Michigan – Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore

Michigan – Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore

We visited 101 attractions last summer (literally!) and I can honestly say that Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore ranks way up there as one of my kids’ favorites.

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore

It was about a 40-minute drive from the Bayshore Resort in Traverse City to Sleeping Bear Dunes, where we spent the day. Our first stop was the Dune Climb.

Sleeping Bear Dunes - Dune Climb

The Dune Climb was undoubtedly the favorite part for my older two kids. Before you start the climb, you should consider how long you might want to hike the dunes. From the parking lot, you can see only the first hill, but there is a trail that goes over nine hills and ends at Lake Michigan. If you think you might want to hike the entire trail or a significant part of it, you should bring water, sunscreen, a hat, shoes, and a snack. We saw several people climbing the dunes in their bare feet, but there were parts of the trail where we were grateful we had shoes. Here’s the first hill, as seen from the parking lot.

Dune Climb at Sleeping Bear Dunes

My kids climbed the dune much faster than I did. Here’s the view from the top.

View from the top of the dune at Sleeping Bear Dunes Dune Climb

Once we reached the top of the first hill, the dunes beckoned my children to keep going.

Dune Climb - keep going or turn around

It took me a little while to find my kids.  Do you see them?

Dune Climb - Kids love it

As you can see from these pictures, there is one main path and several small tracks that lead off to the side. We took one side path that took us into a very quiet area.

Sleeping Bear Dunes - off the beaten path

All of the kids enjoyed their dune climb.

Kids love Sleeping Bear Dunes

After we’d been there for a while, the older two kids wanted to keep exploring and the youngest wanted to go to a beach. Luckily for me, thunder began rumbling in the distance and made up our minds for us. We turned back and headed back toward the parking lot.

Hiking at Sleeping Bear Dunes

The thunderstorm that had threatened never showed up, so we continued our day by driving along the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive. Points of interest along the drive include a covered bridge, views of Lake Michigan and the smaller Glen Lake and North Bar Lake, Dune Overlooks, and trees that had their roots exposed by the wind moving the dunes.

Tree roots exposed by dune movement

The view you absolutely don’t want to miss during your visit is the Lake Michigan Overlook. A platform 450 feet above the lake provides this view.

Sleeping Bear Dunes - view from Lake Michigan Overlook

Yes, it’s 450 feet to the lake and signs warn you not to climb down the dune, but people do it anyway.  You are warned that it could take as long as two hours to climb back up and that you will have to pay for the rescue fees if you can’t make it. Can anyone predict what happened next?

450 feet Dune Dropoff at Sleeping Bear Dunes

If you guessed that my kids begged me to let them go down, you are correct. I stayed up at the top while they climbed down. I hoped this wasn’t the last time I would see them. It sure looked like they were going to fall off a cliff from this perspective.

Ready to climb down the dune

Of course, going down is the easy part and it didn’t take them long to go down. See the dots in the middle of the slope? That’s them.

Climbing down the dune at Sleeping Bear Dunes

Thank goodness for the zoom lens on my camera so I could keep track of them. The youngest decided not to go all the way to the bottom.

On the dune at Sleeping Bear Dunes

The older two made it all the way to the lake.

At the bottom of the 450 Dune at Sleeping Bear Dunes

They sat there for a while, then started the climb back up. They said the bottom part was the steepest.

At the bottom of the 450 foot dune at Sleeping Bear Dunes

It was at about this point that a group of people arrived on the observation platform and the guy next to me discovered that those dots down there were people. He announced, “Hey! Look at those idiots down there!” I politely told him that he had just called my kids idiots. We laughed and talked for a while. People were amazed that anyone would want to climb up that dune. Thankfully, my kids are in great shape and they made it up in about 20 minutes, not the predicted two hours. But I did watch others struggle and have to stop many times to rest. Please do take the warnings seriously!

The big dune at Sleeping Bear Dunes

Our next stop was Glen Haven Beach. It was time to go for a swim and build a sand castle. My kids are serious sand castle builders and we brought tools with us to the beach.

Sand castle at Glen Haven Beach at Sleeping Bear Dunes

Unfortunately, this particular beach didn’t have the best sand for building and not long after I took this picture, the sand castle collapsed. At that point, the kids had a difference of opinion on what to do next. My youngest wanted to find a different beach. The older two had concluded that the 450-foot climb up the sand dune was not enough exercise for one day and wanted to go back to the Dune Climb and hike the 3.5-mile strenuous hike to the lake. This was one of those moments when I wished my husband could travel with us more often. Without another parent there, it’s much more difficult to divide and conquer. After some internal debate, I decided to let the older two do the hike on their own. I dropped them off at the Dune Climb, and the youngest and I went to North Bar Lake in search of a place to swim.

North Bar Lake at Sleeping Bear Dunes

Bingo! We found the perfect beach for families. This lake is perfect for families with kids of all ages because it is a small lake that appears to connect to Lake Michigan. My daughter quickly made a friend and played with her in the warmer waters of North Bar Lake.

Making friends at North Bar Lake at Sleeping Bear Dunes

Now, here’s the cool part: the part of the lake that connects to Lake Michigan is the perfect natural baby pool.

The Baby Pool at North Bar Lake - Sleeping Bear Dunes

I walked out to where it connected to Lake Michigan and discovered that it didn’t actually connect. It looks like someone tried to make them connect though!

Connector from North Bar Lake to Lake Michigan

Then, of course, anyone who prefers colder water and waves can swim in Lake Michigan.

Lake Michigan near North Bar Lake

So, did I make the right choice splitting the family between two different activities? I think I did. Look at this smiling face.

Happy swimmer at Sleeping Bear Dunes

We headed back to the Dune Climb and (somewhat nervously) awaited the return of my other two children. Finally we saw them coming down the dune.

Back from the Dune Climb Hike

They reported that they had made it all the way to Lake Michigan. Even though they had their iPods with them, they forgot to take a picture when they got there. (Are they really my children???) Having three happy children makes my job so much easier!

We could have easily spent another day or two at Sleeping Bear Dunes. We didn’t have a chance to take advantage of any of the Ranger Programs and it looks like they have some really interesting kid-friendly offerings. We didn’t have a chance to explore Glen Haven Historic Village which has a General Store, Cannery Boat Museum, Blacksmith Shop, and Maritime Museum. We also didn’t take advantage of the Junior Ranger Program. When my kids were a little younger, they loved to earn those badges. My kids would definitely go back in a heartbeat if given the opportunity.

Ready to visit?

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore

Visitor Center
9922 Front Street, Empire, MI 49630
231-326-5135, ext. 328

Open all year except Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Days.
Memorial Day to Labor Day (Summer) 8:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.
Labor Day to Memorial Day (Fall, Winter & Spring) 8:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.

Dune Climb
6748 Dune Hwy (M-109), Glen Arbor, MI 49636

Open all year, 24 hours a day

Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive
8500 Stocking Drive, Empire, MI 49630

Open May 25 through October 20, 2013, 9:00 a.m. to 30 minutes after sunset

Disclosure: Our trip was hosted by Traverse City Tourism.

This attraction appears in my e-book, How to Visit All 50 States in 12 Trips.

You might also enjoy:

Michigan – Bayshore Resort in Traverse City

Michigan – Tall Ship Manitou

Michigan – Old Mission Peninsula

 Michigan – A Traverse City Sunset

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