan, you are welcome to spend as much time as you’d like enjoying the beach.

Spend as much or as little time as you’d like enjoying this activity, but do be sure to take in the Lake Michigan views.

The waters in the lake are so clear. On a bright, sunny day, the colors can appear so blue.

Whether you want to spend 2 minutes on the beach taking in the view or 2 hours in the sun and sand, this is not something on the itinerary to outrightly skip.

Take the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive

Time: 2-3 hours
a wooden platform overlook along the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive

We’re going to end the day at the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive. It can get busy during the middle of the day, so you’ll spend a lot of time waiting in a line of traffic. Not the best way to spend your time! It’s better to wait until the heavy mid-day traffic clears.

There are multiple stops along the drive.

Some stops include spectacular overlooks or viewpoints. Others can be used as trailheads to explore further. 

The entire driving route is nearly 8 miles long, but you will not be moving quickly along the route. Make sure you have enough gas in your tank, as there is nowhere along the route to refill.

Ending your day in Sleeping Bear Dunes with the scenic drive is perfect. If you have extra time, take a hike. If you’re short on time, just stop and take in the views. 

No matter what, this is a fantastic place to take in a Lake Michigan sunset.

Don’t Want to Navigate a Day Trip Yourself?

Fear not! You have options! A great way to see Sleeping Bear Dunes in one day is by hiring a driver and taking a tour!

These professionals will make sure that you are on a pace to see all of the things you wish to see on the itinerary.

Choose a tour to leave from Traverse City and leave the rest including driving, parking, meals, and the rest of the itinerary, to the professionals!

Book your Sleeping Bear Dunes Day Trip Tour here!

Tips for Planning Your Sleeping Bear Dunes Day Trip

The number one tip I can offer you is to make sure you have your park entrance pass purchased and on hand prior to entering the borders of the national lakeshore.

The pass costs $25 and is good for one car for up to 7 days. You’ll have to show it at any staffed booths upon entry to parking areas and display it on your dashboard at all others.

I’ve heard that rangers do check for passes at parking lots, and tickets can be pricey. I wouldn’t take the chance! Plus, the money goes back to help with park maintenance and improvements.

While there are a couple of small towns along the routes through the park, many areas do not have great cell phone coverage. Make sure you have any necessary maps or information downloaded ahead of time or risk wasting precious time driving around to find service!

The visitor center, located just off of the M-22 in Empire, has plenty of maps and informational brochures if your style is navigation by paper map or if you’d just like one as a souvenir!

Sleeping Bear Dunes is one of those places where you will never want to leave. The Lake Michigan views are breathtaking, the sand is soft, and the summer breeze is warm.

There are hiking trails throughout the park, and if you’re lucky enough to catch a nice breeze on top of a large sand dune, you’ll feel like you’re on top of the world. You might even forget that you’re in Michigan.

You just have to see the lakeshore for yourself to believe it, and you can begin with a day trip to Sleeping Bear Dunes. Have you visited yet?