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Sleeping Bear Dunes: Scenic Drive Ski Trail

Trail Details

County
Leelanau
Regions
Northwest
Latitude
N 44° 51' 9.72"
Longitude
W 086° 02' 12.84"
Distance
8.75-mile trail system, multiple loops
Trail Type
Nordic ski trail
Terrain
Hardwood forested ridges, dunes, Lake Michigan views
Difficulty
Easy to challenging
Nearest City or Town
Empire
(map loads here)
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For most of the year Scenic Drive is true to its name featuring a procession of slow-moving vehicles. But after the first snowfall the road becomes the heart of an 8.75-mile trail system that includes three crossover spurs and Shauger Hill Trail, a challenging loop in its own right. At that point Scenic Drive is one of the most popular destinations in the park for both Nordic skiers and snowshoers.
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Description
The most important aspect of any good ski tour is the route you choose and for that Scenic Drive Ski Trail in Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is ideal.

For most of the year Scenic Drive is true to its name featuring a procession of slow-moving vehicles. But after the first snowfall the road becomes the heart of an 8.75-mile trail system that includes three crossover spurs and Shauger Hill Trail, a challenging loop in its own right. At that point Scenic Drive is one of the most popular destinations in the park for both Nordic skiers and snowshoers.

Scenic Drive Ski Trail is a 6.3-mile loop with long downhills and some brutal uphill climbs. It begins in the parking area near the contact station with a short segment on the Shauger Hill Trail. Scenic Hill is not tracked or groomed in the winter but nearby Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail is and the two are connected by a spur to the trailhead parking lot also.

Crossover spurs allows Scenic Drive to be split into a pair of loops. Dunes Overlook at post No. 3 is the destination for what is occasionally referred to as the Easy Loop, a 3.9-mile ski. Many skiers, however, want to reach the Lake Michigan Overlook, posts No. 9 and No. 10, and follow Scenic Drive in a counter-clockwise direction. A crossover spur turns this portion of Scenic Drive into a 3.5-mile loop rated intermediate while another allows skiers to incorporate the southern half of Shauger Hill to extend the outing to 4.1 miles.
Amenities & Services
Difficulty - Easy
Difficulty - Challenging
Trail Guide

The Easy Loop

This 3.9-mile outing is often followed in a counter-clockwise direction with skiers enduring a mile-long climb of 250-foot climb in the first half. Skiers who follow the loop in a counter-clockwise direction enjoy an easier climb to Dunes Overlook but face a long downhill run on the return where more control is required to avoid run-away speed on the way to the covered bridge.

The loop begins at the back of the parking lot with a short portion of the Shauger Hill Trail to reach Scenic Drive. You pop out at a wide snow-covered road and follow it north to the V  junction with the return traffic. Head right and at Mile 0.8 you pass the first crossover spur and then encounter a sharp downhill, bottoming out at the covered bridge. Be careful on both this hill and the bridge! The covered bridge is scenic but that roof limits the amount of snow inside.

Beyond the covered bridge is one long climb to Picnic Mountain and Dunes Overlook. The steepest segment ends at the Glen Lake overlook, a great place to catch your breath, and then at Mile 2.1 you arrive at a winter trail junction sign in the middle of Scenic Drive. Just beyond it is the parking area and short trail to the Dunes Overlook platform. Even if this area has been scoured of snow by steady Lake Michigan winds, don’t pass up the opportunity to clip out of your skis and walk the 500 yards to the viewing deck. The barren plateau of rolling dunes spread out in front of you is an amazing view in the winter.

At the Scenic Drive Ski Trail junction, you leave the roadway and head south on a much more narrow trail. This segment bypasses a mile-long stretch of road that winds through open dunes, includes two steep slopes, and doesn’t hold snow very well. The bypass is a gentle downhill run through the woods and within a third of a mile you return to the road and head left.

The gentle downhill run continues for another half mile until you return to the first crossover spur at Mile 3. Head left and backtrack the first mile to return to the trailhead parking lot. Head right to continue with Scenic Drive Ski Trail. To reach the Lake Michigan Overlook from this direction, skiers face two very steep uphill climbs.

Lake Michigan Overlook Loop
The overlooks at posts No. 9 and No. 10 along Scenic Drive are as dramatic in the winter as they are in the summer, making them popular destinations for skiers and snowshoers after the first snowfalls. There is no direction of travel on Scenic Drive Ski Trail, but the vast majority of people follow a counter-clockwise loop to avoid having to herringbone up a pair of steep hills on the backside.

From the north end of the winter trailhead parking lot, you can follow a short segment of  Shauger Hill Trail to reach the unplowed roadway and then continue a half mile to the V junction where you head left for the overlooks.

Many skiers, however, begin at the posted trailhead at the south end of the parking lot and add the southern half of  Shauger Hill Trail, an easy route for most skiers, for a 4.1-mile outing. Twice this trail crosses Shauger Hill Road, an unplowed two-track in the winter and at Mile 1.4 arrives at a posted junction. To the right is the challenging second half of Shauger Hill Trail. To the left is a crossover spur that climbs gently for a quarter mile to Scenic Drive Ski Trail, where you pop out near post No. 12.

Scenic Drive continues the gentle climb to the left, reaching North Bark Lake Overlook in a quarter mile and Lake Michigan Overlook parking area at Mile 2.4. From the parking area, the view that is post No. 9 is a short climb, but this entire area usually has sand mixed with the snow. If that’s the case, kick off the skis and walk to the edge of the perched dune where below will be a shoreline of jumbled ice. With caution, you can also continue to the observation platform to see the Manitou Islands to the northwest.

From Lake Michigan Overlook, Scenic Drive swings to the south and in less than a mile descends almost 200 feet in a pair of long downhill runs. At Mile 3.3, you bottom out at a crossover spur. To the right, the crossover spur gently descends into the woods for a third of a mile to return to Scenic Drive just west of the V junction in the roadway. The remaining half mile back to the parking lot is an easy ski along the unplowed roadway and a short segment of Shauger Hill Trail.

Facilities

The beginning of Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive and the trailhead parking lot is plowed throughout the winter. There is a vault toilet but no source of drinking water.

Hours & Fees

The National Park System closes the road to vehicles just before firearm deer season when hunters invaded the rolling wooded dunes. In a normal year, skiers can expect snow from Christmas to early March and often powdery conditions due to the road’s close proximity to Lake Michigan. By mid-April they re-open the gates to cars.

Directions

From Empire head north on M-22 and then veer to the left on M-109. Within 1.5 miles you pass the posted entrance to Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive to the west.

Information

Contact the Philip Hart Visitor Center (231-326-5134; www.nps.gov/slbe) in Empire. For lodging or additional travel information contact Traverse City Tourism (800-872-8377; www.traversecity.com).


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