Sleeping Bear Dunes is a United States National Lakeshore on Lake Michigan near Traverse City in Northern Michigan. It consists of miles of sand dunes on the Lake Michigan shoreline and the islands of North Manitou and South Manitou.
According to a Chippewa legend, a bear and her two cubs swam across Lake Michigan to escape a fire on the other side. The mother reached exhausted safety on the shore, but was unable to save her cubs, who drowned within sight of shore. The Great Spirit Manitou transformed the mother into a huge sand dune (looking out toward the lake), and the cubs into islands.
The area became important to Great Lakes shipping in the 19th century, as one of the few large safe harbors on the way around the Lower Peninsula to Chicago. Farming, both for subsistence and to supply passing ships was an important local industry.
The National Lakeshore was assembled in the 1960s and 1970s, largely from private land (and not without some controversy), eventually including not only the recreational immediate area of Sleeping Bear Dune, but the geologically – and scenically – significant shoreline to the south and northeast, and the two Manitou Islands.
The National Lakeshore consists primarily of a 35-mile (60 km) stretch of Lake Michigan shoreline, featuring immense sand dunes rising as high as 460 feet above the lake, sculpted entirely by the winds and waters. The park includes or borders several small inland lakes and the mouth of the Platte River at its south end. The mainland portion of the park is broken into three sections by the villages of Empire and Glen Arbor.
The park also includes North and South Manitou Islands, each about 6–7 miles from shore. These were high points of ridges left as the glaciers receded, covered by wind-blown sand, and partially forested. North Manitou (7.75 by 4.25 miles) includes low-lying sandy regions in the southeast, rising to hills and 400-foot sand dunes in the northwest. South Manitou (about 3 by 4 miles) features perched dunes on the west, descending to a wide, concave harbor in the east.
Flora and fauna
The sand dunes provide a distinctive environment for vegetation. Dune grasses' long roots seek out water and help to hold the dunes together, along with thistles, bearberries, and other hardy plants. Juniper and jack pine take hold in the sand. Oak and white pine trees are found slightly inland from the beach. Further inland (where the soil is richer) it's a prime example of a beech/maple hardwood forest with some hemlock, basswood, and black cherry.
Birds can be found throughout the park, especially waterfowl such as Canada geese, loons, ducks, mergansers, and gulls. Shorebirds such as the sandpiper are common; the endangered piping plover nests on the North Manitou shoreline, parts of which are off-limits during mating season for this reason. Bald eagles nest on the islands, but hawks and owls are the main predatory birds. Sandhill cranes can be found in some wetlands. Thrushes and warblers inhabit the woodlands; the threatened prairie warbler nests in the mainland dunes along Lake Michigan.
Despite the park's name, black bears are rare in the area. Chipmunks, fox squirrels, and gray squirrels (including the uncommon black variety) are commonplace. The northern flying squirrel (which really just glides short distances) lives here but isn't often seen. Several species of bats (which fly quite well) are out between dusk and dawn. Raccoons like to hang out around campsites to scavenge. Beavers, otters, and minks can be found around inland lakes and streams. Bobcats (a feline slightly larger than a housecat) are present but avoid human contact. White-tailed deer have become increasingly common since forests were cleared in the area (they are hunted, in season) -- and are known to host deer ticks, which also attack humans. Coyotes and opossums are other recent arrivals to the area. Cougars have been sighted (see "Stay safe"), though they are generally elusive and avoid contact.
The islands have a limited variety of mammals, due to their distance from the mainland and their small size. Beavers, mice, chipmunks, squirrels, snowshoe hares, bats, and coyotes can be found. North Manitou also has raccoons and white-tailed deer. The deer were introduced, and because they had no predators overwhelmed the island, eradicating some plant species and halting the growth of new maple, cedar, and pine trees. They are now hunted to keep their numbers down and much of the vegetation is recovering. On the other hand, South Manitou's plant life is fairly representative of what the mainland was like before farming and deer grazing. The trees are mostly beech and maple, with a stand of huge white cedars (one fallen specimen was over 500 years old) and yew growing in the underbrush. Trillium (which are protected) grow on both islands, along with many other spring wildflowers and orchids.
The park lies at 45° North, halfway between the always-frozen pole and the always-warm equator. Although Lake Michigan moderates temperatures somewhat, summers are hot (sometimes over 90°F by day) and winters are cold (sometimes below 0°F). The vast water reservoir to the west means the heat is humid and the cold is snowy. Sunscreen and footwear to protect you from hot sand is essential in the summer. Spring comes fairly late, the chill of autumn can come early, and weather coming off the big lake can change conditions quickly, so dressing in layers is a good idea.
The National Lakeshore is several miles from Traverse City: Take M-72 west to Empire, then the western leg of M-22 and/or M-109 to access most areas of the park.
Grand Traverse and Leelanau County's Bay Area Transportation Authority (BATA) has bus service to Empire and Glen Arbor, M-F, and connections with the Greyhound bus network in Traverse City.
Fees and permits
An entry fee of $10 per private vehicle, or $5 per person (16 and older) for those on foot or two wheels, is charged for all parties visiting the park; the fee is valid for seven days. A $20 annual pass is available for those planning on making multiple visits. There are additional fees for camping (see "Sleep"). Passes can be purchased at ranger stations or from 24-hour machines at the visitor center and two main campgrounds.
There are several passes for groups traveling together in a private vehicle or individuals on foot/bike that provide free entry to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore and all national parks, as well as some national monuments, national wildlife refuges, and national forests:
- The $80 Annual Pass (valid for twelve months from date of issue) can be purchased by anyone. Military personnel can obtain a free pass by showing a Common Access Card (CAC) or Military ID.
- The $80 Senior Pass (valid for the life of the holder) is available to U.S. citizens or permanent residents age 62 or over. Applicants must provide documentation of citizenship and age. This pass also provides a 50% discount on some park amenities. Seniors can also obtain a $20 annual pass.
- The free Access Pass (valid for the life of the holder) is available to U.S. citizens or permanent residents with permanent disabilities. Applicants must provide documentation of citizenship and permanent disability. This pass also provides a fifty percent discount on some park amenities.
- The free Volunteer Pass is available to individuals who have volunteered 250 or more hours with federal agencies that participate in the Interagency Pass Program.
- The free Annual 4th Grade Pass (valid for September-August of the 4th grade school year) allows entry to the bearer and any accompanying passengers in a private non-commercial vehicle. Registration at the Every Kid Outdoors website is required.
The National Park Service offers free admission to all national parks on five days every year:
- Martin Luther King Jr. Day (third Monday in January); next observance is January 16, 2023
- The first day of National Park Week (third Saturday in April); next observance is April 15, 2023
- The National Park Service Birthday (August 25)
- National Public Lands Day (fourth Saturday in September); next observance is September 24, 2022
- Veterans Day (November 11)
Local and state roads connect most parts of the mainland portion of the park, so cars or bicycles are the most practical way of getting from one to another. One potentially confusing road is M-22, which goes up the west side of the Leelanau Peninsula then comes down the east side; make sure you know which leg you're on and which leg your destination is on.
The islands are accessible by private motorboat or by commercial ferry:
- Manitou Island Transit, P.O. Box 1157, Leland, MI 49654 (several miles north of the mainland part of the park, on the west leg of M-22) +1 231-256-9061.  From mid-June thru Labor Day, they offer daily transportation to South Manitou (with a 4.5-hour layover at the island, also suitable for day-trippers) and Su M W F Sa to North Manitou (no layover, so it's for campers only), as well as sunset cruises and scuba expeditions. In early summer they operate on a less frequent schedule, and in the fall they run a single ship to both islands on Su W F. Closed from the end of deer-hunting season through April. Reservations recommended. $29 round-trip to either island.
- Phillip A. Hart Visitor Center (M-72, in Empire). Contains helpful staff members as well as maps, geological information, an exhibit of local wildlife, a bookstore, and an informational film about the area and the folklore surrounding it.
- Sleeping Bear Point Coast Guard Station and Maritime Museum (middle section of the park). A former U.S. Life-Saving Station has authentically dressed workers who explain what maritime life was like back in the 1800s. The exhibits contain antique boating equipment, photos, restored buildings from the era, and daily demonstrations of rescue techniques using Raggedy Ann and Andy dolls. Open Memorial Day through Labor Day, 10:30AM to 5PM.
- South Manitou Lighthouse and Coast Guard Station (near the dock). Went into service in 1871 and 1901, respectively; both were closed in 1958. Several shipwrecks remain in the area.
- Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive (starts from M-109 north of Empire, just south of Glen Lake). A 7.5 mi (12 km) one-way road (named for the lumberman who built it) with places to stop for picnics and overlooks of the dunes. Open to cars, bicycles, and pedestrians, but it's hilly and dangerously curvy for cyclists. Open late April thru early November, 9AM to half an hour after sunset.
- Port Oneida Farms (northern section of the park) and Tweedle/Treat Farms (southern section) are historical farming communities that are very well-preserved examples (in the sense of not being replaced or modernized; they're in varying states of natural disrepair) of 19th-century settlements in the area. South and North Manitou Islands also have abandoned farms. The Village (North Manitou Island, near the dock) is a row of former homes and cottages, long since abandoned and slowing falling into disrepair. The interior of many of the buildings in these areas are unsafe and are off-limits unless specifically designated.
- Climb the big dune. The dune at the center of the park near Sleeping Bear Point isn't an easy climb, but it's within the ability of anyone in decent physical condition, and worth the effort for the view. Open any time, day or night, year-round.
- Over a dozen hiking and cross-country-ski trails totaling 55 miles (94 km) lead to the dunes and other interesting areas of the park. Some of these are closed in winter. Horseback riding is permitted on one of them (Alligator Hill). The iPhone app Sleeping Bear Trails lists each trail.
- Ranger-led nature walks on the Cottonwood Trail are offered in summer.
- Evening campfire programs are offered by the rangers at the D.H. Day and Platte River campgrounds during the summer, open to everyone.
- Snowshoe hikes are organized and led by the park rangers on weekends during January and February. They start from the visitor center, and last about 2 hours.
- Kids 6-16 can apply to become Junior Rangers. Fill out the workbook ($1.95 at several park concessions) with the help of a ranger, and get a Junior Ranger patch and bragging rights.
The visitors' center has a small selection of books and souvenirs available.
There is no restaurant within the park, so visitors should plan on dining in one of the nearby towns.
Alcohol is permitted in the park, but disturbing other campers or the natural setting of the park is not.
There are two campgrounds operated by the park service:
- D.H. Day Campground, NPS (central section of the park), ☏ . Open April thru November. Wooded, with easy access to Lake Michigan and Sleeping Bear Dunes. 89 rustic vehicle-accessible sites. Vault toilets, drinking water, limited generator use permitted, firewood available. No reservations except for group sites which require them in summer, $3/night. $12/$30 per night (individual/group) plus park pass.
- Platte River Campground, NPS (southern section of the park), ☏ . Open year-round, but some portions closed November through April. Wooded, a short hike to Lake Michigan. 179 sites, including RV, tent, walk-in, and group sites. Toilets, drinking water, pay showers, firewood available. Some sites can be reserved in summer, group sites require reservations, $3/night. $12/$16/$21/$40 per night (walk-in/non-electric/electric/group) plus park pass.
Leave-no-trace camping is permitted on both of the Manitou Islands and on the mainland. All sites are open year-round, but the only access to the island sites during the off-season is by private boat, because the ferry doesn't run year-round (see "Get around"). A $5/night backcountry permit is required (good for 1-4 campers), except as noted.
- Valley View. In the northern section of the park, 1.5 miles by trail from the road. 5 sites, 2 fire rings.
- White Pine. In the southern section of the park, 2.5 miles by trail north of Platte River Campground, near Lake Michigan. 6 sites, 1 fire ring.
North Manitou Island
Ad hoc - Camping is permitted anywhere except within 300 feet of water or buildings, or on trails. Fires prohibited.
- Village Campground. In the northeast quarter of the island. 8 sites, drinking water (at nearby ranger station), outhouse. Fires permitted.
South Manitou Island
- Bay Campground. On the eastern bay, north of the dock. 3 group sites (reservations required, $23/night) and 25 regular sites, fire rings, drinking water.
- Weather Station Campground. At the south end of the island. 3 group sites (reservations required, $23/night) and 20 regular sites, fire rings, drinking water.
- Popple Campground. At the north end of the island. 7 sites, fire rings.
- Cougars are endangered but have been sighted in the area. They are light brown felines, 5–8 feet long (including the tail). In the unlikely event that you encounter one, don't approach it, and don't run. A cougar expects prey to flee and will react like a house cat chasing a mouse. Pick up any small children or pets. Make eye contact, spread your arms to make yourself look bigger, and back away slowly. If it approaches you, make noise and throw things at it; let it know that you're dangerous too. If it attacks, don't curl up defensively... fight back. Cougars rarely kill humans, and are more likely to strike from an ambush position on a child or small female than a family or adult male.
- The explosion of deer populations in Michigan parks has led to a large number of deer ticks, an unpleasant parasitic insect. Ticks are known to spread diseases such as Lyme Disease, and leave a painful, itchy bite. DEET-based repellents and clothing treated with Permethrin will prevent tick bites. Ticks cling to thick grasses and brush along paths used by deer, which also unfortunately include hiking trails made by man.
- To the northeast lies the winemaking portion of the Leelanau Peninsula, one of Michigan's key grape-growing and wine-making regions.
- To the east on beautiful Grand Traverse Bay is "cherry capital" Traverse City.
- Beaver Island is a partially developed island some 40 miles to the northeast of North Manitou Island.