8 Top Things to Do on a Sleeping Bear Dunes Day Trip

Looking for a dose of the Caribbean in <checks notes> the Midwest? Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore has all the Caribbean vibes with deep blue water, sandy beaches and beautiful hikes with overlooks of the shoreline.

If you are short on time, here are 8 awesome things to do on a Sleeping Bear Dunes day trip. In fact, they’re so awesome that you might be tempted to stay for more than a day!

Best of Sleeping Bear Dunes in Michigan with image of me riding a bike next to sand dunes.

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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 along Lake Michigan in the northern part of Michigan’s lower peninsula.

For comparison, Sleeping Bear Dunes is about 335 miles from Chicago and 275 miles from Detroit.

Sleeping Bear Dunes Day Trip: Know Before You Go

Unlike many of the US National Parks that have clear entry and exit points, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore has many locations spread out along the lakeshore. It may not be obvious, but a national park pass is still required at all of the Sleeping Bear Dunes locations. 

Fortunately, there are a lot of places where you can purchase a pass! Here is the current list of where to purchase a Sleeping Bear Dunes park pass

Sleeping Bear Dunes Day Trip: Top Things to Do

1 | Hike to some amazing views on the Alligator Hill Trail.

Islands Lookout Point on the Alligator Hill Hike with view of bright blue water of Lake Michigan.
The Alligator Hill hike at Sleeping Bear Dunes offers stunning views of the lake and shoreline from above.

This has to be one of the best Sleeping Bear Dunes hiking trails! The trail has three different routes, perfect for hikers of all different skill levels. All of the routes include a stop at the Islands Overlook with stunning views of the shoreline and Manitou Islands from above. 

Read my detailed trail guide to plan your Alligator Hill Trail hike.

2 | Brave the Dune Climb.

The Dune Climb is one of the most popular destinations in Sleeping Bear Dunes. Essentially it’s a very large sand dune that you can climb up and over, a total of 3.5 miles from the parking lot to the shore of Lake Michigan and back.

But, be warned! This is a grueling hike with several safety risks to consider. First, there is zero shade on this hike. You are hiking up and down steep, hot sand. Second, while the hike down to Lake Michigan may take under 30 minutes, the hike back up the dune can take 2+ hours! It’s not uncommon for visitors to get stranded and have to be rescued on this hike – and that costs a pretty penny.

The Dune Climb at Sleeping Bear Dunes is a towering sand dune with access to Lake Michigan.
The Dune Climb may not look challenging from the parking lot, but beware!

Recommendations:

  • Wear closed toe shoes to protect from the hot sand
  • Layer up with plenty of sun protection
  • Bring plenty of water
  • Do the hike in the morning or evening to avoid the midday sun and heat
  • Consider hiking just the first 0.5 miles to get a glimpse of Lake Michigan

Pro Tip: Want a similar dune hike experience with less risk? Try the Baldy Dune Trail in nearby Arcadia Dunes. This 1.8 mile out and back trail has stunning views but much of the trail is through a forest with plenty of shade.

3 | Drive the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive.

This 7.4 mile scenic drive winds through the forest, dunes, historical points of interest, a covered bridge and more at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. Read more about 12 of the best stops along Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive here.

Pro Tip: Download the National Park Service app for a free self-guided tour on this drive. Trailhead maps and park signage also have QR codes you can scan to download the app.

4 | Bike along the Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail.

Me wearing sunglasses and a bike helmet with the Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail and sand dunes behind me.
The Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail provides access to the Dune Climb, Glen Haven beach, Glen Arbor, Alligator Hill and more.

Explore this 20+ mile mostly paved trail (aside from a small section with crushed gravel) that extends from just south of Empire to the Good Harbor Trailhead. The path takes you past the Dune Climb, along Glenhaven Beach, through the town of Glen Arbor and even to the Alligator Hill Trailhead (see #1). 

The trail is relatively flat with some smaller rolling hills, making the trail ideal for beginner and intermediate bicyclists. Find a map of the Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail here

Pro Tip: If you are looking for a place to unload your own bikes, try parking at the picnic area across from the Dune Climb parking lot. It’s far less crowded and busy. Keep in mind that a park pass is still required to park in this lot!

There are convenient bike rental options available. The Cyclery, located in Glen Arbor, has easy access to the trail though they also offer delivery of bike rentals. Their shop is open 7 days/ week. Sleeping Bear Surf & Kayak, located in Empire, also has easy access to the trail and is open every day except Sunday. 

5 | Go tubing on the Platte River.

Tubing or kayaking the Platte River is a great way to spend a hot summer day in Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. Riverside Canoes, located in the town of Honor, offers two different tube rental options. If you’re short on time try the Loon and Walk, which a 45 minute float (1 hour total) that starts at their shop. If you’ve got more time and want to float all the way to the beach, try the Weir to Lake Michigan which is a 2-3 hour trip total. Both trips have a short distance you have to walk before or after the float.

Pro Tip: Ask for rope to tie several tubes together for a group float. They also have floating coolers available to rent for drinks and snacks!

6 | Take a ferry to the Manitou Islands.

Lighthouse on South Manitou Island, Sleeping Bear Dunes
Be sure to visit South Manitou Island lighthouse while on the island. Photo Credit: Canva

Why not spend the day on an island? The Manitou Islands ferry runs nearly every day from mid-June to Labor Day with a reduced schedule early and late in the season. On the island, enjoy a day at the beach, climb to the top of the South Manitou Island lighthouse, or paddle along the shoreline.

There are limited services on South Manitou Island, so be sure to pack a lunch, water and anything else you need for the day. There are restrooms with running water at the village (where the boat docks) and outhouses elsewhere on the island. For a fee, kayaks and canoes can be transported on the ferry but rentals are not available on the island. 

An alternative to spending the day on the island is to take a 1.5 hour guided cruise around North and South Manitou Islands

7 | Grab ice cream and a bite to eat in Glen Arbor.

What better way to cool off than a scoop (or two) of ice cream? Be sure to stop at The Pine Cone in Glen Arbor for a treat! If you like cherries, walk over to Cherry Public House for cherry everything including ice cream and pie! They also have a full pub menu!

Unfortunately, my experience at Western Avenue Grill was underwhelming. The food was just ok and overpriced. I would give it a pass.

8 | Relax at Glen Haven Beach (also called Sleeping Bear Beach).

Grab your sunscreen and beach towel and head to the beach for an afternoon! The Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail takes you right past this beach, not far from the Dune Climb. So, it’s a great place to stop on a bike ride!

There is a parking lot available but expect it to fill up by late morning. Street parking is available in the area. While you’re at the beach, be sure to stop at the Cannery Boathouse Museum and Glen Haven Village for a brief history of the area.

Enjoy your Sleeping Bear Dunes Day Trip

There are so many fun things to do on a Sleeping Bear Dunes day trip or extended visit. It is such a unique and beautiful part of the midwest!

Related content to read next:

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

How to Avoid Getting Eaten Alive by Mosquitoes and Ticks (for Hikers!)

Day Hike Packing List: A Prepared Girl’s Guide

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4 thoughts on “8 Top Things to Do on a Sleeping Bear Dunes Day Trip

  1. This Big Wild World says:

    Great question, Josy! I actually had to look up the history of the name. It was named after an Ojibwe story where a forest fire caused a mother and two cubs to go into the lake for safety. After swimming for miles, the mother reached the shore and waited, hoping that the cubs would make it as well. According to the story, one of the sand dunes resembled the mother bear waiting along the shoreline for her cubs and the two Manitou Islands were created to honor them. Over the years, the sand dune has eroded so it does not look as much like a sleeping bear.

    However, there are black bears in Sleeping Bear Dunes and the surrounding area, so all of the usual bear safety precautions should be taken.

  2. This Big Wild World says:

    I don’t know what it is about them, but I love lighthouses. Good question! The South Manitou Island lighthouse is 65 feet tall.

  3. Josy A says:

    Oooh this all looks fab Susan! Do you know how the park got its name? I wonder if bears used to sleep around the dunes!?

    The dune climb does not sound like my cup of tea (unless…maybe in winter when it’s not so hot!?) But all the other activities sound great! The views from Alligator Hill are lovely, and I am always up for tasting cherry pie!

  4. Yanitza says:

    I would definitely love to take the Manitou Islands ferry! And the lighthouse looks so pretty! I wonder how tall the lighthouse is.

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