Michigan’s Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore stretches 35 miles along the eastern coastline of Lake Michigan. The sandy slopes rise up to 450 feet off the water. In addition to the massive sand dunes and beaches, you can also access protected forests, lakes, and rivers. Sleeping Bear Dunes was named the “Most Beautiful Place in America” on ABC’s Good Morning America. No matter how you feel about morning show claims, it’s definitely not the ugliest place to find camping.
The hub for Sleeping Bear Dunes camping is near Glen Arbor, Michigan. There are many great camping options to be found, like the Platte River Campground, and hike-in spots on the Manitou Islands. They all have their own unique vibe. However, the quintessential Sleeping Bear Dunes camping experience is widely considered to be at D.H. Day Campground. It’s right near the town of Glen Arbor, and many of the sites are on or near the beach.
The Perfect Sleeping Bear Dunes Camping Trip
Here’s what you should keep in mind to get the most of your Sleeping Bear Dunes camping experience.
Sand. No really. Like, A Lot of Sand.
First of all, camping at Sleeping Bear Dunes can be a very unique experience. At times you feel like you may have dropped in on another planet — one with sand as far as the eye can see. Miles of rolling dunes lead to dramatic cliffs plummeting down to the clear blue waters of Lake Michigan.
The Dune Climb is the most visited attraction on a Sleeping Bear Dunes camping trip. The popular thing to do is run all the way down to the bottom. Just be prepared to be laughed at as you desperately claw your way back up. You’ll be gasping for air like you’re lost in the Sahara. (Bring water.)
Hiking in Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore
While the most well known images of Sleeping Bear Dunes are the angular sand cliffs jutting out of the lake, many of the large dunes are also covered in dense forests. In my opinion, the best Sleeping Bear Dunes hikes are through the woods first, finishing with a surprising and spectacular high elevation view at the top.
I like Pyramid Point trail north of Glen Arbor, and Empire Bluff trail, south of the village of Empire. Each are great hikes through the woods, with just enough incline to make you feel accomplished. They’re both between 1.2 and 1.5 miles long, round trip. You’re rewarded with high Lake Michigan overlooks hidden until the end. The views seem unreal, no matter how many times you’ve been.
If you have young hikers in tow, go with Empire Bluff. The advantage to Empire Bluff is a sneak peak view spot that looks north towards the sand cliffs of Sleeping Bear and the Bar Lakes. It’s a shorter trip to the sneak peak, and a great spot to gauge the interest and ability of the kids. Plus, at Empire Bluff you’re just a 5-minute drive from the town of Empire, where you’ll find ice cream, a playground, and one of the best beaches in the Sleeping Bear Dunes area, with access to both Lake Michigan and South Bar Lake on either side of the parking lot.
South Bar Lake also has a sandy beach with a playground, a dock, and is often warmer and less intimidating for the smaller kids.
Visiting Glen Haven & Glen Arbor
Sand dunes can be disorienting in their repetitive undulations. Make sure you get a sense of where your are in space and time with a history lesson at the Maritime Museum near Glen Arbor. While you’re at it, check out the historic village of Glen Haven.
Sleeping Bear Dunes lies along the Manitou Passage, a shipping channel that helped develop the entire Great Lakes region, and beyond.
Glen Arbor packs a lot to do in a small amount of space. There are multiple restaurants with good food, including great outdoor seating and entertainment, like Boondocks and Art’s Tavern. The original location of Cherry Republic is a must visit. Wine tasting for the adults, and free snack tasting for everyone.
This is where the bulk of your gift shopping will take place. Additionally, The Totem Shop is also a great place for kids and adults, with a classic toy and game section, candy, plus northern Michigan souvenirs, clothing, and food items. The Totem Shop, without question, was my favorite store as a kid. In town you can also rent kayaks and canoes, and paddle down the crystal river, or rent bikes and ride on the Sleeping Bear Dunes Heritage Trail.
Exploring the Manitou Islands
Finally, don’t forget about the Manitou Islands. They’re still part of Sleeping Bear Dunes, despite lying several miles offshore. If you’re feeling adventurous and flexible with your trip schedule, your Sleeping Bear Dunes camping experience can be kicked up a notch by taking a ferry out to either North or South Manitou Island, and hiking out to your campsite. The sites are more secluded than on the mainland, and there are plenty of great hikes on each island.
North Manitou Island is wilder, with primitive hike-in camping options requiring backcountry permits, and one small designated campground. So you can choose your own adventure based on how long you want to hike and how secluded you’d like your site.
The east side of each island offers uninterrupted views of the mainland and the Sleeping Bear Dunes cliffs. On the west side of the islands, it’s nothing but pure blue water with no land in sight. You’ll also find small ponds and lakes, historic lighthouses, an exposed shipwreck, cabins, and other relics of the shipping industry and past settlements on the islands.
Above all, know ahead of time that if the weather gets bad, the ferry doesn’t always make the trip. Therefore, you have to pack accordingly, with the possibility of being on the island an extra day or two. For an unforgettable Sleeping Bear Dunes camping experience, with a little more adventure, the Manitou Islands are arguably the coolest part of the entire National Lakeshore.