Sleeping Bear Dunes, Michigan. The Most Beautiful Place in America


Sleeping Bear dunes and South Bar Lake

Personally, I think the notion of a “most beautiful place” is like choosing a favorite child. How does one go about that?

And yet, doesn’t every child secretly think (s)he’s the favorite?

So, while there are thousands of incredibly beautiful places on this continent (the Bugaboo ice field in British Columbia comes to mind), I make no bones about being proud that “my” state was so honored. I always knew it was the best.

Now that the cat is out of the bag, however, just take my word for how nice it is—and stay home. There are enough visitors here already. One million to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Park last year. Ouch.

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On a recent mid-September morning, the tiny town of Empire where the park headquarters is located, was clearly relishing its return to utter obscurity. There were, maybe, five cars on the street. “We had a good season,” says Cynthia, owner of the Secret Garden, a shop featuring work by local (and not-so-local) artisans, “but I just wish people wouldn’t drive so fast through downtown.” This is a town to be explored on foot in a leisurely fashion, not blasted through.

Cynthia at the Secret Garden, Empire


My daughter and I visited Empire during a camping week at Sleeping Bear this September. The weather was glorious and balmy without the bite of autumn. Trees were just beginning to turn.

beginning of autumn

Since Julia was nursing a cold, we were a bit more sedentary than usual. Otherwise, I’m sure we would never have spent a day at the Leelanau Coffee Roasters in Glen Arbor. Never.

Julia with cold


The beauty of this place derives from the white sand beaches against the expanse of freshwater sea that changes color with the sky. While the water stretches to the horizon, this shore is different from the ocean. For one thing, it doesn’t smell like salt—in fact, it doesn’t smell like much of anything except the outdoors. Seaweed and other ocean crap doesn’t wash up on the beach, except for the ubiquitous zebra mussel shells and the occasional driftwood. Also, the water doesn’t leave a salt residue.

The dunes for which the park is named are called “perched dunes” because sand is blown high onto plateaus overlooking the lake. The dune climb–running down the 460-foot dune and then laboriously climbing back up–is the iconic activity at Sleeping Bear. Since I vividly recall just how demanding a climb up a steep and shifting sand dune can be, I decided that Julia wasn’t up for that particular activity.

Sleeping Bear Point trail

My favorite hike in the park is a moderately challenging trek around the Sleeping Bear Point. At about 2.5 miles, the trail offers great views and varied terrain. Plus, to get to the trailhead you drive through the newly restored Glen Haven historic district, which is still arising, Phoenixlike, from the mists of the past.

The park has two campgrounds: the southernmost Platte River Campground where I’ve always camped. Miles of trails loop north of the campground and the Platte River is apparently great for kayaking. A kayak, however, is still on my wish list.

Next time, I’ll camp in the rustic D.H. Day campground toward the middle of the park, which is more suited to tents and small RVs like mine. And, it’s cheaper.

The park also includes almost two dozen inland lakes and two islands—the North and South Manitou. Ferries run twice daily to the south island, so it’s a great day trip. You should plan to do this trip unless you have a cold like Julia, and then you should sit in a coffeehouse and talk to your friends on FB. North Manitou is wilder—no cars allowed. Ferries run only once daily, so the trip entails at least an overnight camp. It’s on my bucket list.

From the park, head north on M-22 to circumnavigate the Leelanau Peninsula—Michigan’s little finger and prime wine country. That’s also on my bucket list.

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10 Responses to Sleeping Bear Dunes, Michigan. The Most Beautiful Place in America

  1. Marcia Davis 16 March, 2012 at 10:18 pm #

    Love the photo of the dunes. I know exactly where that shot was taken on Empire Bluff Trail! It’s a gorgeous place to be!

  2. Scott 5 March, 2012 at 12:26 am #


    I found your site accidentally when doing some research on Columbus, NM. My family and I have traveled all over the USA and we are still partial to our home state of MI. My wife and I are convinced there is no better place in the summer than MI and Sleeping Bear Dunes is incredible.

    We took my son there for the first time when he was about 4 and made the journey back several times. My wife drove him and the photographer over two hours just to take some of his Senior years pictures in Sleeping Bear Dunes and other parts of Northwest MI. This is a truly remarkable place.

    I look forward to reading more and wish you the best.

  3. jean selby 24 October, 2011 at 8:43 am #

    Oh how nostagic this trip was. I was raised in this area. You are right about Mich. being the most beautiful — I guess. There are so many parts of the world that are beautiful.

    Yeah, Luke, we all know you are the favorite for today. Then we start to rotate again.
    Take it from your loving grandma that your mom went thru this exercise also.

    • Kate 29 October, 2011 at 9:55 pm #

      But I AM the favorite, aren’t I, Mom?

  4. Lucian Cesarz 24 October, 2011 at 1:23 am #

    We all know I’m the favorite!

    • Kate 29 October, 2011 at 9:55 pm #

      Favorite is as favorite does.

      What are you doing up at 1:23 on a work night?

  5. Your envious daughter 23 October, 2011 at 11:31 pm #

    Your alter ego is a lazy loser mom. 😛

    • Kate 29 October, 2011 at 9:53 pm #

      My alter ego was very fun to camp with and looks much better without a tissue up her nose. XXXOOO


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