This post may contain affiliate links. We may earn compensation when you click on the links at no additional cost to you.
Planning a visit to explore Michigan’s beautiful coastline? Look no further than this Sleeping Bear Dunes Travel Guide. Why?
The state has 3,288 miles of coast, the most freshwater coastline of any state. The only state with more coastline of any kind is Alaska!
With that being said, one of the best spots to explore on Michigan’s coasts is Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. This Complete Sleeping Bear Dunes Travel Guide will provide you will all the information you need to know to plan your epic trip to the beautiful lakeshore.
Those looking for anything from relaxing water activities to backcountry camping to history to adventure will find something to suit their tastes here, and more!
Do you only have one day in Sleeping Bear Dunes? Then just check out the highlights, and use this guide to come back and explore more deeply later.
Without further delay, we’ll begin with our ultimate Sleeping Bear Dunes Travel Guide.
Historical Sleeping Bear Dunes
Native Americans were the original inhabitants of the area, and they lived off of the land with minimal impact for many, many years.
After settlers descended upon the area surrounding Sleeping Bear Dunes, the land transitioned to be used for logging until 1910, when all the lumber was gone and it was essentially destroyed.
Many small logging towns of a few hundred people dotted the shores. Then, when the lumber was gone, the people who remained behind transitioned to farming, managing orchards, and tourism to sustain themselves.
Finding shipwreck remnants on the beaches is also quite common, due to the currents and always changing sand. Many of the remnants cannot be traced to any particular vessel. A shipwreck can also be found off the coast of South Manitou Island.
The Legend of the Sleeping Bear
The legend of Sleeping Bear Dunes, on the other hand, comes from the stories passed on through the Anishinaabe people of the area.
Originating from one of the largest dunes, which used to resemble a “sleeping bear,” was said to be the mother bear.
One story tells a tale of hunger across Lake Michigan in Wisconsin, and a mother bear and two cubs who left the area to find better food. Another says that the reason for the bears leaving was a terrible fire.
In both, after walking quite a distance along the beaches, they were growing hungry and decided to swim.
Just 10 miles from shore, even though they could see land, the cubs grew tired and drowned, one right after another.
The mother bear could do nothing, but she was heartbroken. She swam to shore, laid down, and kept watch over where her babies had died.
The two islands eternally represent the two cubs, and the large dune on the mainland is the mother bear.
How Much Time Do You Need To Explore Sleeping Bear Dunes?
While you could certainly explore a few of the most popular sites in a one-day visit, we’d recommend planning at least a weekend to explore the area more thoroughly.
Many of the most popular hiking trails lead to views of Lake Michigan, which also involve climbing up hills, to the top of the dunes, in the sand.
Trudging in the sand will most likely slow you down and you’ll tire more quickly, so don’t plan all of your hiking for one day!
Also, another popular attraction, the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive, can become quite busy during summer weekends.
We were able to motor through in a couple of morning hours but would plan double the time for a busy afternoon.
For those outdoor adventure lovers taking things more slowly, you could spend a week exploring all of the corners of Sleeping Bear Dunes.
Cost To Visit Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore
There is a fee for entrance into Sleeping Bear Dunes. This is not charged at a ticket booth in many areas, but signage is clear in parking areas and trailheads that are fee for use areas.
The $25 pass will gain you and everyone else in your car access to the Lakeshore for up to one week for a private vehicle.
Motorcycles visiting will be required to pay a $20 fee, and those on foot or bicycle should pay the $15 pass fee.
If you plan to visit for longer than one week, an annual pass can be purchased for $45.
You’ll need to display the receipt or the pass on your dash when parking in any of the lots for the attractions or trailheads.
Passes can be purchased year-round at the visitor’s center or seasonally at the campgrounds, entrance stations like the one at the Dune Climb, or at multiple self-pay fee canisters scattered around the park.
Things To Do In Sleeping Bear Dunes
Tons of wide, open spaces are available to explore, from beaches and dunes, to rivers and forests. Here is your Sleeping Bear Dunes travel guide with all of the activities and things to do in the area.
Getting around the National Lakeshore is quite easy with the free map provided by the NPS. Find it at the Visitor’s Centers, campgrounds, and some of the trailheads. The Visitor’s Center is your best bet to be sure they will be in stock.
Enjoy the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive
One of the most popular activities in Sleeping Bear Dunes is the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive.
The 7.4 mile-long loop winds through wooded areas, but it also provides sweeping views of the Dunes.
Named for the lumberman who first began offering public tours on the drive, you’ll see a beautiful old covered bridge, various stages of forest growth, and multiple lake overlooks.
Access hiking on the Cottonwood Trail from the drive, as well. The Cottonwood Trail is a 1.4-mile hike with views of the dunes, D.H. Day Farm, and stunning Lake Michigan.
Stops are numerically labeled and there is a guide with more information to go along with the stops. Some take more time than others, but you can go through at your own pace.
Bicycles are also permitted on the drive, but not recommended for casual riders due to the elevation changes and tight turns. Walking along the road is also not recommended.
A park entrance pass is required to enter, and a ticket booth is situated at the beginning of the drive.
Take Advantage of Impressive Hiking
On the mainland, there are 13 separate hiking trails for you to enjoy.
Add hiking around the Manitou Islands, and you could be at it for quite a long time. Around 100 miles of trails are available for use in Sleeping Bear Dunes.
Some of the most popular, including the Dune Climb, Sleeping Bear Point, and Pyramid Point include covering some ground in loose sand. Other trails wander through wooded lands.
Many of them lead to amazing views and lookout points.
Our Sleeping Bear Dunes hiking guide will help you familiarize yourself with all the different terrain, mileage, and points of interest for each trail.
Each has its own charm, and if you have the time, plan to explore them all! For most, you would be able to cover a couple of trails per day.
Explore the Manitou Islands
From May through September, to get away from the crowds exploring the mainland attractions, catch the ferry over to the Manitou Islands.
A more remote area of the park, the Manitous are a great place to hike, backpack, and backcountry camp.
You must obtain a permit ahead of time. Ferry tickets can also be purchased ahead of time.
South Manitou is the more developed of the two, with a lighthouse to explore and 3 separate primitive campgrounds.
North Manitou is the larger of the two islands, with one primitive campground near the dock and plenty of opportunities to camp in the designated wilderness areas.
Campfires are typically allowed in fire rings, but only use dead and down wood found on the islands.
Bike the Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail
Other than on the roads, the only spot to ride your bicycle in Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is on the Heritage Trail.
This multipurpose trail is planned to cover 27 miles when complete from County Road 651 in the north to the Leelanau/Benzie County line at Manning Road, which is south of Empire.
Currently, nearly 22 miles are completed, connecting Empire and its attractions to Glen Arbor.
The trail is close to many attractions, including the Dune Climb, Glen Haven, the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive, and other trailheads.
Although cycling is a popular activity on the trail, it is multipurpose, so you will also find people walking, running, and rollerblading. Much is paved and wheelchair accessible.
The exception to this is the 3-mile section traveling through the Port Oneida Historic District, which is gravel.
Choose to ride just a few miles between attractions or bike the whole trail. Whichever route you choose, this is a great way to break up all the sand hiking and beach exploring.
Take a Canoe or Kayak Trip
Canoeing, kayaking, and even tubing down the river are all popular activities for all ages while visiting Sleeping Bear Dunes.
Opportunities exist near both campgrounds, at both ends of the National Lakeshore.
Riverside Canoe Trips on the Platte River or Crystal River Outfitters provides rentals for outings. These outfitters offer everything from lazy river tube rides to adrenaline-pumping fast water kayak adventures.
Head to the Upper Platte for an arm workout on fast water, maneuvering tighter turns and low-hanging branches. According to the tour company, canoes have a 50% tip over rate, so plan that you may get wet! Although the water is not deep at an average of 2-3 feet, the swift current is an adventure for the average kayaker.
The Lower Platte and the Crystal River are more family-friendly adventures floating on the river.
Plan at least a few hours to half of a day for this activity, which is another great way to give your legs a break and break up all of the sand hiking.
Take In A Beautiful Lake Michigan Sunset
Being that much of the view off into Lake Michigan faces west, there are so many opportunities here to view a beautiful sunset over the Great Lakes.
Some spots require a hike, while others are virtually drive up.
For a beautiful hike, take the Sleeping Bear Point Trail out over the dunes. You can either hike down to the beach or take in the stunning scenes from the top of the dunes.
For a less crowded spot, hike the Old Indian Trail in the southern part of the park to a less-visited beach to relax.
If you’re staying at the Platte River Campground, hike the trail beginning in the campground down to the beach for a relatively short hike with views close to your resting place for the night.
Alternatively, although likely busy, there are beautiful views from multiple points on the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive with minimal hiking.
It is definitely worth planning to hike one of these beautiful trails or seek out one of these spots to take in the colorful sky over the dunes.
Visit the Port Oneida Rural Historic District
Take a look back at what Midwestern farm life was like in the 1800s and 1900s. Farmhouses, barns, silos, and more all sit on their original land.
More than 20 farms and other points of interest are scattered around Port Oneida.
Begin your visit at the Port Oneida Farms Heritage Center, which is located in the old farmhouse of Charles and Hattie Olsen.
You’ll learn both about the life of this particular family as well as the general lifestyle of those living in the surrounding homes. At its peak, this was a cooperative group of tight-knit farmers working together.
From the Heritage Center, hike, bike, or drive around the area to see many of the other farm structures.
Also, during the first weekend in August, the area hosts a fair and brings even more life to the area with exhibits and live demonstrations.
Visit the Glen Haven Historic District Village
Alternatively, for a look into what it was like to live in a port town, check out the Glen Haven village.
This spot was historically a stopover for ships passing through the Great Lakes to resupply with fuel. Buildings still standing include the General Store, the Blacksmith Shop, and the Cannery Boathouse.
The Blacksmith Shop and Cannery are open to the public during the summer consistently from Memorial Day to Labor Day and sporadically through the fall.
In the Blacksmith Shop, expect to see a blacksmith exercising his craft of turning a piece of iron into something functional.
The Cannery Boathouse, on the other hand, displays some of the boats that were historically used around the Manitou Islands and the village of Glen Haven. The Boathouse was also once home to a cherry cannery for a period of time, hence the name.
Spend a little time just wandering through the walkways in the historic area.
Make a Pit Stop at the Inspiration Point Overlook
Overlooking Glen Lake, a beautiful, vibrant blue lake in the area, is a roadside overlook. Pull off and spend a few minutes enjoying the view. A small bench fashioned from rocks faces the views as well.
Although this would be just a brief stop, it’s worth the 10-minute detour.
Head east on 616 from M-22. The horseshoe-shaped pull-off will be on the left in about 1.5 miles.
This stop is also well marked on the free Sleeping Bear Dunes maps provided at the visitor’s centers and some of the trailheads.
Try A Cherry Dish
In the nearby town of Glen Arbor, a whole restaurant is dedicated to all things cherry, an important agricultural product to this corner of Michigan.
This small corner of Michigan is the largest producer of cherries in the US!
Although they have multiple locations, check out the original Cherry Republic for all things cherry, including baked goods, jams, jellies, beers, wines, and ciders.
Grab a few snacks, like dried cherries, trail mixes, and chocolate-covered varieties, to take home with you.
What are morels, you ask? They’re a type of mushroom found in Sleeping Bear Dunes and the surrounding areas.
A popular activity in the spring during the months of April and May is to go foraging for them.
They are notoriously elusive, and if you happen upon a small patch of them, consider yourself lucky. Frying them up with some butter, salt, and pepper for a snack is a tasty treat.
Here are some general rules and tips prior to heading out on your foraging adventure:
- Bring a bag with holes, like an onion bag. These will allow the morels to shed their spores as you walk and allow them to hopefully grow in the area in the future.
- Wear clean shoes through the woods of the National Lakeshore. The last thing you want to do is carry an invasive species into the area and cause harm.
- The park does limit each person to harvesting one gallon of morels per day, and all collection must be done by hand.
- Any morels gathered in the National Lakeshore must be for personal consumption. No commercial use!
- Don’t gather all of the morels in a particular area. Leave a few so that they may spread out, continuing to grow and produce more.
- Be sure to know what you are looking for! There are some look-alikes out there, and they may be poisionous.
How To Get To Sleeping Bear Dunes
For those flying in to visit the area, the closest airport to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is in Traverse City.
From the airport in Traverse City, you’ll have to drive about 45 minutes west to reach the National Lakeshore.
The best way to get around Sleeping Bear Dunes is to drive, so renting a car would be beneficial.
Alternatively, begin from Grand Rapids, exploring the lakefront towns on a 3-hour drive up Route 31.
Detroit is about 4.5 hours away by car, and coming from Chicago requires about 5.5 hours of driving.
If you’d like to spread out the driving from Chicago, spend an evening exploring Grand Rapids on your way!
Where To Stay When Visiting Sleeping Bear Dunes
There is an option to suit any need when visiting Sleeping Bear Dunes.
From backcountry primitive campsites to modern RV hookups, cabins, and hotels are also lodging options in the area.
Settle into one space for the duration of your visit or move around to experience the whole spectrum!
There are two campgrounds located within Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.
D.H. Day Campground is located more to the north, near the Glen Haven Historic Village.
The D.H. Day Campground is the more rustic of the two, with vault toilets and no electric hookups.
There are 87 total sites, with some being tent only and walk-in sites.
Platte River Campground, on the other hand, is larger and has 179 campsites.
A wider variety of sites can be found here, including nearly 100 with electric hookups and 25 hike-in sites.
Platte River does have flush toilets and showers available to campers, as well.
D.H. Day is a seasonal campground, open from the last Friday in April to the last Sunday in November, while Platte River is open year-round.
Reservations can be made up to 6 months in advance for individual sites in each of these campgrounds.
We have stayed at Platte River in the walk-in area, and although the sites are wooded, you are still able to see multiple other tents through the trees from many of the sites. There are bear lockers, though, to protect your food and toiletries from any creatures.
White Pine Backcountry Camp
Not far from the Platte River Campground, a few backcountry sites are available for those looking for a backpacking experience but have little time to do it.
There are 6 sites in the White Pine Backcountry area.
During the summer, head to the Platte River Campground Ranger Station to obtain a permit or get one from the Philip A. Hart Visitor Center any other time of the year.
Begin at the Trail’s End Road trailhead of the Platte Plains Trail between Otter and Bass Lakes. You’ll then have to hike about 2 miles to reach the campsites.
Plan to either pack in plenty of water or prepare to treat it out of Lake Michigan, which is about 0.5 miles from the camp area.
Backcountry Camping on the Manitou Islands
For those with a little more time and desire for adventure, take the Manitou Island Ferry or private boat over to one of the islands.
South Manitou Island has more organized campgrounds, able to accommodate 52 individual groups and 6 large groups spread out over three areas.
North Manitou Island, on the other hand, has 8 designated campsites. There are more camping opportunities, though, around the island in the designated wilderness.
It is recommended to book ferry rides in advance. Those with a ticket for the ferry will also have a campsite available, though the sites are first-come, first-served.
There are plenty of options scattered throughout the area for accommodations in cabins or lake cottages.
This would be a great option for families or larger groups, or those staying a little longer and looking to cook some of their own meals in a kitchen.
VRBO has a ton of options and may be a good place to start your search.
A few small hotels and motels are situated near the National Lakeshore for those looking for more creature comforts during their stay.
For a chain hotel, you’ll probably have to head back to Traverse City, 30-45 minutes east.
As one of our trips was planned somewhat last minute, we found a room at the M22 Inn Empire.
We found the king room with a pull-out sofa to be spacious and the bed quite comfortable. A small family would have plenty of space.
With the location being very important, we found it to be very close to the Pierce Stockton Scenic Drive, Dune Climb, and Glen Arbor.
Final Things To Know Before You Go
- Many of the hiking trails include trekking in loose sand. Even though sand in your shoes can be a pain, the sand can get quite hot in the sunshine. Walking any distance barefoot would be quite difficult, so plan footwear accordingly.
- The campgrounds here are popular, so planning your trip in advance can help secure a spot. If you are planning last minute, still check if you’d like to stay. Others’ plans are always changing, and you just might luck out!
- Having a car to get around the National Lakeshore is a must. If you’re flying in to a nearby airport, be sure to secure a rental. You’ll be able to see much more that way.
- Again, there is a fee to visit the Lakeshore, park in any of the trailhead parking lots, etc. If you haven’t gotten the pass prior to your arrival, be sure to promptly do so! They do check!
Wrapping Up our Sleeping Bear Dunes Travel Guide
Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is a beautiful, but a popular spot to visit in Michigan. With such a range of activities, it is easy to see why it appeals to so many.
Hike through the sand, enjoy beautiful views, swim in Lake Michigan, or float down the river in a kayak. Whatever your preference, you’ll be able to find something to enjoy at Sleeping Bear Dunes.
Want to plan a trip to another of the beautiful National Lakeshores in the US? Check out our guides to Pictured Rocks and the Apostle Islands. Even though Indiana Dunes has graduated to a National Park, this park still gets an honorable mention here, as it is quite similar to Sleeping Bear.
Have you paid a visit to Sleeping Bear Dunes? If you have, let us know your favorite part in the comments. If you haven’t, what part of our Sleeping Bear Dunes travel guide makes you most excited to go? Let us know!