One More Shot at Summer: 5 Secluded Beaches in the Sleeping Bear Dunes
The crunch of the gravel road under your tires means you’re getting close. Towering pines loom over you as you drive in seclusion, save for the car full of excited children and inflatable water toys. Only a few cars are present – and scattered haphazardly – in the makeshift parking area at the end of the road. There may or may not be an outhouse there.
You unload the car, bags dangling from your arms, and trudge up a sandy trail until you reach it. In fact, you hear it before you see it. You make it to the the dune crest and stop, struck by the endless sapphire blue and emerald green. No matter how many times you’ve seen it, you think to yourself: It’s so expansive and beautiful – how can this be Michigan?
You look down and survey the beach. Only four or five beach umbrellas are visible. The only sound you hear is the crashing of waves. The sand underfoot is sugary. Wildflowers dot the grassy hillsides of the dunes that hug the beachfront. As you look west out over Lake Michigan all you see is water, interrupted only by a few heavily wooded islands in the distance.
You reach your spot and let bags brimming with towels, beach toys, drinks and sandwiches slide off your shoulders and onto the sand with a soft thud. There’s no concession stand here – you have to carry in what you need – but that just adds to the beauty of it.
Everyone in your crew is sandy and a bit sticky with sweat, but satisfied. Rarely does anyone complain about the trek up and down the dune once they experience the payoff. In a few hours your kids will be sleeping in the backseat on the ride home, skin kissed by the sun, and bodies beset with exhaustion. You’ve reached one of the secluded beaches of the Sleeping Bear Dunes.
Last Shot at Summer
Labor Day weekend is coming up and, here in Michigan, that means that it’s back to school time. The forecast looks great so why not take advantage of one last opportunity to soak up summer?
In our opinion, there’s no better place to experience summer than the Sleeping Bear Dunes. And within Sleeping Bear, you’ll find miles upon miles of some of the most beautiful freshwater beaches in the world. There are many different beach options to choose from, including popular spots such as the Glen Haven and Good Harbor beaches. But if you’re up for a little adventure, and looking for a bit more seclusion, there are a number of less-trafficked beaches to choose from.
Time to get the car loaded up and take a dip in the 75 degree late summer lake water at a Sleeping Bear secluded beach. Here are five of our favorites.
North Bar Lake
It’s probably too much to describe North Bar Lake as a “hidden gem,” but there’s no doubt that it’s off the beaten path and less trafficked than many of the other beach spots in town. The lake is shallow, crystal clear and warm, making it a great place to swim, kayak and paddle board.
While North Bar Lake, itself, is great, what makes this spot so unique is that a shallow creek (which is a perfect spot for small kids to splash and play) separates it from Lake Michigan. While you can make a day of it on the east side of North Bar Lake, with a little effort you can get to the west side of the lake, which adjoins the Lake Michigan beach. It will take a few minutes to climb the trail over the dune that separates the lakes, but it’s worth it.
You’ll be treated to one of the most secluded, and beautiful stretches of freshwater shoreline anywhere, and have easy access to not only the warm, clear waters of North Bar Lake, but you can take a crisp, refreshing swim in Lake Michigan as well. If you get there early (before 10 a.m. or so) you’ll have the place practically to yourself. It starts to get more crowded around noon.
Keep in mind that it’s a bit of a hike from the parking lot to the closest beach spot on the east side of North Bar Lake (about 200 yards), and if you want to get across the dunes to Lake Michigan get ready to exert some energy. So bring what you need – there is no place for food, drinks, sunscreen, etc. near the beaches – but only what you need, because you’ll have to hike it in and out.
North Bar Lake is just north of downtown Empire. Take LaCore Street north out of Empire to Voice Road, then Bar Lake Road.
Peterson Road Beach
The Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore occupies a huge swath of land – over 50,000 acres along Lake Michigan. At the southern end of the dunes is a secluded and beautiful beach at the end of Peterson Road.
The parking lot sits on top of a high dune bluff. Soak in some stunning Lake Michigan views before trekking down the stairway that leads to the beach. It’s a great spot to hunt for Petoskey stones, and pets are allowed on part of the beach.
Located near the intersection of M22 and Deadstream Road to the east of Platte River Campground. Turn off M22 onto Peterson Road.
Port Oneida Beach
Port Oneida, which consists of approximately 3,400 acres of preserved farmland, is one of our favorite places in Sleeping Bear. It is the largest historic agricultural community owned by the United States that is fully protected by the government.
Port Oneida Beach is located at the end of unpaved Lane Road. There are no bathroom facilities and there is no parking lot to speak of – just find a spot along the side of the gravel road. There is a wood stairway (added in 2014) that descends down to an almost always lightly populated beach.
Because parking is located relatively close to the beach, it’s one of the best spots to lug kayaks and paddle boards down for some Lake Michigan fun. Port Oneida is also the beach nearest to the Pyramid Point hike and Bay View trail, so you can work up a sweat in the woods before taking a plunge in the clean, crisp water.
From M22 turn onto Port Oneida Road then left onto Lane Road.
Tiesma Road Beach
Tiesma Road Beach is off the beaten track and offers the most seclusion of all of the Sleeping Bear beaches that we have visited. It features everything that other Sleeping Bear beaches do – blue water, great beachfront, beautiful views – and there are typically fewer people there that you have to share these amenities with.
Take Lake Michigan Road north from M22, turn right on Isle View Drive, and continue until the road ends. Park along the dirt road.
Esch Road Beach
Esch Road Beach is probably the most popular of those that we’ve featured but we wanted to include it because: (a) we really love it, (b) we were just there on Sunday, and (c) relative to most beaches it still qualifies as secluded. It’s located about three miles south of Empire.
Esch Road Beach is a great place to keep the kids entertained. After parking and heading down to the beach, turn south and walk about 200 yards and you’ll come upon Otter Creek. Otter Creek is a shallow creek that flows into Lake Michigan. More often than not, the creek’s current flows into the lake, so kids enjoy wading and floating in the creek, and letting the current drift them toward the lake.
On our most recent visit, we saw lots of wildlife, most notably a baby snapping turtle and lots of Monarch butterflies floating about.
Head south on M22 from Empire and turn right on Esch Road.
Life's a Beach!
Hauling the family to one of the Sleeping Bear beaches takes a bit of work, but – trust us – every ounce of energy and every grain of residual sand in your car and house is worth it. It’s an especially great time to visit, since the National Parks Service recently celebrated its 100th anniversary. This is the time of year when many of us begin yearning for the cool breezes and colorful canopies of autumn, but when those first few snowflakes begin blowing in November, you’ll be glad you made the effort to squeeze those last few drops out of this glorious summer.