Pierce Stocking Drive: One Tough Bike Ride
By Jim DuFresne
Although less than eight miles long, Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive has more stunning, edge-of-the-bluff panoramas than most roads of any length in Michigan. It also has some of the steepest climbs, and that’s the paradox facing cyclists.
To enjoy the vistas of this unusual bike route in Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, you must endure those heart-pounding hills.
Departing from M-109 north of Empire, Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive is a 7.4-mile loop that skirts the high shoreline dunes along Lake Michigan.
The setting is so spectacular that in the mid-1960s, a lumberman named Pierce Stocking turned it into a tourist attraction by building a dirt road and charging people a small fee to follow it.
Stocking ran it for 10 years before the National Park Service absorbed the area in 1977 as part of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. In 1984 Scenic Drive underwent a significant reconstruction, and when the park paved the road, it also added a bike lane. Despite attracting more than 80,000 vehicles annually, Scenic Drive is one of the few places where motorists and cyclists peacefully co-exist.
The winding, one-lane road is one-way, and the speed limit is only 20 mph. Cars seem to crawl along as drivers are anxious not to miss the next scenic pullover.
Near the entrance is a staging area where you can park the car, pack your saddlebags with snacks and check your brakes. Make sure you check your brakes.
You begin with a few dips and climbs, pedal through a covered bridge, and then, only a mile into the ride, face your first serious ascent. From this point until almost the end of the loop, it’s either feast or famine for cyclists.
You’re either fearing a heart attack as you slowly pedal an endless pitch or flying wildly downhill, passing cars along the way. It’s one or the other.
From the covered bridge, it’s a climb of more than a mile that passes a viewing point of Glen Lake and then tops off at Picnic Mountain and Dune Overlook.
The overlook is an observation deck where you can take a well-deserved break studying an almost 360-degree panoramic view. On one side is Glen Lake, shaped like an hourglass and shimmering in shades of turquoise. On the other side, you can open dunes that roll west into the deep blues of Lake Michigan. On the horizon are the Manitou Islands.
Scenic Drive swings south at this point and levels out briefly along the crest of a grassy dune where the Lake Michigan breezes cool you off. Then you plunge back into the forest and enjoy a free ride on the longest downhill run of the route for more than a mile.
Or I was trying to enjoy it. But I knew the road would eventually bottom out. It did, and I faced another brutal climb.
This one topped off at the Lake Michigan Overlook. Here you can sit on the edge of a perched dune, be surrounded by warm, soothing sand, and watch the waves break across the beach 450 feet below you.
Within a half mile, Scenic Drive passes North Bar Overlook, which provides views to the south of Platte Bay if the weather is clear.
In the final two miles, you re-enter the hardwood forest and, for the most part, enjoy a downhill run that provides enough momentum to glide almost all the way back to the staging area.
If you’re looking for more mileage, extending this ride is easy. A short spur connects the staging area to Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail which presently extends 22 miles from Empire to Good Harbor Bay.
By continuing north on the paved path, you’ll pedal through dune country, including the Dune Climb Day-use Area, then pass through Glen Haven Historic Village with its museums and stunning beach, and in 6.5 miles, reach the village of Glen Arbor whose main street is lined with shops and restaurants.
There are ways to loop back to your car, but this section of the Heritage Trail is so stunningly beautiful and level most cyclists just turn around and backtrack for a 20.5-mile ride.
If, on the other hand, you’re whipped after only seven miles, load up the bikes and just drive to Glen Arbor to have a cold one at Art’s Tavern.
You’ve earned it.
Pierce Stocking Drive is open for cycling from mid-April to mid-October and requires a park entry permit. Click Here for a map of the road or Click Here for a map of the Heritage Trail from the Dune Climb to Glen Arbor.