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Sleeping Bear Dunes in winter: 8 amazing winter activities(+tips)

If you’re visiting Sleeping Bear Dunes in winter and looking for fun winter activities, you’ve come to the right place.

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore hugs the northeast shore of Lake Michigan in the northern region of the state.

Its 71,000 acres are widely known for their scenic views, massive dunes, Indigenous history, and lush forests.
If you’re wondering what to do at Sleeping Bear Dunes in winter, we’ve got you covered.

Our complete winter guide has all the information you’ll need in order to make long-lasting memories in Michigan’s best-kept secret: Sleeping Bear Dunes.

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Best tips for your Sleeping Bear Dunes trip

Here is an overview of the most important things to know before traveling to Sleeping Bear Dunes.

Where to stay:

Empire:

Glen Arbor:

Renting a car: Check out Rentalscars.com and Discover cars.

Need domestic travel insurance for your Sleeping Bear Dunes trip? Here you can find all info on domestic travel insurance for your trip.

What to pack for your Sleeping Bear Dunes trip? Hiking shoeshiking poles, and ice cleats if you visit in winter.

Best Sleeping Bear Dunes winter activities

A lookout over Lake Michigan in Sleeping Bear Dunes in Winter
Hear the creaking sound of snow on untouched trails.

Go winter hiking

Uncover the beauty of the snow-covered conifer forest, abandoned farm site meadows, and frozen lakes in Sleeping Bear Dunes’ winter hiking trails. With about 100 miles of trails, there is no shortage of treks for you to explore this season.

Here we share some of the best winter hikes in Sleeping Bear Dunes.

The Dune Climb

This climb is one of the most famous and notoriously challenging treks in the park.

Located about 5 miles north of Empire, conquering this 245-foot dune is at least a bit easier in the winter when the temperatures have firmed up the ground and replaced the sand with snow.

However, you’re still going to need to traverse up and down the steep, rugged dunes in your snow gear, making for a long and challenging, but worthwhile hike.

From the top of the first dune, you have impressive views of Glen Lake. But you’re still a long way from Lake Michigan, which is 1.5 miles away. Allow 3 to 4 hours to hike all the way to Lake Michigan and back.

View from the Empire Bluff Lookout in Winter in Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore
View from the Empire Bluff Lookout in Winter(photo credits: Rachel Kramer)

Empire Bluff Trail

If you are going to Sleeping Bear Dunes in the winter, an absolute must-do is the Empire Bluff Trail.

Hike past beech-maple forest and open fields on this fairly easy but somewhat hilly trail. In total, the trail is just 1.5 miles so hikers of all ability levels will find this route enjoyable.

The best part of the journey is when you reach a high bluff that overlooks Lake Michigan.

The views are stunning but make sure to look for signs of where the trails end because areas around the bluff can be dangerous due to snow and ice.

Cross Country Skiing on Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive in Winter
Cross Country Skiing on Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive in Winter

Go cross country skiing

Sleeping Bear Dunes winter trails are not just great for hiking, but cross-country skiing too!

The Park designates many areas and summer hiking trails to be groomed and prepped for ideal skiing and winter sporting activities.

Two of the flattest trails in the Lakeshore are the Good Harbor Bay Trail, only 2.8 miles, and the Platte Plains Trail which is a lot longer at over 14 miles.

Not only will you experience perfect terrain for a day of skiing, but this activity is a great way to get some outdoor exercise too!

If you’re looking for a bit more of a challenge during a Sleeping Bear Dunes winter day trip, give the Old Indian and Alligator Hill trails a try.

To find out more about these trails, you can find trail maps at the visitor center in Empire or online at the Park’s website!

There you’ll also find information on trail etiquette from rangers that ask visitors to walk on the side of the freshly groomed trails and to not allow dogs on the paths.

However, skiers are asked to share some paths, like Sleeping Bear Heritage Trails, with snowshoers and fat-tire bikers.

Snow shoe fun in Winter
Snowshoe fun in Winter

Go snowshoeing

A great way to enjoy Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore winter scenery is to traverse the park on snowshoes.

Snowshoeing is allowed on all snow-covered fields, forests, and dunes all winter long so you are free to explore any grounds in the park.

That means you not only have the 100 miles of trails but also any unpaved land as well to freely wander, spot wildlife, or simply enjoy the varied landscapes.

It’s nearly impossible to get completely lost in Sleeping Bear Dunes because the park is bordered on one side by Lake Michigan and the M22 on the other.

However, we recommend that you use a compass if you are going to deviate from the hiking trails. That could be one of these Garmin hiking watches, for example.

If you plan to stay on the marked routes, check out the Lakeshore website to compare distances and difficulty levels amongst the fourteen trails.

You can always count on Platte Plains Trail, Good Harbor Bay, and Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail, remember you don’t have to do the whole Heritage trail in one go, for an easy route at a reasonable distance.

While most of the trails fall into the easy to moderate category, Sleeping Bear Point and the Dunes Hiking Trail are the two most strenuous paths.

If you’re inexperienced, another option is to take part in one of the ranger-led hikes which are available all winter long, or as long as weather permits and can be booked in the visitor center or online.

Hiking steep snow-covered dunes is not advised.  The sand underneath can be unstable and the snow cover can add to the instability, causing an avalanche.

Sled down the Dune Climb in Sleeping Bear Dunes
Sled down the Dune Climb in Sleeping Bear Dunes

Go sledding

Sledding at the Dune Climb is not your typical 5-second race down your neighborhood hill.

This 245-foot drop is an exhilarating Sleeping Bear Dunes winter ride that begins with beautiful views of Glen Lake followed by a thrilling plunge down the snow-covered sand, and a drudge back up to do it all again.

Sleds, snowboards, toboggans, saucers, and just about any other speed-inducing sled are permitted at the Dune Climb.

Regardless of what sled you use, you can expect to fly down the complex set of hills with some serious speed. In fact, younger kids may be better off starting in the middle of the hill.

Make sure to check the National Park Service or local weather providers to make sure there is enough snow on the dune as well as to look for any changes to sledding rules.

Since Dune Climb is the only area that permits sledding, it is important to stay up to date on the Park’s policies.

After you’re worn out from the ride, stop by Glen Arbor for some hot chocolate and yummy treats.

Fat biking in the snow
Fat biking is an exhausting but fun thing to do in Sleeping Bear Dunes

Go fat biking

Who says cycling is a summer sport? Fat tire bikes are the perfect solution for cruising through snow and sand thanks to the sturdy large tires and balanced frame of the bike.

These giant bikes can maneuver almost any terrain and all the trails that are open for cycling in the summer are open to fat-tire bikes in the winter.

Many cyclers choose to stick to the 7.5 miles groomed stretch of the Sleeping Bear Dunes Heritage Trail from Glen Arbor to Empire.

Before you go, make sure your tires are at least 3.7” wide, your tire pressure is under 8 psi, and the weather conditions are suitable for biking on the trails.

If you are having a hard time riding a straight line or having to push your bike, the conditions are too soft and you need to stay off the trail.

Not only will soft conditions make biking an incredibly strenuous workout for you, but it also damages the groomed trails by leaving grooves on the paths. 

Go ice fishing

There are 21 lakes in Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore which are home to a wide variety of fish including salmon, small-mouth bass, northern pike, walleye, and bluegill.

Once the temperatures drop, cozy little ice fishing shelters pop up all over the frozen lakes. Inside these insulated tents, you’ll find fishing enthusiasts sitting around a hole that has been drilled into the ice, waiting for their next fish to bite.

This popular Midwest pastime is a really fun experience you won’t want to miss out on.

Do make sure you are up to date on the latest fishing regulations in Michigan before giving it a try.

A fishing license is required and there are protocols for drilling into the lake, both of which can be found on the website of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.

Once you have the permits and necessary equipment, all lakes in the park are open for fishing, but the Glen Lakes, Loon Lake, Bass Lake, and Otter Lake are the most popular.

Red Fox in snow
Red foxes can be spotted in winter in Sleeping Bear Dunes

Spot wildlife

Sleeping Bear Dunes Michigan winter season is the best time of year to spot the region’s quiet wildlife.

In the lakeshore’s meadows and along streams and low shrub cover, you may find red and gray foxes, weasels, and squirrels.

The winter is also a more common time to spot the pointed ears and bushy tails of a coyote, especially since January to March are breeding months.

There are also many rare animals that a few lucky visitors will have the chance to see. This includes the bobcat and the Snowy owls.

These huge, stark-white birds are the largest breed of owls on the continent and are a truly rare sighting to experience since they only occasionally migrate the thousands of miles to Sleeping Bear Dunes from their home in the Arctic.

The Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive in Winter
The Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive is closed for vehicles in Winter

Have fun at the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive

This may be a scenic drive, but you most definitely won’t be bringing any sort of automobile through the Pierce Stocking scenic drive in winter.

The 7.5-mile loop through the snow-covered beech-maple forest features the iconic Covered Bridge near the beginning of the trail, and tons of overlooks with incredible views of the dunes, Lake Michigan, and Glen Lakes.

Make sure to pick up a copy of the guide to Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive for more navigation help and more information on the history of the area.

Amazing sunset Sleeping Bear Dunes Winter
An amazing sunset

Tips for visiting Sleeping Bear Dunes in winter

Is Sleeping Bear Dunes open in winter?

Yes! Sleeping Bear Dunes’ winter hours are the same as every other season. The Park is open seven days a week with the exception of some holidays. All details can be found on their website.

How to get to Sleeping Bear Dunes

Sleeping Bear Dunes is in Northwestern Lower Michigan along the shoreline of Lake Michigan. It is accessible by car, plane, or bus and you can find maps and more detailed directions on the Directions page of the National Parks Service website.

Sleeping Bear entrance fee

There are a few expenses you should prepare for as you plan your trip.

First, the cost of the entrance pass is based on your vehicle.

A private vehicle, such as a car or truck, is $25 and is valid for 1-7 days from the date of purchase.

A motorcycle has the same stipulations but costs $20.

If you are 16 years old or older and enter on foot or bicycle, the entrance fee is “per person” at $15.00.

Additionally, there are annual passes and free entrance days too (Martin Luther King Jr. Day is the only day in winter) that are completely free for all guests.

If you do not pay for the park passes, that could result in a fine.

The Philip A. Hart Visitor Center in Empire
The Philip A. Hart Visitor Center in Empire

Stop by the Visitor center

The Philip A. Hart Visitor Center is located in Empire, Michigan on the M-72.

This is where you’ll have all your questions answered while also picking up some history and useful information about the park.

Stop by the museum, check out an event in the auditorium, get to know a ranger, or buy a souvenir in the bookshop.

Check out the website beforehand

Unfortunately, temporary closures do happen in the park from time to time.

If there are temporary closures, the website does a fantastic job of informing travelers when the park is expected to be reopened.

Winter rentals

If you’re visiting from out of state or simply interested in trying a new winter sport, head to Crystal River Outfitters Recreation District for rentals at an affordable price.

They’ve got fat-tire bikes and helmets, cross country skis (plus poles and boots), and snowshoes.

Rustic cabin Sleeping Bear Dunes
A Rustic Cabin near Sleeping Bear Dunes (Photo credits VRBO )

Where to stay in Sleeping Bear Dunes

From a Sleeping Bear Dunes Winter camping adventure to small towns and cozy cottages, the right accommodation will heighten your trip to Northern Michigan.

Many travelers choose to stay in Empire or Glen Arbor because of the proximity to the park and the greater range of hotels, bed and breakfasts, motels, cabin rentals, and resorts.

For a complete list of our favorites, check out our recommendations here.

Another option is to feel a bit more local by booking an Airbnb or VRBO. Some of the best Airbnb and VRBO options offer the best views of Sleeping Bear Dunes in winter, access to the lake, cozy cottages, and even the unique experience of a Yurt at Spruce Hill Farm. 

Conclusion

With an abundance of winter sports, stunning natural landscapes, and fun activities for the whole family, Sleeping Bear Dunes should top your bucket list as one of the most beautiful and memorable places in the Midwest, especially during wintertime.

See the web stories that accompany this post.

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Read Also:

Here is a list of more fun things to do in Sleeping Bear Dunes.

If you are visiting during summer, check out these amazing Sleeping Bear Dunes beaches. 

For the best restaurants in Sleeping Bear Dunes, click here.