Having been ranked “Most Beautiful Place in America” on ABC’s Good Morning America, Sleeping Bear Dunes in the lower peninsula of Michigan was something I was determined to see. And it surely did not disappoint.  From here in Ohio, it was a 7 hour drive and completely worth it. Perfect for hiking, some photography opps, and just soaking it all in, I’m convinced this place is the sole inspiration for those Pure Michigan commercials we are always hearing. You know, the ones with the pretty music in the background and Tim Allen giving a beautiful monologue that usually ends up giving me goosebumps….yep this is the place.

 

WHAT TO DO What they say is true- everything really IS slower in Michigan. But that’s a good thing. And don’t let that fool you, there is plenty to do at Sleeping Bear and while we only stayed for 3 days, I could easily stay for a week and still be discovering new and exciting things about this place. Bordering on Lake Michigan, there are plenty of opportunities for hiking, canoeing, kayaking, scenic drives and just soaking up the sun. Be aware though, this is pretty far north so the water is only warm enough for a couple months to actually go swimming in it. We went at the end of June and honestly, the water was still pretty chilly. Though I did see a few adventurous teenagers try it out, I wasn’t daring enough to go further than ankle deep water.

The Dune Climb is an absolute must and the reason many people come here. It can be tiring, but definitely worth it once you make it to the top and see the gorgeous view. Plus there are lots of places to rest on the way up and at the top.  There are picnic tables at the bottom and the trek back down the dune is much easier.

View from the top of the Dune Climb

Once you make it to the top, if you feel like exploring, there are plenty of trails to try. They are all marked with colored posts and you can find these trail maps online on your smartphone or on the printed maps that are available when you arrive at the Dunes.  If you’re up for a challenge, I mean a real legit challenge, you can hike to Lake Michigan via the Dune Trail. Word to the wise- this trail is no joke. I recently read that a large number of people who attempt this trail require emergency rescue due to not being able to make it back. Be realistic if this is something you can physically handle. If you decide to do it, be prepared. Its a 3.5 mile round trip hike hike, which may not seem like a terribly long hike, but it is very strenuous. You are walking in sand. The entire time. And up hills. A lot.

Steep sandy hill
There are a few trees to occasionally get some shade from, however for about 90% of the time, you will be in the sun. Wear a hat, sunscreen, bring lots of water and I’d recommend a snack. Or maybe a couple. I think we brought 4 or 5. Bring your shoes. You will see a lot of people attempting it without their shoes on. At some point, the sand will get either too abrasive or too hot for your feet. So bring them. Take breaks. And drink lots of water. Trust me on this one. We saw a lot of people turn around and go back, so don’t feel bad if you have to do this, it’s better to be smart than to be stranded.

 

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So close…yet still so far away

Another tip- allow 3-4 hours for this hike. Like I said, its no joke. And you’ll want to actually enjoy Lake Michigan once you reach it, so allow for some relaxation time once you get there. We packed a small backpack with all of our supplies and a light lunch for when we arrived at the lake. And once you make it there, you will have earned bragging rights for basically, well, the rest of your life.

Lake Michigan via Dune Trail

If you’re looking for something easier, but with equally beautiful payoff, another must do trail, the Empire Bluff Trail can be accessed by driving —-, its not nearly as long, 1.5 miles and fortunately, it is not all sand. Its a little hilly, but we didn’t find it to be difficult at all. And the views when you reach the top are incredible.

 

Foggy view of the lakshore

Another one of our favorite hikes was Pyramid Point. By far some of the best views on the lakeshore, this is definitely worth checking out. There are warning signs cautioning against going down the bluff though, so be careful if you decide to try it! We didn’t go all the way down, but I’ve heard some people take up to two hours trying to get back up. Steep hills made of sand are not the easiest to climb! So just be aware.  This is a 2.7 mile round trip hike and has absolutely stunning views from Pyramid Point overlook. This hike will take you through several terrains and is somewhat hilly but we didn’t find this one to be difficult either. Unless, of course, as I mentioned, you try climbing down and then back up the bluff.

I’d also highly recommend taking the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive. You can pick up a guide at the Visitor Center or at the entrance of the drive. There are many outlooks to stop at and admire and you can take as much or as little time as possible. Just don’t try to rush through this-there is a 20 mph speed limit here and you will sometimes be waiting for other cars to move before you have a chance to park. If you’re in a hurry, skip this one.
And, if you’re feeling a little on the lazier side, there’s always lots of beaches. Relax, have a picnic, soak up sun. Just remember, you’re in Michigan so the water might not be warm enough to go into. I’m from Ohio and I thought the water was freezing in June.

Food-
So you’re basically out in the middle of miles and miles of sand-where do you eat? If you plan ahead, which of course I didn’t, this is a great place to have a picnic.  Luckily, there are several small towns within less than 10 minutes driving distance from the Dune Climb that have plenty of options for food. And when I say small, I mean small. Like really small. Like so small that I accidently drove through the town without realizing it. Ok it only happened once, but hey, now you know, so you won’t make the same mistake I did! You can drive to Empire and Glen Arbor via M-109, so its a quick easy drive. Both of these towns have unique shopping options and food for when you’re ready to take a break from nature. And if you’re looking for parking, I suggest taking the first spot you find. We were there over a weekend and ended up parking on a back street and everything was within walking distance. Parking was free which is always a plus!

A must do while in Glen Arbor is Cherry Republic . There are more than one of these in Michigan, but the one in Glen Arbor is the one you have to experience. So basically, everything is made from cherries. YUM. This one has 3 separate buildings and a nice little courtyard area where you can eat and relax. The restaurant offers food and hand-dipped ice cream, all centered around, you guessed it, cherries! And its served in a pie plate, how cute is that!?! They have a tasting room, with wine for the adults and soda for the kiddos. And of course, a store where you can sample and bring home all of your favorite things cherry. We loved the cherry ginger ale and decided it was something that needed to come back to our hotel with us. They have everything from candy to soda to salsa as well as a catalog to order more of your cherry favorites when you return home.

Empire is pretty tiny, but we were able to find some pretty good pizza at the Empire Village Inn. Take some time to explore the shops there. There’s also the Empire Area Museum, which features several different buildings you can tour and learn about Empire’s history! We didn’t have a chance to go to that, simply because I didn’t know about it at the time, but it looks like something that could be fun and educational!

Where to stay
There are plenty of options in this area, however that being said, you must book this place early. There are many cottages and cabins that you can rent via airbnb.com or homeaway. Many of them do fill up pretty quickly though during the summer months. You can also camp at the park, they have many options but again, book early if you can. Camping information can be found here.  They have a limited number of first-come-first-serve sites, so if you can plan ahead, definitely do. There’s also a couple of hotels, but again, they’re best to book early unless you are going in the off season. They fill up fast. We actually planned our trip very last minute and were unable to find a hotel in the area that had anything available so we stayed about 45 minutes from the Dunes, which wasn’t terrible, just added in a lot of driving and is not really recommended after a long day of hiking.

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