The Socially Distanced Guide To Sleeping Bear Dunes

Sleeping Bear Dunes
Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.

Photo by Nicole Geri

As COVID-19 continues to ravage America, people are escaping to nature for much-needed relief and socially distanced recreation. Michigan’s Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore might be a six-hour drive from Indianapolis, but the amazing scenery and opportunities for adventure make it worth the effort to get there. It’s a perfect compromise for couples who quarrel about heading to the woods or the beach for vacation.

You might be wondering, Why should I drive six hours to visit Sleeping Bear Dunes, when I can get to our own Indiana Dunes—a national park, by the way—in less than three? At Sleeping Bear Dunes—and its sibling in the Upper Peninsula, Painted Rocks National Lakeshore—the scenery is more spectacular, the hiking is better, and there are more opportunities for backcountry fun.

If you’re serious about staying safe during these challenging times, take an RV. (Or rent one, Airbnb-style, through Outdoorsy.) I was almost entirely self-contained in my Roadtrek camper van. On most trips, I like to sit at a bar and talk to locals about their favorite things to do that might not be found in a guidebook. But in the midst of COVID, I no longer feel comfortable doing that. Nearly all of my meals were prepared over my van’s camp stove or the open flame of a campfire.

Sleeping Bear Dunes Michigan
Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore

Other than one-off excursions to the visitor center and a grocery store, the only time I ran into people was on the trail and at a scenic overlook. Luckily, like the Wolverine state’s namesake beast, I’m both hairy and surly enough that fellow hikers tend to steer clear. It’s also pretty easy to socially distance in kayaks on Lake Michigan.

What my trip lacked in human interaction, it made up for in natural splendor, fitting for a place named the “Most Beautiful Place in America” by Good Morning America viewers in 2011. Driving the 7-mile Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive, I was constantly stopping to check out the vistas or hike nearby trails. About 4 miles away from the entrance to the drive, I pulled into the Dune Climb parking lot. The hike up the 460-foot sand dune doesn’t appear that difficult, but as I huffed and puffed my way skyward, I realized that looks were deceiving. Had I decided to keep hiking 4 more miles, I would have eventually reached Lake Michigan, but the view of the much smaller Glenn Lake at the top of the climb was reward enough for me.

For me, the highlight was cycling the 22-mile Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail. The greenway runs from the visitor center in Empire to the Port Oneida Rural Historic District, weaving through the forest surrounding Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive and into the tourist town of Glen Arbor. Pedaling through the small downtown entertainment district, I cringed as I noticed every outdoor table at every restaurant was taken, while people, without masks, waited shoulder-to-shoulder outside. I quickly rode on, wanting to get back into the woods as quickly as possible.

Sleeping Bear Dunes Michigan
Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore

One spot in Empire, Joe’s Friendly Tavern, was free of crowds and served probably the best burger I’ve had since our semi-lockdown began. Even better, the restaurant is less than 5 miles away from the Empire Bluff trailhead, where a 1.5-mile hike takes you to an epic view of Lake Michigan.

Be sure to book a campsite well in advance. The DH Day Campground, in the thick of the Dunes, might be one of the most highly sought-after spots in Michigan. Although there are no electric hookups, the sites offer easy access to the Great Lake and dunes. There are plenty of campgrounds at every price point and amenity level throughout the area. Because my trip was last-minute, nearly every place I called had been booked solid for weeks. Thankfully I found a spot at the county fairgrounds about 35 minutes east of the park. It wasn’t the most scenic, but I only needed a spot to park for the night and empty my tanks toward the end of my trip.