In the pinky of the Mitten State sits over 71,000 acres of natural beauty that was publicly voted The Most Beautiful Place in America. The Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is a must-do stop on any Michigan itinerary that can take several days to experience. Some of the most exciting features of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore include, of course, The Sleeping Bear Dune Climb, The Maritime Museum, Lake Michigan, and the local favorite- Pyramid Point. There is also a gorgeous newly paved bike path as well as many great hiking trails through the National Lakeshore.
But, without a doubt one of the best things to do in the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive. This 7.4 mile stretch of road takes you through 12 different stops. At each stop, you are encouraged to get out of your car, take in the views, and learn something new.
Here are all the beautiful things to see on the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive.
1.) The Covered Bridge
The beautiful wooden covered bridge is the first stop on the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive. The original bridge was built in the 1960’s, but had to be reconstructed in 1985 because the porcupines kept chewing on the wood!
2.) Glen Lake Overlook
Driving along the one-way, paved road will take you past stop #2. There is an area to pull your car over and take in the view. What you see as you look out is Little Glen Lake, with Big Glen Lake in the distance. If you look closely, you can see the small stretch of road that separates the two lakes. The bit of land on the left of this photo is Alligator Hill- named for its shape. But I just don’t see it….it looks more caiman to me.
3.) Dune Overlook
On stop #3, you’ll get your first glimpse of the massive stretch of sand dunes that call the National Lakeshore its home. You can see the trails that brave adventurers blazed through the dunes, and in the far distance, you’ll see Lake Michigan and the Manitou Islands.
4.) Cottonwood Trail
If you’re ready for a stop to stretch your legs and do a bit of exploring yourself, stop #4 is a great place to do so. Get your first dose of walking through the dunes on the 1.5 mile walk. Some points can be strenuous, so be prepared with good walking shoes, sun block, and lots of water!
5.) Dune Ecology
Just after stopping by the Cottonwood Trail is stop #5. This stop is designed to introduce you to the unique flora of the dunes. Plants on the dunes deal with harsh conditions like direct sunlight, dry winds, and low soil fertility. It’s a wonder that plant life can be sustained in this environment at all!
The Cottonwood tree has adapted well to the dune environment due to the fact that it can clone itself by sprouting new trunks from its roots. This root system also plays a vital role in keeping the sand in place.
6.) Leaving The Sand Dunes
Stop #6 brings you away from the Dunes and into the forested area. Since this area is more inland, the winds from Lake Michigan cannot carry sand far enough to continue the dune environment.
The main attraction at this stop is almost always missed. There is an area to turn off and park your car at stop 6, however most people continue onwards, as it appears there is nothing of interest at this site. Those people are wrong and boring. Go ahead and park your car, cross the road, and walk forward maybe 15 feet. You will see a gigantic tree that dramatically lost a game of Twister. This tree is super fun to climb on.
7.) Beech-Maple Forest
Stop #7 is a complete contrast to the dune sights you’ve just taken in on the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive. Here, the land is dominated by Sugar Maple and American Beech trees. Their ability to grow well with low sunlight is what allows them to grow in abundance in this area. You can also find black cherry, hemlock, and basswood trees here.
8.) Changes Over Time
I enjoyed stop #8 because it asked you to use your imagination. At this stop you are asked to reflect on what this area looked like 11,800 years ago. A large glacier occupying the area had just completed its melting phase leaving behind a huge stretch of sand and gravel. In time, the area grew into what you see before you- quite a difference scene than 11,800 years ago! It’s amazing to stop and reflect on the changes the Earth sees through time.
9.) Lake Michigan Overlook
If, for some crazy reason, you can only get out of your car for one stop on the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive – this is the stop you’ve gotta see. It requires some uphill walking and lots of sand, but I promise you won’t be disappointed when you see this view:
That’s right. Water as far as the eye can see. The observation platform sits 450 feet above the shore of Lake Michigan. It’s like looking out over the ocean, only that water has zero salt and zero sharks. The state of Wisconsin lies a mere 54 miles across the water from this point- close enough that my cellphone picked up a tower signal in Wisconsin and reflected a whole new timezone!
One of the most notable parts of stop #9 is seeing the huge bluff that drops into the lake below. Some people enjoy the rush of traveling down the steep dune to the shore of Lake Michigan. The majority of them do not enjoy the trek back up the hill. It is much steeper than it appears and can take the average person up to 2 hours to climb back up. It is not uncommon for the National Guard to have to rescue people who just cannot make it back to the top.
Look at those crazy people! I’ll just stay at the top and enjoy jumping in the sand, thanks.
10.) Sleeping Bear Dune Overlook
Once you think you’ve gotten your fill of spectacular views, its time to venture on to stop #10. This stop is actually accessed with a short (5 minute) walk through the dunes. Over the hill and to the left you’ll find your next viewing platform. This stop gives a new vantage point over Lake Michigan and the two Manitou Islands. The Native American Chippewa tribe has an interesting, yet kind of sad story surrounding these islands and the dune itself.
11.) North Bar Lake Overlook
After hopping back in the car and making your way down the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive a bit further, you will reach spot #11. Here, you will look over North Bar Lake – a small lake that feeds into Lake Michigan. This lake is a popular swimming area, as there are no waves and generally has slightly warmer water than Lake Michigan. The small creek area between the two lakes is a great place to bring children, as the water rarely gets over 3 feet deep!
12.) Pine Plantation
If there is one thing to criticize about the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive it’s that it ends on a bit of a low note. After so many scenic outlooks, stop #12 is sadly not much to shake a stick at. This stop pays homage to Michigan’s historical logging industry. The neatly aligned rows of pine trees were planted before the land belonged to the National Lakeshore. Now, the National Park Service is in favor of allowing flora to grow naturally so these trees are a bit out of place. In some parts of this area the pine trees have been cut down to encourage more growth of native vegetation.
Have you done the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive? What did you think? What was your favorite part?
Looking for more on Michigan travel? As a native Michigander, I’d love to help you plan a trip to this beautiful state! Feel free to contact me or check out these other posts from Michigan!