Conquering the Sleeping Bear Dunes

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My calves were burning. My lungs were burning. Everything was burning, burning, burning.

I looked upward, peering toward the top of the monstrous sand dune I was in the middle of climbing. I swore it hadn't looked THIS big from the bottom… But, then again, nothing ever does.

Dune Climb at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Michigan

I was at the Dune Climb in northern lower Michigan — a 450-foot sand dune that is part of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.

Dune Climb at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Michigan

Elliot and I knew, as soon as we started planning our trip to Michigan, that we had to do a day trip out to the dunes. A couple years ago, this area was voted the “most beautiful place in America” on “Good Morning America.” And you pretty much CAN'T skip a place with that sort of claim to fame if you already happen to be in the area.

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Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Michigan

We watched the weather forecast closely and picked the sunniest day to head out to the dunes. We began in the small town of Empire, where the Philip A. Hart Visitor Center can be found. Since the dunes and scenic drive are located within a National Lakeshore (overseen by the National Park Service), you need to pick up a vehicle pass before you can see the good stuff.

First stop? The Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive, a 7.4-mile loop track that takes you through some beautiful lakeside forests and spits you out at quite a few picture-perfect lookout points.

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Michigan

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Michigan

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Michigan

As we drove — slowly — along the one-way road, dappled sunlight flickering on our windshield as it filtered down through the trees, we both kept how exclaiming how PRETTY this place was.

“This is gorgeous!” I would exclaim.

“I want to ride my bike here!” Elliot would reply as we went up or down another steep hill.

We stopped off at a handful of lookout points, getting our first taste of the sand dunes as well as some killer views out over Lake Michigan.

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Michigan

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Michigan

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Michigan

Looking out over the lake, taking in the different, shifting hues of blue, I had to remind myself that I was in Michigan instead of the Mediterranean or Caribbean. It was easy to be fooled; easy to forget that we were still in the Midwest.

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Michigan

After the scenic drive came (dun dun DUN) the Dune Climb. I was fine until about halfway up the giant dune, when I started wheezing and burning and feeling like I would rather lie down in the sand and die rather than make it to the top.

Dune Climb at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Michigan

But I am stubborn.

And so I kept climbing and wheezing and burning until I got to the top of the dune and looked back out over nearby Glen Lake. Not bad at all.

Dune Climb at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Michigan

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Michigan

You technically can keep going — hike another 2 miles up and down more sand dunes until you reach a beach on Lake Michigan. … I may be stubborn, but I'm not THAT stubborn; we had some fun in the sand at the top of the dune, and then headed back down.

Dune Climb at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Michigan

Then it was time to dump the sand out of our shoes, comb the wind-blown knots out of our hair, and agree that, yes, this place definitely IS beautiful.

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Michigan

 

IF YOU GO

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore – A vehicle pass is required to visit the Sleeping Bear Dunes. Passes cost $10 and can be purchased at the Phillip A. Hart Visitor Center in Empire, the Dune Climb, or the entrance to the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive.

Getting there – The Sleeping Bear Dunes are located about 25 miles west of Traverse City, Michigan – an easy day trip! You'll definitely need a car to reach the dunes, though.

Where to eat – If you do a day trip to the dunes like we did, drive back via the tiny town of Glen Arbor. We stopped for a pizza at Bear Paw Pizza and Market, and it was DELICIOUS.

Would YOU want to visit these sand dunes during a trip to Michigan?

 

 

"It's a dangerous business, going out your door. You step onto the road, and, if you don't keep your feet, there's no telling where you might get swept off to." - JRR Tolkien

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33 Comments on “Conquering the Sleeping Bear Dunes

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  1. These photos are amazing! I love the colors. You always find the best places. Thanks for sharing!

    Happy travels 🙂

      Aww thanks, Lauren! I just find places that seem interesting to me and then go there! 🙂

    That’s me in the last photo! And yes, this trip was amazing! Took the week off work, and it was TOTALLY worth it!

      We had so much fun! Glad you came with me. 🙂

    Oh, I really wanted to go all the way to the lake once I reached the top of the dune climb. But I didn’t realize at the time how long it actually was. I was so glad I didn’t force my wife and son to keep going. But it was very rewarding to get to the top and enjoy those views back down. I’m sure your drive through the park was amazing with the fall colors. We were there in September when the leaves hadn’t quite started their change, although it was still brilliant.

      Yes, there was no way I was hiking another 1-2 hours to the lake! Haha.

      And actually, we weren’t there quite at peak color, either, but the drive was still gorgeous – lots of greens and yellows.

    WOW! I can’t get over the juxtaposition of the sand dunes and fall foliage. What a gorgeous spot!

      It really is, especially at this time of year!

    I’ve never been to Sleeping Bear Dunes but I’ve been wanting to go! Looks so beautiful!

    Also, climbing sand dunes is NO joke!

      You should definitely make the trip, Erika! It’s just as pretty as people say.

    The colours in those trees and that water are gorgeous! What a sight.

      Yup, we lucked out with great weather and some nice colors!

    It’s been 23 years and my children and I now live in Florida. But we walked to Lake Michigan via the dunes. My son was 4 and my daughter was 6.

      Wow, good for you! That’s not an easy hike, and I imagine it would be even harder with little ones!

    Please tell me you guys rolled back down when you reached the top! That’s the BEST part!
    When I was a kid I used to do it all the time when at the beach. The dunes I would keep climbing up and rolling back down weren’t 450-foot tall, though 😀

      Haha, I dared Elliot to, but he wouldn’t. Neither one of us really wanted to be filled with sand for the next couple days! As it is, Elliot is still finding sand in his shoes… lol!

    “I want to ride my bike here” is basically my reaction everytime I go anywhere without my bike, so I approve of your boyfriend choice.

    And sleeping bear dunes are awesome. I went there when I was seven or eight and had sooooooo much fun rolling and sliding down.

      Haha, Elliot will be glad to hear you approve! 😉

      We were hoping we’d be able to like… rent sleds or something to go down the dunes. But I guess since it’s protected and all that they probably frown upon it…

    Because you never know if you’re going back, roll or run down the sleeping bear dune. Walk to the lake first, though, the run down will be that much more rewarding. Also take the time to walk down to the lake below the deck on the pierce stocking drive. Don’t forget Miller Hill lookout and Inspiration point. Take the time to kayak down the Crystal River and go swimming in North Bar Lake. Then enjoy breakfast at Joes Friendly Tavern in Empire, ( or Lunch if you went to slow!! ) Then get fudgey by shopping all over lelanau peninsula and taste wine at all the wineries in the area then head for empire again to see and photograph the miraculous sunset on Lake Michigan. Then the next day…………….

      All fantastic suggestions! There’s certainly plenty to do in this part of Michigan. 🙂

    I would love to go there! We went did a hike through the sand dunes and down to Oval beach in Saugatuck, Michigan and loved it (despite doing it in a heat wave).

      Oh man, I can’t imagine hiking these dunes in a heat wave! Eek!

    great views! looks like loads of fun!

      It was! We had such a fun and silly day – until it was time to dump the sand out of our shoes! Haha.

    Georgous photos! I love sand dunes and I can absolutely relate to you burning calves.
    One time, on Dune 45 is Namibia, I was not able to reach the top.

      I’ve seen photos of those dunes in Namibia – yikes! That would certainly be a challenge!

    I finally did this climb about five years ago. I wore my hiking boots to climb up the hill, but took others’ suggestion to make the trip back down barefoot! I’d echo the suggestion to cap the trip with a trip to Joe’s Friendly Tavern in Empire. This has been another long-time favorite of ours…great burgers, beer and house-made root beer!

    […] can’t visit Traverse City without making the 25-mile trip out to Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore and its impressive sand dunes standing sentinel over Lake Michigan. This place was voted the most […]

    Your photos truly blow me away; what an absolutely incredible place! Thanks!

    Wait, you kids didn’t do the big climb down to the water and back up??!!??? It sounds like you all just did the baby climb (up and the back down). If you go down to the water (from what I think would be your pic from the observation deck), THAT’S the 450 foot dune! It takes 1 minute and 30 seconds to run down to the water, and up to 2 hrs. to get back up to where you started! Heading down to the water was easily one of the 3 worst decisions I’ve ever made in my life, but making it back up to the top was also one of our favorite accomplishments!

      What we did was plenty! 😉

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