Backcountry Biking Guide

What better way to experience Sleeping Bear Dunes than rolling on two wheels through a forest canopy of hardwoods and scenic lake views? Although bikes aren’t permitted on the park’s popular hiking trails, there are plenty of backcountry cycling options in the Empire area ranging from effortless to extreme. Rent a cargo bike for the kids and pedal to a picnic or hit the dirt for a trail-to-beach adventure. 

TOP 5 RIDES

While any bike tour along M-22 will satisfy an urge for adventure packed with panoramas, we’ve compiled this “best-of” backcountry list for those who desire to get off the pavement and into the woods. Rent a bike in town at Sleeping Bear Surf & Kayak or bring your own, and take the shuttle if needed (BATA Bike & Ride makes it easy and affordable).

1. Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail: Easy family fun
This paved, multi-use trail winds over 20 miles through gorgeous forests, connecting Empire to Glen Arbor with stops at popular Sleeping Bear attractions like the Dune Climb and Pierce Stocking Drive. Easily accessible for those on foot, with young children in strollers, and those with disabilities—but also fast and fun if that’s your preference—this locally-treasured trail truly has something for everyone. Be sure to spot the 2015 storm damage in the Glen Arbor stretch, where rows of trees fell to 100-mph winds, forever changing the landscape.

BONUS VIDEO: For an up-close perspective of this route, check out M22’s Heritage Trail microadventure.

20+ miles (planned total of 2) |  Moderate |  Directions >

2. Pierce Stocking Drive: Scenic vistas worth every pedal pump
Taking this famous Sleeping Bear tour on two wheels instead of four proves both challenging and intensely rewarding. Not for the faint of heart, this traffic-heavy and hilly route should be attempted only by those with plenty of experience and pumping power. Stop along the well-marked scenic views to catch your breath and take in some of the park’s best scenery, including a 450-foot, don’t-look-down dune bluff at #9 & #10 that will be sure to be the most memorable sunset you’ve ever experienced.

BONUS VIDEO: For an up-close perspective of this route, check out M22’s Pierce Stocking microadventure.

7.4 mile loop  |  Strenuous |   Directions >

3. Shauger Hill Road: Steep, wooded, and rewarding
One of Empire’s best backcountry biking routes, this dirt road takes you through shaded rolling hills and secluded forests. Connecting locally-favored North Bar Beach to Pierce Stocking Drive, this off-road option can easily be combined with other biking routes and capped off with a rewarding dip in Lake Michigan. Head to Pierce Stocking and back, or make it a full 6 miles by taking the Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail and looping back to Empire.

3.2 – 6 mile loop |  Moderate to strenuous |  Directions >

4. Esch/Aral Rd: Into the wild
Catch a glimpse of northern Michigan wildlife in this remote section of the park just south of Empire. Taking you through hilly woods and wetlands, this route connects to popular Esch Road beach and Otter Creek (arguably one of the best beaches in the area). Take a side trek north to Norconk Road and historic Treat Farm for an epic meadow-to-bluff footpath you won’t find in any guidebook.

1.3 – 4.4 miles |  Moderate |  Directions >

5. Lasso Loop: A locals’ favorite
Connecting to Peterson Road (and eventually Petersen Beach, a dog-friendly secluded beach favored by locals), this loop takes riders through a pleasant and moderately hilly pine-oak-aspen forest. Make a day of it by ending at the beach for a rewarding view of Lake Michigan and its dune-covered shoreline.

3 miles |  Moderate |  Directions >

 

DAY TRIPS

Short & Scenic

For an afternoon ride that takes in one of the park’s most popular must-see attractions, rent bikes in Empire and pedal approximately 7 miles (less than an hour) north to the Dune Climb. Families and solo adventurers can spend time climbing to the iconic 360-degree vista at the dune’s top, tumbling in the sand, or resting in the shaded picnic areas below. End the day with a ride back into town for dinner and an epic sunset on the beach at Empire Village Park.

Biking the Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail along the Dune Climb
Biking the Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail along the Dune Climb.

“Best of the Dunes” Empire Bike Tour

For the best two-wheeling that Sleeping Bear has to offer, take the Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail to all of its must-see attractions. Pack a picnic in town and take the BATA Bike & Ride bus from Empire to Glen Arbor (BATA will transport your bikes on a handy front-vehicle rack). Head west on this paved trail for 4.3 miles through beautiful forest views to the Dune Climb. Spend a few hours exploring this popular spot—don’t forget to climb the famous dune—before heading south 2.6 miles to Pierce Stocking Drive. Should you choose to do this strenuous side loop, you will be greatly rewarded; no tour of the park is complete without a stop here!

From Pierce Stocking, you have two options:

  1. Stay on the easy, breezy Heritage Trail for 4.2 miles down to Empire (some of the trail’s best scenery, but also the hilliest) and end in town for dinner and a beach sunset at Village Park.
  2. Take Shauger Hill Road just past the Pierce Stocking entrance for 1.6 wooded miles through a biker’s challenging—but rewarding—paradise. End at popular North Bar Beach for a memorable sunset and beach bonfire. Don’t forget to pack a headlamp for a 2.6 mile ride back to your hotel in Empire via Voice and LaCore Roads.

TIP: To enjoy a more downhill version of this ride, flip the route to start in Empire and end in Glen Arbor. The Heritage Trail’s steep grade near Empire will be more forgiving and flatten out as you reach the northern and eastern sections.