Best Sleeping Bear Dunes Hiking: Alligator Hill Hiking Trail Guide

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?

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. 

Map showing Sleeping Bear Dunes located in central Michigan along Lake Michigan.
Sleeping Bear Dunes is located in the northwest region of Michigan’s lower peninsula.

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. 

Alligator Hill hiking trail map at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Park
Alligator Hill hiking trail has an easy, intermediate and advanced route to choose from.

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!

A wooden bench with partial shade from a tall tree overlooks the blue water of Lake Michigan from the Islands Lookout on the Alligator Hill hiking trail.
The Islands Lookout has a wooden bench where you can sit and enjoy the view.

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. 

Me with Lake Michigan behind me on the Alligator Hill hiking trail at Sleeping Bear Dunes.
Wear sunscreen and bring plenty of water for the Alligator Hill hiking trail.

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!

Related content to read next:

What to Wear Hiking in Summer: A Prepared Girl’s Guide

The Most Scenic State Park in Every State

Why You need to Kayak the Apostle Islands Sea Caves

20 Essential Outdoor Adventure Safety Tips

Check out my Minnesota travel page for even more inspiration and tips!

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Lush greenery overlook bright blue water. Text reads: Alligator Hill Hiking Trail - can you believe this hiking trail is in Michigan?!

10 thoughts on “Best Sleeping Bear Dunes Hiking: Alligator Hill Hiking Trail Guide

  1. This Big Wild World says:

    You’re welcome, Bea! I agree – it’s great that there are options and all of them have gorgeous views of Lake Michigan!

  2. This Big Wild World says:

    Ha ha yes! So many sand dunes along Lake Michigan! The Great Lakes always amaze me – and, yes, this trail is dog friendly (as long as dogs are kept on leash).

  3. This Big Wild World says:

    Glad that you found this helpful, Lasma! This is a great trail for less experienced hikers since you can choose whichever route feels best for your skill level and time available. Plus those gorgeous views such make it enjoyable!

  4. This Big Wild World says:

    I can see why – it’s a beautiful state! I grew up just over the border in Indiana and always loved exploring Michigan. Hope you get to visit soon!

  5. This Big Wild World says:

    So glad you found the map helpful, Linda! I love hiking trails with options so you can create-your-own-adventure!

  6. Bea Pinnegar says:

    Alligator Hill Hike sounds incredible – and I love that it has several routes with varying difficulty levels! Hoping to do this one sometime, thanks for sharing!

  7. Josy A says:

    I can totally see why you thought it was the ocean! I mean, it is just so flipping huge! The great lakes blow me away every time I see them. BUT having said that, how did I not know they also have sand dunes!? That is soooo cool!

    What a gorgeous area to explore and hike!! Is it doggo friendly for Hank too?

  8. Lasma says:

    I love how you share all this useful information. I wish I was a better hiker, but I’m not, so articles like this really help me prepare for it. And it actually looks fun!!

  9. kmf says:

    Michigan keeps calling my name! Would love to explore Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore and hike Alligator Hill. Beautiful!

  10. Linda (LD Holland) says:

    I was glad to see a map at the start of your post to see how we might get to the Sleeping Bear Dunes from Toronto. It was great to read that there are different paths on the Alligator Hill Hiking Trail. Our time would depend on both which path we took and how many times we stopped for views and photos. I suspect it would be a long hike to enjoy it all.

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