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When completed, the Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail will wind for 27 miles through the stunning Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore—a national park on the shores of Lake Michigan in the northwest corner of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula. In 2011, Good Morning America proclaimed this area “The Most Beautiful Place in America.”
The trail is built partially on what once was a narrow-gauge railroad (constructed in 1907) that transported lumber from a sawmill on Glen Lake to the port town of Glen Haven on Sleeping Bear Bay. Most of the trail, however, was not constructed on a former rail bed, and visitors will find steep grades of as much as 12 percent in some parts of the currently 21-mile route.
The northeastern endpoint for the trail is currently located at South Bohemian Road and MI 22/West Harbor Highway in Maple City, between Little Traverse Lake to the east and Bass Lake and School Lake to the west; the southwestern endpoint is located at South Lacore Street and South Leelanau Highway in Empire. When the trail is finished, its northeastern terminus will extend to County Road 651/Good Harbor Trail in Good Harbor Bay Beach, and its southwestern terminus will extend to Manning Road in Honor.
Beginning at South Bohemian Road, you’ll head northwest to the Port Oneida Rural Historic District, which showcases Midwestern turn-of-the-century farm life. The area preserves a rare collection of more than a hundred buildings and farming sites dating back more than a century. Note that most of the Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail is paved except for the section of hard-packed crushed stone running through this historic district.
After leaving the historic farm area, you’ll head south toward Glen Lake and then west into the town of Glen Arbor, where the trail continues on low-traffic roads. Here, you’ll find a grocery store, several restaurants, a bike-rental shop, and numerous other stores catering to the tourist trade.
After exiting Glen Arbor, the trail continues west through a wooded area that in 2015 was struck by a storm with winds of up to 100 miles per hour that felled hundreds of trees. The devastation is still visible for a couple of miles, with large trees scattered like matchsticks along the corridor. Continuing west, the trail winds through D. H. Day Campground and the historic town of Glen Haven before arriving at the Dune Climb—the primary point of public access to the Sleeping Bear Dunes and one of Michigan’s most famous natural features.
Rising to 260 feet, Dune Climb is a popular climbing point that provides a breathtaking view of Glen Lake below. The climb can be strenuous, however, with a 20 percent grade on loose white sand, but you can choose to walk, run, or roll back to the bottom. Or you might continue the dune hike for another 1.5 miles to reach Lake Michigan. Those who do so should be prepared with sturdy shoes, a hat, sunscreen, and plenty of water, particularly during the summer, when the sun and sand can be extremely hot.
The trail turns south after the Dune Climb and enters a deeply forested part of the park. This section includes one major hill that is challenging but results in a long descent into the town of Empire. You’ll pass a small trailhead on your right at West Voice Road and North Bar Lake Road with a pit toilet and parking, after which the off-road trail ends about 200 feet past where West Voice Road turns south and becomes South Lacore Road. From there, a signed on-road section continues for just under a mile to S. Leelanau Highway where South Lacore Road has become South Lacore Street.
In Empire, you can enjoy a local restaurant or take a quick dip at the town’s sandy Lake Michigan beach. You can also access the Philip A. Hart Visitor Center, which provides information and interpretive displays for Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.
The best place to park near the northeastern endpoint is at the Bay View Trailhead in Maple City. To reach it from the intersection of MI 72 and Maple City Road, head north on Maple City Road for 8.8 miles. Turn left on MI 22/W. Harbor Hwy., and go 5.3 miles. Turn right (north) onto S. Thoreson Road, go 0.3 mile, and turn left into the trailhead parking lot. The endpoint is approximately 4.3 miles east.
To reach the southern trailhead from the intersection of S. Lacore St. and MI 22 in Empire, head north on S. Lacore St. where MI 22 heads northeast. After 1.1 miles—S. Lacore St. becomes Lacore Road—bear right onto W. Voice Road and, in 0.2 mile, turn left onto N. Bar Lake Road. Look for the parking lot on your right in less than 300 feet. The trail’s official endpoint is about 1.3 mile farther down the trail in Empire.
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