Dunes Trail to Lake Michigan

Aerial view of sand dunes and surrounding forest. Lake Michigan is visible in the background.
Aerial View of Dunes Trail

Quick Facts

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Round trip is 3.5 miles and may take 2-4 hours depending on the weather and your physical condition

The Dunes Trail, a 3.5-mile round trip, takes devoted hikers across a sandy dunescape to the cool waters of the Lake Michigan. This hike is challenging. If you have trouble scaling the Dune Climb at the beginning, think twice before continuing on, as you will have to climb five more dunes of various heights. The hike up and down over sand dunes offers multiple views of Glen Lake and Lake Michigan, and the sparse dune ecology.

The Dunes Trail goes straight up a huge dune right away. For most families, stopping here and letting the kids play on the huge dune might be the way to go. The kids can play for hours on this formation tumbling down the hill over and over again. Many people get sucked in and want to hike to the lake, but be warned: Lake Michigan is not just over that next dune. The trail's hilly, sandy terrain can be very difficult to traverse, and a round trip may take several hours if the temperatures are unfriendly. This trail has worn out the most experienced hikers. Pack water and wear appropriate footwear. Be prepared for hot sand and no escape from the sun.

The rolling dunes are beautiful and vary in cover from open sand or patches of beach grass and wildflowers to a lone cottonwood here and there. The sun can be relentless on the dunes when the skies are clear and shade can be tough to come by. Stopping to take in the gorgeous views of the northeastern shore of Lake Michigan from the dunes is an excellent excuse for a break.

The hike is a workout for many people, but the isolated beach along Lake Michigan and its refreshing surf is a great place to recuperate before heading back along the same route. 

Hike the Dunes Trail Safely

If you are going to hike in the Dunes, there are a few things you should do to make your trip more enjoyable.

What's the plan? Rangers are called upon to conduct many searches each summer because folks back at the Dune Climb are concerned about companions who have been out on the dunes longer than expected. Often it turns out that there was simply a misunderstanding as to when the group would meet up. Agree on a plan before splitting up, and be realistic about the time it will take for a hike. Remember, it may take 2-4 hours depending on the weather and your physical condition.

Which way do I go? Out on the dunes there are few clues as to which way you need to go. The best plan is to follow one of the marked hiking trails and carry a map. The hiking trails in the dunes are marked with posts with blue tops. That will also minimize the human impact on this fragile ecosystem. If you are determined to explore off-trail, be sure to bring a compass and keep track of your directions.

Be aware that cell coverage here, as in many locations within the National Lakeshore is unreliable and that cell phone batteries drain much more quickly in poor coverage areas. You may or may not be able to contact others in your party or phone for help.

Watch those slopes. Steep dune slopes occasionally collapse- a dangerous situation if you are there! This is especially hazardous during winter and early spring seasons. Another reason to avoid them is to help dune grass roots remain intact and do their job of holding the sand in place.

Resist the ridges.We tend to be drawn to walking along the narrow ridge tops among the dunes. However, this is another part of the dunes which is highly vulnerable to erosion. It's best to hike on the broad open plains where possible.

Keep it under control. Often folks begin running down the dunes, and soon find their legs can't keep up with the rest of them! Resulting tumbles can cause injuries. While careful, controlled running at the Dune Climb is relatively safe, other slopes have hidden rocks and other hazards which can cause serious injuries.

Don't be shoeless. Even if you don't want to wear shoes at the start, throw a pair into a backpack. The sand can be very hot and abrasive and underground shoots of dune grass can stab into your feet.

Go wet & wild. The dunes are a bit like a desert environment, and you will need to stay hydrated. Bring a bottle of water.

Don't be a ghost-buster. Everyone enjoys the "ghost forests" (trees that long-ago became buried by moving dunes, then reappeared after the dunes moved). Please leave them because they are the most photographed ghosts around.

Watch the wind. The wind-blown sand can be irritating to eyes and skin. On the other hand, it can make for great kite flying.

Take the Trail Trekker Challenge

Do you think you can hike all of the trails in one year? Want to explore the landscape of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, exercise, and have fun all at the same time? Join the Trail Trekker Challenge! Earn a prize and bragging rights by successfully completing each of the 14 mainland trails in the National Lakeshore. Hiking is a great way to get daily physical exercise and promote health while also discovering the beauty of the area. What better way to get your muscles warm, your heart pumping, and your senses savoring the views!

Pick up a copy of the Trail Trekker Challenge brochure/logbook at the visitor center in Empire.

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore

Last updated: February 8, 2024