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Friday, October 23, 2015

Sleeping Bear Dunes Lakeshore Route: A Guide

40+ miles

Sleeping Bear Dunes has the potential to provide backpackers with wonders on a similar level as Michigan's other National Lakeshore, Pictured Rocks. From remote sandy beaches to towering dunes, inland lakes, and historic buildings and museums, Sleeping Bear Dunes offers the quality of scenery that is deserving of an extended linear backpacking adventure.

Unfortunately, unlike Pictured Rocks, Sleeping Bear Dunes does not have an established linear backpacking trail/route along the lakeshore and backpackers' campsites are infrequent and at times not accessible to Lake Michigan.  The Lakeshore does offer a fairly extensive trail system.

Backpacking routes have been identified on the mainland.  One such route is the "Bay to Bay Shoreline Walk" as presented in Jim DuFresne's highly recommended book Backpacking Michigan.  The route is simple: walk the beach from Platte Bay to Sleeping Bear Bay.  Unfortunately this misses some of the best views from the towering dunes and also a fine stretch of shoreline to Good Harbor Bay. Another possibility, the National Park Service has discussed creating a backpacking trail, but a timeframe for its completion is unknown and most likely will miss some highlights due to dune sensitivity issues.

While completing several hiking trips to the Lakeshore I have formulated an exciting route, that I believe exhibits much of the finest of Sleeping Bear Dunes.  This 40+ mile route includes a variety of hiking along the beach and up on the dunes with a combination of on-trail and off-trail travel.  Ideally this route will be hiked from North to South (to minimize steep climbs) from Good Harbor Bay to Point Betsie.  To protect the fragile dune environment hiking solo or in a small group is recommended.

See the map below.  Consider the track a general guide. On-route exploration is certainly encouraged.

Depending on the distance desired per day, hikers have options for overnight stay along the route at White Pine Backcountry Campsite (permits required), Platte River Campground (reservations recommended), local accommodations in Empire, D.H. Day Campground (first come-first serve), and local accommodations in Glen Arbor.

Keep in mind that much of this route is on sand and presents challenges greater than simply hiking a trail.  Going north to south reduces the steepness of the climbs but the cumulative elevation change is the same both directions.  Early in the summer, there will most likely be clouds of bugs.   In some places it will feel like you are walking in someone's backyard, but walking the beach is a legalized right in Michigan. Near the popular tourist spots, there will be crowds of people in the summer, but much of the route includes remote stretches of pure wilderness.

Start at the eastern end of Good Harbor Bay off M-22

Hike the remote wilderness beach until joining rising small bluffs

Detour around a small home to avoid private property with a short road walk.

At the end of the road join an unmarked trail and follow it until it climbs upward through dunes to Pyramid Point.

Manitou Islands from Pyramid Point

Follow the Pyramid Point Trail to the parking lot. Roadwalk Thoreson Road through scenic farmland and historic buildings near Port Oneida

Descend to the beach

 Climb up stairs and join what I believe is part of the Bay View Trail.

Enjoy a great view of the Manitou Islands.

Follow the trail past a cemetery.

Then head over to Miller Barn.

Climb off-trail through the forest to Lookout Point.

Descend to the Bay View Trailhead and then join Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail to Road 675.

Road walk 675 to beach to Sleeping Bear Bay *I have not completed this road walk. (This avoids a deep crossing of the Crystal River)

Walk the beach to D.H. Day Campground. Continue beach walk and explore Glen Haven and Maritime Museum.

Leave beach at Sleeping Bear Point

Travel cross country to top of Dune Climb for a great view of Glen Lake.

Make way to edge of dunes and climb parallel to Lake Michigan

Follow dunes until climb up to Sleeping Bear Overlook

Then Lake Michigan Overlook

Descend steeply to Lake Michigan (without having to worry about the climb back up!)

Follow beach past North Bar Lake to Village Park and Empire

Robert H. Manning Memorial Lighthouse

Continue on beach until below Empire Bluffs

Climb the steepest climb of the route to boardwalk.

Follow unmarked trails across dunes and in forest on edge of bluffs.

Descend to beach near Esch Road

Continue across Otter Creek

Cross Platte River

Go around Platte River Point

Complete at Point Betsie Light.

*I have not completed the hike along the beach to Point Betsie.  It does look like it may get a little wet  (wading required) in places, but finishing at the lighthouse would make a spectacular finish. Another option is to finish at the Old Indian Trailhead off M-22.

If time permits an additional adventure on the Manitou Islands should be added. North Manitou Island is a fine backcountry destination with open camping allowed a certain distance from the water. In fact, North Manitou Island was the first place I went backpacking.  On South Manitou Island backpackers are limited to the main campgrounds but there is still lots to explore.  Neither island is quite large enough to provide several days of hiking but doing both could add ~30 miles of spectacular wilderness scenery.  Ferry schedule would take some planning though (See here:  It does look possible to go to South Manitou first, spend a night. Then ferry over to North Manitou for another night before returning to Leland.  Combining the mainland route with both Manitou Islands form one of the finest week-long backpacking adventures in Michigan.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Sleeping Bear Dunes North

October 2-4, 2015

I arrived in the evening found a campsite in the D.H. Day Campground as there is only one backcountry site in the northern part of Sleeping Bear Dunes.

I quickly formulated a plan for the weekend. In the evening I would hike from the Village Park in Empire to where I had previously left the beach near Empire Bluffs. Then I would do two day-hikes (semi loops) with D.H. Day Campground in the middle.

My evening hike south along the beach provided an excellent sunset.

I had the beach all to myself and there were no longer any swarms of bugs like the last time I was here.

Looking to the big Sleeping Bear Dunes

I reached the path ascending to Empire Bluffs and began my climb as the sun began to set.

There was a great view including South Bar Lake.

At the top there were several others enjoying the pleasant evening view.

On the way down there was a great panorama!

It was a chilly night, but I slept well.  I awoke early and began my hike in the dark.

I began the hike with some of the most uneventful hiking of the weekend on the Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail.  There was evidence of a large storm from earlier in the summer with my trees down but not on the trail.

After walking through Glen Arbor the "trail" was on a scenic road near Glen Lake. The lake was not visible due to private property.

There were marathon signs on the road and even an aid station.   Maybe I was in first place because I didn't see anyone running.

I made it to the Crystal River and joined a paved trail.

There was a large and scenic bridge with a view of some fall colors.

A couple bikers passed me, but there were few people on the trail.

I reached the Bay View Trailhead and joined the trail to

It was a great view out to Lake Michigan.

To the north I could see some scenic farmland.

I descended off-trail to Miller Barn.

Then I found a trail through the forest that led to a historic cemetery.

I don't think the trail was officially on the map but it was easy to follow.

Next there was a great view of the Manitou Islands.

The trail ended at a road.  There was private property inland, so I descended to the beach instead of taking a road walk.

I continued on the beach until I climbed up a bluff and found a field with some historic buildings.

I joined the road and continued to the Pyramid Point Trailhead.

Pyramid Point Trailhead

It was a short walk to Pyramid Point and the view was excellent.  There were several others around.  It was a great view of the Manitou and Fox Islands.

I descended the dunes parallel the lake vs going straight down.

There were scenic paths on top of the dunes.

A scenic pond down below

I found a trail that descended into the forest and followed it to a road.

I found a trail out to the beach, but there were steep bluffs and limited walking without getting wet.  I tried to stay up of the bluff, but ran into private property so I walked a short distance to the road and did a short road walk.

Steep bluffs

I found a way back to the beach and began a great hike around Good Harbor Bay.

I forded Shalda Creek and met a hiker with his dog.

I reached a roadside park and took a break.  There was an outhouse and drinking fountain, but the water had been turned off.

At the end of Lake Michigan Road there was a picnic area.

I continued onward for a short distance.

Then I decided to turn around and begin my journey back.

Looking to Pyramid Point

This time I decided to go to the road instead of fording Shalda Creek.

I returned to the beach.

I continued to the small section of private property and again detoured around it on the road, then continued down the road until its end then returned to the bluffs above the beach.

Soon there was a path down to the beach.

The dunes began to rise to my left.

As I neared Pyramid Point, there were points were the dunes dropped steeply into the water.

I took off my socks and the insoles out of my shoes and continued on, needing to brace myself from the waves.

I some places the waves were carving out the sand.

In some places I had to scramble around/over fallen trees.

Then I made it to the beach!

Looking back to Pyramid Point

I passed the stairs that I had descended earlier in the day.

The water came back to the edge of the beach and I entered the forest beside the dunes.

I began to see some houses as I neared Glen Arbor.

Then there was an unexpected challenging river crossing of the Crystal River.  It had been dug out and was quite deep.  I searched for an alternate crossing, but was surrounded by private property and locked inside a gated community. I had to hoist my pack over my head and stabilize myself as there was actually a current going out into the lake.  The water was up to my waist and I'm 6 foot 3 inches.

After completing the crossing, it was an easy hike along the beach back to D.H. Day Campground.

Looking back to Pyramid Point

I reached the path to the campground and enjoyed a relaxing evening after an eventful and tiring day.

I awoke early the next morning and drove to the Village Park in Empire.

I hiked north along the beach.  There was a small river to jump across near South Bar Lake.

Then I came to North Bar Lake.

Soon there were towering dunes to my right.

I could look up and see the observation tower from the Lake Michigan Overlook.

I continued on the beach past a shipwreck to the Dune Climb Trail.

I followed the trail over to the Dune Climb.

At the top of the Dune Climb there was an excellent view of Glen Lake.

After descending the Dune Climb, I joined the Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail on my way to Glen Haven.

The trail followed an historic railroad grade.

There was a great view from Glen Haven.

A short distance away, I reached D.H. Day Campground.

I hiked out to the beached and followed it past Glen Haven to the Maritime Museum.

I followed a road a short distance to the Sleeping Bear Point Trailhead.  Then I ventured up a dune for a great view of Sleeping Bear Bay.

There was also I great inland view.

I hiked around Sleeping Bear Point.  It wasn't as challenging as Pyramid Point.

As I neared the Dune Climb Trail again, I passed a shipwreck.

Then I left the beach and hiked off-trail up the dunes paralleling the lake.

This section was probably my favorite of the Sleeping Bear Dunes on the mainland. The views were endless.

It is hard to capture just how high the dunes are above the water.

In some places it was flat, easy hiking up on the dunes.

I passed an interesting log construction.

I could see the Empire Bluffs in the distance.

I saw a lookout in the distance and made my way to it.  I could see Glen Lake in the distance.

The scenic road was closed for paving so I had the viewpoints all to myself.

It was a short distance to the Lake Michigan overlook, towering high up the lake.

Where many people enjoy the descent and arduous climb back up.

I decided to descend the dune and follow the beach back to Empire.

It took me about 90 seconds to get down to the beach.

North Bar Lake

Robert H. Manning Memorial Lighthouse

This was an exceptional weekend with some of the most unique scenery in the US.

About Me

I've been born and raised in the great state of Michigan. I recently graduated from physical therapy school. I enjoy being active, playing sports, and running. Backpacking has become a great interest as it is a physical challenge that provides many rewarding views and experiences. I strive to make a difference in the lives of those encounter in every day life, on the trail, or even just on this blog. May God bless each of you. Now go find an adventure! It's only a few feet away!