If you’re looking for a great family Midwest vacation spot , then you have to discover Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. Sleeping Bear Dunes is a complex of camping, hiking, and historical sites in and around Empire and Glen Arbor, Michigan. If you are raising a crew of budding outdoorsmen, like I am, then this is the place for you.
Where to Stay
We camped our hearts out at the Platte River Campground, and couldn’t have been happier – despite a few instances of unpredictable weather. Our walk-in tenting site was wooded and quiet, but had easy access to bathrooms and showers and was less than a mile hike away from the sugar sand beach of Lake Michigan. The campground is run by the national park service and has sites for tents, campers, or groups. Rangers were on hand at the campground were happy to answer questions and our fellow campers, including several families with small children, were friendly and fun. Every night, there was ranger-led educational program at 8:00 p.m. about area wildlife, history, or the night sky over the Lake. Many campsites at the Platte River Campground are reservable online, but there are also sites saved for walk-in campers. And I don’t mind telling you, at $15 per day, our stay at Platte River Campground was well within our budget.
For a more rustic camping experience, the D. H. Day campground near Glen Arbor is another way to enjoy the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. Sites there are walk-in only, and offer vault toilets and easy access to the beach.
In nearby Frankfort/Elberta to the South and Glen Arbor to the North, there are a variety of Bed and Breakfasts, rental cottages, and small inns to suit your family. We have sent my husband’s parents for a weekend at La Rue House in Elberta, and they loved it. Next time, though, we’ll probably try the Thyme Inn in Glen Arbor. It’s a gardener’s dream adjacent to Glen Arbor shops and farmer’s market.
Swimming & Boating
We are a family of swimmers, and we swam our hearts out every day on our Sleeping Bear vacation. The dunes are made of soft sugar-sand, and the National Park campgrounds offer stretches of undeveloped beach for miles along the lakeshore. Often, we were one of only two or three families swimming in the calm, clear waters, shallow enough for me to give my 9 and 7 year-old complete freedom while my 4 year-old built sand castles to her heart’s content.
Sleeping Bear Dunes lies at the heart of Michigan’s Lakes region, where retreating glaciers have left a complex of gorgeous clear water lakes. Every lake community has a public beach, so there is plenty to go around. We also enjoyed Platte River Point Park, where the Platte River empties into Lake Michigan. It was fun watch people tubing, kayaking and canoeing while we let the river current carry us out to a sandbar that separates the warmer river water from the cooler water of the lake.
Our last night of the trip, we watched the sun set from Empire Park in Empire, MI. The kids went crazy on the beach playground while my husband and I grilled out. There were several families with open fires on the beach as we watched the beautiful sunset over the Lake in the West – a perfect ending for a perfect vacation.
Hiking and Biking
Our trip had a few drizzly days, but it was never difficult to find something to do. We loved the quiet of the Empire Bluffs Trail and took in the vistas on the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive, which included a view of the lake from 450 ft atop the Sleeping Bear ridge dune. Adventurous climbers can visit the Dune Climb. But families with younger children might be happier hiking Sleeping Bear Point to the north.
Because of the fragile nature of the dunes themselves, vehicles are not allowed on the dunes. But we saw many road bikers along the Betsie Valley Trail and M-22. The rolling landscape -- a blend of forest, lakes, and fields -- would be a dream... and a challenge.
Plenty to Learn
Sleeping Bear Dunes was a rock-hunter’s paradise. My children found treasure upon treasure on the beach, including fossils, rose quartz, and petosky stones. Park Rangers are a ready source of information on the rocks of the area to help you identify the nature of your find.
We had the good fortune to visit the U.S. Coast Guard Outdoor Maritime Museum, just as they were beginning a Breech Bouy rescue presentation. Ranger Rebekah invited children in the audience to participate in the rescue. My oldest got to aim and fire a cannon, my youngest was the bullet that carried a rescue rope to Captain Bob, and my 7 year-old got to join a crew of surfmen hauling out and in the rope that carried the buoy. They had a great time, learned a lot, and received certificates at the end of the program. (Ranger Rebekah also earned herself a hug from my bullet-daughter.)
Wildlife enthusiasts, like our crew, will be amazed to see black squirrels and nesting Piping Plovers. Thirteen-lined ground squirrels were a treat to see with their babies as well as bugs, butterflies and birds we don’t have at home in Central Illinois.
Northwestern Michigan is known for its fresh fruit, and where better to get it than the Glen Arbor Farmer’s Market? We enjoyed a couple of quarts of fresh strawberries during our visit in late June. July is the month for cherries, though, and August is peach month. You don’t get better than fresh from the orchard, so if you’re visiting, be sure to taste and enjoy!
On our Tuesday visit to the Glen Arbor Farmer’s Market, we stopped at Cherry Republic to share a Double Monster Sundae (Yes, we’re decadent parents… but hey! This is vacation, right?) We got 6 scoops of ice cream, 2 toppings, and three cookies called “Boomers”. Literally, they were each as big as my daughter’s face. What a lunch. Too bad we had no room for pie or cherry wine. With its gorgeous garden and comfy layout, Cherry Republic is a place that’s definitely worth a family visit.
We also felt right at home at the Hungry Tummy in Beulah, where the popcorn was fresh, our waitress was super-friendly, and they had Pabst on Tap for the hubs. It may be that hiking makes a body hungry, but my kids thought the macaroni and cheese and grilled cheese with bacon were divine. If we go back, it’ll be for the pizza. :D
So much to Enjoy...
There was so much to do on our trip, we didn’t nearly get to all of it. We loved golfing at Crystal Falls golf in Benzonia and playing at the playgrounds at Empire Beach and Glen Arbor Township Park. Downtown Glen Arbor was filled with the work of local artists and artisans that any shopper worth her salt will love.
We had such fun, it was hard to find a low point to our trip. If there was one, it was the day we had to pack up and come back home. As we drove south and left the cooling lakeshore breezes, we made ourselves feel better by re-living our adventures and planning when we would return. We’ve found a gem in Sleeping Bear Dunes, that’s for sure. It’s a place our family will go back to again and again.
- Midwest Mom