Five day hikes in Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore

I am very excited to share the first ever guest post here at The Working Mom’s Travels! The honor of being the first guest blogger belongs to Traveling Ted, adventure travel blogger extraordinaire. Thanks to Ted’s post, I’ve been inspired to plan my own family trip to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore!

Michigan’s Sleeping Bear Dunes was recently dubbed by Good Morning America as the most beautiful place in the United States. One of the park’s trails was also recently named one of the best hike-to-view trails by National Geographic.

With accolades like this from heavy hitters, it is a given that the park is one of top destinations in the Midwest for adventure travel. With beaches, sand dunes, nice campgrounds, and beautiful Lake Michigan, the park is also an ideal destination for family travel.  Kids love sand, beaches, dunes, and water, and when kids are happy, so are mom and dad.

The park also has a variety of great day hikes.  Depending on the ages of the kids and the fitness level of the family, multiple day hikes can be done each day, or just one a day.  Many of these hikes combine a trip to the water, and there is nothing better to top off a hike than a dip in a beautiful lake.

Empire Bluff Trail – 1.5 miles – Moderate hike

The Empire Bluff Trail is .75 miles one way through a hardwood forest to a gorgeous lookout on one of the highest bluff in the park. The Empire Dunes is halfway up the coast in the park, so hikers get great views north, south, and straight out over the water. The hiking trail is paved gravel and wide, so this is a hike even younger adventurers can manage. There are a couple of small hills, but nothing crazy.

Gorgeous view from the Empire Dunes

Cottonwood Trail – 1.5 miles – Moderate hike

The Cottonwood Trail is found along the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive. This trail is a loop that traverses over the open dunes, so there is not a lot of climbing.  Hikers here get views of the golden sand dunes, the blue skies, the gorgeous deep blue of Lake Michigan and the distant Manitou Islands.

Hiking among the dunes on the Cottonwood Trail

Sleeping Bear Point Trail – 2.8 miles- Moderate to strenuous

This trail leads hikers out onto the dunes through a ghost forest. A ghost forest is formed when a group of trees on the dunes become covered with sand and eventually die. Then the sand recedes to show a dead forest. Kids love ghost stories, so you know they will be enthralled with a ghost forest.

A ghost forest on the Sleeping Bear Point Trail

Even though the hike is more strenuous than the first two options, it is doable for fit families or ones with older kids. A spur trail can shorten the trip back to the Maritime Museum or you could always just do an out and back and return when you feel the family has gone far enough.

The Manitou Islands from the Sleeping Bear Point Trail

Dunes Trail – 3.5 miles – Strenuous

The Dunes Trail goes straight up a huge dune right away. Most families might just consider stopping there and letting the kids play on the huge dune. They can play for hours on this formation tumbling down the hill over and over again.

Many get sucked in and want to hike to the lake. This trail is up and down up and down and up and down. Many people make it to the lake and then have to be rescued because they are too tired to return. Walking on sand going up and down is not easy. I am an experienced hiker and this trail really wore me out and created some sore muscles.

Kids enjoying the Dunes Climb

Platte Plains Trail – Length and difficulty vary

The shortest loop of the Platte Plains trail system is 3.5 miles. If you’re thinking of hiking every trail in the system, be prepared to go 14.7 miles. The trails are in a hardwood forest and the difficulty level is easy to moderate depending on how far you hike. There is a map at the trailhead and I highly advise making it out to the lake if possible.

Lake Michigan accessed from the Platte Plains

Tips for Sleeping Bear Dunes

1. Make sure you are hydrated and are carrying a lot of water and sunscreen. Ghost forests may be cool, but they don’t offer much shade. Definitely wear a hat.

2. Know your and your family’s limitations. A few of these trails may be beyond the scope of some families. Know when to turn back and don’t push your family beyond their comfort zone.

Traveling Ted started hiking when he was 9 years old, over 30 years ago. Although his adventure may take him where families fear to tread, he does remember being a 9 year old hiker. In fact, his maturity level in some cases has stayed at 9 years old: adventure travel keeps you young.

He can be followed at:

Twitter @travelingted


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20 Responses to Five day hikes in Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore

  1. Joe Todd September 6, 2012 at 1:35 pm #

    Been there and had a gret time

    • Francesca September 6, 2012 at 6:41 pm #

      That’s great! I’m looking forward to my own trip to Sleeping Bear next month. It’ll be my first time back there in more than ten years.

      • Ted Nelson (@travelingted) September 11, 2012 at 6:44 pm #

        Very cool to hear you are headed there soon. Can’t wait to see your pics and read your posts.

  2. Margaret September 6, 2012 at 3:00 pm #

    Several years ago, my husband and I did a bike tour through Michigan. We thought our favorite places would be the areas around towns like Charlevoix and Petoskey, but Sleeping Bear Dunes was our favorite. We added it to our itinerary at the last minute and were so glad we did.

    • Francesca September 6, 2012 at 6:44 pm #

      I’m not surprised, Margaret. And it’s often those places we don’t think of visiting right away, the ones we add on at the last minute, that turn out to be our favorites. Have you heard the story about how I fell in love with Venice?

  3. Ted Nelson (@travelingted) September 7, 2012 at 7:36 am #

    Thanks so much for featuring me. The post looks great on your site.

    • Francesca September 8, 2012 at 9:07 am #

      You are so welcome, Ted. And thank you for offering to write this post. I love it!

  4. Ana Silva O'Reilly (@mrsoaroundworld) September 10, 2012 at 7:35 am #

    This is fab! I want to start with the Empire Bluff Trail – the views are unreal.. loved it! And I will go there

    • Ted Nelson (@travelingted) September 11, 2012 at 6:45 pm #

      Hope you make it Ana. You will love it. Michigan is also known for small wineries in the area too, which I know you will love.

  5. Will Peach September 10, 2012 at 7:53 am #

    Admittedly a five day hike sounds like something that would suck but reading about it, and Ted’s adventures, it looks and sounds pretty damn cool.

    • Ted Nelson (@travelingted) September 11, 2012 at 6:46 pm #

      The great thing about it Will is each hike is very small except the last one, so you can go at your own pace. I did all five in two days. I was pretty sore though, especially after walking on the sand on the Dunes Climb Trail.

  6. Pola (@jettingaround) September 11, 2012 at 1:48 am #

    Lovely photos! Michigan is one of my favorite states – I love the landscape there. Nicely-done, Ted & Francesca! 🙂

  7. ilivetotravel September 11, 2012 at 4:14 pm #

    I really like that the post gives options in terms of the routes for walks/hikes. I need to check out this place some day!

    • Ted Nelson (@travelingted) September 11, 2012 at 6:47 pm #

      You should Raul. We should do a tweet up there 🙂

      • Francesca September 11, 2012 at 7:49 pm #

        That would be so fun, Ted! We could rent a house on the lake next summer 🙂

  8. John September 12, 2012 at 6:54 pm #

    I love the fact that there are dunes like this in Michigan – a place I never would have picked for them.

    • Francesca September 19, 2012 at 5:36 am #

      Sure are, John. There are dunes pretty much all the way up the Lake Michigan shoreline in Michigan, and even in Indiana.


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