Weekend Roving: Empire Bluffs Trail (summer)

IMG_5176Summertime is, quite possibly, the most magical time to experience Northwest Michigan. The weather’s pleasant if not downright balmy, at times. The fields and meadows are awash in wildflowers of all sorts. The farms and gardens fill up with produce and the summertime table abounds with spectacular colors and flavors. The woods are dark and inviting, beckoning your feet to wander and explore. The bright summer sky turns Lake Michigan into a brilliant sapphire gem.

We enjoy summer for all these reasons, of course, but also because it gives us an even greater excuse to host friends and family passing through on vacation. Anyone who visits us for any length of time will invariably be taken to the Empire Bluffs Trail. In my opinion, if you see no other part of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, you should hike this short trail and also take a driving tour of the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive — all less than 20 minutes from our house! The National Park Service could not have made it more convenient and nature could not have made it more beautiful!

After hiking only a very short distance, the forest canopy briefly parts to reveal a spectacular view of the Sleeping Bear Dunes. We love taking visitors to this trail, as I said, and it’s usually here that they assume we’ve reached the pinnacle of the sights. But, the trail holds so much more!


The trail — a jaunting hike of a mere 1.5 miles, roundtrip — is reasonably accessible, though fairly steep and hilly in a few spots. I love the trail’s deceptive way of luring you into the woods and — after only a few twists and turns — launches you up the wooded side of a massive sand dune. Suddenly, the woods retreat, and you’re standing hundreds of feet above the lakeshore — sunbathers and waders, below, appear the size of ants!


The trail ends with a boardwalk that guides you along the sometimes precarious ledge of the Empire Bluffs. High above the lake on a clear day, it’s beyond words to describe the feeling that comes over you, the hush of the lake whispering below, the winds climbing and descending the surrounding dunes.

Next, we usually pile our guests into the car and take them to the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive. Though my favorite way to see the park is definitely not from inside a vehicle, the scenic drive has an undeniable “one-stop shopping” element that’s handy for guests who are short on time or for visitors to the park who are physically challenged.

While on the drive, one gets the sensation of being on a hike through the woods — especially if you turn off the radio, roll down the windows, and drive slowly. The various stops and points of interest along the drive are interesting and educational, but my favorite stop along the route is the Lake Michigan Overlook.



Standing there, you feel you’re at the edge of the world with only these grains of sand holding you in place in a universe of blue. Off in the distance you see the meandering peninsula coastline articulating the massive blue expanse and the Manitou Islands beckoning you further still. (Read of our exploration of South Manitou Island here.)


From a distance, the overlook itself seems to be floating inexplicably above the lake like the Isle of Laputa in Gulliver’s Travels. Thank goodness we’re not afraid of heights!


Just past the Lake Michigan Overlook is the equally magnificent Sleeping Bear Dune Overlook. You are literally surrounded by a panorama of inspiring landscapes! Farms and orchards in the distance, the lakeshore, the dunes, countless inland lakes… sigh. I’ve stood here several times and yet every time it’s as if I’m experiencing it anew.


In truth, we say we take this tour for the benefit of our guests, but I think James and I merely look for any excuse to be there amongst the dunes. Nature and all its reminders of simplicity, solitude, and silence is something beyond a mere tourist attraction — an experience photographs and words cannot fully encapsulate. Experiencing it requires all of your senses working in concert, gradually clearing out all but what is most essential, leaving space for all of life that is real and yet to be imagined.



~ by Jason on August 1, 2012.

8 Responses to “Weekend Roving: Empire Bluffs Trail (summer)”

  1. What stunning vistas — breaking through the forest to what seems like an ocean! I’ve never been to this area, but have always wanted to hike it.

  2. Wish i was there….

  3. Beautiful as always. I can’t wait for James & I to come visit. Your vebiage and pictures are absolutely wonderful. Hugs, and blessings! Sally

  4. Gorgeous! I had no idea Lake Michigan looked like this. And the shot where it looks like you could just dive from the sand into the blue? Stunning.

    • Thanks, Andrea. 🙂 Lake Michigan, if you drive around the whole thing, is an amazing collection of scenery. That particular shot you mentioned is one of my favorites, too. Lots of visitors to the park take the opportunity to walk alllllll the way down that dune to meet the water (which isn’t nearly as close as it looks) and then make the strenuous climb back up to the top. I don’t know if I’ll ever attempt it. Maybe if I tied a length of bedsheets around my waist so someone could hoist me back up the rest of the way?

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