5 Reasons to Visit Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore

Hidden hikes and backcountry island camping make this NPS unit a must-see.

Located on the northwest coast of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula sits a 71,000-acre National Park named after an Ojibwa legend. An illustration for visitors on South Manitou Island maps out the park’s story:

Many moons ago, in a land beyond the water, lived a mother bear and her three cubs. One day, a great fire broke out! And all the animals fled. The bear ran into the lake. She swam for two days and two nights. The cubs followed. She climbed out on a distant shore. For many days and nights, she watched for the cubs. Alas, they were too weak and did not make it. It is said she lies there still, the sleeping bear, and that the Islands Manitou have arisen where the cubs were last seen.

Now those three bears make up a landmass visited annually by more than 1.5 million people who want to take advantage of both its crowded and secluded wilderness areas. If you weren’t already set on going, here are five reasons to plan your trip, ASAP.

1. There Are Secret Trails to Visit—If You Know Where to Look

Photo: Mikah Meyer

A Michigan local named Lyndsay reached out after seeing my story on the news and asked to take me on a hike. We went to her favorite spot via a secret trail that isn’t listed on the National Park Service maps. To find out how to get there, see #1 on my Under-the-Radar Hikes in the Upper Midwest post. What I liked best about this trail was the lack of crowds and dramatic cliff views.

2. Many of the Park’s Trails Lead to Lakeside Views

Photo: Mikah Meyer

As its name would suggest, Pyramid Point marks the tip of the park. Catch stunning sunsets from the point after just a 30-minute hike from the parking lot. It’s a steep haul the entire way, but the reward is a majestic view of Lake Michigan.

However, hiker beware! There were tons of insects during summer months, so many that it was nearly impossible to take pictures without being mauled by biting flies and mosquitoes. I recommend wearing long pants and sleeves—basically, cover yourself like a beekeeper.

3. Two Words: Island Hopping

The North Manitou Shoal Lighthouse | Photo: Mikah Meyer

While the main part of Sleeping Bear Dunes receives 1.5 million visitors a year, the only about 6,000 of them ever venture out to the Manitou Islands. North Manitou Island feels like untouched wilderness—it doesn’t even have campsites, but you can stay there with a backcountry permit. Head to South Manitou Island as a mainland escape with slightly more services. Both islands are reached via Manitou Island Transit and reservations are recommended to get a seat, especially during the peak summer season.

4. You Can Catch its Best Hits Along One Drive

Photo: Mikah Meyer

For a national lakeshore split into three large chunks of land (plus two islands off its western coast), Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive gives a great orientation to all that Sleeping Bear Dunes has to offer. It showcases a sweeping view of Lake Michigan and hits the popular and obligatory Dune Climb.

5. You Can Kick Back on the Water After a Long Hike

Photo: Mikah Meyer

Though Lake Michigan is basically too cold to swim in (unless you’re under 17 or very brave), there are plenty of opportunities to get on the water when you’re ready to relax after exploring the trails. Visitors can canoe, paddleboard, and kayak on the lake’s pristine blue waters. If you have your heart set on swimming, the water at Little Glen Lake tends to run a little warmer due to the lake’s shallow-12 foot depth.

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