Sleeping Bear Dunes, Michigan

Everything the RV Renter Needs to Know

Your trip to the dunes that give Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore its name may start in an unassuming parking lot. You pull in, walk through a vast open meadow and into the woods, where hilly trails take you through until, suddenly, you realize you’re hundreds of feet above Lake Michigan. In front of you, there’s a sign resting atop the steepest sand dune you have ever seen:

“Warning: Avoid getting stuck at the bottom! Lake levels are high—the only way out is up. Rescues cost $3,000. Keep yourself and our rescuers out of danger.”

Dire warnings mixed in with beauty unlike anywhere else in the United States: it’s that kind of combination that makes Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore a can’t-miss destination for nature lovers and ambitious athletes alike. The lakeshore itself and the surrounding area in the northernmost tip of Michigan’s lower peninsula—at the tip of the mitten’s fingers, if you will—has an air of a seaside town in the friendly and warm company of a Midwestern community.

Here’s why Sleeping Bear Dunes needs to be at the top of your RV trip wish list.

Why Visit Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in Your Rented RV?

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is a great RV-camping destination in its own right, but it’s a particularly nice spot for an RV trip simply due to all of the quaint resort towns and beautiful natural attractions throughout Northern Michigan. With an RV rental doubling as a hotel room and mode of transportation, you can explore everything this beautiful region has to offer. For starters, here’s a look at the top five reasons you’ll want to grab an RV and make the drive to the very northern edge of the country.

The Dune Climb

Perhaps the most famous attraction at Sleeping Bear Dunes, the Dune Climb is an exercise in pure, childlike wonder and fun in nature’s sandbox. Start in the picnic area at lake level and climb a low-grade, sloping dune that takes you high above the water for panoramic views of Lake Michigan and the surrounding landscape. Once at the top, you can choose to continue your hike all the way to the very edge of Lake Michigan. That tour is a three- to four-hour round trip, but rewards hikers with truly one-of-a-kind views through coastal forests and sprawling sandy dunes.

Of course, most of the fun at the Dune Climb is to be had when you’re all done and ready to head back to the picnic area. Visitors love to run back down the dune at full speed to test their endurance—or for a sudden, if not soft, fall down into the sand. Some guests can while away a whole afternoon just going up and down the Dune Climb. Just five miles away from Empire, Michigan, and the campgrounds there, this is an absolute must for any Sleeping Bear Dunes vacation. Learn more about the Dune Climb here.

Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail

Cyclists love Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in large part thanks to the Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail—a 22-mile paved multi-use trail that stretches from the northern end of the National Lakeshore, through Glen Arbor, all the way down to Empire around the coast. The entire trail is no-motor, and, except for a three-mile stretch north of Glen Arbor that is made of crushed stone, it’s all smooth, paved asphalt.

The Heritage Trail makes it easy to grab a campsite inside of Sleeping Bear Dunes or anywhere in Glen Arbor or Empire, then keep the RV parked for your entire trip. Bring your bikes with you, or rent one from Sleeping Bear Surf & Kayak, Crystal River Outfitters, or Empire Outdoors, each of which lies along the Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail.

Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive

If you’re traveling to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, why not look for activities you can enjoy from behind the wheel of your rental RV? Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive is the perfect vehicular activity to add to your Sleeping Bear to-do list. Running a little more than seven miles through the Beech-Maple forest of the area and offering scenic overlooks of the Glen Lakes, Sleeping Bear Dunes, and Lake Michigan, the Scenic Drive is a must-see for any visitor to the area.

Because the drive is inside the National Lakeshore, you’ll need a park pass to enter. Start your cruise at the Visitor Center in Empire to grab a free interpretive guide to teach you about the sights you’ll see along the way. Keep in mind that the speed limit throughout the drive is 20 mph, and while cycling is allowed, it’s only recommended for the most experienced riders due to the steep hills and winding roadways. For more information and to plan your Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive trip, visit the National Park Service website.

Manitou Islands

The most adventurous of visitors can’t resist a trip to North or South Manitou Island, both parts of the National Lakeshore just off the coast in Lake Michigan. These large islands are accessible only by boat and offer some of the most incredible backcountry camping anywhere in the American Midwest. On both islands, small villages and visitor centers are just the starting point of an experience that will lead campers to explore inland lakes, old-growth forests, ghost towns, and the kind of turquoise water you’d expect to find in the Caribbean.

Hunting is allowed on both islands, as is fishing, making them great destinations for anyone looking for a true experience in self-reliance. Of course, you won’t be taking your RV out to the Manitous, but an overnight excursion to either of the islands can make for an unforgettable addition to your Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore trip. Learn more and prepare for your trips on the National Park Service webpages for North Manitou Island and South Manitou Island.

Glen Haven and the Maritime Museum

Years ago, small villages dotted the coastline of the Great Lakes, serving as fueling and supply centers for the steamers running through the area. The quaint village of Glen Haven is just such a town, and today it stands virtually the same as it was back in the 1920s. Visitors can take a step back in time by touring the logging village and exploring the old-time General Store and Cannery Boathouse in town.

Two of the top attractions in Glen Haven are the restored 1920s Blacksmith shop, which offers interpretive demonstrations in ironworking, and the Maritime Museum. There, visitors learn about the rich history of the U.S. Coast Guard and Life-Saving Service, through permanent exhibits and demonstrations like the firing of the Lyle Gun, a real-life rescue device designed to fire a rescue line to foundering ships up to 400 yards from shore.

Campgrounds and RV Parks for Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore

Northern Michigan is so defined by its natural beauty that camping here is almost a religion. As such, there’s no shortage of amazing camping opportunities to find in your rented RV. Campgrounds and RV sites often accommodate vehicles of any size and come with full electric, water, and sewage hookups. Every one of the campgrounds within Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore offers electric hookups at every single campsite, which is exceedingly rare at federally managed campgrounds. Whether you’re looking to stay on the lakeshore itself or visit an RV resort nearby, here are the top five options in the area.

Platte River Campground

Right within Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is Platte River Campground, a cozy RVer’s dream that’s open year-round. Reserve one of their 96 electric sites in advance to get your choice of back-in and pull-through spots available. There’s no camp store on-site, but there are food storage lockers so you can bring your own meals into the park. Enjoy internet and cell phone connectivity year-round, local firewood available on-site, and great restroom and shower facilities.

D.H. Day Campground

The more rustic of the two options inside the National Lakeshore itself, D.H. Day Campground is located in the park’s northern district. There are no electric hookups at any of the camp’s 88 sites, but every one of them is large and accessible enough to facilitate your RV rental, no matter the size. D.H. Day is a popular choice for its close distance to nearby Glen Arbor, Michigan with its great bars, restaurants, and shops.

Indigo Bluffs

Just around the corner from Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is Indigo Bluffs, a three-in-one camping destination in Empire, Michigan. The RV crowd can choose from a shady but rustic RV park for an affordable $40 per night or land a concrete pad and patio in a gated resort for only $35 more. Whichever you choose, you’re close to all the action at Sleeping Bear Dunes and all of the other lakes and hiking destinations in the area.

Traverse Bay RV Resort

A quick 30-minute trip from Sleeping Bear Dunes, Traverse Bay RV Resort is one of the few resorts in the Good Sam Club with perfect 10 ratings for Facility, Restrooms, and Appeal. This adult-oriented resort is equal parts campgrounds and permanent living quarters, and with its 217 massive lots, it’s not hard to see why. Enjoy all the standard amenities plus nature trails, coach washing services, a tennis court, fitness center, outdoor spa and pool, and more.

Holiday Park Campground

Holiday Park Campground is another Traverse City option perfect for families and anyone looking for a great outdoor experience just outside their RV. Located on the southern tip of Silver Lake, Holiday Park offers many lakefront RV sites—all of which come with full hookups. Guests love the on-site beach and the camp store which offers canoe and kayak rentals—great for anybody looking to get in some fishing or fun on the water.

Places to Eat Near Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore,

Northern Michigan is celebrated for its many contributions to the Midwestern culinary scene—from its many world-class breweries and wineries to the cherries and blueberries made famous by the ‘u-pick’ signs you’ll see dotting the highways in and out of Sleeping Bear Dunes. While you won’t find any restaurants or convenience stores located inside the National Lakeshore itself, Sleeping Bear Dunes is surrounded by resort towns and communities with a wide variety of dining options.

Dining outside of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore

Glen Arbor, Michigan is your closest option for dining near Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, and it offers the best of Northern Michigan hospitality. Locals and tourists alike love Art’s Tavern, a charming dive bar with samples of local beers and fried smelt. Cherry Public House is a brewpub with an upscale menu, and Riverfront Pizza & Deli is a local favorite for pies you can take back for a relaxing evening at your RV. If you’re a true foodie looking for an unbeatable dining experience, you could always consider making the 30-minute drive to Traverse City, an area famous for its world-class restaurants.

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore provides some of the best outdoor and recreational activities Michigan has to offer. Mark it down as a destination on your next RV trip, and you won’t be disappointed with all there is to see, do, and experience.

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