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Looking for a gorgeous, off the beaten path destination? Check out Sleeping Bear Dunes, near Traverse City, Michigan. Surrounded by acres of cherry trees and miles of vineyards, it’s THE place to be for breathtaking Lake Michigan sunsets. Here are the top things to do when visiting Sleeping Bear Dunes with the family.
Voted the “Most Beautiful Place in America” by thousands of viewers of “Good Morning America” in 2011, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is stunning. If you’ve never heard of it, you’re not alone – I didn’t know anything about it before friends of mine honeymooned there a few years ago. And I grew up very close to the base of Michigan without ever hearing of Sleeping Bear in northern Michigan. I’m so happy we stopped there on our way to Mackinac Island.
With 64 miles of beaches along Lake Michigan, giant sand dunes, hiking trails, two islands (North Manitou and South Manitou), 26 inland lakes, and more than 50,000 acres of land, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Park is spectacularly beautiful. Located in Empire, Michigan, we loved exploring the natural features along the way on the flat, temperate Good Harbor Bay Trail and the hilly Empire Bluff Trail. If your family loves biking, you will want to check out the 22-mile Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail, which connects to Glen Arbor.
Read More: Best Family Resorts in Michigan
Getting to Sleeping Bear Dunes
Traveling from Northern Indiana with my 10-year-old son and my parents, we headed for the Leelanau Peninsula. It’s located at the tip of the pinky finger of the Michigan mitten. If you ask people from Michigan where they live, they will hold up a hand — thumb out to the right, fingers together, so it looks like a mitten — and point to that spot on the mitten. Sleeping Bear Dunes is in the northwest corner of Michigan, therefore, at the tip of the pinky finger of the mitten.)
We headed toward Paw Paw and Kalamazoo before turning north toward Grand Rapids. Once we got to Cadillac, we knew we were in the home stretch to Traverse City and then Lake Leelanau. The state is divided into the lower peninsula and the upper peninsula (also known as “the U.P.,” whose residents charmingly call themselves “Yoopers”), and the topography looks very different from bottom to top.
Once we hit the west arm of the Grand Traverse Bay – picking our way up M-22 to the peninsula – the sight of the water took our breath away as the sun was going down. A deep U-shaped inlet called Suttons Bay cradles a town by the same name. We passed ice cream stores and art galleries on the main street. And two miles up the road, the entrance to the RV resort where we were staying snaked around and emptied out into a hilly field where we had a pull-through campsite.
TravelingMom Tip: If you’re making the drive in the fall, take M-119, Michigan’s “Tunnel of Trees.” It’s a beautiful drive any time, but it’s breathtaking during the fall when the leaves are changing colors.
Where is Pierce Stocking Drive?
Seriously, if you read nothing else in this article, pay attention to what I’m going to tell you about the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive, and especially outlooks 8 and 9. Shaped like a LeMans road racing circuit, Pierce Stocking Drive winds around itself like the entry road to Yosemite Park in California.
A scenic drive is a feature of many US National Parks and Pierce Stocking leads to breathtaking views.
Sleeping Bear Dunes Overlooks
The first stop is the Glen Lake Overlook, and my parents, son and I oohed and ahhhed at the vistas from a solidly-constructed deck with signs telling of shipwrecks in the area and explaining the history and vegetation. Next is the Dunes Overlook, where you can take in a panoramic view of the North and South Manitou Islands, Pyramid Point, Sleeping Bear Bay, the Sleeping Bear Dunes and more.
Your second stop should be the Lake Michigan Overlook, where you can climb a small hill to get to the elevated deck 450 feet above Lake Michigan. On a clear day, you can see all the way to Empire Bluffs, which is four miles away, and maybe even Platte Bay nine miles away. From this point, you can’t see it, but know that Wisconsin is just 54 miles across that giant body of water we know as Lake Michigan, which is the fourth largest freshwater lake in the world.
Who is Pierce Stocking?
He was an outdoorsman and lumberman who fell in love with the views of the dunes and came up with the idea for this scenic roadway. Completed in 1967, the road was operated by Stocking himself until he passed away in 1976; in 1977, the road was incorporated officially into the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.
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Where’s the Best Place to Watch a Sunset in Northern Michigan
Pull up a chair at overlook #9. When you look down over that dune from 450 feet up, you’ll notice a trail of tourists climbing up the steep hill and you may be tempted to try it too. A word of warning: Erosion has caused shrinkage to the beach that has made rescue more challenging and time-consuming.
If you attempt the dune climb and can’t make it, you’re going to feel the sting to your wallet to the tune of about $3,000. That’s the fee you’ll be charged for someone to rescue you if you get to the bottom of the dune but can’t make it back to the top.
The park makes it very clear with signage at the top that if you’re considering going down the hill, you might want to think again. In any case, please refrain from running down the hill, as it can be dangerous for not only you but the people below you.
Best Lake Michigan Beaches Near Sleeping Bear Dunes
If you want to put your feet in the water, Glen Haven beach right on Lake Michigan is highly recommended. If it’s not too crowded, it’s the perfect place to post up for the day. It looks out toward North and South Manitou islands and the Maritime Museum is close if you want to get out of the sun.
Port Oneida and Pyramid Point are more great access points. Be aware, however, that the hike out to Pyramid Point may be more than you wish to take on. My parents, 74 and 76, were tired by the time we got to that trailhead and we opted out. Instead, we explored the roads around the area and ended up off-roading in our Dodge Durango under a canopy of leafy green tree cover.
Where to Find Wild Cherries
Where can you find wild cherries in the middle of a Northern Michigan summer? Everywhere.
As soon as we turned out of our RV campground, we started to spot farmers’ stands laden with Michigan cherries, tomatoes, peaches and more. The quaint stand we chose had an honor system for purchasing the fruit, and we stuffed our five-dollar bills into the dented red money box before walking away with pints of cherries.
You may not have known that Michigan is the leading tart cherry producer in the United States, topping out at 70 to 75 percent of the total every year. Michigan usually produces 200 to 250 million pounds of tart cherries out of a total U.S. crop of 250-300 million pounds. The cherry harvest depends upon many factors, including weather and the age of the trees.
Cherries grow everywhere you look: there are 36,000 acres of cherry trees in Michigan. And the Grand Traverse region, which is where we were staying, produces 100 million pounds or more, which is more than 50 percent of Michigan’s annual tart cherry crop.
Where Can You Try a Cherry Burger?
The harvest is so prolific that Michiganders mix them in with just about anything. Have you ever tried a hamburger laced with chopped tart cherries? Some years ago, Michigan businessman Ray Pleva pureed cherries and added the fruit to beef patties to make his famous cherry burger. Infusing the puree adds an almost imperceptible cherry flavor but gives the burgers a juicier texture.
The Cherry Hut in Beulah, Michigan (about 30 minutes south of the Sleeping Bear Dunes), is an iconic spot for that cherry burger you’re craving.
But burgers aren’t the only way to get your cherry fix. Far from it! In a two-day visit, I had cherry lemonade, cherry salsa, cherry vinaigrette, cherry honey, dried cherry and chicken salad and cherry ice cream. I didn’t even get to try a cherry pie while I was there but trust me, you’ll find them. I have information from a good source that Grand Traverse Pie Company offers amazing cherry pies, and that’s on my list for the next trip.
Cherry Good Food Near Sleeping Bear Dunes
- Want to take home some cherry gifts? Cherry Republic is the world’s largest exclusive retailer of cherry products. It offers group tours and wine tasting along with cherry preserves, salsa, chocolate-covered cherries and all of the other treats you can imagine.
- Try the cherry cider or cherry wine at M-22 in Glen Arbor, where you can get a flight of wines and ciders in petite branded cups. It’s part of the Glen Arbor Village Wine Trail and rivals Sonoma and Napa for sprawling vineyards.
- At Slabtown Burgers in Traverse City, try the TC Cherry Burger. It’s topped with dried cherries, blue cheese, grilled onions and creamy mayo. Sweet, salty, and delicious.
- South of the Sleeping Bear Dunes on Crystal Lake in Beulah, the Cherry Hut offers a smorgasbord of menu items that include cherries. This seasonal summer eatery has been open since 1922 and offers choices like a cherry chicken salad croissant, cherry-ade, cherry pie and even a cherry jelly & peanut butter sandwich for the kiddos.
- At Hop Lot in Suttons Bay, order the cherry chicken salad; nearby VI Grill has a cherry vinaigrette dressing that is so good you can almost drink it straight.
Sights to See Along the Way to Sleeping Bear Dunes
Just outside of the entrance to Sleeping Bear Dunes is a little town called Glen Arbor, nestled between Sleeping Bear Bay and Glen Lake. The Crystal River flows through Glen Arbor, feeding into Lake Michigan’s Sleeping Bear Bay. This adorable town has a friendly vibe and many things to do.
Stop here for the M22 winery and Cherry Republic, two highlights of the area.
Historic Fishtown in Leland, Michigan, is one of the last working fishing districts on the Great Lakes. Weathered shanties have turned into tourist-friendly shops and eateries in the same theme as when it was created in the 19th century.
Travelers visit Fishtown and the local area to engage in water sports and bring their own paddle boards, kayaks, boats and more; nearby Sugarloaf Mountain is great for hikes and there are lots of options for anyone looking for gifts to bring home.
Arcadia Dunes is the Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy (TRLC)’s largest preserve, with more than 15 miles of trails. Untamed growth tries to take over, but the trails are intact.
The Dry Hill Trail from the St. Pierre trailhead, for instance, is a 10-mile loop. In the spring, take this hiker- and trail-runner-friendly trail featuring vibrant and gorgeous wildflower displays.
Camping at Sleeping Bear Dunes
I’m allergic to camping.
No, really. When I was a kid, I suffered from some intense allergy and asthma issues. My parents took me to the emergency room several times a year and I spent at least a week as an in-patient at the hospital under an oxygen tent or getting breathing treatments around the clock. I didn’t get along well with grass. Or trees. Or anything with fur.
Tents, which are typically outdoors, where grass and trees and weeds tend to congregate in groups larger than 10, were out of the question for me. At least, until I was 14 and launched my new camping career with five days roughing it in Colorado for a school trip.
It’s been a long time since I rolled out a sleeping bag and I’ve found a much better solution: RVing. And when you find the right campground, RVing is downright luxurious compared to the old tent days.
So I booked a 33-foot RV through RVShare and towed it up to northern Michigan with a Dodge Durango SRT to visit the Sleeping Bear Dunes with my 10-year-old son and my parents to have a Lake Michigan bucket list adventure.
We had booked a campsite at the Wild Cherry RV Resort in Leelanau County; not only is it just 15 miles from Sleeping Bear National Park, it’s surrounded by 24 wineries within a 10-mile radius. The site bills it as the “Napa Valley of the North” and even if you don’t drink wine, the natural beauty is remarkable.