One Amazing Day at the Sleeping Bear Dunes

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Tight on time, but want to sneak in one day at Sleeping Bear Dunes?

Follow along for a well-crafted itinerary for a day trip to Sleeping Bear Dunes! We will help you make the most of your short visit and create unforgettable memories in a single day. 

The Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, located along the picturesque coast of Lake Michigan, is a natural gem that showcases the breathtaking beauty of Michigan. 

With its towering dunes, pristine beaches, lush forests, and panoramic views, it's no wonder that it has become a beloved destination for outdoor enthusiasts and nature lovers.

The park was voted the “Most Beautiful Place in the Country” by Good Morning America in 2011 and one of the top 21 beaches on Earth by National Geographic.

From stunning scenic drives to exhilarating dune climb hikes and serene beach moments, this guide will help you optimize your time and ensure you get a taste of the park's remarkable beauty.

A view along a path that leads to the Lake Michigan Beach at Sleeping Bear Dunes.

Planning Your One Day Visit to Sleeping Bear Dunes 

Below are some basic tips and considerations when planning a Sleeping Bear Dunes itinerary.

Best Time to Visit

The key to a fantastic trip to Sleeping Bear Dunes is timing! Aim for the warmer spring and summer seasons for optimal weather and enjoyable outdoor adventures. 

Fall provides a scenic splash of color and cooler temperatures. For more information to expect each season see this post about the Sleeping Bear Dunes by Season.

Getting There and Getting Your Park Pass

The main Sleeping Bear Dunes visitor center is in Empire, Michigan, and is a great starting point for your adventure.

Whether you're looking to obtain a park pass stamp, acquire a junior ranger booklet, purchase a park pass, or engage in conversation with a ranger, the Philip Hart Visitor Center is your one-stop destination.

Pick up the park pass and a map, watch the park video, shop in the bookstore, and check out the displays in the museum so you know what to expect while visiting the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore requires you to get a park pass. You have two options when it comes to obtaining the pass. Firstly, you can purchase a 7-day long park-specific pass. Alternatively, you can make use of the all-encompassing America the Beautiful pass. Either of these passes will grant you access to the national lakeshore.

Address: 9922 W Front St, Empire, MI 49630

Inside of the visitor center at the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is a great place to start your visit - for information, souvenirs, park film and displays.

Essential Items to Bring

Remember to pack your essentials for a day at the dunes! Stay hydrated with a water bottle because most dune hikes lack shade. 

Slather on some sunscreen to protect your skin from the sun's rays. Wear comfortable shoes—opt for sturdy footwear that can handle the sandy terrain. Trust us; blisters are no fun!

One Day at Sleeping Bear Dunes Itinerary

Suppose you have just one day to explore this incredible destination. In that case, we've crafted the perfect day trip itinerary to help you make the most of your time. 

From scenic drives, exhilarating hikes, and quiet picnics to sun-soaked beach time, prepare for an unforgettable day of adventure, relaxation, and awe-inspiring beauty.

So grab your camera, lace up your hiking boots, pack a delicious picnic, and prepare for an unforgettable day of exploration at Sleeping Bear Dunes. 

Let the beauty of this remarkable national lakeshore captivate your senses and leave you with a profound appreciation for the wonders of nature.

If you want someone else to take care of all the details, consider a guided day trip at Sleeping Bear Dunes.


Sunrise at Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive

Start the morning with a picturesque adventure along the famous Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive. This paved 7.4-mile route offers jaw-dropping vistas of Lake Michigan, towering dunes, dense forests, and maybe even a deer or two. 

It offers an incredible opportunity for you to explore the diverse landscapes and ecosystems found within the park. The initial portion of the drive takes you through forested areas and ends at the sandy dunes,

Tip: If you have your bicycle with you, biking the drive is a great option.

As you head down the road, you'll be treated to 12 designated pull-offs that offer magnificent lookouts. These vantage points are strategically placed to provide expansive views of the surrounding landscapes.

Download the National Park app before you head out for a self-guided tour that provides information and insights about the different landmarks and features along the way.

Note: For safety reasons, climbing down the dune at stops 9 and 10 is strongly discouraged due to concerns regarding erosion.

The covered bridge along the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive.

Dune Climb Adventure

Channel your inner adventurer! Lace up your shoes and conquer the Dune Trail. This exhilarating 3.8-mile round-trip hike takes you up multiple towering dunes; the views from the top are worth it. 

But be warned; it's a steep climb; if you can't handle the first climb, consider taking a hike that is a bit less strenuous, like the Sleeping Bear Point Trail, for some impressive views.

People walking up the Dune Climb at Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore - it's a  popular activity at the park.


Picnic at Sleeping Bear Point

After all that hiking, it's time to refuel and enjoy a delightful picnic lunch surrounded by the beauty of the dunes. Here are some scenic spots where you can spread out your blanket, savor your meal, and relax:

Sleeping Bear Point Overlook: Find a cozy spot at the Sleeping Bear Point Overlook and soak in the breathtaking views of Lake Michigan and the Manitou Islands. Enjoy your picnic amidst the rolling dunes, and let the gentle breeze whisk away your worries.

Lake Michigan Beach: Head to the picturesque Lake Michigan Beach, where you can sink your toes into the soft sand while enjoying a meal with a view. The sound of the waves crashing against the shore creates a serene ambiance, perfect for a peaceful picnic experience.

Picnic Area near Glen Haven: Nestled near the historic Glen Haven Village, this picnic area offers a delightful blend of nature and history. 

Choose a spot beneath the shade of towering trees and savor your picnic, surrounded by the charm of the preserved historic buildings.

The Blacksmith Shop is one of the buildings open in the historic Glen Haven Village.

Beach Time at Glen Haven or Empire Beach

When visiting Sleeping Bear Dunes, you can't miss the opportunity to spend quality beach time at Glen Haven or Empire Beach. These stunning locations offer beautiful sandy shores and inviting waters for swimming and relaxation. Here's what you can look forward to:

Glen Haven Beach: Located near the historic Glen Haven Village, Glen Haven Beach offers a picturesque setting for beach enthusiasts. Sink your toes into the soft, golden sand and feel the sun's warmth on your skin. Stroll along the shoreline, look for seashells, or stretch out on your beach towel.

Empire Beach: Nestled in the charming village of Empire, Empire Beach boasts a wide expanse of sandy shoreline along the shores of Lake Michigan. Dip your toes into the refreshing water, build sandcastles with the little ones, or enjoy a game of beach volleyball with friends and family. The crystal-clear waters are perfect for a rejuvenating swim on a hot summer day.

Note: There is a small fee to park at Empire Beach.

Empire Beach is great for playing on swings and other play structures as shown in the photo.


Empire Bluff Trail 

The Empire Bluff Trail will take you on a journey through lush forests until you reach a jaw-dropping overlook of Lake Michigan. The panoramic views of the crystal-clear water and the sprawling coastline will leave you speechless. It's a moderate 1.5 hike with a majestic reward at the end.

Note: This is one of the most popular hikes at the park. Parking can get tricky, but you can park along the roadway if the parking lot is full.

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

Visit the Dune Overlook

A visit to Sleeping Bear Dunes would only be complete with a stop at the awe-inspiring Dune Overlook, located along the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive. This vantage point offers a unique perspective that allows you to appreciate the grandeur and vastness of the Dunes. 

A view of the Sleeping Bear Dunes from the Dune Overlook along the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive.


Sunset at Pyramid Point

As evening approaches, make your way to Pyramid Point, a picturesque spot renowned for its panoramic views of Lake Michigan. The setting sun casts a warm, golden glow on the landscape, creating a mesmerizing display of colors that paint the sky.

Tips for a Successful Day Trip

Plan Ahead: Before embarking on your day trip to Sleeping Bear Dunes, take some time to plan your itinerary. Research the park's attractions, hiking trails, and points of interest to prioritize what you'd like to see and do during your visit. 

Note: Check the park's website or visitor center for updates or alerts regarding trail closures or weather conditions.

Time Management: With so much to explore at Sleeping Bear Dunes, managing your time is essential. Allocate sufficient time for each activity and consider travel times between locations. 

Park Regulations: To ensure a safe and enjoyable visit, familiarize yourself with the park regulations. Respect the natural environment by staying on designated trails and avoiding off-limits areas. Keep in mind any restrictions on pets, camping, and open fires. Remember to pack out what you bring in and leave no trace of your visit.

Pack Essentials: Prepare for a day of adventure by packing essential items. These include comfortable walking shoes, sunscreen, a hat, insect repellent, a refillable water bottle, snacks, and a camera to capture memories of your journey. Dress in layers to accommodate changing weather conditions.

Stay Hydrated and Energized: Exploring Sleeping Bear Dunes requires energy, so remember to stay hydrated and nourished. Drink plenty of water throughout the day and enjoy healthy snacks or a packed lunch to keep your energy levels up. Take breaks as needed to rest and recharge.

Be Mindful of Weather: Weather conditions can impact your experience at Sleeping Bear Dunes. Check the forecast before your visit and come prepared with appropriate clothing and gear. Remember that the dunes can be hot during summer, so take precautions to stay cool and protected.

By following these tips, you can make the most of your day trip to Sleeping Bear Dunes. Remember to be flexible, embrace the beauty of the park, and create lasting memories of your adventure.

A view of Lake Michigan and the Sleeping Bear Dunes from a high vantage point.


Can I visit Sleeping Bear Dunes in one day?

It is possible to explore Sleeping Bear Dunes in one day. Plan your itinerary in advance and prioritize the activities or trails you'd like to experience during your visit.

How far from Traverse City is Sleeping Bear Dunes?

The drive from Traverse City to the Sleeping Bear Dunes Visitor Center will be about 45 minutes. (25 miles)

What are the must-see attractions at Sleeping Bear Dunes?

Some must-see attractions at Sleeping Bear Dunes include the Dune Climb, Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive, Sleeping Bear Point Trail, and Glen Haven Historic Village. These attractions offer unique experiences and stunning views of the dunes and Lake Michigan.

Are there picnic areas or food options available at the park?

Sleeping Bear Dunes offers several picnic areas where visitors can enjoy a meal surrounded by the park's natural beauty.  The nearby towns of Glen Arbor and Empire have restaurants and cafes where you can grab a bite to eat.

Are there swimming opportunities at Sleeping Bear Dunes?

Sleeping Bear Dunes boasts beautiful sandy beaches along Lake Michigan. Check out Glen Haven Beach and Empire Beach, where you can enjoy swimming in the refreshing waters during the summer months.

What should I wear and bring for a day trip to Sleeping Bear Dunes?

Wear comfortable and sturdy footwear, such as hiking shoes or sneakers, you might be tempted to hike the dunes barefoot, but the sand gets hot, and you probably don't want that much exfoliation! 

Dress in layers to accommodate changing weather conditions, and remember sunscreen, a hat, sunglasses, and a refillable water bottle.

Can I bring my pet to Sleeping Bear Dunes?

Pets are allowed at Sleeping Bear Dunes, but they must always be on a leash (6 feet or shorter). Be sure to clean up after your pet and respect designated pet-free areas like beaches.

Are there any ranger-led programs or guided tours available?

Sleeping Bear Dunes offers ranger-led programs and guided tours during certain times of the year. Check the park's website or inquire at the visitor center for the most up-to-date information on available programs and tours.

Is there an entrance fee to visit Sleeping Bear Dunes?

Yes, there is an entrance fee to access Sleeping Bear Dunes. The cost varies depending on the type of pass you choose. Daily pass or an annual pass. Check the park's website for the current fee schedule.

An informational sign welcoming visitors to the Star Party - just one of the special programs at the Sleeping Bear Dunes.

Final Thoughts – One Day at Sleeping Bear Dunes

A day trip to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore offers a fantastic opportunity to immerse yourself in the natural beauty of this remarkable destination in a short amount of time.

It also helps you decide if it's someplace you would like to return to for an extended visit. 

We encourage you to take this itinerary as a starting point and customize it to suit your preferences and time constraints.

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore offers countless opportunities for adventure and exploration, whether you have one day or more to spare.

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Choose the image(s) that resonate with you to pin to your travel board on Pinterest!

1-Day guide to Exploring Sleeping Bear Dunes image of dunes with Lake and Island in background.
Exploring Sleeping Bear Dunes in just 1-Day image of dunes with Lake Michigan in background.
1-Day Itinerary for Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. 4 images: covered bridge, sand dunes with Lake Michigan (2), tan sand with ripples.

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