This trail doesn’t involve much of a “summit” compared to most of the pages on Summitpost - - but we Midwesterners have to take what we can get. You do have to climb a large sand dune and go up and down several more.
Like most destinations in the Midwest, its pleasures are more subtle than the craggy snow-covered peaks of Alpine destinations. Instead, you get the explore the varied flora and fauna of a dune community as it slowly evolves into a mixed deciduous forest. The trail ends at a very nice beach that isn’t exactly secluded, but the two miles you have to walk to get there does keep the crowds down quite a bit, especially earlier in the day.
Sleeping Bear Dune NL is in northwestern Michigan, near the tourist destinations of Traverse City and Interlochen. See dwhike’s SBDNL site for directions to the area.
Take M-109 from either Glen Arbor or Empire, heading toward the other town. About half way between the two towns is the Dune Climb parking lot, which serves as our trailhead.
Usually, the NPS estimates for how long it takes to hike a trail are laughably long. I was surprised that this one was much closer to being correct. The round trip is only 3.5 miles long, and the NPS estimates that it takes 3-4 hours to complete. We did it in a little less than three, including snacks and splashing at the beach.
It’s slow because you’re walking up and down sand dunes. You slide back a little bit with every step, and there really isn’t any way to speed it up.
The hike goes up and down four ridges of dunes. It’s an unusual hike in that the more difficult direction is the downhill side - - the “out” of the out-and-back. That’s because the dunes have gentler slopes on the lake side, and steeper slopes on the inland side. Going to the lake, you’re climbing steep dunes, which is annoying. On the way back, you’re climbing the gentle side and walking/running down the steep sides.
The hike begins with the Dune Climb, which attracts sizeable crowds. From the top of the Dune, you need to find the Dunes Trail route markers, which are wooden posts with a blue marking on top. The first marker is some distance away and almost impossible to see, but if you veer to the right up the gentle slope you see, you’ll come across the post soon enough. From there, the trail is consistently marked all the way to the beach.
The trail is marked for winter cross-country ski travel. Getting up the first dune would present a challenge in skis, however.
There’s a parking/day use fee for the Sleeping Bear Dune NS. You’re supposed to pay your fee back at park HQ in Empire. Sometimes the NPS staffs an entry kiosk here to collect the fee, and sometimes it doesn’t. I just put my annual NPS pass on the dashboard and don’t worry about it.
The NPS advises that you bring sun screen, water, and footwear. That’s good advice, but it’s often not followed. We saw one young lady hiking this trail in a bikini, barefoot, with no hat, sun screen, or water, on a hot day with temps in the mid-80s. She must have been lobster red by the end of the day.
Because this is a custom page, it doesn’t have a standard Climber’s log, but you can find the non-standard log here.