As a child, Lake Michigan was my playground on hot summer days. For years, I thought it was the ocean. After all, I couldn’t see to the other side and the waves came crashing down from way over my head. What I remember most vividly, though, is how grand the sand dunes were.
Located on the western coast of Michigan, Sleeping Bear Dunes is home to towering sand dunes and bluffs overlooking the bright blue water of Lake Michigan. It is designated as a national lakeshore, which means it is part of the US National Park Service.
Hiking is a great way to explore the area and all of its unique beauty. Among the best Sleeping Bear Dunes hiking spots is the Alligator Hill hiking trail.
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- Where is Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore?
- Alligator Hill Hiking Trail Basics
- Getting To/From the Alligator Hill Trailhead
- Alligator Hill Hiking Trail Highlights
- Alligator Hill Hiking Trail Tips
- Alligator Hill Hiking Trail Safety
- Alligator Hill Hiking Trail: Among the Best Sleeping Bear Dunes Trails
Where is Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore?
Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is located about 30 miles directly west of Traverse City. It’s on the western border of Michigan on Lake Michigan. The nearest town is Glen Arbor.
Because of its central location, Sleeping Bear Dunes is easy to access from both the lower and upper peninsulas of Michigan. There is also a ferry service that runs across Lake Michigan from Wisconsin.
For comparison, Sleeping Bear Dunes is about 335 miles from Chicago and 275 miles from Detroit.
Alligator Hill Hiking Trail Basics
This trail offers several options depending on your time and skill level. So, the difficulty and distance will vary based on which route you select.
- Distance: 2.7 miles (Easy), 4.9 miles (Intermediate), 9 miles (Advanced)
- Elevation Gain: 692 – 869 feet
- Elevation Loss: Same as gain
- Maximum Elevation: 978 – 994 feet
- Trailhead Start: Stocking Road Parking Lot
- Trailhead End: same as start
- Difficulty: Moderate (steep uphill and downhill)
- Recommended Start Time: Anytime!
- Time on the Trail: 1 – 4 hours (depending on route)
- Facilities: Pit toilet at trailhead parking lot
- Gear Needed: Day hiking essentials
Getting To/From the Alligator Hill Trailhead
Using the Dune Climb parking lot as a popular reference point, go north from there on M-109 for about ½ mile. Turn right onto Day Farm Road. After another ½ mile, turn left onto Stocking Road. Shortly after you turn left, the trailhead parking lot will be on the right.
Pro Tip: Type in “Alligator Hill Trail” into Google Maps to easily navigate to the trailhead parking lot.
While there is not a staffed ranger station at the trailhead parking lot, the Sleeping Bear Dunes entrance fee still applies. A pass must be purchased and displayed on your vehicle. Read more about Sleeping Bear Dunes passes and where to purchase them.
Alligator Hill Hiking Trail Highlights
Why is Alligator Hill one of the best Sleeping Bear Dunes trails? In addition to having many different routes to choose from, the trail offers a mix of sun and shade along with epic views of Lake Michigan.
The trail is named for its shape, not the presence of actual alligators (in case you were worried). Starting from the parking lot, there is a slow and steady gradual climb for about ¼ mile as you pass by the concrete remains of charcoal kilns. These are a remnant of the logging industry that was once prevalent in the area.
As you follow the easy trail to the left towards Islands Lookout point, the trail becomes more steep. I recommend staying to the left when you approach point #1 marked on the Alligator Hill trail map.
Pro Tip: Take a photo or screenshot of the Alligator Hill trail map so you can be sure to follow the route you’ve chosen. Intersections are labeled with numbers one through five to help you navigate.
The Islands Lookout (point #2) is a beautiful view of Lake Michigan and the Manitou Islands. There’s a bench here which makes a nice place to rest or enjoy a water break on a hot day.
From Islands Lookout, you have three options. First, you can follow the ridgeline to Big Glen Lookout. This is a 1.6 mile (0.8 miles each way) out-and-back trail to a viewpoint. I chose to skip this and continue on to the next option. Second, stay to the left and continue on to the intermediate trail. This is 1.9 miles to the advanced trail or 2.2 miles to make a figure eight and connect back with the easy trail. Third, go to the right to cut across the ridge and continue on the easy route.
If you’re having trouble following along with all of these options, the Friends of Sleeping Bear Dunes has a great Alligator Hill trail map showing all three routes on one map. Also, AllTrails has separate trail guides, one showing the easy and intermediate trails together and the other showing the easy and advanced trails together.
The remainder of the trail is a mix of inclines and declines with short flat sections as you wind around the base of the hill. The trail takes you through beech and maple forest with a combination of packed dirt, sand, and tree roots.
Overall, Alligator Hill is an incredibly diverse trail with stunning views. The intermediate and advanced trails are a nice challenge if you want a bit of a workout!
Alligator Hill Hiking Trail Tips
The trail varies from being quite wide to relatively narrow and overgrown in sections. The footpath is relatively free of excessive tree roots/ rocks (compared to the Superior Hiking Trail), though there is sand in some areas. Hiking poles are not necessary for most hikers, but they may be helpful on the hills and in the sand.
Be prepared for some elevation change in order to reach some of the best views of Lake Michigan and the surrounding area. There is a nice mix of shade and sunshine.
Alligator Hill Hiking Trail Safety
No matter how long the hike or how experienced you are,I always recommend bringing these day hiking essentials with you!
Specific risks on this trail include sun exposure, heat, mosquitoes, and dehydration. Black bears are common in the area, but as long as you make yourself known on the trail by making noise it’s unlikely you’ll have an encounter with them. Here’s more on bear safety tips for hikers!
Alligator Hill Hiking Trail: Among the Best Sleeping Bear Dunes Trails
Hiking is one of the best Sleeping Bear Dunes activities to truly appreciate the unique landscape of the park. The Alligator Hill hiking trail offers options for all skill levels and rewards hikers with awesome views of Lake Michigan. Have fun exploring!
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