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Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore Guide — Camping, Dune Climb, and More

Amar Hussain's image
Amar Hussain
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Amar Hussain

Senior Content Contributor

816 Published Articles

Countries Visited: 63U.S. States Visited: 9

Amar is an avid traveler and tester of products. He has spent the last 13 years traveling all 7 continents and has put the products to the test on each of them. He has contributed to publications incl...
Edited by: Keri Stooksbury
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Keri Stooksbury


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With years of experience in corporate marketing and as the executive director of the American Chamber of Commerce in Qatar, Keri is now editor-in-chief at UP, overseeing daily content operations and r...

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Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is an incredible place to explore. This park features miles and miles of sandy beaches, towering bluffs overlooking Lake Michigan, verdant forests, and crystal-clear inland lakes.

This park has endless opportunities for recreation, such as hiking, kayaking, swimming, and exploring historic locations. Approximately 1.5 million visitors visit this park annually to explore and discover the beauty and wonder within its boundaries. 

How To Get to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore

Where Is Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore?

This national lakeshore is located along the northwest coast of the lower peninsula in Michigan in the town of Empire. Traverse City is 25 miles to the east of the park and is the closest major city. This park stretches over 35 miles of Lake Michigan shoreline, encompassing lush forests, large lakes, beaches, and dunes. 

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore Opening Hours and Seasons

The park is open year-round; the only exceptions to this schedule include federal holidays such as New Year’s Day, Christmas Day, and Thanksgiving Day.

While the park is open year-round, some of its facilities may be closed throughout the year. It is essential to check the park’s website before setting out to ensure you are visiting when all you want to see and experience is open. 

Nearest Airports to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore

Several airport options can get you close to the lakeshore. From 30 miles to 120 miles, there are at least 5 options for you to choose from if you prefer flying into the park area. Take a look at some of the closest options for flying into this part of Michigan. 

Manistee Co. Blacker Airport (MBL)

Manistee Co. Blacker Airport is one of the closest airport options to the park and is located approximately 59 miles away. 

This airport option doesn’t have as many options for flights and airlines, but several options may work in your favor. This airport exclusively services American and United. With over 150 connecting destinations around the globe, it is easy to see why so many travelers choose to fly into this airport. 

Traverse City Airport (TVC)

Traverse City Airport is 33 miles from the park and is the closest and most convenient airport. This airport provides nonstop service to 17 different cities across the U.S. Some of the airlines serviced by this airport include Allegiant, American, Delta, Sun Country, and United. 

Driving to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore

Driving to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore
Image Credit: AJ Yorio via Unsplash

Different routes can be taken to arrive at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. Those coming from the south (Detroit or Chicago areas) can use US-31, US-131, US-27, M-37, or I-75 to get to Traverse City and then take M-72 to Empire.

Those coming from the north (Michigan’s Upper Peninsula) can take I-75 or US-31 south to Traverse City and then west on M-72 to Empire. 

Taking the Train to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore

There is no train service to this Michigan park.

Taking the Bus to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore

For visitors who enjoy letting someone else take over the driving, a bus is a great way to arrive at the park. There is a local bus service from Traverse City to Empire. Bus travel is a wonderful way to reduce stress and save money simultaneously. 

Getting Around Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore

The best way to get around at this park is to drive. There are also several hiking trails for those who want to do the bulk of their adventures on foot. The National Park Service offers printable and interactive maps to help you plan your itinerary. 

What To See and Do in Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore

There are dozens of things to see and do at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. From hiking trails to sightseeing in historic villages, there’s excitement and adventure everywhere you turn. Let’s explore some of this Michigan park’s top activities and sights.

Dune Climb

Dune Climb
Image Credit: Terry Phipps via NPS

The Dune Climb is one of the most popular park activities and can be enjoyed by visitors of any age. This plateau is a vast area formed over the years by rolling glaciers. Most visitors climb to the first expansive plateau, about a 10-minute climb. Many visitors will swim, hike, picnic, and soak in the sun’s rays in this park area.

Hot Tip:

Planning ahead and visiting this area with plenty of water and sunscreen is essential. The Dune Center is at the base of the Dune Climb and offers a place for visitors to shop in the bookstore, take a break from the heat, and use the restrooms.

Glenn Haven Village

Glenn Haven Village is a small village on the shoreline of Lake Michigan. When visiting this park area, it feels like you are stepping back in time to when small villages and docks would supply fuel to steamers traveling along the Great Lakes.

This area features the best-preserved cordwood station along the eastern shore of Lake Michigan, and many argue that it is the best in all the Great Lakes.

Glen Haven General Store

When visiting this area, you can stop in at the historic Glen Haven General Store and see what shopping was like in the 1920s. Some of the merchandise on display includes food, toys, maritime-related items, kitchenware, and books.

Cannery Boathouse

The Cannery Boathouse is also in the Glenn Haven area. This building was first used as a warehouse and then a cannery for cherries in the early 1920s but has recently been converted into a museum for storing historic boats. Visitors can visit the Cannery Boathouse Museum and learn more about the boats that once were used around Glen Haven and the Manitou Islands.

Blacksmith Shop

The Blacksmith Shop is another exciting area to visit in this village. This 1920s shop has been fully restored and offers demonstrations where a blacksmith creates useful items. This interactive exhibit allows visitors to interact with the blacksmith and learn more about this fascinating trade or the history of this area.

Hiking Trails

Pyramid Point Trail
Image Credit: NPS

There are around 100 miles of hiking trails in the park. There are 13 trails on the mainland, which are maintained for hiking, cross-country skiing, and snowshoeing. Each hiking trail has a parking area for your vehicle before you set out on your adventures.

The trails range from leisurely strolls to strenuous treks, and there are trails for every age and ability level. Some of the hiking trails in the park include the Old Indian Trail, Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail, Platte Plains, and Kettles Trail. One of the best ways to take in the beauty and scenery of this park is by hiking the trails that wind through its boundaries. 

Scenic Drive

An activity that should be at the top of your must-experience list is the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive. This 7.4-mile loop drive takes visitors through the Beech-Maple forest near the sand dunes and teaches about the area’s history by visiting some of the vegetative communities within the park.

This drive provides stunning views from overlooks that showcase the Glen Lakes, the Sleeping Bear Dunes, and Lake Michigan. Along the drive, there are plenty of places to park, so you can get out and explore on foot or set up a picnic to enjoy a meal with a spectacular view. 

Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail

The Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail is a fantastic way to explore this park. Many visitors bike, hike, or skate through this park area, as it’s the best way to get to the highlight areas within the park. This 22-mile trail connects the park to the surrounding towns, such as Glen Arbor and Port Oneida Rural Historic District. 

USLSS Maritime Museum

USLSS Maritime Museum
Image Credit: NPS

The USLSS Maritime Museum is the perfect place to visit if you want to learn about the history of the U.S. Coast Guard, the U.S. Life-Saving Service, and Great Lakes shipping. Located west of Glen Haven, it offers educational exhibits about the importance of this area in the past.

Visitors can walk through the boathouse next to the museum to see what the equipment looked like in the early 1900s. One prominent feature in this area is the Lyle Gun, which was used to retrieve crews on stranded ships by firing a rescue line from the shore. 

Visitor Centers

5 locations serve as visitor centers in the area. These centers are located in various areas of the park, and each offers exhibits, bookstores, artifacts, and opportunities to chat with rangers.

The visitor centers include the Philip A. Hart Visitor Center, the South Manitou Island Visitor Center, the Port Oneida Heritage Center, the Glen Haven General Store, and the Dune Center. Several of these centers are in historic buildings, so you won’t see the same thing in each building.

Bottom Line:

These centers are a great place to start your park adventures with endless opportunities to learn about the cultural and natural history of the park.

Best Times To Visit Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is a phenomenal place to visit, no matter what time of year you can make it to the park. Some times are better than others, depending on what you want to see and do during your visit. Let’s look at some of the top sights and activities at this national lakeshore.

Best Time To Visit Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore for Beach Fun

July is the best time to visit this park to enjoy fun on the beach. This is the warmest month throughout the year, with temperatures ranging from the low 60s to the mid-70s. While this is the best time to enjoy the beach, it is also one of the most crowded times, so keep in mind that you will experience heavier traffic and many people in the park. 

Best Time To Visit Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore To Avoid the Crowds

A vacation without crowds may sound like a dream, but it can be a reality with proper planning. Mid- to late September is the best time to enjoy this park without crowds. After Labor Day and summer vacationers, the park sees a dip in visitation, making it the perfect time to visit. 

Best Time To Visit Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore for Fall Foliage

Fall Colors at Windy Moraine
Image Credit: NPS

Fall is a beautiful time of year at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. If you want to visit and see the vibrant colors throughout this park, plan to come in mid-October. Not only are the trees showcasing their bold hues, but the temperature is ideal. Daily highs reach the mid-50s, and the lows are in the lower 40s.

Cheapest Time To Visit Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore

The cheapest time to visit this park is once school has returned to session and after Labor Day. A mid- to late September visit has the potential to save hundreds of dollars. During this time of year, flight and accommodation rates are typically reduced. 

Annual Events in Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore has a long list of regularly scheduled programs, including horse, wagon, bike, and driving tours and garden programs.

Several annual programs take place at this amazing park.

Port Oneida Fair

The Port Oneida Fair is presented annually in August and is an event that is looked forward to by locals and visitors alike. This fair takes you back in time to the late 1800s and early 1900s.

The event features over 60 demonstrators eager to show skills of the pioneer days, like basket weaving, butter making, spinning, and crafting hand tools. Visitors are encouraged to participate to get the full pioneer experience. 

Port Oneida Run

The Port Oneida Run takes place annually in August and features a 5K, 10K, and half marathon.

Race participants can choose from 3 scenic courses throughout the entire historic district of Sleeping Bear Dunes and enjoy the gorgeous scenery of the 1800s farms, hills, and shorelines. The proceeds from this event support the preservation of this park. 

Where To Stay in Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore

One of the top things to do when planning a vacation is to decide where to stay during your trip. When visiting Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, your options are abundant. Check out some of the top places to stay.

Inside the Park

There aren’t any overnight accommodations within the boundaries of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, but campgrounds are available for those who want to sleep under the stars. Each campground has helpful amenities and beautiful sites to make your trip memorable.

D.H. Day Campground

D.H. Day Campground is in the northern region of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. This campground is nestled in the woods and is one of the most popular campgrounds in northern Michigan.

Fire rings and vault toilets are available at this campground, and the location is perfect for those who want to access Dune Climb, Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive, and the historic village and museums in Glen Haven. Reservations can be made in advance, and all sites are available on a first-come, first-served basis.

During the summer months, rangers lead evening programs each night at the historic log cabin or the campground amphitheater and share stories of local folklore, information about the lakeshore’s environment, or share slideshows that showcase the stunning natural views inside the park. There are also wonderful campground activities for campers to enjoy. 

Platte River Campground

Platte River Campground is 10 miles south of Empire on Lake Michigan Road and is open year-round on a first-come, first-serve basis.

This campground features a variety of camping options, such as R.V. sites with electrical hookups, tent sites, walk-in sites, and group sites for up to 25 people. Some amenities at Platte River Campground include fire rings, flush toilets, and hot showers. 

Towns Near Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore

If camping within the boundaries of Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore isn’t your style, don’t worry. There are plenty of places to make your home base near the park. Check out some of the best towns near this park to see if one of these options may work better for your vacation needs. 

Benzie County, Michigan

Benzie County is 24 miles from the park and has an abundance of small towns, beautiful forests, and lake views that will take your breath away. Benzie County is the perfect place to escape from daily responsibilities and busy schedules and enjoy a quiet retreat when visiting Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.

No matter what accommodation style you prefer, you will find excellent options, including traditional hotels, affordable motels, all-inclusive resorts, cabins, cottages, private rentals, and bed and breakfasts.

Food enthusiasts are in for a treat when staying in this area. There are countless options for dining, including cafes, microbreweries, and authentic cultural cuisine. A visitor favorite is the old-fashioned drive-in, where carhops bring your food right to your car. 

Benzie County is brimming with arts and culture, historic attractions, and incredible shopping opportunities. Still, there are also several other fantastic places to visit, including the Oliver Art Center, Point Betsie Lighthouse, Fantail Farm, and the Interlochen Center for Arts. There are also options for adventure seekers, including ziplining courses, alpine slides, and adventure courses.

Bottom Line:

You can’t go wrong by choosing to make Benzie County your home base when visiting Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. With several towns available, the options for dining, lodging, and entertainment are endless.

Empire, Michigan

Empire is a small town located along the M-22 scenic highway and is home to the headquarters of this national lakeshore. There are plenty of options for accommodations, lots of places to eat, and adventure and entertainment opportunities galore. 

There’s a vast array of places to lay your head in Empire. From historic inns and lakeview bed and breakfasts to cottage rentals and campgrounds, there’s something for everyone in this town. 

The restaurants are mainly run by local community members and range from charming cafes to farm-fresh dining rooms to taverns. Whether you want a nice sit-down or a quick meal, you can choose from plenty of options in Empire. 

Recreation and entertainment abound in this city. This city has several historic sites, a lively arts culture, and opportunities for outdoor sports like biking, hiking, and surfing. The shopping scene is also impressive, with artisan shops scattered throughout the city. 

With its proximity to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore and unmatched dining, lodging, and entertainment options, Empire is the ideal choice for a home base when visiting.

Where To Eat in Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore

There aren’t any restaurants within the boundaries of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, but there are plenty of options nearby. No matter what you crave, you can find a solution to your hunger just a few minutes from the park.

Joe’s Friendly Tavern

Joe’s Friendly Tavern is 6 miles from Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in Empire. This award-winning restaurant serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner daily. 

The menu features incredible burgers, gourmet sandwiches, and favorite side items like french fries, onion rings, tater tots, and cole slaw. Customers rave about the mushroom Swiss burger, Joe’s Prime French Dip, and the famous house-made chili. Be sure to stop by this fantastic tavern for a meal you won’t forget when you’re in the area. 

Shipwreck Café

Shipwreck Café is just a few miles from the lakeshore. This spot is a top-rated restaurant near the park, with a fantastic selection of breakfast, lunch, and dinner dishes. 

Wood-fired pizzas, stacked deli sandwiches, fresh salads, and breakfast wraps are just some of the menu items at this café. Some of the most popular dishes include the Three Brothers sandwich, the chicken Caesar salad, and the Lake Serpent pizza.

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore Facts

1. A New Park Established

An Act of Congress established this national lakeshore on October 12, 1970. The purpose of this park was to preserve the natural setting and protect it from future developments.

2. The Original People of the Lakeshore

The original people who made their home in Sleeping Bear Dune National Lakeshore were the Anishinaabe. They used the area for seasonal hunting and settled here permanently after the glaciers began to disappear. Artifacts such as pottery, tools, and weapons have been found in the park area. 

3. What’s in a Name?

This park was named after a dune known as Mother Bear. This dune towers over Lake Michigan and, in the past, looked like a sleeping bear.

The dune was used as a landmark by the Ashininaabek, and they had an interesting story of how the dune came to be in its location. There are 2 different versions of the story of Mother Bear, and they each tell a story of a mother bear who lost her 2 cubs due to a terrible forest fire. The story says they were driven into Lake Michigan and taken in the current. Now, the Mother Bear looks out on the water where her cubs died. 

4. Freshwater Dune

The dunes at this national lakeshore make up the largest freshwater system in the world. The tallest dune stands at 450 feet tall. 

5. Lots of Water

Sleeping Bear Dune National Lakeshore features more water than you expect along the shore. There are 26 inland lakes and 12 miles of rivers and streams throughout the park’s boundaries.

Final Thoughts

From climbing sandy dunes and hiking enchanted trails to visiting historic landmarks and sightseeing quaint villages, this park has no shortage of excitement. Book your trip to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore and discover what entices nearly 1.5 million visitors annually to this Michigan park.

Frequently Asked Questions

How much does it cost to enter Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore?

All visitors must purchase an entrance pass when visiting this park. A private vehicle pass costs $25. For those entering on foot or by bicycle, an entrance pass is $15 per person.

Is there cell service at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore?

Cell service is inconsistent throughout the park. There are plenty of areas with acceptable coverage. Still, many areas have no coverage at all due to their remote locations.

Are there places for bike and boat rentals at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore?

Bikes and boats can be rented in Glen Arbor, and there are a few options to choose from.

Can I bring my dog to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore?

Pets are welcome in this park in many areas. Pet owners must keep their pets leashed at all times, clean up after their waste, and stay in designated pet-friendly areas, primarily on hiking trails and beaches.

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About Amar Hussain

Amar is an avid traveler and tester of products. He has spent the last 13 years traveling all 7 continents and has put the products to the test on each of them. He has contributed to publications including Forbes, the Huffington Post, and more.

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