The 15 Best Hiking Trails In Sleeping Bear Dunes

November 26, 2023
View from one of the best hiking trails in Sleeping Bear Dunes

Sleeping Bear Dunes in Michigan is known for its peaceful atmosphere and beautiful vistas. But did you know that it also has a large number of great hiking trails to explore?

From walking around sand dunes to quiet woodland paths, this area has everything you could wish for!

This list covers the best hiking trails in Sleeping Bear Dunes so you can enjoy the amazing beauty of the area while you explore.

1. Sleeping Bear Dune Overlook

A view from the Sleeping Bear Dunes overlook hike

There’s no denying that the Sleeping Bear Dunes Overlook, with its panoramic vistas and unique glacial formations, is undoubtedly one of the most mesmerizing hiking spots in the area.

The overlook is perched high above Lake Michigan’s shores, offering views across Northern Michigan that are simply breathtaking. From this vantage point, you can see for about 25 miles to the north and west.

And as if these sweeping views and access to trails wasn’t enough, the overlook also boasts a spectacular opportunity for sunsets. Just imagine settling down with your blanket and chair as you watch the sky transform into a painting of vibrant hues!

We like that it’s quite accessible to just about anyone. positioned on Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive’s ninth stop, it offers more than just a quick photo opportunity. Anyone looking for hiking in Sleeping Bear Dunes will have options to venture further into its sandy trails or even down the big dune itself!

2. Cottonwood Hiking Trail

Cottonwood Hiking trail in Sleeping Bear Dunes

The Cottonwood Trail stands out as a gem for hiking in Sleeping Bear Dunes due to its unique combination of scenic views and rich biodiversity.

This 1.6-mile loop trail is moderately challenging, but rewarding. And you can fit it into pretty much any plans you have during the day (it shouldn’t take longer than 45 minutes to complete).

The trail is ideal for birding enthusiasts, hikers looking for solitude, or families looking for an engaging outdoor experience for their kids. You can bring your furry friend as long as they’re leashed.

Cottonwood Trail takes you on a journey across the Sleeping Bear Plateau, offering breathtaking views of golden dunes against azure skies, Glen Lake, and even Manitou Islands on clear days.

As you traverse this dynamic landscape that rises over 400 feet above Lake Michigan, you’ll encounter nine informational posts that give insights into the dune ecosystem and geology.

And alongside the beauty of partially buried trees and colorful wildflowers, there are plenty of opportunities to see wildlife on your path.

3. Empire Bluff Trail

Empire Bluff Trail

You’ll find your heart captivated by the Empire Bluff Trail, a truly enchanting hike in Sleeping Bear Dunes that showcases some of the most iconic views in Michigan.

Your journey starts with a climb through an abundant beech-maple forest dotted with wildflowers. As you venture further, prepare for moderate climbs with stairs that challenge you just enough to make reaching the top feel like a small victory.

The trail rewards your efforts with breathtaking views from a coastal bluff overlooking Lake Michigan and the national lakeshore. And because of this, it’s one of the most popular hikes on this list (so go at off-hours if you’re looking to avoid a crowd).

To enhance this experience, grab one of the self-guiding brochures at the trailhead before setting off.

Time your visit right and this already stunning spot transforms into an unrivaled location for watching sunsets or stargazing – including meteor showers! Arrive early though, because when evening falls, families flock here to share in these magical moments too.

Whether you’re seeking solitude or planning to bring along your pet (remember: six-foot leash), visiting will require either a seven-day vehicle pass for $20 or an annual pass for $40 accessed via Wilco Road off M-22 south of Empire.

4. Platte Plains Trail

Platte Plains Trail hiking

If you’re yearning for a day teeming with exploration and natural beauty, then consider embarking on the Platte Plains Trail in Sleeping Bear Dunes. This trail offers roughly 15 miles to traverse through diverse forests and access multiple lakes along with breathtaking Lake Michigan. The varied landscapes of maple-beech woods, pine forests, and low dunes provide a rich palette of nature to enjoy.

Whether you’re looking for an easy ramble or seeking a more challenging hike, this path won’t disappoint. Bring your picnic basket as there are plenty of spots for you to relax and enjoy your meal. If canoeing or fishing is your thing, this trail provides access to those activities too!

Be sure also to pack all your necessities like water and equipment if you plan on making it an overnight adventure at the nearby walk-in campground. And don’t forget – safety first! Keep an eye out for steep dunes due to sand slide danger and potential treefall while exploring the area.

5. Sleeping Bear Point Trail

Sleeping Bear Point Trail

For a truly unique and rewarding experience in Michigan’s great outdoors, don’t pass up the chance to explore the Sleeping Bear Point Trail. This hike showcases a diverse landscape that combines woods, dunes, and water, with shaded areas for when you need to get out of the sun.

It provides fantastic views of dunes, Lake Michigan, Platte Bay, and even the Manitou Islands! Plus, it features a loop through sandy trails on the Sleeping Bear Dune plateau (less strenuous than other park trails but still packed full of sights).

One highlight is a trek through an eerie yet fascinating ghost forest where trees have been swallowed by shifting sands over time — living proof of how dynamic landscapes can be. The trail also takes you past “blowouts,” or parabolic dune shapes caused by wind erosion.

Remember though: walking in sand can be tough, especially during hot summer days, so pack essentials like sunglasses, a wide-brimmed hat, sunscreen, and plenty of water. For added convenience, drinking water is available at nearby facilities like the Maritime Museum and Glen Haven.

And when you’re done, consider rounding off your hike with a refreshing swim in Lake Michigan. What better way to cool down after your adventure?

6. The Dune Climb

The Dune Climb

The Dune Climb is a must-visit for anyone in Sleeping Bear Dunes with an adventurous spirit and energy to match. It’s no ordinary trek; it’s a climb up pure, wind-blown sand dunes that challenge you while offering unmatched views of Lake Michigan and beyond.

The Dune Climb is five miles north of Empire on M-109 and is easily visible from the road. It offers two trails: the accessible one at the base and another steep trail right from the top leading all the way to Lake Michigan.

Be warned though; this might not be a walk in the park! The soft sand makes climbing strenuous, but don’t worry, blue-tipped posts guide your way through this sandy sea. As you conquer each crest, look out for breathtaking sights like South Manitou Island and its lighthouse or take a break at an isolated beach along Lake Michigan before continuing on your journey.

And remember – come prepared with comfortable footwear, sun protection, plenty of water!

7. Otter Creek Loop

Otter Creek Look hike in Sleeping Bear Dunes

Imagine yourself immersed in the serene beauty of nature as you explore the Otter Creek Loop, a veritable paradise for outdoor enthusiasts and one of the most breathtaking hikes in Sleeping Bear Dunes.

Part of the nearly 15-mile Platte Plains Trail network, this loop is officially marked at 4.6 miles but can be extended to a challenging 5.7-mile trek if you’re up for it. Along this trail, you’ll encounter parts of Bass Lake Loop and Lasso Loop, taking in scenic views along narrow seasonal two-tracks like Aral and Deer Lake Roads.

The real draw of this trail in particular is the natural beauty on display. The shorelines of Otter, Bass, and Deer Lakes will leave you spellbound.

And the Otter Creek Loop isn’t just visually stunning, it’s also teeming with wildlife that makes every hike an exciting adventure. This area’s diverse habitats make it a prime spot for bird watching. From bald eagles soaring overhead to Sandhill cranes gracefully landing nearby, there’s always something new to spot!

If you’re visiting during late May, keep your eyes peeled for migrating warblers; summer woods are home to colorful residents like scarlet tanagers and Baltimore orioles too!

Aside from its fauna richness, Otter Creek Loop also has historic ties to Michigan’s logging era which adds another layer to its charm.

8. North Manitou Island

An early sunset at North Manitou Island

You’d be hard pressed to find a more intriguing destination in Michigan than North Manitou Island, teeming with miles of well-maintained paths, historical sites, and stunning natural beauty.

With nearly 23 miles of trails that traverse through varying landscapes of forests, old farm fields, and lake bluffs, there’s no shortage of adventure if you’re an avid hiker in the Sleeping Bear Dunes area. The island’s highest point is almost at 1,000 feet in the northwest section, offering breathtaking views you won’t soon forget. Plus, the gentle terrain makes it an accessible choice for backpackers of all skill levels.

While hiking you can take your fishing gear along and try your luck at Manitou Lake or visit historical sites like Swenson’s Barn near Crescent Dock to add a bit of culture into your trip. And if you’re into rock hunting or simply enjoy watching sunsets melt away into the horizon, North Manitou Island offers these simple pleasures too.

9. South Manitou Island

A trail on South Manitou Island

Step onto South Manitou Island and you’re immediately welcomed by the whisper of wind through towering trees, a symphony of bird calls, and the gentle lapping of Lake Michigan on its sandy shores.

There’s an air of tranquility enveloping this charming island, and it’s home to some of the best hiking in Sleeping Bear Dunes.

Pro Tip: Plan out your hikes before arriving on the island to ensure you make the most out of your visit.

Here you can meander through the village and check out some historic homes, or trek half a mile from there to marvel at panoramic views from the lighthouse.

If you’re interested in longer hikes, take the 6-mile round trip to the farms for a peek into history through old farmsteads or venture towards the shipwreck of the Francisco Morazan!

If possible, take some time on your hike to explore the giant white cedars in The Valley Of The Giants or challenge yourself on The Bluffs & Perched Dunes while soaking in splendid views of Lake Michigan.

And for beach lovers, there’s nothing like a 10-mile hike around this island paradise complete with sandy shores, rocky sections, and glimpses of shipwrecks along the way (just make sure you’ve got proper footwear and enough time before the return ferry).

10. Pyramid Point Trail

A scenic view from a hike at Pyramid Point

If you’re seeking a straightforward hike with picturesque views, Pyramid Point Trail in Sleeping Bear Dunes should be on your list. This one-mile out-and-back trail is tucked away near Maple City and provides an opportunity for not just hiking, but also running and walking.

The trail takes roughly 30 minutes to complete and boasts stunning vistas of Lake Michigan, the dunes, and the Manitou Islands. You might also catch sight of the Manitou Passage or even a Great Lakes freighter if you’re lucky. And don’t worry about needing to leave your four-legged friend behind, dogs are welcome as long as they’re kept on a leash.

Pyramid Point Trail isn’t just about breathtaking sights; it offers an enriching walk through three unique environments: maple-beech forest, high bluffs, and meadows. Halfway along the trail you’ll find a main overlook that provides panoramic views that make any exertion worthwhile.

For those who want more than just a mile-long journey, there’s an extended 2.7-mile loop option that ventures further through meadows and forests. Just remember to take care when navigating steep hills and stay observant when finishing the last stretch on Basch Road due to traffic.

11. Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail

Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail

For those seeking to explore the natural beauty of Sleeping Bear dunes, the Heritage Trail is a great way to do it. This trail is one of a kind, being the only bicycle trail within the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. However, it’s definitely not just for bikers; whether you’re a walker, runner, or cyclist, this 22-mile long path offers something for everyone.

Its surface alternates between asphalt and crushed stone, making it accessible even to those with physical limitations.

What makes this trail truly stand out is how it presents an opportunity to be in touch not just with nature, but also history. As you follow its winding route from County Road 651 to Bohemia Road, you’ll pass through numerous historic sites like Glen Haven Village – a charming logging village that now functions as a museum and reminder of the past. It also connects to various attractions in Glen Arbor town and within the park itself.

12. Alligator Hill Trail

The top of Alligator Hill Trail

When it comes to the best hiking in Sleeping Bear Dunes, you can’t miss the unique appeal of Alligator Hill Trail. This majestic trail not only offers panoramic views of Lake Michigan, but also allows glimpses of Glen Lake through the maze of trees. You can climb to a lookout point for breathtaking views of the Manitou Islands and Great Lakes freighters passing by.

The trail winds through long, gradual hills dotted with beech-maple forests, offering a diverse hiking experience that ranges from an easy quarter-mile flat path to more challenging steep slopes.

But what makes this trail truly special is its rich historical significance and points of ecological interest. As you start your hike, you’ll come across an intriguing charcoal kiln relic from the logging era at the trailhead.

Moreover, a windstorm in 2015 significantly altered the area’s landscape, creating new habitats for birds and small mammals that you can observe during your hike. Whether you’re looking for an easy or advanced hike, want to ride horseback or cross-country ski in winter, or simply wish to witness nature’s recovery process firsthand, Alligator Hill Trail offers it all.

13. Treat Farm Trail

The Treat Farm Trail is a hidden gem in Michigan’s natural landscape, offering a hike that weaves through fascinating history and breathtaking scenery.

This 1 mile trail leads you along an old road up to the historic Treat Farmstead, a significant landmark built by the Tweddle family around 1880 and later expanded by Charles Treat with a barn transported all the way from Detroit.

Not only does this hike immerse you in local history, but it also offers opportunities for more adventurous extensions.

You can choose to climb Old Baldy for expansive 360-degree vistas or take a route along perched dunes leading to an observation deck at the end of Empire Bluff Trail. If you’re up for a longer exploration, combine this trail with Empire Bluff Trail for a semi-loop of 3.2 miles.

14. Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive

Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive

If you’re seeking an unforgettable outdoor hiking experience in Sleeping Bear Dunes, Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive should definitely be on your radar. This 7.1-mile loop trail offers a moderately challenging hike that rewards you with breathtaking views along the way.

Pro Tip: We recommend doing this during the winter when the drive is closed off to cars so you get it to yourself (and you don’t need to worry about distracted drivers).

As you walk through forests and sand dunes, you’ll also get an educational insight into the history and vegetation of the park. Plus, it’s pet-friendly – so feel free to bring your dog along for the adventure!

You’ll find world-class overlooks highlighting the natural beauty protected by national park designation. One such view includes an overlook of Glen Lake where Big and Little Glen Lake are separated by M-22!

15. Clay Cliffs Natural Area

Don’t miss the chance to explore the Clay Cliffs Natural Area, a spectacular spot known for its diverse ecology and breathtaking views.

This unique hiking trail in Sleeping Bear Dunes is a 1.5-mile path that takes you through both flat and hilly terrain, offering an exhilarating challenge.

You’ll be captivated by what you can see from the viewing platform perched 200 feet above Lake Michigan, and also from a meadow overlooking Lake Leelanau. The hardwood forest along your route is stunning too, especially when it’s blooming with wildflowers like trillium.

One thing we like about this area is the fact that it not only serves to provide great views, but also implement effective conservation.

Managed by the Leelanau Conservancy since 2013, this was formerly owned by the Crary family who had wanted to preserve this land permanently – a testament to their commitment towards nature’s preservation.

Closing Thoughts

So you’ve got a taste of the best hiking trails Sleeping Bear Dunes has to offer. From breathtaking overlooks to serene woodland paths, there’s truly something for everyone.

Each hike offers its own unique charm and beauty, ready to be discovered.

Don’t just take our word for it, go out and experience these wonders yourself! The adventure awaits.

Happy hiking!

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