My Unique Sleeping Bear Dunes Experience 2021

            If you’re sitting on the fence about visiting Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, plan your trip now!  Sleeping Bear Dunes is unlike anywhere else on Earth, home to the largest freshwater sand dunes in the world. Summer is primetime to visit the lakeshore, although visiting in winter can be equally as impressive.  Sleeping Bear Dunes is 65 miles of continuous Lake Michigan shoreline with towering sand dunes, beautiful beaches and over 100 miles of trails. I have visited the dunes four times in my life and I still haven’t seen it all. On my most recent trip around Michigan, I spent one day exploring a few points at Sleeping Bear Dunes that I didn’t get to see the last time I visited. I could spend a week just exploring all of the park (you should too), but I digress.

On the day of my trip, I drove north from Ludington and I took the scenic route along M-22 instead of M-31 most of the way. Unfortunately, the weather in the morning didn’t cooperate for a pleasant day at the beach, another reason to spend more days at Sleeping Bear Dunes. The first half of the day was rainy and foggy. Along the way, just before the beginning of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, I stopped at Point Betsie Lighthouse.

            I went on a Tuesday, so the lighthouse interior was closed, which was fine because I was most interested in the exterior and water. Point Betsie Lighthouse is one of the most photographed lighthouses in the country. It was so foggy that I could only see about 100 feet and the fog was thicker out on the water. This is why lighthouses also had fog horns. Even with the fog, I could see how amazingly clear Lake Michigan’s water is at the small beach at the foot of the lighthouse. There is limited parking on the street for the lighthouse if you want to visit.

            On to the next stop, Philip A. Hart visitor center at the center of Sleeping Bear Dunes in the small town of Empire. The center has displays, a gift shop and bathrooms. Pickup your park pass for $25 (per vehicle) for the week, definitely worth every penny even if you are only visiting for the day.  Back on the road again I headed to Esch Beach. I had hoped to swim here but, it was still foggy and rainy. The fog obscured the wooded sand dune hills and the large mass of Lake Michigan. The scene gave me Jurassic Park vibes. Because of the weather, I ate my lunch in my car at this beach.

Esch Beach

            Moving on, the next stop was the Empire Bluff trail. Empire Bluff overlook has one of the best vistas of Lake Michigan. About a mile down the trail from the parking lot is the outlook platform 400 feet above Lake Michigan. I took a chance to see if I could see anything. Halfway down the trail, there is a break in the woods where you can see Empire town beach below, When I got there, all I could see was fog. So, I turned around and went to the next stop.

Empire Bluff - halfway point
Same point around sunset 2020

            The last time I visited Sleeping Bear Dunes, (December 2018) Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive was closed for road construction, typical Michigan. If you only have time to visit one place at Sleeping Bear Dunes, visit Pierce Stocking scenic drive. The scenic drive is a single lane loop through the sand dune forest with a number of stops with scenic vistas. There is a saying in Michigan, “…if you don’t like the weather, wait 5 minutes and it will change.” This proved to be true because as I arrived at the scenic drive, the sun came out and began burning through the fog. A third of the way along the drive is the dune overlook. Pull over and look out over the rolling sand dunes and Glenn Lake.

Glenn Lake

Next stop is the Lake Michigan overlook, this is the main reason I wanted to come to the Sleeping Bear Dunes. Located 450 feet above Lake Michigan, the outlook has a breathtaking vista with the endless horizon over lake Michigan on a good weather day. The day I went, the fog made it very mysterious. The sun was out over the land, but the fog was still holding on over the water. Not only is the peak 450 feet above Lake Michigan, but it is an extremely steep drop. Looking down over the edge, it was nearly impossible to see the bottom and it was weird to see people disappear into the fog. There is a wooden platform that extends out from the slope of the dunes. I would not recommend going down the slope of the sand dune unless you are in good shape and have time to kill. It may only take a few minutes to get down but it will take an hour or two to climb back up. There is a notice at the top that if you are unable to get back up on your own, the local fire department will have to come rescue you with a boat or ATV, and you will get the bill (a few thousand dollars). There are plenty of other more accessible beaches in the park. Even driving on the scenic drive can be fun like a roller coaster, as you go up through the dune forest and back down over the rolling dunes.

Lake Michigan is down there at the bottom.
Lake Michigan down below

            My last stop of the day was the beach at the Sleeping Bear Point U.S. Lifesaving Service Station maritime museum. Go there! Go there now! The water and views are breathtaking. I first came to this beach in winter and the blues and the grays were spectacular. When I visited in winter, I couldn’t wait to come back in the summer. The water is Caribbean clear, just not quite as warm. It was refreshingly cold and good for your sore feet and legs after climbing sand dunes. The fog was fully cleared at this beach, but off to the north, you could still see the fog hanging around. On a clearer day, you can see the North and South Manitou Islands, but on this day, I could not. This beach is a great place to relax, soak up the sun, and swim. Check out the life saving station as well if you have time. This is how I spent a day at Sleeping Bear Dunes, I could spend many more here.    

Lifesaving Station


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