Sleeping Bear Dunes – Camping, Hiking and Mountain Biking

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore – August 29 – September 2, 2013


We made it home from our week up in the Upper Peninsula on Sunday. On Monday the kids started school and it was back to work. Then by Thursday night we were packed up and heading north again to spend Labor Day weekend camping with our friends at Sleeping Bear Dunes. It was fast turn around, but it went well.


We stayed at Indigo Bluffs last July and had a great time and we liked the location so we decided to go back again.

Mountain Biking the Dry Hill Trail at Arcadia Dunes:


Friday morning I slipped out of the camper early and drove 45 minutes south to the The C. S. Mott Nature Preserve at Arcadia Dunes. I had read good things about the Dry Hill Mountain Bike Trail and wanted to check it out. I found a fun and flowing single track loop that was just under 10 miles long.

From the Michigan Mountain Biking Association: “The C. S. Mott Nature Preserve is a 3,600 acre nature preserve owned by the Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy. The Conservancy works hard to balance the public uses offered on their preserves with the protection of nature features, unique habitats, and scenic beauty. The professionally designed (in conjunction with IMBA) single track trail follows contour lines that flow through hills of northern hardwood forest with a few open fields. Here’s what local mountain bikers are saying about the Dry Hill and Chestnut Trails at Arcadia Dunes: “great trails with scenic views.”, “a roller-coaster, single track thrill ride through the forest.”, “sweet flowing single track with some punchy climbs and fast swooping downhills.”

GoPro video of the first 3.3 miles of the trail.

The trail is all rolling and mostly hard packed single track. I think if this trail was closer to a bigger city and got more traffic it would start to loosen up and get some sandy sections. I rode in the counterclockwise, but you can ride it either way. However, I noticed that the mile markers are set in the clockwise direction. The video is in double speed so it doesn’t take too long to watch.

Dry Hill Trail Map >>

Directions to the trailhead >>


While I was mountain biking the kids spent the morning in the pool. Unfortunately by the time I got back to the campground it was getting cloudy.


After lunch we went to the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive and stopped to take the annual pictures of the kids by the numbers.


Reesey sporting the tall socks.


Only a few more numbers left for Regan.


Unfortunately it was cloudy and fog was blowing in from the lake, hiding most of the views along the drive.


After the scenic drive we drove to Sleeping Bear Point for a short hike. The entire Sleeping Bear Point Trail is strenuous 2.8 mile loop that is mostly soft sand. We just took the spur trail that leads out to the beach near the beginning of the trail. Following this route it is about a 0.3 mile walk to the beach.

To see photos from the entire Sleeping Bear Point dune hike click here >>


Along the way the kids couldn’t resist climbing the dune.


The beach looking back towards Glen Haven.


On the way back the sun finally came out and everything instantly went from gray to back to the bright colors that Sleeping Bear Dunes is known for.


A good find at the Indigo Bluffs camp store.

North Bar Lake Beach Day:


Saturday looked like it was going to be the best day of the weekend so we got an early start and claimed our spot on the North Bar Lake beach.


North Bar Lake is connected to Lake Michigan by a shallow outlet that is good for even smaller kids to play in. You really can’t go wrong here, the inland beach is nice and the water is usually warmer for swimming. As you can see from the photo above the Lake Michigan beach is really nice and has a view of South Manitou Island to the north and Empire Bluffs to the south.


Looking at our beach spot from on top of the dune on the north end of North Bar Lake.


North Bar Lake Panoramic.

Click here to see the larger version of this photo >>


We spent the day swimming, standup paddle boarding, walking the beach and our course relaxing in the sun. When the kids started turning pink by late afternoon it was time to go back and find some shade.


After lunch more people started showing up and they were still rolling in as we were leaving.


I think the only time these two left the water was to eat lunch.


The day was not complete without a sand castle.

In the background you can see our Wonder Wheeler Wide Beach Cart. This was nice to have here because it is about 0.3 miles from the parking area to where you will want to be on the beach.

Directions to North Bar Lake >>



Reid talking to his girlfriend back at the campsite.

Hiking the Alligator Hill Trail:


The next morning we hiked the Alligator Hill Trail.

The kilns at the trailhead were built by Pierce Stocking in the 1950s. He used these to make the waste from his sawmill into charcoal that was bagged and sold in stores through out Michigan.


It is slow climb of about 1.3 miles up to the Islands Lookout.


Our view was again obstructed by fog over Lake Michigan.


Resting on the bench at the overlook.


Heading back down from the overlook on the Easy Trail. This route makes for a 2.7 mile loop.

For more photos from this hike and a trail map click here >>

Empire Fat Bike Beach Ride:

In the afternoon while the kids were at the pool I took the fat bike down to Empire. This beach ride starts from the Empire Village Beach and goes north to the Sleeping Bear Dune. At about 4.5 miles the beach became too rocky to ride and I had to turn around. Along the way I pass the North Bar Lake outlet and bottom of the Lake Michigan Overlook on the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive.



In the evening rain moved in so we decided to make the drive up to Leland for dinner. We went to The Cove for the fresh Lake Michigan Whitefish. All 4 of the Whitefish options here are very good. The Campfire and the Garlic Parmesan above are our favorites.

All restaurants in Leland, MI on TripAdvisor >>


The rain stopped so after dinner we were able to walk the docks in Historic Fish Town. The girls were showing off their free fish necklaces from The Cove.

Hiking the Cottonwood Trail:


Labor Day morning our friends packed up and left. We were still not ready to give up on the summer camping season yet so we decided to go for a hike before heading home. It was cool, cloudy and the forecast was for scattered showers, but the radar looked clear. We went back to the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive to hike the Cottonwood Trail.

The Cottonwood Trail from the National Park Service Website: “Starting at this trailhead, you can take a l.5 mile walk on the dunes. The trail is strenuous in places but will give you a close look at the beauty and diversity of the dunes. You will see areas that are stabilized with native dune vegetation such as bearberry and buffaloberry.

This is one of the few places where you can even see a birch tree on the dunes. In some places, wind erosion has produced bowl-shaped dunes known as blowouts, while in other places, the build-up of sand has partially buried living trees. Perhaps you will see some colorful wildflowers or tracks in the sand that reveal the elusive wildlife of the dunes. Take the time to get acquainted with this unique environment. Please stay on the designated trail.”

Reid took off running down the trail to find the “clues.”



Looking back down the trail. With all the running we had a pretty good lead on the girls.


After about a 0.5 mile of running it was time for a break.


About at halfway through the loop you come to an overlook above the Dune Climb and Glen Lake. When we arrived here we saw that the radar was wrong. In the top left of the photo you can see the rain moving in from the north.


Reesey getting a closer look at the rain.


The girls with Glen Lake in the background.


Heading back as light rain started to fall.

The kids returned with the sequel to the “Walking in the Falls” song. This time it was “Walking in the Rain. ”


After about a mile of running Reid was ready for a ride. We made it back just before the heavy rain started. We were lucky to just get a little damp on the hike.

View Cotton Wood Trail 9/2/2013 10:25am in a larger map

The track from our hike in Google Maps. It took us about 50 minutes to complete the 1.5 miles loop.

For more on this hike and other kid friendly hike in Sleeping Bear see: Best Hikes with Children in Michigan





We planned to get burgers and Art’s Tavern before heading home, but when we got there we couldn’t even get in the door. It was already noon and they told us that they were so backed up from breakfast that they wouldn’t be changing over to lunch for at another hour. Another sign of how much busier it has gotten up here since we first started coming.

We didn’t want to wait that long so we went up the road to Western Avenue Grill and they could get us right in. We were already set on burgers so we ordered the only one they had on the menu. In the end it worked out perfect because burgers were awesome and everything came out fast.


After lunch it was time to pack up. I realized that I forgot to take photos of our campsite so here is a quick shot of us getting ready to leave site 114. The site was on the outside of the loop and just up the road from where we stayed last year.

We like this location, but it got a little interesting on Saturday night when there was a full on dance party going on under the awning of a pop-up across the road from us. The only thing that was missing were strobe lights. We have seen a lot of interesting things in campgrounds, but this was a first. The other times we have stayed here it was pretty quiet. Although this was our fist time on a holiday weekend.

For a few more photos of the Indigo Bluffs campground see the post from our previous visit >>



Our Favorites:

Wonder Wheeler Beach Cart – Ultra Wide Wheels

Our family doesn’t mind walking a little further than the average person to find the perfect spot on the beach. That’s why the Wonder Wheeler comes with us on every trip, we use it all summer long! It can handle up to 100 lbs. and we don’t need to leave anything behind- beach chairs, boogie boards, 2 umbrellas, cooler of food and drinks, books, towels, everything you need to enjoy a long day at the beach. On sidewalks, boardwalks and hard packed trails the Wonder Wheeler pushes with very little effort. When you get to the soft sand, just turn it around and drag it behind you. The oversized wheels can handle the sand, no problem.

It also comes in handy when a picnic lunch is needed and so is the huge cooler full of food. The Wonder Wheeler makes going to the beach a breeze. The kids aren’t complaining about the walk because their hands are free and they can skip ahead and enjoy the day- and so can you.  – MMT Mom

Find Wonder Wheeler Beach Carts on Amazon >> 

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