The Sleeping Bear Dunes in the summer are busy at best, and crowded at worst. No matter the season, the Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore offers a collection of beautiful beaches, hikes, and overlooks. The biggest perk of the off-season is having the Lakeshore to yourself.
In March 2017, my friend Estee and I took a day trip out to the dunes, starting at Pyramid Point in the north and making our way south toward Esch Road Beach.
Pyramid Point is a bluff overlooking Lake Michigan and the Manitou Islands. The bluff is steep, and several hundred feet above the water.*
From the top of Pyramid Point the big waves look like wrinkles, and you can see current patterns. Visiting in the off season left us with the entire overlook to ourselves. It was more work to get there than it would have been in the summer, and colder, but you can appreciate a place a lot more when there is no pressure to move on to the next location or get out of someone’s way.
From the trailhead it is between a half and quarter mile hike out to the overlook. When we went it was icy, and a relatively difficult hike just because of a quick elevation gain combined with the ice.
North Bar Lake:
I added this spot to our itinerary at the last second, and had low expectations. North Bar Lake is popular in the summer— the smaller lake is buffered by dunes from the Lake Michigan waves. Despite the low expectations, North Bar Lake did not disappoint. From the parking lot it was a short hike to the beach, where we wandered around for a while. The beach offered view of bluffs, the bright blue water seen in the header image, and even some small tide pools. The area was empty again, so we had all of North Bar Lake and the Lake Michigan beach to explore.
Empire Bluff Trail/Overlook:
It is about 1.6 miles out and back to the overlook from the trailhead, and a pretty easy hike. There are a few sets of stairs, and was a lot of slush and ice when went, but nothing that wasn’t manageable.
One of the coolest things about visiting the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in the Spring is the color of the water— it really is that blue. From Empire Bluff we had a birds-eye view of the teals and turquoise.
Esch Road Beach:
This is easily my favorite beach in Michigan. I love the how you can see the slope of Empire Bluff in the distance, and how clear Otter Creek is as it runs into the lake. When we were there, tide pools had formed in some spots on the sand.
As I was taking this picture the tide was coming in—Lake Michigan has a small tide. I backed up as close as I could the mouth of Otter Creek to get both the lake and creek in the shot, and a wave complete soaked my hiking boots. It was about 50 degrees out, and the water might have been colder, but my boots and socks were already wet so I took off my shoes and dipped my feet in the creek anyway. I walked the rest of the way back to the car barefoot in the sand, occasionally dipping my toes in the edge of Lake Michigan.
Here are the places that we didn’t get to, but you should!
Sleeping Bear Point Trail:
I’ve never done this trail but I’ve heard good things. It’s a dune loop a little under 3 miles, and takes you Sleeping Bear Point, the place where the Sleeping Bear allegedly sleeps looking out over her cubs.
This hike is a 4 miles out and back over large dunes out to Lake Michigan, and is one of the more strenuous hikes Michigan has to offer. The last time I did this hike in full was about three years ago, when my sister and I ran it as cross country training. I remember thinking at about the half way point to the lake— a fourth of the way into the hike— that it was ridiculous that we had gone up and down that many dunes and still couldn’t see the water. It’s a long hike, and you have to be prepared to hike back as far as you have hiked out, but other than that I would recommend it. It’s incredibly rewarding to reach the lake; the water is clear and the bottom dotted with colorful rocks. Just remember to bring water with you.
That being said, if you aren’t up for the hike, the dunes are fun to run down, or sled down in the winter.
The Frankfort Light Lighthouse is located in Frankfort, Michigan. Frankfort is a good rest point in general. It has restaurants and shops, which are less likely to be closed for the season than the ones along the rest of the Lakeshore.
As a side note, the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive does close for the season. It opens tentatively in May.
*Some people do walk down to the lake from Pyramid Point, but there are several good reasons you shouldn’t. The first: it is a difficult walk back up— I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to walk up a steep sand hill, but it’s hard. There’s no traction, and for every two steps you take, you slide back one. There’s a good chance you won’t make it back up at all, and “they” will have to send a boat or helicopter to come rescue you. Don’t be that guy. The other good reason to not descend a sheer cliff of sand is that it causes dune erosion. If you’re coming out to appreciate a natural location, it only makes sense that you would try and preserve it for the next person.