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Sleeping Bear Dunes: Good Harbor Bay Trail
Within Sleeping Bear Dunes, a park of towering dunes and rolling ridges, Good Harbor Bay Trail is the rare exception. This 2.8-mile loop is almost entirely flat, a trail where a change in elevation is better measured in inches not feet. A small strip of beach dunes is encountered in the beginning but the rest of Good Harbor Bay is an easy walk in the woods with the extent of the scenery being the trees themselves.
People new to the sport of Nordic skiing love this trail. Its level contour - the grade never exceeds 10 percent - and the abundance of lake-effect snow off the bay makes it easy to master the kick-and-glide technique of traditional cross-country skiing. The forested landscape tends to hold the snow late into the season.
For hikers it’s a different story. The numerous outstanding trails in this corner of the state makes Good Harbor Bay and its lack of scenery a mundane choice at best. But the trailhead is located in a pleasant little picnic area that overlooks a wonderful beach. A family with young children could spend an afternoon here hiking in the woods and playing in the surf and then top off the day with a picnic dinner that includes a tableside view of Lake Michigan. Stay long enough and maybe they’ll catch a sunset. Not a bad way to spend your summer vacation in Northern Michigan.
From the trailhead along Lake Michigan Road, you immediately head east (left) to follow the trail in a clockwise direction and within a 0.3 mile arrive in the semi-open of strip of coastal dunes. Patches of sand appear here between the shrubs and if the day is windy you can easily hear the surf crashing along the nearby shoreline. At Mile 0.6 the trail swings south to enter a pine oak forest and begin crossing a series of very low rises. These are not dunes or ridges but a series of ancient shorelines. Good Harbor Bay was submerged under an ancestral Lake Michigan until 11,000 years ago but as the water level dropped new stretches of shoreline were formed in stages.
Eventually the trail begins crossing foot bridges through low-lying wood wetlands and at Mile 1.2 uses a small foot bridge to cross an unnamed stream. On the other side you follow what appears to be an old railroad bed briefly before the trail swings west (right) at a well-marked junction where it returns to being a narrow path. The rail bed continues south but you hike west through a predominately beech-maple forest along the backside that can be beautiful in October. At Mile 2 the trail swings north and immediately follows a long stretch of planking across another segment wetland and then the stream itself.
The final segment remains in the forest as you close in on the shoreline swinging east (right) just before popping out at the trailhead and Lake Michigan Road.
On the west end of the bay the National Park Service maintains a picnic area overlooking the beach with tables, grills and vault toilets.
The trail is open year-round and all visitors are required to have a weekly vehicle entrance permit, an annual park pass or a per-person pass if they arrive on foot, bicycle or motorcycle. Passes can be purchased from the Philip Hart Visitor Center in Empire.
Good Harbor Bay is roughly halfway between Leland and Glen Arbor along M-22, 9 miles from either one. From M-22, turn north on Bohemian Road (County Road 669) and follow it to the lakeshore where you will turn east on Lake Michigan Road. The trailhead and picnic area are at the end of Lake Michigan Road.
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