Located “up North” in Michigan, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore and Traverse City were easily a couple of our favorite stops on our road trip through the Great Lakes.
It didn’t hurt that the weather was gorgeous while we were there, with plenty of sun and temps in the mid-70s, but that doesn’t negate the fact this part of the world is just plain beautiful. We were surrounded by rolling hills, quaint communities and plenty of opportunities to get out and explore the shores of Lake Michigan.
By contrast to Indiana Dunes National Park, our previous stop, the Sleeping Bear Dunes are massive and dominate the coastline. They also allow an escape from the industry that shares the lake with Indiana Dunes NP.
(Disclaimer: When we link to places you can buy our stuff or places we stayed, we are using special codes which earn us commissions on the sales at no additional cost to you. Please see our Review Policy for more information.)
Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore
According to legend, there was a famine in Wisconsin. To find food, a mother bear and her two cubs swam across Lake Michigan. The mother bear made it across the lake but when she looked back, she saw her cubs flailing in the water. The cubs drowned, forming North and South Manitou islands. The mother bear, distraught, laid down along the coast to forever watch over her cubs, becoming the dune.
I love origin myths like that.
Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore covers 70 miles of Lake Michigan shoreline and 71,251 acres. There’s more than 100 miles of trails, including the extensive Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail.
There are also a lot of beaches, many with easy access, for those looking to get out into the water.
Depending on how much you want to do and see, you can easily spend a day or two exploring the park without getting bored.
The Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive
After hitting the visitor center, our first recommendation is to drive the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive. Indeed, if you only have time for one thing in the park, this is it.
The drive is only 7.4 miles long but it packs a lot into a short space. There are vistas overlooking Glen Lake (which used to be a harbor of Lake Michigan), the Sleeping Bear Dune Complex and the Lake Michigan coast south to Empire Bluffs.
We spent an hour or so exploring the drive, stopping at the various turnouts to see how the land transitions from the dune ecosystem to a beech-maple forest in a short distance.
Pro tip: When at Sleeping Bear Dunes NL, resist the temptation to run down the dunes to get to Lake Michigan. It’s a long way down and the climb back up is tough.
Not far north from the drive is the Dune Climb where you can climb to the top of the dune if that’s what floats your boat. Honestly, we have hiked enough in the sand to not have any interest in climbing to the top of the dune. It is also important to note that once at the top you still have to trudge through the sand for a while before getting to a spot where you can see Lake Michigan.
Glen Haven Historic Village
The Glen Haven Historic Village preserves the old company town along the shores of Lake Michigan. The town used to provide fuel for steamers on the lake, was home to a fruit cannery and to a US Life-Saving Service station.
We checked out the old general store where we scored a few Michigan treats like honey cream and chocolate-covered cherries. We also stopped by the blacksmith shop where park service volunteers were demonstrating the techniques used at the time.
Watching the blacksmith at work was interesting and is something everyone should see. While we watched, the blacksmith created an ornamental hook and gave it to us… The really interested kid left before the end of the demonstration and I guess I asked all the right questions… Still, it was really cool!
Inside the old cannery, the Park Service created a museum of boats used on Lake Michigan. They also have the Aloha, a gill net fishing boat, set up for display.
Just down the road is the Maritime Museum, an old US Life-Saving Service Station, a predecessor to the Coast Guard, with plenty of displays on how the service would save mariners who ran aground.
For short-range rescues, the service would use a cannon to launch a line to the stranded ship with instructions on how to set up a system to ferry crew and passengers across a rope system to the shore.
Long-range rescues required dispatching the crew in an open rescue boat through the treacherous seas of Lake Michigan. The boat had tracks to take it down to the beach. A crew of seven men had to carry the boats the rest of the way into the water.
The museum has examples of the equipment used plus exhibits on how life was for these men. The men, even the married ones, had to live in the station all week long except for one day they were allowed to spend with their wives.
Hiking Empire Bluffs and Esch Beach
Just south of the town of Empire is the Empire Bluffs Trail. This 1.5-mile moderate trail takes you through the forest with occasional overlooks of the town of Empire and nearby South Bar Lake.
Keep going and it opens up to a glorious dune overlooking Lake Michigan. There are views north to the Sleeping Bear Dunes complex.
We took this opportunity to relax along the top of the bluffs for lunch and a trail beer. Seriously, the view here does not get old. The area at the end of the official trail has benches to relax on and check out the view. It can be a bit crowded, though.
If you are looking for a bit more peace and quiet, keeping heading south along the bluff and you will find plenty of quieter places to relax. The trail seems to continue but we weren’t sure where it was going.
Further south of Empire, you will find Esch Beach. If you are looking for a beach with easy access, look no further. It is an easy walk from the parking lot down to the water.
We came out here for sunset one evening. We enjoyed hanging out on the beach with a lot of other folks who came for the same reason. Some folks had bonfires going and it looked like a great spot to enjoy the beach.
Unfortunately, clouds interrupted our sunset that night. The next night we found another great spot for sunsets at the Town Park in Empire, which was easier to get to from our campground.
There’s also the two Manitou Islands, which have plenty of hiking trails and backcountry camping, and the Port Onieda Rural Historic District, which is the largest historic intact rural farming community in the nation.
Eating and Drinking in Traverse City
Located about 40 minutes away, Traverse City is a hopping town with plenty of activities for either a day visit or an extended stay.
After reading up on the town, we decided on a bit of a drinking tour. We started with a stop at Mackinaw Brewing, the city’s first brewpub for a couple beers and lunch. I tried their pale ale while Bonnie stuck with their wheat beer, both of which we really enjoyed.
The real highlight for me was trying walleye. I have heard a lot about walleye but never tried it since I am from the South. The fried walleye sandwich I had was light and delicious.
We spent some time walking through downtown, checking out the various shops and getting some pie at the Grand Traverse Pie Company… Cherry for Bonnie and strawberry rhubarb for me. Traverse City is known for its cherries but I am a rhubarb hound. Still, both pies were great.
Then it was on to the Grand Traverse Distillery. We sampled their bourbon, rye and cherry whiskey plus the aged rum at their tasting room on Front Street.
The bourbon was quite nice with a smooth finish. The rye did have a bit of a bite but was still very smooth for a rye. The cherry whiskey was good but too sweet for our tastes. It would probably be good as a mixer in holiday drinks, though. The winner was the aged rum, which was spot on.
The tasting room is also a bar and we got some tasty cocktails. Bonnie got a Barreled Collins, made with their barrel-finished gin, and I got Basil Mule, made with their bourbon. Both were quite good.
We ended up bringing a bottle of the rum home for our friends Dave and Jen who kept an eye on things at our condo while we were traveling.
Finding Wine on the Old Mission Peninsula
While there are a LOT more breweries (and a cidery) and tons more tasty food, we decided to head out on the Old Mission Peninsula for a little sightseeing… and wine!
We drove out to Old Mission State Park to check out the lighthouse and admire the view. This small park is easily worth a quick visit but wasn’t the focus of our drive… We wanted wine!
We heard the Traverse City area, in particular, Old Mission Peninsula, was known for its wine and we were not disappointed. There were wineries everywhere! We settled on the Chateau Grand Traverse and are glad we did.
We started off doing a five-wine tasting, where we got to sample a few of their whites and a couple of their reds. Our favorite of the bunch was easily the Pinot Grigio, which was dry and refreshing. The most unique was the spiced cherry wine, which just begs for folks to enjoy it warmed next to a fire in the winter.
After the sampling, we headed out to the patio, where Bonnie decided to get a flight of their dry white wines to sample and I got a glass of that spectacular Pinot Grigio plus some cheese and crackers.
The patio offered views of the grapevines and a perfect spot to enjoy the bright blue skies and great temps. Even if all you want is a good glass of wine on a sunny afternoon, this is the perfect spot to enjoy it.
Moomers Homemade Ice Cream
After a completely forgettable dinner at Big Boy (we are trying out Midwest chain restaurants for an article later) and a shopping jaunt at Walmart (gotta stock up for our trip to the UP!), we headed to Moomers Homemade Ice Cream outside of town for dessert.
Moomers Homemade Ice Cream has won top awards from USA Today and Good Morning America for good reason: the ice cream is delicious!
We got there on a Saturday night and found the line well outside the door. That said, it only took about 15 minutes to get inside and order our ice cream. We both got the award-winning Cherries Moobile, a delicious black cherry ice cream with cherries, fudge and brownie bits mixed in.
What makes Moomers different, aside from the amazing ice cream, is you can eat your delicious treats right next to their dairy farm. That’s right, you can check out the cows which made the milk your ice cream is made out of. How cool is that? If you don’t have time to drive out to the farm, you can get Moomers at several places in town. That said, I highly recommend visiting the farm.
Where to Stay
We stayed at the Indigo Bluffs RV Park and Resort (read our review here) and could not have enjoyed our stay more. Our site was all but perfect, the folks were nice and the location was very convenient to visit Sleeping Bear Dunes NL and only about 40 minutes from Traverse City.
The town of Empire, however, leaves quite a bit to be desired in terms of amenities. There are a handful of restaurants, none of which appealed enough to get us in the front door. Nearby is the town of Glen Arbor, which has plenty of restaurants and a small, but well-stocked, grocery store.
If we were going back to Sleeping Bear Dunes NL, we would certainly stay here again and make a point to check out more of the restaurants in Glen Arbor.
You could also stay in Traverse City and drive out to Sleeping Bear Dunes NL but we like staying closer to the parks.
Final Thoughts on Sleeping Bear Dunes NL and Traverse City
Wow, did we enjoy ourselves here. This was easily one of our favorite stops on our Great Lakes road trip.
Sleeping Bear Dunes NL has plenty to see and do, especially if you are looking to get out in the water or head out on the trail. For most folks, one day is enough to see and do the highlights but you can easily spend a lot more time here.
The same is true for Traverse City. We had a lot of fun here and really enjoyed what this town has to offer. We could easily spend a couple more days driving around the area. Bonnie is even talking about coming back in the winter to spend some time snowmobiling… Hmm.