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Six Fun Things to do in Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore

Ever since Tom was younger, he had been going to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore with his family. I've only heard stories and drank the wine named after the legend of the Sleeping Bear, so I was looking forward to see what this place was all about as well as spend time with the family. As the name suggests, there is plenty of lakeshore to do all sorts of water activities. However, there's more to do than hang out by the lake and go paddle boarding. Here are six fun things to do with tips and suggestions for each.

Explore the Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail

The Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail is about 22 miles long between Empire and Bohemia Road. It’s mostly paved except for a three mile stretch of crushed stone in the Port Oneida Historic District. As long as you’re a non-motorized vehicle or person, you’re free to use it: think biking, running, rollerblades, etc.

We decided to bike it and took the stretch from Empire to Glen Arbor. There were some nice and easy flat parts in the beginning, but there were also some hills between the Bar Lake Trailhead and right before the Dune Climb that gave me some grief. (More on that experience and lesson in my previous blog post.) Lucky for me, there were also goats and farm fresh eggs at the end of our cycle when we returned to Empire.

girl petting goat
Look Mom! I do wear my helmet when I ride my bike… and pet goats.

TIP: Check out the Heritage Trail Map to plan which sections of the trail you want to ride or where you want to work in a brake to eat or sight see.

Hike the Trails

Dune Climb - 3.5 mile out and back round trip with steep dunes

The Sleeping Bear is also the site of the dune climb. We couldn’t go to Sleeping Bear without walking the dunes, so we showed up here. I started the climb without shoes, but quickly regretted my decision after a couple steps through the hot sand. I scampered back to the car to grab my flip flops and we continued our journey up the dunes. Each time we got to the top of a large dune, there were more afterwards. If you do the entire hike from the parking lot to Lake Michigan and back, it’s 3.5 miles. Tom told me that the hike can take 3-4 hours and many people get sucked into thinking Lake Michigan will just be “one more dune” away.

TIP: If you do attempt the whole climb, make sure you bring plenty of water and sunscreen. The dunes are pretty open with no shade. Also, even through you're walking through dune sand, bring some type of shoes. The sand gets pretty hot.

Empire bluffs - 1.5 mile out and back round trip with hilly terrain

I heard nothing but good things about this short hike (1.5 miles to the boardwalk and back). The house we were staying at even had a picture from one of the overlooks there, so of course we were going to check it out. Tom and I rode our bikes to the foot of the hill and walked up to the parking lot. Once at the trailhead, we wiped off our shoes in order to prevent any invasive species from entering the area and harming the ecosystem. It was an uphill, dirt trail through the woods that took us to the boardwalk. From there, we could look north to the coastline, and even saw our family out paddle boarding on the water!

Lake Michigan and Glen Lake

Dave and Sharon are those little dots in the water.

After seeing some girls taking glamour shots on the overlook, I decided to take a few of them myself. (I don’t think they turned out the same though.)

Just having a little fun pretending to be serious.

We continued to follow the well worn path through the dunes to see how far it went. It ended up going further than we thought (probably to the end of the point?). We didn’t make it to the end, but we did see plenty of lovely dune flowers.

The view from the overlook. We did not have a clear day, so no view of South Manitou.

TIP: If you go on a clear day, you'll be able to see South Manitou Island!

Pyramid Point Trail - 2.7 mile loop with hilly terrain

The plan was to hike the trail with the family. Tom and I started the hike out late because I have a habit of sleeping in or taking too long to get ready. Before we left, Karen called and asked us to bring milk for the baby. After packing the milk and heading out the door, we drove to the trailhead and started out with a brisk pace in order to catch up with the group. I think I had even more fun trying to play catch up with the group than I would’ve had on a regular hike. After .4 miles, the trail forks. We could either hike the rest of the trail loop or walk .2 miles out to a viewpoint. We made our way to the viewpoint and figured if the family wasn’t there, it would still be a short enough distance to double back catch up to them. Along the way, we asked the people coming back if they saw a group with a baby and a dog. We got a yes from at least one of them, so we knew we were one the right trail. It didn’t take long to catch up with the group and deliver the precious milk that was asked for before we left the house. We admired the lake from the bluff and noted how erosion had changed the trail from what it was many years ago since the last time they hiked this area. After taking a group photo, we all headed back to the cars to spend some time at Lake Michigan resting and looking for Petoskey stones.

The start of the trail. Into the woods we go.

Check out that erosion! The trail is so close to the edge!

If you go along the narrow trail to the right, you cold end up here.

Family photo! I guess Mia the dog doesn't like pictures.

TIP: If you decide to do the full loop, the last part of the trail is on Basch Road. Be sure to look out for traffic.

Search for Petoskey stones

Petoskey stones are the state stone of Michigan. They have these really cool hexagon shapes on them because they’re actually a fossils of a coral colony, but the magic of this is that they only appear when the stone is wet. When it’s dry, it looks mostly like a regular rock. About 350 million years ago, these corals were living around Lake Michigan. Their exoskeletons became fossilized in the rocks, and now people (Uncle Scott likes to call them peddlers) scour the shores of Lake Michigan trying to find them. I suppose I got indoctrinated into the “Peddler Society” this summer because I really enjoy finding these little beauties. Keep in mind, that since they are fossils of an extinct animal, there are only a limited amount left in the world. There can’t be anymore made, so there’s actually a law that puts a 25 pound/person/day limit on the amount of Petoskey stones you can take with you.

Here are some tips to finding Petoskey stones:

- Go in the morning. That way, you can find something before all the Peddlers get them, but then I guess that would make you a Peddler too.

- They’re easiest to spot near the water’s edge. Here, the waves come every once in a while to get the stones wet enough to see the hexagon shapes, and they don’t take the rocks with them.

- When you pick up a stone, turn it over. Tom and I found a Petoskey stone we weren’t going to take, and the woman we showed it to told us to turn it over to make it harder to find for the next people.

- Finding these things really is a game, so have fun and don’t take it so seriously.

Petoskey stones, beach glass, and rocks in handkerchief
Beach glass and "lucky rocks": my other secret to finding Petoskey stones... a little bit of luck.

Visit Fish Town in Leland

This cute little town in Leland was originally... you guessed it... a fishing town. In fact, there are still boats that dock here and go out to catch some fish. Now, you'll also find gift and souvenir shops in this tiny area. Tom and I actually stopped here to get ferry tickets to South Manitou Island with the Manitou Island Transit company and check out the Village Cheese Shanty.

Not gonna lie. I came really close to buying this at one of the souvenir shops.

At the Cheese Shanty, the line goes out the door, the place is packed, and their sandwiches are legit. Just remember to bring cash... and maybe a book or a friend.

TIP: If you order online, you could save yourself a really long wait.

Watch Sunsets

One of the things we did at the end of every day was watch the sunset. Most of the time, we gathered at the beach in Empire since it was just a short walk from our house. It also didn’t hurt that there was an ice cream shop (Tiffany's) so close to the beach too. How can you go wrong with sunsets and ice cream?

TIP: They only take cash, so stop by an ATM before going. There's one just across the street at the bank.

Nothing like a paddle into the setting sun.

Sunset into Lake Michigan at Empire Beach

There was one day, however, where we chose to switch it up and watch the sun sink behind the dunes at Pierce Stocking Drive.

Sunset from the dunes at Pierce Stocking Drive

As soon as we came up to the sunset spot, we saw a sign that warned about the dangers of going all the way down to the water and attempting to climb back up.

I think they were thinking of the children that play on the dunes too. Just remember, descending the dunes is at your own risk.

I’m not sure if it helped or hindered, since there were many people attempting to make it down and back with the best time. We even met one man who makes it down and back once a week as part of his exercise routine. Of course, Tom had to attempt the challenge. He made it down, took a swim (which is still debatable) and back in just under 20 minutes (19:54). More than enough time to hang out and wait for sunset.

man climbing up a steep sand dune
You need to use your hands and bear crawl (how appropriate) to make it back up quickly.

Victory! Down and back (with a swim?) in under 20 minutes.

TIP: Sunset at Pierce Stocking Drive is a favorite among many visitors, so try to get there early to find parking. We got there about a half hour before sunset and were lucky enough to score a space in the packed lot.

Enjoy Live Music

Aside from enjoying sunsets at the end of the day, the second best thing we like doing is listening to live music. We’re always on the lookout, and lucky for us there were two shows on the same day in the same town: Glen Arbor.

M22 shop

This is a store that has monetized the M22 highway of Michigan. They sell all sorts of t-shirts, hats, cups, and other Michigan and M22 memorabilia. Outside of their store is a wine bar that has live music on Thursdays during the summer. They don’t serve food, but you can bring your own. Show up early on music nights because seating is limited.

Listened to Kristen Kuiper while sipping some wine from the bar.


This restaurant serves all-American food, and has live music almost every night of the summer. Check their schedule to find out who’s playing. We ended up grabbing an ice cream at the store on site before sitting down to listen to some tunes and play Euchre.

Listening to Uncle Z outside Boonedocks

What's your favorite part about Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore?

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