The next stop on our road trip was Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lake Shore in Traverse City Michigan. It was about a seven hour drive from Cuyahoga Valley, so we got up early and hit the road. This would be our first attempt at trying to get a campsite without having reservations, so we were a little nervous.
There was construction going on all the way from Cleveland through Detroit, which slowed us down quite a bit. When we got to Detroit the road we needed to get on was closed so we had to take a detour. And of course we got lost. Harriet (my GPS) wasn’t helpful at all because she just kept trying to take us to the road that was closed., so we had to figure it out on our own. It was definitely stressful, but after three or four times of going the wrong way we finally got back on track. Driving through Detroit isn’t fun any time of the year, but it’s especially miserable during summer construction. Stay away if you can.
We got to Sleeping Bear Dunes at about 2pm and to our dismay there were no campgrounds left. We were able to buy an Access Pass though, so that was good. The Access Pass is $80 and it gets you into all of the National Parks, Forests, Monuments, etc. Most parks are $20 or more to get into, so it was worth it for us to buy the pass since we were going to be visiting about twenty parks on our road trip.
We wanted to go sight seeing, but our first mission was to find a place to camp for the night. We Googled nearby campgrounds and started calling them to see if any of them had any sites available. The campgrounds that were really close by were all full, but we found one that had some sites available that was about twenty minutes away. Lesson learned … Get there early if you want a site.
We booked the campsite over the phone, then headed into Sleeping Bear Dunes to explore. We decided to do the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive first. This is a 7 mile loop that has numerous stops along the way where you can get out and enjoy the views. There are a lot of great stops along the way, but stop number 9 has absolutely amazing views of Lake Michigan. Definitely stop at number 9.
It was breathtaking. The lake is so big that you forget it’s a lake. It looks more like an ocean. All you see is water for miles. The sand dunes at the overlook are about 450 feet high. There are numerous signs warning visitors not to climb down the dunes because it is very difficult to get back up.
If people can’t make it back up on their own, park rangers will rescue them, but there’s a hefty fine they have to pay. Despite the warnings, there were people who had gone down, and sure enough, many of them were having a heck of a time getting back up. It was kind of funny actually. Here are some of those rule breakers struggling to get back to the top.
We walked along the board walk and enjoyed the view for a little bit, the headed over to the cottonwood trail to give that a try. It’s one of the shorter trails in the park, at 1.4 miles roundtrip, but boy was it hard! It’s entirely through sand and it has absolutely no shade. Definitely wear a hat and definitely bring water. Walking through sand is strenuous even though it’s relatively flat. The view of Glen Lake is beautiful though, so I would say it was worth it.
After that we were pretty tired. We swung by the dune climb for a minute. This is a sand dune that visitors are allowed to climb. Its big, but not impossible to climb. Lots of kids climb up to the top of the dunes then slide down using makeshift sleds. It looked like they were having a good time.
We called it a day at that point and headed to our campsite. It was called Leelanau Pines Campground and it wasn’t my idea of a good time. The sites were incredibly close together. Absolutely no privacy at all. We decided to only stay there one night and get up early the next morning to try to get a campsite in Sleeping Bear Dunes.
The next morning we got to DH Day Campground at 7am and there was a sign that said ‘Campground Full.’ I decided to go in the office and ask, just for the heck of it. Turns out there were a few sites available. We would just have to wait to set up camp until later because the people who were currently on it didn’t have to be out until noon. We booked our site for one night and then headed back out to do more exploring in Sleeping Bear Dunes.
We went to the Glen Haven Historic Village, which was really interesting. There are lots of old buildings to explore learn about the history of the town, including cannery, a general store, a blacksmith shop, and a few old homes. The general store and blacksmith shop are both still operational, and the cannery is now full of old ships.
Down the road from Glen Haven Historic Village is a U.S. Coast Guard Museum that is worth checking out. It has a lot of great displays inside of it and is in the actual building that housed the coast guard members at Sleeping Bear Point.
One of the outbuildings has actual coast guard rescue boats and equipment inside, which was interesting to see. Life jackets used to be made of cork… ain’t that something?
After the museum we decided to try the Empire Trail. It starts right near the museum and is fairly easy. There is a part with steps that is a little strenuous, but it was much easier than the Cottonwood trail, and had still had amazing views.
We spent the afternoon just relaxing at Empire Beach. It’s a cute little beach right in the town of Empire. It’s not a part of the National Park, but it is open to the public. The parking lot is small and fills quickly, but there is an over flow parking lot about three blocks away that has plenty of spaces. The beach is pretty small so get kind of crowded, but it was still nice to just lay down by the water and enjoy the view. There’s a cute little lighthouse at this beach, which I really enjoyed.
We relaxed on the beach for a few hours, then headed back to DH Day campground to set up our tent and make some dinner. DH Day Campground is primitive camping, meaning no electricity, no showers, and no flush toilets. There are vault toilets and there are water spigots, which is all you really need I suppose. I really liked this campground though because the sites are spread out and have trees in between them for privacy. You’re not totally secluded, but you’re not right on top of each other either. It was nice.
I really enjoyed my time at Sleeping Bear Dunes. If Michigan didn’t have absolutely terrible winters I would definitely consider moving there. Have you been to Sleeping Bear Dunes? What did you think of it?