12 Epic Hiking Trails at Sleeping Bear Dunes

Get ready to unleash your inner explorer at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore; with around 85 miles of hiking trails on the mainland, 12 miles on South Manitou Island, and more than 20 miles on North Manitou Island, there is a lot of ground to cover, along with many breathtaking landscape views.

On our most recent trip to the Dunes, we managed to hike seven hiking trails at the Sleeping Bear Dunes mainland in 2.5 days and could have gotten one or two more had we not decided to visit a nearby lighthouse!

Grab your gear, put on your trail-blazing attitude, and dive into the twelve best hiking trails at Sleeping Bear Dunes mainland!

1. Dune Climb Trail

Distance: 3.8 miles round trip

Difficulty: Advanced (Strenuous)

Highlights: Ascend the towering dunes for panoramic views of Lake Michigan and the surrounding forests ending at Lake Michigan.

Trailhead: 6900 S Dune Hwy, Empire, MI 49630

People climbing the Sand Dune to get to the start of the Dune Climb Hiking Trail at Sleeping Bear Dunes.

The Dune Climb Hiking Trail at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is a challenging 3.8-mile round-trip trail that will take you through the beautiful landscape of towering dunes, offering breathtaking views of Lake Michigan. 

As you ascend the dunes, you'll question whether you will reach the lake over the next dune. There will be five dunes that you will need to climb before reaching Lake Michigan.

The hike begins in vast parking lot equipped with restrooms and picnic tables. At the base of the dunes, there is also the Dunes Bookstore, where you can pick up some souvenirs.

Be sure to use the restroom and plan to take at least two bottles of water per person. The entire hike to the lake and back will likely take three to four hours.

TIP: The parking lot can fill up quickly, so it is advisable to arrive early.

Once you embark on the Dune Climb, you will find yourself surrounded by pure wind-blown sand. The trail features steep inclines, providing a challenging ascent that requires some physical stamina.

It is recommended to assess your group's fitness levels beforehand and ensure you have an ample supply of water.

There will be blue-tipped markers along the way to keep you on the trail once you climb the first dune. At Mile 1, you will see the best views of South Manitou Island. Be on the lookout for the island's historic lighthouse.

One of the highlights of this hike is its flexibility. You have the freedom to choose the distance you want to hike. The trail leads all the way to the enchanting shoreline of Lake Michigan, but reaching this point is considered strenuous and may take around 3-4 hours to complete.

If you decide to hike all the way to the lake, you might be able to spot some shipwreck wreckage about a quarter of a mile to the north and south of the trail. The wreckage is believed to be from the James McBride (which sank in 1857).

However, if you prefer a shorter hike, you can trek to a point where you can catch a stunning view of Lake Michigan and then turn back. It's a personal choice that allows you to tailor the hike to your preferences.

Be aware that hiking downhill offers the advantage of gravity, making it easier to descend. Running down the dunes may seem tempting, but since the sand can be slippery, it's important not to let your feet get ahead of you to avoid any injuries.

TIP: Wear proper footwear – while it may be tempting to be barefoot, the sand gets hot and is abrasive.

Remember to pause and soak in the panoramic views, allowing the vastness of the dunes and the endless expanse of the lake to inspire awe within you. You will likely need to rest anyway; enjoy it!

TIP: If you struggle with the dune climb at the start of the trail, you should consider turning around at that point; it won't get any easier.

2. Pyramid Point Trail

Distance: 2.6-mile loop, or 1.2-mile out and back

Difficulty:  Moderate

Highlights: Trek through lush beech-maple forests before reaching the stunning overlook at Pyramid Point. Enjoy sweeping vistas of Lake Michigan and the Manitou Islands, and marvel at the picturesque bluffs.

Trailhead: Basch Road, 2 miles north of M-22, via Port Oneida Road.

Pyramid Point Trail at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore got its name from the pointed shape it formed during the Ice Age. At one point, the point projected more than 2 miles into Lake Michigan. Over time the waves wore down the area, leaving behind the bluff you see today. 

This moderate 2.6-mile loop trail offers a great view of the Manitou Islands and the shipping lane between Pyramid Point and the Islands – maybe you'll see a freighter! 

If you want to walk only some of the loop, consider the 1.2-mile out-and-back option to the abovementioned lookout. Most people go with this shorter option.

If you stay on course for the entire loop, you will pass through the remains of 19th-century farms and some of the largest trees in the park (Beech-Maple forest). Plan an October visit to enjoy the blazing fall colors.

3. Empire Bluff Trail

Distance: 1.5 miles round trip

Difficulty: Easy

Highlights: Traverse through a peaceful forest to reach the Empire Bluff overlook. Be rewarded with breathtaking views of the shimmering lake, pristine shoreline, and the majestic Sleeping Bear Dunes.

Trailhead: From the Philip Hart Visitor Center (9922 Front Street, Empire), head south on M-22 for 1.7 miles and turn right on Wilco Road. The trail and parking will be on the left.

A view of the Empire Bluff from the Empire Bluff Hiking Trail at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.

Empire Bluff Hiking Trail at Sleeping Bear Dunes is a scenic 1.5-mile round-trip trail leading you through a picturesque forest and a breathtaking overlook of Lake Michigan. The lookout is more than 450 feet above the lake elevation!

Empire Bluffs Trail is one of the most popular trails in the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore and tends to be crowded. It was by far the busiest trail on our most recent visit.

The parking lot is often full. Vehicles tend to park along the edge of the roadway if parking in the lot isn't available.

TIP: Check the NPS app or MichiganTrailMaps.com for trail guides that explain the six interpretive spots along the trail.

The trail winds through the forest, and as you approach the end of the trail, the forest opens up, revealing an expansive panorama of Lake Michigan's crystal-clear waters. 

At 0.5 miles in, you will see the first panoramic glimpse of Lake Michigan. At the 0.75-mile mark, you've reached the trail's end, where benches are available to relax and enjoy the fantastic views.

The Empire Bluff Trail offers a serene escape from everyday life. Enjoy a snack or meal at the overlook before returning to the parking lot. 

As tempting as it might seem, hiking down bluffs is discouraged. It causes dune erosion, damaging an already delicate ecosystem, plus it's a long trek back to the top!

TIP: The trail is open year-round. If visiting in the winter, be sure you have snowshoes or ice cleats on, as the trail is usually slippery. 

Are you looking for an excellent spot to enjoy a sunset? Arrive just before dusk on a clear evening for gorgeous views. Take a flashlight so you can get back to the vehicle safely.

4. Platte Plains Trail

Distance: 3.5 to 7.2-mile loops, 15 miles total (backcountry camping available)

Difficulty: Easy

Highlights: Fabulous coastal views and is home to some of the best beaches in Michigan. Excellent place for birdwatching and wildflower viewing.

Trailhead: Several trailheads are available within the Platte River Campground. Other trailheads start at the end of Esch Road and Trail's End Road.

Sign pointing out the trailhead for Otter Creek Hiking Trail.

The Platte Plains Trail is part of the more extensive trail network within the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, allowing hikers to connect to other trails if desired. This system provides opportunities for longer hikes to explore a diverse, gently rolling landscape of forests and dunes.

Platte Plains has three loops available, with the Lasso Loop (7.2 miles) being the longest looped trail. The Lasso Loop has multiple access points to Lake Michigan.

The Otter Creek Loop (trailhead off Esch Road) provides the best possibility for wildlife viewing in the park. The plants and terrain in this area provide some of the best bird viewing in the park. The loop passes three lakes.

5. Alligator Hill Trail

Distance: 3 to 4.6 miles round trip 

Difficulty: Moderate

Highlights: Enjoy sweeping panoramic views of Lake Michigan and the Manitou Islands. There are also charcoal kilns to explore.

Trailhead: From M-109, turn south on Stocking Road. The trailhead parking lot is 1.75 miles from the intersection.

A view of the Charcoal Kilns near the start of the Alligator Hill Hiking Trail at Sleeping Bear Dunes.

The Alligator Hill Trail Easy Loop and the Big Glen Look are this area's most popular hiking trails. This scenic trail offers hikers a chance to explore diverse landscapes, including lush beech-maple forests, rolling hills, and breathtaking overlooks of Lake Michigan.

The kilns near the parking lot were constructed in the 1950s by lumberman Pierce Stocking. Pierce later created the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive.

The trail starts with an uphill climb for the first half of the course. The path is wide and well-marked. This trail system is the only one within the park where horses are allowed.

There is a bench near Mile 1.4 (Islands Lookout). You can enjoy a scenic view of the forest, sandy shoreline, and the Islands in the distance from this location. Another bench is at the Big Glen Lookout. This viewpoint is less lovely than the Islands Lookout, as only a portion of Big GLen Lake is viewable.

6. Sleeping Bear Point Trail

Distance: 2.8 miles round trip

Difficulty: Moderate

Highlights: Traverse through a ghost forest, dunes, and panoramic views of Lake Michigan and the Manitou Islands.

Trailhead: From M-109, continue north on Glen Haven Road and into Glen Haven, then turn west on Sleeping Bear Dunes Road.

A view of Lake Michigan from the Sleeping Bear Dunes Hiking Trail at the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.

Expect a captivating blend of natural wonders and breathtaking vistas along the Sleeping Bear Point Hiking Trail at Sleeping Bear Dunes. This moderate 2.8-mile loop trail takes you on a memorable journey through diverse landscapes, providing an immersive experience in the beauty of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.

The trail winds through the dunes, offering a unique opportunity to witness the ever-shifting sand formations and the undulating patterns nature creates. Prepare to be awe-struck by these dunes' sheer scale and majesty.

Two overlook points provide spectacular panoramic views and allow you to pause, take in the breathtaking scenery, and capture stunning photographs. The contrast between the vibrant blue of the lake and the golden hues of the surrounding dunes creates a visual spectacle that is truly unforgettable.

The trail starts and ends in a wooded area. The path has blue-tipped posts to help you stay on course. Sometimes the poles take work to spot.

Near mile 1, you will come across some ghost forest trees. Ghost trees are killed but are still left standing because of the migrating sand. Soon after, you will spot Devil's Hole, a natural hole of stunted trees surrounded by migrating dunes.

After mile 2, you will drop back into the spruce-birch forest, which is scenic and shaded. 

TIP: If you have time check out the Glen Haven Historic Village and Maritime Museum – they are on your way to the trail!

7. Bay View Trail

Distance: 7.5 miles in 4 loops, 6.4-mile premiere hike

Difficulty: Easy to Moderate

Highlights: The trail is centered around the Port Oneida Rural Historic District, offering serene views of the beech-maple forest and old farm fields. This trail provides a tranquil and peaceful hiking experience.

Trailhead: Thoreson Road, a quarter mile from the M-22 intersection.

As you hike along the Bay View Hiking Trail at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, you'll not only be treated to breathtaking natural beauty but also have the opportunity to explore the area's rich history through its historic farms and buildings.

The Bay View Trail takes you past several preserved historic sites (or sites undergoing preservation) that offer a glimpse into the region's agricultural past. These farms and buildings serve as a reminder of the hard work and dedication of the early settlers who cultivated the land and shaped the community.

The Port Oneida Rural Historic District is a notable historic site along the trail. This district encompasses a collection of farmsteads and agricultural buildings, showcasing the architectural styles and techniques of the time. As you walk through this area, you'll have the chance to see beautifully restored barns, houses, and outbuildings, each with its own unique story to tell.

There are multiple lookout points along the trail and many options for looping to the distance you are comfortable hiking. The northern part of the loop system is the most popular.

8. Windy Moraine Trail

Distance: 1.5 miles

Difficulty: Moderate

Highlights: Discover the glacial remnants and the moraines created by past ice ages. Traverse through forests and rolling terrain, providing a scenic journey through the park's geological history.

Trailhead: Welsh Road, just east of M-109, near Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive.

The trail with trees growing on each side, a typical view along the Windy Moraine Hiking Trail at Sleeping Bear Dunes.

The Windy Moraine Hiking Trail at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is a 1.5-mile loop trail that takes you through a unique moraine formation, showcasing the impressive forces of nature that shaped the area.

The Windy Moraine Trail beings in a mowed field, but you will soon be immersed in a serene forest. Tall trees provide shade, and birds chirping create a harmonious backdrop. The trail gently meanders through the woods, offering a tranquil and peaceful atmosphere.

Along the way, you will find nine number posts that correspond to the trail guide that you can find on the NPS app or MichiganTrailMaps.com. Two notable stops along the route are #5, the remnants of a 200-year-old maple tree, and #7, an overlook of Little Glen Lake, Sleeping Bear Dune, and the Manitou Islands if the day is clear (only visible October-winter due to foliage).

TIP: Visit the trail during July or August for berry picking! 

9. Good Harbor Bay Trail

Distance: 2.8-mile loop

Difficulty: Easy

Highlights:  The trail is primarily flat and shaded. There is also a nearby picnic area that has a pit toilet and easy beach access to Lake Michigan.

Trailhead: From M-22, 9 miles north of Glen Arbor, turn north on Bohemian Road (County Road 669) and then right on Lake Michigan Road.

A boardwalk along the Good Harbor Trail at Sleeping Bear Dunes.

The Good Harbor Bay Trail leads you through a diverse landscape of forests and wetlands. Once you enter the trail, follow the loop in a clockwise direction.

The trail meanders through a tranquil forest, providing a peaceful and serene atmosphere. At mile 0.6, the trail crosses some ancient shorelines. Continuing a footbridge will lead you through the wooded wetlands and across a stream. 

There will be junctions at two locations along the trail; turn right at both. This trail is an excellent option if you have tired legs from sandy trails!

TIP: This trail is popular in the winter season. The slope never exceeds 10%, and snow tends to melt slower because it is wooded.

10. Cottonwood Trail

Distance: 1.7 miles round trip

Difficulty: Moderate

Highlights: Explore the Sleeping Bear Plateau's rolling dunes and Lake Michigan's vista views.

Trailhead: Located along the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive, 2.3 miles from the entrance booth.

A view of Glen Lake from the Cottonwood Hiking Trail at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.

The Cottonwood Trail at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore provides a captivating hiking experience through perched dunes, where you will enjoy native plants that help to stabilize the dunes. 

The Cottonwood Trail is a moderate interpretive 1.7-mile loop with nine posts along the way corresponding with a brochure on the NPS app or MichiganTrailMaps.com.

The first half of the trail has a lot of loose sand along hilly terrain. The path has very little shade. Take your time to savor the moments and appreciate the ever-changing scenery that unfolds with each step.

The highlight of the Cottonwood Trail is the panoramic vista that awaits you at the overlook point, where there are two benches under some trees. From this vantage point, you'll be rewarded with breathtaking views of the surrounding landscape, including the sparkling waters of Lake Michigan in the distance. 

11. Kettles Trail

Distance: 3.4 miles

Difficulty: Moderate to Advanced

Highlights: Experience the unique geological formations created by ancient glacial activity. This trail offers a tranquil walk in both forests and meadows. There is an accessible route to a kettle overlook.

Trailhead: On Baatz Road near Fritz Road. From M-72, go north on County Road 669, and after 2 miles, turn west on Baatz Road. In 2.2 miles, the trailhead is on the north side of the road.

A view of the Bog along the Kettles Trail at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.

The Kettles Hiking Trail at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is different from all the other hikes at the park. This hidden gem offers a unique hiking experience through a geological wonderland known as the Kettles, where ancient glacial activity has sculpted the landscape into a series of dramatic depressions. 

The trail opened in 2019 and is the most inland trail at the park. Being inland makes it one of the best places for winter activities (skiing and snowshoeing), as it gets more snow than all other park areas. The spring season offers excellent wildflower viewing.

The Kettles Trail spans approximately 3.4 miles round trip, taking you through forests and open meadows. There is some backtracking on this trail. The trail's southern portion is moderate, while the northern part is more challenging, with frequent ascents and descents (more than 20% grade).

As you venture down the trail, you'll encounter the main highlight: the Kettles. These unique depressions in the earth were formed thousands of years ago by the retreat of glaciers, leaving behind deep bowl-shaped indentations in the ground. These geological formations range in size and depth, creating an otherworldly and mysterious atmosphere.

While hiking the Kettles Trail, watch for the diverse plant and animal life that call this area home. You may encounter colorful wildflowers, vibrant mosses, and curious woodland creatures along the way. This trail offers a fantastic opportunity for nature enthusiasts and photographers to capture the beauty of the flora and fauna that flourish in this unique habitat.

A green and white trillium wildflower along the Kettles Trail.

TIP: Put on some bug spray before venturing onto this trail.

12. Shauger Hill Trail

Distance: 2.2 miles

Difficulty: Moderate

Highlights: Tranquil forest setting with diverse flora and fauna. Great wildflowers and morels in the spring and excellent fall colors.

Trailhead: Located in a parking lot on the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive entrance just off M-109. The parking lot is before the contact station, and the trailhead is at the east end of the parking lot.

TIP: This parking lot provides access to the Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail and the Scenic Drive Ski Trail.

A view of the Shauger Hill Hiking Trail at Sleeping Bear Dunes.

The Shauger Hill Trail is a moderate to advanced hilly 2.2-mile loop that meanders through a beech-maple forest and red pine plantations and offers a few clearings.

Watch for wildflowers in the spring, and enjoy the blazing colors in the fall. The trail provides an opportunity to connect with nature and appreciate the intricate beauty that surrounds you.

This trail is one of the few that doesn't provide Lake Michigan and dune views, but it is enjoyable as it is less crowded and offers plenty of shade. 

FAQs:

Are dogs allowed on the hiking trails at Sleeping Bear Dunes?

Yes, dogs are allowed on most hiking trails, but they must be kept on a leash no longer than six feet at all times.

Are there any entrance fees to access the hiking trails?

While there is an entrance fee for Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, it covers access to all trails and facilities within the park.

Can I go hiking in the winter at Sleeping Bear Dunes?

Yes, some trails remain accessible during the winter months for snowshoeing and cross-country skiing. Be sure to check trail conditions and dress appropriately for the weather.

Final Thoughts – 12 Epic Hiking Trails at Sleeping Bear Dunes

From panoramic vistas and dune climbs to tranquil forests and lakeside trails, these twelve hiking trails at Sleeping Bear Dunes offer something for every outdoor enthusiast. So lace up your hiking boots, embrace the natural wonders, and create memories that will last a lifetime at Sleeping Bear Dunes.

NOTE: Before planning your hike, please check the official Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore website for the latest trail conditions, maps, and any temporary closures.

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Promotional poster for a guide titled "SLEEPING BEAR DUNES MI BEST HIKES." It shows visitors climbing a large sand dune under a clear blue sky, indicative of the outdoor adventure and scenic landscapes that hikers can enjoy at Sleeping Bear Dunes in Michigan.
Promotional poster, showcasing "Top Hikes" at "Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Michigan." It features four photographs of scenic trails surrounded by lush greenery, indicating the natural beauty that awaits hikers.
Promotional poster for "12 Epic Hikes at Sleeping Bear Dunes, MI" and showcases a beautiful landscape typical of the area. It includes a view of sandy trails leading through dunes with lush greenery in the background and a clear blue sky above. The body of water in the distance adds to the serene setting, inviting outdoor enthusiasts to explore.

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