Dreaming of Travel: Sleeping Bear Dunes

Published on March 29, 2021 - Updated on March 29, 2021

Postcard-worthy Northern Michigan is my favorite place on earth.

As a Michigander living in Nashville, Tennessee, I often find myself pining over the crystal-clear lakeshores, the endless beaches and the breathtaking sand dunes that slope along the Lower Peninsula’s northwestern coast.

Once a hidden gem, the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore became a hotspot for travelers from around the world after “Good Morning America” in 2011 named it the “Most Beautiful Place in America.” And I have to agree: the beauty of Sleeping Bear Dunes is unparalleled.

There is much to see and do in the area surrounding the national lakeshore, and it’s a wonderful trip to take with children. From splashing in sand-bottomed lakes and hiking huge scalable dunes, to enjoying a scenic drive and exploring cute beach towns, the entire family won’t soon forget this vacation.


When to visit

No question, my favorite time to visit Sleeping Bear Dunes is during the summer. Michigan summers are gorgeous. June, July and August are the busiest tourist season. Downtown Traverse City hosts the iconic National Cherry Festival in July, so the town is particularly packed during that event. Alternatively, October is a beautiful — and less crowded — time to visit when the leaves are changing colors.

Where to stay

Traveling to Northern isn’t particularly easy (or cheap if you decide to fly). But it’s so worth it! We’ve done the trip a few different ways. You can fly into the Detroit airport, rent a car and drive about four hours north to Empire, Michigan. (which is the closest beach town to Sleeping Bear Dunes). Or you can fly into the Traverse City airport, which plants you in the biggest city near Sleeping Bear Dunes (about 30 miles away from the national lakeshore). Traverse City has the most lodging options and its own gorgeous views of Lake Michigan. This summer my family is opting to make the long drive to Northern Michigan from Nashville so we can load the car up with our ridiculous amount of baby and toddler gear.

The Homestead in Glen Arbor

The Homestead is an amazing beachfront resort with a mile-long beach, spa and salon, golf courses, tennis courts, pools and restaurants. You can rent anything from hotel rooms and suites to private condos and entire homes. It’s a great location and the town of Glen Arbor has cute shops and restaurants.  


Rent a house in a nearby beach town

There are many diverse lodging options around Sleeping Bear Dunes, but you must book far in advance. We love renting homes on Airbnb or Vrbo so that we have a kitchen to cook and more space for the kiddos. This is the kind of trip where you’ll need to drive 20 to 40 minutes to various activities, so I recommend staying in any of the little beach towns near the water. Rentals in Suttons Bay, Glen Arbor, Empire and Leland would all be great options.

Hotel in Traverse City with views of Lake Michigan

Another great option is to stay in downtown Traverse City, where you’ll have beautiful views of Lake Michigan, alongside a thriving downtown filled with independent stores, coffee shops, restaurants and entertainment. Some lodging options in Traverse include Hotel Indigo, Cambria Hotel and West Bay Beach Resort.

Must-see sights and activities

There is so much to do and see in this Northern Michigan paradise! Here are some of my favorites that I return to time and again.


Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive

This 7.4-mile drive is a fabulous way to explore the scenic vistas of Sleeping Bear Dunes. It loops around a forest and the sand dunes, with stunning views of the Glen Lakes and Lake Michigan. There are various lookouts along the way where you can park your car and get out to enjoy the views, have a picnic or take a short hike. You can check out a virtual tour of the scenic drive here. You must have a park pass to enter ($25 per vehicle or $45 for an annual pass).

The Dune Climb

Climbing the dunes feels like a rite of passage, and there’s a designated area about 5 miles north of Empire to do so. Strong hikers can hike all the way to Lake Michigan, a strenuous, 3.5-mile trip that can take three to four hours. But little kids and families still love hiking up the dunes and turning around to run down the sloping hills once they’ve had their fill of hiking. There are restrooms and a picnic area at the bottom of the dune climb, so pack some lunches for when you’re finished. You must have a park pass to enter, but you can use your pass from the scenic drive at the dune climb.


Fishtown in Leland

Located in a cute beach town called Leland, Fishtown is a little commercial fishing village with weathered shanties and smokehouses right on the shores of Lake Michigan. Although it’s still a working fishing village, many of the shanties now house food shops, boutiques and art galleries. It’s so fun to spend an afternoon strolling around Fishtown and shopping from local artists. We never miss an opportunity to get a giant sandwich made on homemade pretzel bread from the Village Cheese Shanty. From Fishtown you can walk around and explore downtown Leland.

Leelanau Peninsula wineries

Northern Michigan is home to dozens of thriving wineries. Leelanau Peninsula alone has 27 wine destinations, many with gorgeous views of Lake Michigan. I love driving up the peninsula and visiting a handful of the wineries, where you can sample wines in tasting rooms before enjoying a glass and taking in the views. My husband and I were married at Verterra Winery on the peninsula!

Downtown Glen Arbor and Cherry Republic

Charming Glen Arbor is one of my favorite spots in the area. There are cute shops, art galleries and restaurants to explore. I love Art’sTavern, a legendary watering hole and restaurant that serves great burgers and tater tots. But my all-time favorite business in town is Cherry Republic. The Michigan-based business, which has several locations in the state, serves all things cherries, which are sourced from the abundant cherry orchards of Leelanau County. The Glen Arbor spot is the company’s flagship. You can shop from more than 200 cherry products (think chocolate covered cherries, cherry salsa, cherry barbecue sauce, etc.), visit the winery tasting shop for complimentary tastings, and enjoy lunch or dinner followed by some cherry ice cream or cherry pie. It truly is a must-visit and the entire family will love it. 

Let us help you get outdoors with Ten Tips For Hiking Safely During COVID-19 or seek inspiration from the safety of your home in Dreaming Up Your Next Adventure. Start by Making Nature Your Focus in Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia.

To really get your imagination in motion, check out Explore the Magical Beauty of Grand Teton and Yellowstone or the recent blogs by Colin Boyd Dreaming of Safe Travel: Dry Tortugas and Why Mojave National Preserve is Our Favorite Park.

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Thoughtfully captured by:
Lizzy Alfs
Lizzy is a Michigan transplant living in the always bustling Nashville, Tenn. After graduating from the University of Michigan, she spent a decade working as a business journalist in Ann Arbor, Mich. and then Music City. She recently transitioned her journalism career to freelance writing so she could stay home with her two little boys, Milo and Jude. Lizzy grew up in the summers on a lake in beautiful Northern Michigan and she spent the winters making the most of the state's endless snow and slush. She lives by the motto "There's no such thing as bad weather" and you'll find her outside rain or shine. These days, Lizzy and the boys like to adventure around Nashville, looking for toddler-friendly hikes, parks and swimming holes.
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