Centrally located, Empire is the perfect launching pad for every M-22 adventure.
Voted the #1 scenic highway in the country by USA Today, M-22 draws travelers from across the globe with promises of sandy, sweeping vistas rivaling America’s oceansides—minus the crowds. Winding around the dune-covered northwest section of Lake Michigan, the landscape boasts towering bluffs, crystal-clear freshwater beaches, and the hidden escapes of countless surfers, bikers, and sand bowl jumpers.
Perfectly placed along the 116-mile stretch of M-22 is the road’s centermost point: the village of Empire and entrance to the Sleeping Bear Dunes. Quaint and secluded, Empire cozies up to the coastline, offering a centrally located “duneside” experience with everything you need for a true northern adventure. From biking and watersport outfitters to locally-sourced seasonal foods, eclectic shops and galleries, and award-winning Michigan-made beers, chocolates, and wine—Empire offers a glimpse into the idyllic lifestyle of Michigan’s dune shore summers.
Whether you choose to experience America’s ultimate road trip as a day-long excursion or extended weekend getaway, your route calls for a stop at Empire’s Philip A. Hart Visitor Center. Get your pass and map here—keys to exploring “The Most Beautiful Place in America”—and head into town to launch your adventure.
TIP: Get your pass!
Park entrance fees are $15 per vehicle for 7 day or $30 for an annual pass (individuals on foot or bike are even less). As a bonus, select holidays are designated “Fee Free Days” and fourth graders always get in free! For more information, visit Sleeping Bear Dunes Parks & Passes.
Empire Bluffs hiking trail.
Day Trip: Best of the Park
To pack in all of the park’s must-see sites, you’ll need four wheels. Be sure to fill up your tank and stock up on essentials like water, snacks, sunscreen, and picnic items in Empire. Don’t forget the nearest gas station is several miles away; you’ll need the fuel!
Start your trip just south of town with a hike up what’s considered the most gorgeous trail of the park, Empire Bluffs, to catch a glimpse of the iconic view that has inspired countless paintings and postcards. At 1.5 miles round-trip, the hike is hilly but can be easily conquered in an under an hour, even with little ones in tow.
BONUS VIDEO: Check out this hike at M22’s Empire Bluffs microadventure.
Work your way back north along M-22 to M-109 and hit the Dune Climb, the park’s most popular destination for a reason. The perfect sandy playground for kids of all ages, the top of this 110-foot bluff boasts rare 360-degree views of the park, including Lake Michigan and nearby Glen Lakes. With shaded picnic areas, restrooms, and tons of sand to safely tumble around, families can easily spend an afternoon here. Bring a deli lunch from Deering’s Market and check out the scheduled Dune Talks or Ranger Programs to learn about the fascinating geology of the glacier-carved scenery that surrounds you.
TIP: Be prepared!
Summer temperatures get hot and climbing sand can be exhausting. Never hike without plenty of water, sunscreen, and snacks. Bring a well prepared daypack and know your family’s limitations to safely enjoy your time in the park. And don’t forget your phone, camera, or binoculars; you’ll want to capture those amazing views!
Running down the park’s famous Dune Climb
Cap off your adventure with a heart-stopping sunset that’s sure to be your most memorable (and perhaps adrenaline-induced). Drive along famous Pierce Stocking Drive, just a mile-and-a-half off M-22, and plan time to stop at the well-marked overlooks. You’ll quickly discover exactly what makes the Sleeping Bear Dunes attract over 1.5 million visitors per year. Of all the designated points of interest along the drive, no trip to the park would be considered complete without a stop at #9. Park the car here, grab a blanket and picnic basket, and make the short walk to the seemingly precarious (but quite safe) drop-off. Here, perspective plays its tricks as you near what appears to be the edge of the universe. Though you’ll likely see climbers dotting the trail 450 feet down to the beach, make no mistake—descending this bluff is extremely strenuous. Most families will prefer to watch the sunset from a comfortable spot above.
BONUS VIDEO: To see this iconic drive, check out M22’s Pierce Stocking Drive microadventure.
TIP: Make it romantic!
Make it romantic! Stop at Grocer’s Daughter’s Chocolates to select a sample of fine, locally-made chocolates (try everything from lavender to sea salt to basil to chili) and at Deering’s Market for a bottle of locally-made wine for the perfect picnic pairing.
Pierce Stocking Drive #9 Observation Deck
Weekend Getaway: Biking, Beaches and Microbrews
To get the most out of your M-22 excursion, travel smart. Staying centrally located in Empire, the heart of Sleeping Bear Dunes, makes it easy—truly a walk in the park! Set up basecamp at an in-town hotel, bed & breakfast, or nearby campground and you’ll be just a short walk, ride, or drive from everything northern Michigan has to offer.
Start off with a fun and full beach day at scenic Empire Village Park, just a short walk downtown. With sandy freshwater shoreline that makes for easy swimming, pavilions, a playground, and a lighthouse, it’s the perfect place to spend with family. Kick it up a notch by renting kayaks, SUPs, or surfboards (the brave can take surfing lessons) from Sleeping Bear Surf & Kayak. Wrap up the evening by roasting hot dogs and marshmallows over a bonfire (beach fires are allowed) or grab a bite to eat and a Michigan-brewed craft beer in town. Either way, don’t miss the gorgeous Lake Michigan sunset on the beach!
Standup paddleboarding at Empire Beach.
On day two, see the dunes from a perspective that most visitors miss—by bike. The Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail, treasured by locals, provides over 20 miles of paved pathway through gorgeous hardwood forest. Though some sections are hilly enough to be fast and fun for adventurous bikers, the majority of the trail is flat enough for all ages and abilities to enjoy on foot, with a stroller, or wheelchair. For some of the trail’s most spectacular scenery, rent bikes in Empire and head north for a 5.5 mile ride to the Dune Climb (cargo bikes for towing tots are also available).
BONUS VIDEO: For an up-close perspective of the Dune Climb Trail hiking route, check out M22’s Sleeping Bear Dunes microadventure.
For those with more time, spend another day exploring the rest of Leelanau County with Empire as your jump-off point. Take a drive along the wine trail or let your curiosity wander in the eclectic arts & shopping districts of Empire and Glen Arbor.
With so many adventures along M-22, you can truly choose to experience them all with a stop or stay in Empire! By starting at the heart of Sleeping Bear Dunes, you definitely won’t miss a beat.
TIP: Do Empire in the off-season.
Check out the fall colors of Pierce Stocking Drive, snowshoe the Empire Bluffs Trail, sled down the Dune Climb, ride a winterized fat-tire bike on the Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail (rentals available), or hunt the elusive morel mushroom in spring—all ways to discover the area in a whole new season.