Are you looking for a family-friendly beach vacation within driving distance? Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore on the Michigan coastline just might check all the boxes for you! Seemingly a hidden gem, it was actually voted one of the “10 Most Beautiful Places in America” back in 2011 by Good Morning America. As fans of the national parks, our family decided to give it a try last summer, and it was better than I could have imagined! Not only was the scenery spectacular, but the trip was very relaxing (with three kids under six, I might add). Here is our family’s top five list from our Sleeping Bear Dunes vacation:
1. Platte Point Beach
Without contest, Platte Point Beach was everyone’s favorite part of our entire vacation. Inside the Sleeping Bear Dunes park, there is a unique spot where the Platte River flows directly into Lake Michigan. Your toes can feel the difference in temperature between the two bodies of water.
Since our trip in early June was just before the start of the tourist season, we enjoyed pristine views with barely any other people around. We spent all afternoon building sand castles, laying on the beach, swimming, and just soaking up the incredible views.
It was truly magical.
2. The Dune Climb
The famous Dune Climb was such a unique experience. We were temporarily transported from Michigan to an ancient desert in Egypt. A sphinx or at least a pyramid was sure to be just around the corner.
As soon as we got out of the car, my oldest started running up the dune. As his fit body is getting further away from our family, I decided to pick up the pace and catch up to him. As it turned out, I discovered two things:
- I need to work out more.
- Though the dune appears to be just one steep hill of sand, it is actually one in a series of dunes that stretch for a couple of miles. It is a strenuous hike across these dunes to reach Lake Michigan.
Alas, we trekked as far as we could, plopped ourselves down, and played in the largest sandbox of our life. We spent at least a half hour digging in the sand. It was awesome!
Tip: Since there is absolutely no shade, bring sunglasses, hats, water, and sunscreen!
3. Hiking Empire Bluff Trail
Our family went on a great kid-friendly hike in the Sleeping Bear Dunes park. There was only a minimal amount of complaining during the hike. Success!
We started off at the Philip A. Hart Visitor Center which had a few interesting wildlife displays as well as information about the park. If your kids can read well, they can complete activities within the park and get an official Junior Ranger certificate and badge.
From the visitor’s center, we headed to Empire Bluff trail. The hike is fairly easy and cuts through beautiful woods. At the end of the hike, you are rewarded with amazing views of the dunes and Lake Michigan. The trail is well maintained and has adequate fencing at the overlook for the little ones.
Note: The national park has a daily entrance fee per vehicle.
4. Cherry Flavored Everything!
Fun fact: About 5o% of the tart cherries in the US are grown in northern Michigan. Cherry farms are everywhere!
Since early June is not the time for cherry picking, we found our cherry fix by visiting the Cherry Republic store in downtown Traverse City. Inside, there is a neat little cafe as well as a play area with a “cherry” ball pit. Our family tried all the samples including cherry flavored salsa, barbecue sauce, jam, coffee, and chocolate. I may have “sampled” more than a few of the dark chocolate covered cherries. This is a great place to buy cherry flavored souvenirs.
Nearby, we ate lunch at the popular Grand Traverse Pie Company, and, of course, had a slice of some awesome cherry pie!
If you don’t mind the crowds, Traverse City also hosts the popular National Cherry Festival in early July.
5. Staying on the Grand Traverse Bay
Since there weren’t a lot of hotel options adjacent to the national park, our family chose to stay in Traverse City which is about a 35 minute drive from the park. In that area, there are several hotels that are located directly on the Grand Traverse Bay. At the Grand Beach Resort, our patio door opened up right onto the sand and the bay.
Our favorite thing to do in the evening was to sit on the patio and watch the gorgeous sunsets on the bay.
Tip: Request a first floor room on the beach. It was awesome to put my toddler down for a nap in the afternoon and still be able to sit on the beach.