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Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore

August 30, 2021

  • 9922 W. Front Street
  • Empire, MI 49630
  • (231) 326-4700
  • Website

We have never been to Sleeping Bear Dunes. Yeah…I don’t like admitting that but to be honest, before last summer, we weren’t really outsdoorsy people. The pandemic really pushed us out of our comfort zone and got us hiking.

One of J’s friends (who grew up in Kalamazoo and had never been to Sleeping Bear herself) took a quick trip with a friend of hers and raved about the trails. J was slightly jealous and ready to book a trip for us.

A few months ago, I was looking at AirBnB’s in the area for my brother. They were talking about a trip to Northern Michigan for a few days. They ended up not going but the research we were doing for that trip inspired J to book a trip for us.

We booked an AirBnB near Thompsonville for two nights. The *plan* was to leave when I got off work on Friday night and drive north. We did that but instead of getting off around 5:30, I didn’t get off until almost 8:00, so it was a late night. We all got to bed with plans of getting up early and fitting as much in to the day as we could.

We got up fairly early on Saturday morning. We had planned on just grabbing some gas station donuts, but I stumbled on a deli that served home made bagels in Beulah. Instead of donuts, we started our day with bagels from L’Chayim Deli and playing on the playground equipment at Beulah Beach.

We got the kids away from the water and headed to our first hike. Treat Farm Trail in Empire.

Treat Farm Trail is outside of Empire west of Leelanau Highway (M-22) on Norconk Road where it curves and heads south. Parking is just along the side of the road. We loaded up on bug spray and sunscreen then headed out on the 2.3 mile out and back. The trail is pretty easy and most of it is in the shade. There is a big open prairie where the Treat Farm was. The farm house is still there (but locked up) as are a couple of out buildings. We took a pause and sat on the steps of the barn before continuing the last half mile to the end of the trail.

The end of the trail is beautiful…but a little scary with a 5 year old. There’s a huge drop off down to Lake Michigan so we really had to stress no screwing around near the edge. The views are pretty amazing though. You can see for miles along the Lake Michigan coast line and even get a pretty good view of the main Sleeping Bear Dunes further north.

We spent fifteen or twenty minutes climbing trees and just enjoying the view before heading back. We headed north to Glen Arbor for lunch then back to the cabin in Thompsonville for some relaxing before our next adventure.

Our second hike of the day was at the Empire Bluff Trail. This one is a little more well known. There are signs in Empire leading you out of town to the trailhead in Honor. This one actually has a parking lot and a little more signage. The trail is just north of the Treat Farm Trail and can actually be connected if you go “off trail” through the dunes.

The Empire Bluff Trail is a little bit shorter at a mile and a half out and back but it’s a lot tougher. There are more hills and the terrain is a little more challenging. When you get to the top, there are actually railings on this trail and the walkway is a little more defined.

The views at the top are just as amazing as the Treat Farm Trail. There a coupe of lookout points including a boardwalk and seating area at the end of the trail. The views….just amazing. You get a gorgeous view of nearby Empire and South Bar Lake.

We finished that hike and headed in to Empire to pick up dinner. We got sandwiches from Shipwreck Cafe and grabbed some drinks from the nearby gas station then headed to the beach.

One of my friends has family in Empire and he suggested a couple of lesser known beaches. We picked Petersen Road Beach located in the southern part of Sleeping Bear Dunes. The beach isn’t easy to find. It’s right off North Scenic Highway (M-22) on Petersen Road. Sounds easy. Petersen Road is about a two mile, twisty, turny gravel road. It took like15 minutes to get back to the parking area which wasn’t super busy (as advertised) so we found a place to park then hiked out the beach to eat dinner and enjoy the rest of our evening. Like everything else in Sleeping Bear Dunes, the views are just amazing. As a bonus, the water was calm and pretty warm. We played in the waist deep water for a couple of hours before packing up and finally calling it a day.

We had to drive back on Sunday but we still wanted to squeeze some things in. We headed to what I guess can be considered the main attractions of Sleeping Bear Dunes.

The first thing we did was go to the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive. This is part of the park that actually has an attendant and charges an entry fee. The entrance is on South Dunes Highway (M-109) just south of Welch Road.

Before we left, J heard about the Every Kid Outdoors pass for 4th Graders. Lucky for us, L starts 4th Grade this year so she got us in to the park for free. We showed the attendant a pass we printed out then L had to sign the back of a card that would get us in to any National Park through the end of September.

The scenic drive is set up like many National Parks. There’s a 7 mile loop with a number of turnouts at historic sites and sites of interest.

There’s quite a story behind the drive. It was actually built by a man named Pierce Stocking in the 1960’s before it was a National Park. He operated the drive as a tourist attraction until he died in 1976. The National Park Service bought the drive soon after, reconstructed it and added the turnouts. The first major one we came across was a viewing area that gave us an amazing view over the dunes….so of course we got out and took pictures.

The reason we decided to do the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive is because there was a hiking trail and we needed an AM hike.

The Cottonwood Trail is at stop number 4. The trail is only a mile and a half but it is a tough mile and a half. Most of the trail is in loose sand of the dunes although there are some stairs near the beginning to get you to and from the parking.

We were actually starting to run out of time when we got back to the car. We were meeting some friends for lunch back in Beulah but we still had a little more we wanted to do. We just drove the rest of the way through the park then headed out to the Dune Climb.

The Dune Climb is another area of the park with an entry gate. The entrance is a little further north on Dunes Highway at Hunter Road.

The Dune Climb is pretty much what it says it is. You can climb a very large sand dune.

If you get to the top and still have energy, there is actually a three and a half mile out and back to Lake Michigan. The kids got to the top but my legs were spent from the Cottonwood Trail. I got about half way up and called it a day. We didn’t have the time to keep climbing. We just wanted to check this out before we left. Next time we’ll make the entire trip.

There is more to the Dune Climb than just running up a sand dune. There’s another trail that begins at the base of the dune. The Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail is a four mile trail that will take you in to Glen Arbor.

That was our trip to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. We packed a lot in to two days. We needed more time but we didn’t have more time. Guess that means we’re going to have to plan another trip.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. August 30, 2021 9:21 pm

    Would you mind sharing the AirBnB you stayed at? It is always so hard to know which AirBnBs are actually nice and which ones you would rather run at top speed AWAY from! 😂

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