The Best of Sleeping Bear Dunes
By Jim DuFresne
Here are some of my favorite hikes at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. If you only have a weekend, choose carefully.
Most Awe-inspiring Trail
Often overshadowed by the Dune Climb, Sleeping Bear Point is one of the most intriguing corners of the national lakeshore, a place with ghost forests, windswept dunes, and panoramic views of Lake Michigan and the Manitou Islands. Providing access to the area is Sleeping Bear Point Trail, a 2.8-mile loop that skirts the bluffs above the point.
The point features more open sand than the Dunes Trail and a dramatic landscape of blowouts, bowls, and slopes that curve so gracefully you won’t want to mar them with footprints. Two highlights are ghost forests — trees killed but left standing by migrating sand — and Devil’s Hole.
Don’t underestimate this short hike, rated moderately difficult. Walking in the sand can be strenuous, but this scenic trek is not nearly as long or challenging as the Dunes Trail. Click Here for a trail map or more information.
The Grand Adventure
South Manitou Island is a day hiker’s paradise, and this 9.7-mile loop includes a shipwreck, a stand of towering white cedar, dunes that rise to spectacular views, snack stops on isolated beaches, and at the end a view from the tower of a historic lighthouse. What more could you possibly want in a hike?
Located 7 miles off Sleeping Bear Point on the mainland, South Manitou is reached via Manitou Transit whose ferry departs from Leland’s Fishtown. The 5,260-acre island also has three walk-in campgrounds, though this hike can be done as a day trip without spending the night.
Most visitors simply hike the beach to the Francisco Morazan, the shipwrecked freighter along the south shore, then head back, missing the most impressive area of the island—the perched dunes. This adventure heads to the island’s west side instead, passing those gigantic white cedars, then crossing the dunes that rise more than 400 feet above Lake Michigan. You descend carefully to the lake below and follow the shoreline for an excellent beach hike and the best view of the grounded freighter.
For those who arrive without camping gear, the ferry lands around 11:30 a.m. and leaves around 4 p.m. In other words, you have less than 5 hours to walk almost 10 miles. Those in good hiking shape will be able to complete the loop. Those who aren’t might find themselves watching the boat sailing toward Leland and wondering where they’re going to spend the night. Click Here for a trail map or more information.
Best Sunset Trail
Few trails in the park lead to a more spectacular view than this short path to the edge of Empire Bluff. The bluff rises more than 400 feet above the sandy shoreline of Lake Michigan and is a lofty perch to view a large chunk of the national lakeshore.
The round trip is only 1.5 miles, but pack a lunch anyhow and enjoy it with a vista that would rival the tableside view at any of Michigan’s finest restaurants. Better yet, bring a flashlight and arrive near dusk on a clear evening to watch the sun melt into a shimmering Lake Michigan while silhouetting the Manitou Islands on the horizon. With a headlamp or two, following this wide trail back to the parking area is easy even at dusk. Click Here for a trail map or more information.
Best Beach Trail
The mouth of the Platte River on Lake Michigan is a stunning beach with wide, sugary sand framed by a backdrop of towering dunes. But in the summer, it is a popular day-use area and a pullout for a flotilla of tubers, canoers, and kayakers.
Platte Plains Trail is a better alternative for those looking for a bit of solitude with their sand. Begin at the parking area for the walk-in campsites at the NPS campground, where a trail winds north and within a half mile arrives at a short spur to Lake Michigan. Now here is a beach far less crowded than what is encountered at the mouth of the Platte River.
You can then follow the shoreline east, passing four spurs that return you to the Platte Plains Trail. The final spur is reached 2 miles from where you parked and connects the White Pine Backcountry Campground to Lake Michigan. A return along the trail from here would be a 5-mile loop that would include some of the park’s most isolated stretches of sand. Click Here for a trail map or more information.
The Best Trail That’s Not A Trail
Trent Farm Trail is a 1.1-mile walk along an old road – now gated to prevent motorized traffic – through the historic Treat Farmstead to a panoramic view of Lake Michigan on the edge of Empire Bluff. The NPS has yet to declare Treat Farm as an official park trail and publicize it. Until they do, hikers who stumble across this hike are always pleasantly surprised by it.
The trail itself is a level, easy hike, but the adventurous can then climb Old Baldy for a nearly 360-degree vista of the Great Lake and surrounding landscape or carefully thread their way along the edge of the perched dunes to the observation deck at the end of the Empire Bluff Trail.
Combining Treat Farm Trail with Empire Bluff Trail would be a semi-loop of 3.2 miles that would leave you 1.2 miles from where you parked your vehicle. Click Here for more information.
The Best Trail Without A Dune
The park’s newest trail is Kettles Trail which opened in 2019 in the heart of the Leelanau Peninsula, far from any dunes or beaches.
Instead, this trail features kettles, more than a dozen. A kettle is a fluvioglacial landform resulting from blocks of ice splitting off from a receding glacier and then buried by glacial outwash. When the ice melts, a sharp-sided cone appears. An area with numerous kettles results in rugged topography; a chaotic array of ridges, mounds, and potholes.
The new trail is a hike of 3.4 miles that utilizes old two-tracks to climb the slopes and ridges of the kettle topography. These old two-tracks make Kettles Trail one of the best destinations in the winter as snowshoers, or backcountry skiers will find the wide paths easy to follow. Click Here for a trail map or more information.