Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is one of Michigan’s gems! From gorgeous Lake Michigan coastlines to the infamous dunes, this national park is a Pure Michigan must-see. Whether you’re camping, taking a day trip, or hitting up the Northern Michigan area, we’ll help you plan your trip to the dunes with tips and resources to get your visit started.
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Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore
The Legend of the Dunes
Michigan is a state with a rich history that includes many indigenous groups, which is reflected in park and site names and stories – including how the Sleeping Bear Dunes got its name. The history and story of the Dunes come from a Chippewa legend that a fire broke out in Wisconsin, across from Lake Michigan. When it broke out, a momma bear and her two cubs attempted to swim to Michigan to escape the fire. But sadly, the baby bears didn’t make it.
Momma bear made it to the shore and just dropped right there from pure exhaustion. And now there exists a North and South Manitou island – just offshore – and you can see the formations on a clear day from the Sleeping Bear Dunes, which are said to be the two baby bears. And if you look and use your imagination, you can see a silhouette of a mama bear laying with her arms out towards her babies. These stories helped nourish the respect toward the land because many Native American tribes held strong to that tradition.
Location of the Dunes inside Michigan
Sleeping Bear Dunes is located in the northeast region of the lower peninsula. Michigan is separated into two areas – upper (UP) and lower peninsula by the Great Lakes. The park is located right near the Traverse City area. It’s a pretty sprawling park, spanning miles of the shoreline just east of Traverse City, and is open year-round.
The entry price into the park is $25 per vehicle and is valid for a week. If you have an annual pass, it’s included with your access.
The famous dunes draw most people into the park, but there are definitely some things to know about the dunes before arriving.
The dune climb is everyone’s favorite, but they can also be quite deceiving – they are literally sand mountains that shouldn’t be underestimated. The dunes are similar to the desert environment, so make sure your feet are protected. Flip-flops aren’t the best idea and make sure to bring lightweight tennis shoes for the climb. The sand can be extremely hot on your feet on hot days, so being barefoot can be dangerous.
Windy days can also be brutal, with sand whipping you in the face, so make sure to check the weather before heading out. In general, Michigan weather is unpredictable, so dress in layers and be prepared for any type of weather.
There are a few 4-hour hikes that you can take all the way to Lake Michigan, so make sure to bring plenty of water and be prepared for the elements if you’re planning on making the long treks.
Sleeping Bear Dunes Park Activities
Sleeping Bear Dunes is heavily associated with the dunes, but there are actually many places to go and see outside of the dunes, such as beaches, lighthouses, inland lakes, etc. Here are some things to do and see at the site:
Hiking – There are plenty of hiking and paved trails woven throughout the park, so hiking is a great activity.
Biking – Biking is a favorite pastime in the park. There’s a bike rental nearby, so you can rent bikes if you didn’t bring your own and ride along the trails. You can also rent a one-way bike ride and picked up and given a ride back for those who don’t want to do the entire route.
Water Activities – Platt River empties into Lake Michigan, making it a fantastic place to get your water activities on. The water is crystal clear with slow-moving water – perfect for tubing, kayaking, canoeing, and paddleboarding.
Boating – With plenty of nearby docking areas, you’ll see tons of boats out on a summer day.
Is Sleep Bear Dunes Family-Friendly?
Sleeping Bear Dunes is very family-friendly, although there are certain areas less suitable for little ones. Climbing the bigger sand dunes will probably be too much for younger children, so as an alternative, bring sand toys and let them play in the sand instead.
There’s plenty of picnic areas where you will see small animals – birds, squirrels, chipmunks, etc., making it an excellent location for family days out. Short hikes and bike rides are also options for smaller kids with paved trails, as well as strollers and bike trolleys. History lessons are also a great idea for the area, along with a visit to the Visitors Center to learn more about the park and participate in the Jr. Ranger program. And beaches are always a fun idea for kids!
Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail
A popular way to get around and see the various sites within the park is the Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail. The trail is easy and flat – great for all ages and levels. Biking the trail is a great way to spend the day – either with your own bikes or renting bikes in the nearby town of Glenn Arbor. You can also rent a bike-and-ride, with the option to be picked up along the way.
It’s a 2-mile ride to the Glen Haven Village, a town that’s really cool to visit. It’s literally a step back into town where you can see how life was back in the 1920s. The village has been restored to its appearance back in those days.
Contrary to its name, you probably won’t find any bears while at the Dunes, but you will see small creatures such as chipmunks, squirrels, birds, and bats can be seen as well as white-tailed deer, the red fox, porcupine, and raccoons.
Camping is HUGE in Michigan, and many times campsites are reserved months to even a year in advance. There are a few camping options nearby. In the park, there are two campgrounds: Platt River campground and D.H. Day campground, and both are reserved far in advance. You can also tent camp on North and South Manitou islands for a more rustic experience.
Most campsites in Michigan open up at the beginning of January, and people are making summer reservations for the year. There are also other campgrounds nearby, outside the park, including Holiday Park – and a resort near Homestead.
There are also cottage options if you don’t have a camper or trailer and you still want a camping vibe. The closest cities would be Traverse City and Beulah. Timber Ridge RV & Recreation Resort and the Traverse City State Park are great camping options for RV and cabin camping. And Glen Arbor is a great option too.
Tip: Be prepared to be up at 6 am and ready to grab one of those campsites opening day if you’re serious about summer camping.
Planning Your Trip to Sleeping Bear Dunes
Planning a trip to Sleeping Bear Dunes depends greatly on how long the trip will be. Are you going for a day trip, camping, or staying a few days?
For camping trips, the DNR website is a top resource. Any campground reservations inside the park will be made on Michigan’s Department of Natural Resources site.
If you’re planning on flying into the area, the nearest airport is in Traverse City. Northern Michigan is quite rural, so a lot of driving is required. You’ll want to rent a car at the airport and go from there. The Dunes are about a 45-minute drive from Traverse City.
Restaurant choices near the park are a bit limited, so plan on packing a cooler and bringing food/drinks with you for day trips. Good walking shoes, sunscreen, plenty of water, and mosquito spray are all a must for a trip to the park.
Each season offers special qualities, so depending on what season you want, the park will look different. Fall offers spectacular foliage, and people drive up just to see it, whereas summer brings out all the campers and boaters.
The weather in northern Michigan can get tricky because it gets colder than in southern Michigan. It can be nice and warm in the day and cool in the evening and night, so the rule of thumb is to always layer up!
And don’t forget to stop by the visitors center and ask the park rangers for help. They are the best resource you could ever have about the park!
Outside of the park, there is a lot to see or visit in the area.
There are many beaches in the surrounding areas. Esh Road Beach is a great beach near the dunes with its own set of dunes as well. Platt River Beach is another nice one where the river meets Lake Michigan. And when the two water sources come together, it creates lots of shallow pools, which are great for younger kids to play around in. Bonfires are allowed on the beaches, so evenings and nights are a fun time to visit. Stargazing is also incredible up in the north, so that’s also a popular pastime.
North of the dunes is the Leelanau Peninsula, which is really beautiful and is a piece of land that jets out and is surrounded by water. They have some old fishing villages – one called Fish Town – with the original buildings standing. It’s really neat to see, and it’s still active today. It’s also popular for cherries and wine, so you’ll find many wineries to visit.
Traverse City is well-known for its craft beers. There are a lot of breweries there. And the Manitou Islands are a part of the national park, which are accessible by ferry. There are lighthouses on the islands, which are always a highlight for many to see.
Do Not Miss Moment
The Pierce Stocking Scenic drive should not be missed! It’s a driving route where you can drive your vehicle and enter a loop with lookouts and incredible stops all along the way. Stop #9 is world-famous as a huge dune, and you can walk out onto the platform and see the people who attempt to walk all the way to the bottom. The waters below show Caribbean-blue shades and are truly breathtaking.
Additional Michigan National Parks
There are other parks in Michigan to check out. If you wanted to take a National Park tour, you could start at the Indiana Dunes in the southern part of Michigan, drive up to Sleeping Bear Dunes, and then keep going north to visit the Pictured Rocks National Park there too – a 3-in-1 National Park road trip in Michigan.
About our Featured Guest:
Cassondra is a slow nomad travel mom who spends her journeys between Michigan and Jamaica. She loves sharing her love and passion for Michigan with others as she documents her travels on her Instagram page, @cassondra.wanders and on her website.
National Trippers Podcast
Did you know we also have a podcast all about Sleeping Bear Dunes? Get ready for even more awesomeness of this incredible National Park!