Destinations

Biking the Popular Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail

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The Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail runs in the back area of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, from the town of Empire to Bohemian Road west of Little Traverse Lake. Depending on the source the trail is from 16.5 (Michigan trail Magazine) to 28.7 (Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail website) long. However, based on my ride, I would say, it is only about 18 – 19 miles long.

Some of the information on official Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail webpage are incorrect, or outdated. For example, when I went to look for Manning Rd Trailhead, I found nothing at the location, not even a trail. So, when I stopped at the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore Visitor Center and asked about it, the ranger there told me that “the county did not agree on extending the trail to Manning Rd.”.

The similar story applies to the other end of the trail, as far as I know, there is no extension to Good Harbor, unless you want to ride on the road. And if you read the front page of the official trail website, you will realize, that the trail is an on-going project, with few sections still in developmental stage. So, be careful when referencing their map – it is misleading. As are the metal maps at the trailheads’ locations.

I rode the trail starting at the Bar Lake Road Trailhead all the way to Bohemian Road and back.

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore
The Dune Climb in the distance

Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail

The Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail is a mostly paved trail, with nice, smooth asphalt surface. There is a section of about 3 miles by Port Oneida, that is crushed fine limestone, but it is smooth and easy to ride.

The trail, while you are on it, is easy to follow.

It mostly goes through woods, meadows and by few ponds, and through some residential areas. At times, it follows the road.

The first point of interest that you encounter after leaving Empire is the Dune Climb. It is a little over 5 miles from the Bar Lake Rd Trailhead. The trail passes right be the parking lot. The area is very busy in the warm season. There are bike racks by the trail in the northern end of the parking lot. So, if you want to take a break and go for a hike on the dunes, bring a bike lock and you can go.

From there the trail continues through the woods again and through the D.H. Day Campground (one of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore campgrounds).

The next place on the trail worth writing about is Glen Haven. There is a trailhead there. But also, just a hundred feet of the trail, there is a beach and Lake Michigan. You can stop there, and go for a refreshing dip in the lake. From Glen Haven, the trail continues through the woods again till you get to Glen Arbor.

Glen Arbor routing
Glen Arbor routing

Glen Arbor Routing

In Glen Arbor you ride on the bike lane along the S Forest Haven Dr, then along 109, to S Oak St, then State St to S Lake St to Northwood Dr to S Fisher Rd. Then by Crystal River Trailhead you get back on the trail.

The routing is very confusing, the signs are small and often hard to notice. You often ride next to the parked cars, and are passed by vehicle after vehicle in a very busy, congested area.

It appears that the trail was routed through main street in Glen Arbor with hopes that it will generate additional tourist revenue. However, if you do not want to stop, to eat, or shop, or you do not like riding in a busy street, you can avoid the main street, and confusing routing by going south on Forest Haven Dr, the take 22/S Ray St north to W Lakewood Dr, and take it to S Lake St, and then follow original directions to the trail.

I would advise you to check the Google Maps to figure out which way you want to go, and either program it into your bike computer, and memorize it. Unfortunately, Google Maps are not to date, and it doesn’t show the routing through town. So, in your planning, you have to combine it with official trail map, which does not provide any road names.

Biking the Popular Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail
The hills are short but steep.

Hills

I should also mention that the trail has parts with some steep grades – up to 11%. They are short, but require an intense push for short period of time. So, if you have problems with hills, this is not a trail for you. The biggest climbs start about 1.5 miles from Bar Lake Rd Trailhead.

Biking the Popular Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail
Glen Haven beach.

Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail Usage

The trail is relatively busy. I was running into cyclists going in both directions every few minutes.

Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail
A scenic view from the trail.

The Scenery

The trail goes mostly through wooded areas and some open meadows, as mentioned above. Sleeping Bear Dunes is a beautiful, scenic area. So, even though, the trail goes through some away from the lake and dune areas, there are some magnificent views of dunes, lakes and forest ponds from time to time. Also, and maybe partially because the trail winds left and right and up and down, the trail is quite interesting and scenic. The wooded areas are beautiful too, full of magnificent, huge pines and beeches.

However, you only see the dunes at the Dune Climb area. The only time you see Lake Michigan from the trail is in Glen Haven. But, you are close in few other places, and if you choose so, you can divert from the trail, and go see the lake. Don’t expect to see the Glen Lake, even though when you look at the map, it would appear that you should be able to.

So, even though the trail is quite scenic, considering, what magnificent views of the dunes and Lake Michigan some walking trails provide in Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, the trail does not do the area justice! Therefore, if you are there for the first time, spend some time driving around, the national park, and walk to some of the overlooks, or on some scenic trails, besides riding the trail.

Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail
At the Bar Lake Road Trailhead.

Trailheads

The Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail has quite few trailheads with fairly big parking lots, so you do not have to worry about finding the spot to park. Realize that some of the trailheads shown on official maps are not there yet. The ones that I list here, do exist.

Starting from Empire and going to the end of the trail at Bohemian Rd/ CR-669, there are following trailheads:

  • Philip A. Hart Visitor Center – (44.811947, -86.055936) – the Sleeping Bear Dunes Nat’l Lakeshore visitor center is listed on official maps as the Empire Trailhead. Well, this is interesting, because there are no signs there indicating that it is a part of the trail. There are no signs pointing how to get to the trail. However, I am sure you can park there without a worry of being towed away. There is access to water there and restrooms. If you want to get to the trail, you need to take W Front St west to M-22. There, you can take M-22 north (for about 800 ft), or sidewalk, or some other side street north, and you need to get to S Lacore St, and take it north for about a mile till you encounter the trail on the left hand side of the road.
  • Bar Lake Road Trailhead – (44.830197, -86.054678) – this is the first official and existing trailhead north of Empire. It is only a little more than a mile north from town. There is a parking lot, vault toilet, but no water. If you park there, you have to be careful when coming back. When you are riding back from the north, the trailhead is not visible from the trail, since its view is obstructed by tall vegetation. There are no signs pointing to it, and only a narrow dirt path leading to it.
  • Pierce Stocking Trailhead – (44.853157, -86.040907) – is located about 500 feet down the Pierce Stocking Scenic Dr, and not visible from the trail. It has a parking lot and vault toilet. No water. The Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive is part of the national park, but it appears that the parking lot is before the fee booth, so access should be free.
  • Dune Climb Trailhead – (44.882437, -86.041809) – The Dune Climb Trailhead is unique in a way that the parking lot is part of the national park and it requires a fee. If you want to park your vehicle there, you will have to get the park pass. The Dune Climb area has toilets, water and picnic tables.
  • Glen Haven Trailhead – (44.903814, -86.026258) – is right at the Glen haven Rd crossing, but the parking areas are by the beach. There are restrooms there and water.
  • Alligator Hill Trailhead – (44.889113, -85.992562) – is just a parking lot at the corner of S Forest Haven Dr and Forest Haven Dr. (I am kind of surprised that they couldn’t find a more suitable place in town for a trailhead.) This is the last trailhead before Glen Arbor.
  • Crystal River Trailhead – (44.900757, -85.955509) – is right off the trail at the intersection of 675/S Dunns Farm Rd and Fisher Rd. There is parking there and vault toilet. No water.
  • Bay View Trailhead – (44.934158, -85.949511) – is located north of the trail about 600 feet along the unpaved Farms Trail. The trailhead has just a parking. If I can remember correctly, there is no sign on the trail indicating the trailhead.
  • Port Oneida Trailhead – (44.939648, -85.936408) – is about 300 feet north of the trail on S Port Oneida Rd. It is a parking lot with a vault toilet.

 On official map almost all of these trailheads are marked as picnic areas. In my opinion, a picnic area, has at least a picnic tables. Many of these trailheads don’t have a picnic table. So, be careful, when planning a lunch stop at a trailhead.

Glen Arbor
Bike store and rental in Glen Arbor.

Trail Amenities

There are benches here and there along the trail. Some of the trailheads have bike service tools.

Bar Lake Rd Trilhead
Bike repair tools and the permanent map at the Bar Lake Rd Trailhead.

Off Trail Amenities

When you pass through towns you have number of choices, regarding places to eat. Too many to list here. There are few in Empire. There is a convenience store in Glen Haven. The D.H. Day Campground does not have a store. So, the next location with access to food is Glen Arbor. Obviously, being a tourist town, there are plenty of choices there. From there, there is nothing for the rest of the trail.

Bike Lane in Glen Arbor
Bike lane in Glen Arbor.

Final Thoughts

The Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail is a nice path to get some relaxing ride, or a workout, too. Even though the trail runs through a mixed wooded and meadow areas mostly with only sporadic views of the dunes or the lake, is quite scenic. The area is hilly, the path is quite not straight, like rail-trails, and all that provides for often changing, and interesting scenery. The woods have some beautiful, mature, big pines and beeches. A rarity in the Lower Peninsula.

The signage is pretty bad, when you are being routed through towns, and they are not good either when you are on the trail. For example, the trailheads that are not visible from the trail, don’t have signs posting towards them. So, bring the phone. Cell service is pretty good along the whole trail. And maybe, print a map. I have not seen any maps of the trail available locally.

And one more thing, there are permanent signs along the whole trail warning trail user of hunting in season, and advising them to wear some bright clothing. I don’t think, there is much hunting there in the summer. But it you plan on riding there in the fall, you might want to consider bringing an orange vest, or bright yellow jacket.

Biking the Popular Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail
The gravel/dirt section of the trail is pretty smooth.

My Ratings

Scenery (0-boring, 10-breathtaking): 8.0

Easy-to-Follow (0-no maps, often broken into section without clear directions, 10-well marked with maps showing current location): 5.0 (Some trailheads have maps. It is a linear trail and its easy to follow, once you are on it. In towns, the signs are horrible. So, prepare ahead.)

Food Access (0-no food facilities at all, 10-food available every few miles): 3.0 (few choices along the trail in towns only (Empire, Glen Arbor))

Restrooms (0-none, 10-moderen restrooms every few miles): 4.0 (restrooms at few trailheads, which depending on where along the trail, could be few miles apart)

Surface Quality: 10.0 (paved and really smooth trail. The 3 mile gravel section is pretty smooth, too.)

Accessibility: 8.0 (many trailheads with parking lots; very easy to access; however, no trailhead at the current end of the trail at Bohemian Rd, and not an official trailhead in Empire)

Usage (0-not used at all, 10-extremely popular): 8.0 (quite popular and busy)

Hills (0-completely flat, 10-Extremely hilly): 4.0 (the inclines are short but intense with many at 8, 9 or 11 % grade)

Sun/Shade (0-no shade at all, 10-competely shaded): 3.0 (very little shade)

Dune Climb
Bike riders at the Dune Climb.

Resources

Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail website 

Michigan Trail Magazine    

Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail

 

If you are interested in biking other trails in the area, here are the posts about few:

 

Rich S. is a lifetime photographer and traveler based in Metro Detroit area. He has been traveling the Great Lakes area for over 30 years. Follow his blog about his trips, interesting activities and destinations in the Great Lakes region.

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