Michigan’s massive sand dunes offer some of the Midwest’s most adventurous and outstanding hiking experiences.
Many of these hikes lead to sweeping Great Lakes vistas followed by exhilarating descents to the shore, while others culminate with hikers emerging from forested dunes to see white-capped waves crashing onto a picturesque beach.
Here are seven of my favorite dune hikes:
Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, (M-109), Glen Arbor
Details: This 3.5-mile, out-and-back jaunt up and down six dunes on the way to a remote Lake Michigan beach takes most hikers three to four hours to complete. Yes, it’s one of Sleeping Bear’s more strenuous hikes, but it’s also the most rewarding.
Along the way are spectacular views of Lake Michigan, Glen Lake, South Manitou Island’s lighthouse, rolling farmland, and, in October, cottonwood trees at peak color.
Hikers tackle the toughest climb first — a challenging 45-degree ascent of 130 feet through loose sand. At the top, look for a sign the reads “Dunes Trail” and follow the blue-tipped posts. Reaching the beach comes with the bonus of viewing the submerged remains of a ship called the James McBride, which sank in 1857. Go .2 miles south on the beach to reach it.
“Be sure you’re prepared for this hike, because the distance to Lake Michigan can be very deceptive,” says Traverse City Tourism Public Relations Manager Mike Kent. “It always seems to be over the next hill when, in reality, there are more hills to get over. The Dunes Trail is an amazing adventure with incredible views.”
GRAND SABLE DUNES
Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore primary access points at The Grand Sable Visitors Center, Sable Falls parking lot, and the Log Slide Overlook parking area can be reached by taking County Road H-58 west from Grand Marais
Details: This 5-square-mile expanse of towering dunes, which rise to 300 feet above Lake Superior, is at the eastern end of Pictured Rocks. The dunes are largely grass- and tree-covered, with areas of open sand mixed in.
The Grand Sable Dunes Trail (.6 miles round trip) crosses Sable Creek and winds through a jack pine forest before climbing to an open area with amazing Lake Superior views.
The Sable Falls Trail (.5 miles round trip) takes hikers to a rocky beach where Sable Creek empties into Lake Superior, just past the base of the 75-foot waterfall.Both trails can be accessed from the Sable Falls parking area and combined into a 2.5-mile loop. The best view comes via the Log Slide Overlook Trail (.5-mile round trip), but hikers can experience more by descending roughly 500 feet to the lake.
“The Log Slide is the only spot that visitors can venture up and down the dune face, and they can see how large and high the dunes really are,” says Susan Reece, Pictured Rocks chief of interpretation and education. “Just remember that it’s a very strenuous, (up to) one-hour climb back up.”
A 12-mile loop is also possible by taking the North Country Trail south of the visitors center along Grand Sable Lake to the Log Slide, then descending and walking along the beach to the Sable Falls Trail and back to the visitors center.
SILVER LAKE STATE PARK
8890 W. Shore Dr., Mears
Details: This park lacks developed trails, meaning hikers can customize their own routes through the 1,800-acre pedestrian area nestled between Silver Lake and Lake Michigan.
The barrenness of the dunes, rising 160 feet above the lakes, is striking. There’s little vegetation — only the remains of ancient “ghost” trees that shifting sands buried and killed. From the parking area, ascend a wooden staircase and a steep, 50-foot mound of sand to reach the top of the first dune for sweeping views of Lake Michigan, Silver Lake, and ridges of pristine sand. Then, pick a direction to continue walking.
For a 7-mile loop, continue hiking to Lake Michigan, head south along the beach to where Silver Creek empties into Lake Michigan, wade across the shallow stream, and follow a paved road .3 miles to the Little Sable Lighthouse.
Then, backtrack to the stream and follow Lighthouse Drive toward Silver Lake before crossing Silver Creek at Ruckel Bridge. From there, begin climbing back to the top of the dunes and continue northeast to where the hike began.
“Hikers have several options,” says Silver Lake Sand Dunes–Hart Visitors Bureau Executive Director Scott Beal. “Not only can they walk the dunes to Lake Michigan, but they can hike along Silver Lake or along Lake Michigan for about three miles, starting at the lighthouse.”
SAUGATUCK DUNES STATE PARK
6575 138th Ave., Holland
Details: The 1,120-acre park boasts dunes rising more than 200 feet above Lake Michigan, 2.5 miles of shoreline, and 13 miles of trails winding through both open dune areas and under thick canopies of hardwoods and pines.
All four main trails culminate in panoramic lake views and fun descents to the beach.
The North Trail (2 miles round trip) offers hiking on both soft and packed sand, wide-open areas, and pine-filled sections. The Beach Trail (1.2 miles round trip) is the quickest way to the beach, through broadleaf forest and over packed sand. The Livingston Trail (1.8 miles round trip) features more rolling terrain through heavily forested areas. Portions of these three trails can be combined to form a 3.4-mile loop.
The South Trail (5.5 miles, mostly loop) offers the most solitude and is the most heavily wooded.
“Hiking in the Saugatuck Dunes State Park is special, and the forest of towering trees brings feelings of peace and tranquility,” says Saugatuck Douglas Area Convention & Visitors Bureau Executive Director Lisa Mize. “Once you reach the lake, the water lapping at the shoreline is both mesmerizing and meditative.”
NORDHOUSE DUNES WILDERNESS AREA
The best access is at Lake Michigan Recreation Area, 6000 W. Forest Trail Rd. near the town of Free Soil. Drive through the campground to a parking lot that features an information display and boardwalk
Details: Nordhouse Dunes is 3,450 acres of undeveloped terrain featuring 13 miles of footpaths that meander through forested areas, dunes that reach 140 feet high, and 4 miles of unspoiled Lake Michigan beach.
“We love hiking in Nordhouse Dunes because it feels like time stands still out there,” says Brad Reed, co-owner of Todd and Brad Reed Photography in Ludington. “You feel totally alone and instantly one with nature. The trails are fun to explore, but we enjoy getting off the trails and exploring the seemingly endless miles of rolling sand dunes, bowls, and valleys.”
A 6-mile loop can be formed by taking the boardwalk to the Arrowhead Trail, which runs into the Lake Michigan Trail along the lake. Next, take the Nordhouse Dunes Trail away from the lake to the Nipissing Trail, which winds past Nordhouse Lake and back to the boardwalk.
WARREN DUNES STATE PARK
12032 Red Arrow Highway, Sawyer
Details: Collette Kemper of New Buffalo Explored, a southwest Michigan tourism organization, sums up the appeal of Warren Dunes: “Warren Dunes is the gateway to Michigan’s state park system from the west, with 1,952 acres of forest and dune along with 3 miles of pristine Lake Michigan shoreline,” she says. “Expect to find rich forests, interdunal wetlands, steep open bowls, and towering 260-foot elevations overlooking Lake Michigan among its trails.”
The 4-mile Mount Randall loop has beach walking, steep ascents up dunes to sweeping views of Lake Michigan, and fun descents, along with plenty of trekking through forested dunes that make the park a stunning fall color destination.
The Warren Dunes Trail (5.1-mile loop) features 1 mile of beach walking, forested sections, an old lighthouse, and the remains of an old church camp.
The Beach Trail (3.6-mile loop) takes hikers over wooded dunes before a 3-mile walk along the park’s shoreline.
There are two main access points off M-22. The Baldy Trailhead is 8 miles south of Elberta on the west side of the highway. The Saint Pierre Trailhead is on the other side of M-22 and can be reached via Saint Pierre Road
Details: More than 15 miles of trails take hikers through this 3,600-acre preserve’s perched dunes, sweeping overlooks, 2 miles of Lake Michigan shoreline, forests, and grasslands that can be experienced by visitors of all ability levels.
A .5-mile universally accessible boardwalk and the 3.7-mile Baldy Trail both begin at the Baldy Trailhead parking area. Baldy Trail is mostly a loop, but 1.5 miles in, it comes to the first of two side trails that take hikers into open dunes and merge at a set of cable steps that rise from the woods to the summit of Old Baldy Dune, Arcadia’s highest point.
It’s one of the area’s finest Lake Michigan overlooks. Frankfort Lighthouse also can be viewed in the distance, along with a portion of Lower Herring Lake.
GTRLC Director of Communications and Engagement Jennifer Jay outlines other hiking options: “The multi-use (10-mile) Dry Hill Trails are widely known for fantastic hiking and bird-watching,” she says. “The Camp Trail (3.7 miles) is built on relatively flat ground. Pete’s Woods (1.5 miles) is a wonderful hike with an unparalleled spring wildflower display.”