Snaking through the rolling hills of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is a 7.4 mile stretch of roadway known as the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive. Constructed to showcase the awe-inspiring beauty of the Lake Michigan shoreline, this self-guided auto tour stops along twelve points of interest ranging from overlooks to educational stations. Cruise down the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive and experience the indescribable wonder of Northern Michigan as you never have before!
It all started with an idea to make the rugged and natural beauty of the rolling dunes accessible, so that it could be shared and enjoyed by the masses. The idea was the brainchild of a seasoned lumberjack named Pierce Stocking, who after working in the woods throughout his youth developed a profound appreciation for the natural world. With his experience building roads on rugged terrain, he began making plans to create the roadway in the early 1960s. The road was completed and opened to the public in 1967 under the title Sleeping Bear Dunes Park. Stocking continued to operate the Scenic Drive until his death in 1976. At that point, the road was purchased by the National Park Service, and based on popular public opinion, the road was later renamed the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive after its dedicated creator.
Planning Your Trip
The Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive entrance is off M-109, just south of Glen Lake, and three miles north of Empire, MI. The drive is closed from November 14th until mid-April, depending on the weather and level of snow melt. Interpretive markers along the roadway refer to a guide so be sure to pick one up at either the visitor’s center in Empire or at the Drive’s entrance. Though the guide is free of charge, there is a small park pass fee to enter. The speed limit along the Scenic Drive is 20 mph for the safety of other drivers, bicyclists, and hikers.
What to Expect
You’ll struggle to find the right words to describe the natural beauty that is highlighted along the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive. The breathtaking vistas, picturesque overlooks, and winding roads will leave you stunned and amazed. Stop along these twelve points of interest to get the full experience of this scenic, self-guided route.
Covered Bridge: This lovely element was one detail that Stocking wanted to include during the creation of the roadway. Unfortunately, much of the original bridge was largely consumed by porcupines, but repairs have been made to ensure that this feature still stands, giving visitors a beautiful photo opportunity as they make their way along the route.
Glen Lake Overlook: Two miles in to the Scenic Drive you’ll come to the first overlook, which provides gorgeous views of the landscape and the bright blue waters of Glen Lake. Framed in the trees is also Alligator Hill, named after its distinguishable shape.
Dune Overlook: Just before you reach this picturesque vista you can stop at Picnic Mountain to stretch your legs and grab a snack. Once you do reach this vantage point, you can catch panoramic views of the North and South Manitou Islands, as well as Pyramid Point and Sleeping Bear Bay.
Cottonwood Trail: This trailhead leads you on a 1.5-mile walk that will give you a closer look at the unique dune environment. Discover the vegetation and wind formations that make up the natural wonder of the Lake Michigan landscape.
Dune Ecology: Stop at this educational station and learn more about the plants and vegetation of the dunes, and how they survive in the challenging conditions of Lake Michigan sand, sun, and strong winds.
Leaving the Sand Dune: This educational station is less than 3 miles into the Scenic Drive. It is at this point that you will notice the landscape drastically shifts as you head away from the dunes and into the neighboring beech-maple forest.
Beech-Maple Forest: Cruise through the lush forests bursting with sugar maples, American Beech, black cherry, and hemlock trees. If your timing is right, you might even see some wildlife scampering through.
Changes Over Time: Pull over at this educational station and take a look back in time through the bleak beginnings of the landscape during post-glacial times and in to the present conditions of the now productive and thriving forests.
Lake Michigan Overlook: For a one-of-a-kind view of the shoreline, be sure to stop at this bluff perched 450 feet above lake Michigan. Witness awe-inspiring views across the vast blue expanse, and during clear days see Platte Bay nearly 9 miles away.
Sleeping Bear Dune Overlook: Though the dune has lost its uncanny resemblance to a sleeping bear, it still exists as a fascinating spectacle that tells the story of the evolving landscape. Observe ghost forests and sand accumulations at this ever-changing bluff.
North Bar Overlook: Take in the glorious vistas overlooking North Bar Lake, Empire Bluffs, and Empire Bay. This vantage point is ideal for catching some of the most colorful sunsets Michigan has to offer. In the summer, this overlook is a popular swimming area.
Pine Plantation: The last stop on the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive takes you to this educational station where you can learn about Michigan’s important role in the logging and farming industries. Then, follow an old logging road back to the starting point of the tour.
Where To Stay
The Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive is nestled between a lot of great camping options due to the popularity of Sleeping Bear Dunes. If you are staying in the area and are eager for more Michigan scenery after completing the self-guided tour, the Traverse City State Park is less than an hour away.
Platte River Campground: This campground boasts modern restrooms and conveniently accepts reservations during the busier months. With electric hookup sites for RVs and a close proximity to the Scenic Drive, this makes a great hub when visiting the Sleeping Bear area.
D.H. Day Campground: This beautifully wooded campground is ideal for avid dry campers, as it is more of a rustic camping environment. It boasts quick access to the beach, but does not have electric hookups or showers.
Indigo Bluffs Resort: For a more luxurious camping experience, check out this quaint RV resort located near the Scenic Drive. This campground boasts a heated pool, a playground, and an exercise area for pets.
If your next big adventure takes you to Northern Michigan, the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive is an attraction you are not going to want to miss. In fact, in 2011 Good Morning America voted Pierce Stocking Drive and Sleeping Bear Dunes as the “Most Beautiful Place in America.” Having earned a title like that by popular vote, all you have to do is talk with someone who has made the 7.4-mile drive to know that this is a must-see destination!