Sleeping Bear Dunes has the potential to provide backpackers with wonders on a similar level as Michigan's other National Lakeshore, Pictured Rocks. From remote sandy beaches to towering dunes, inland lakes, and historic buildings and museums, Sleeping Bear Dunes offers the quality of scenery that is deserving of an extended linear backpacking adventure.
Unfortunately, unlike Pictured Rocks, Sleeping Bear Dunes does not have an established linear backpacking trail/route along the lakeshore and backpackers' campsites are infrequent and at times not accessible to Lake Michigan. The Lakeshore does offer a fairly extensive trail system.
Backpacking routes have been identified on the mainland. One such route is the "Bay to Bay Shoreline Walk" as presented in Jim DuFresne's highly recommended book Backpacking Michigan. The route is simple: walk the beach from Platte Bay to Sleeping Bear Bay. Unfortunately this misses some of the best views from the towering dunes and also a fine stretch of shoreline to Good Harbor Bay. Another possibility, the National Park Service has discussed creating a backpacking trail, but a timeframe for its completion is unknown and most likely will miss some highlights due to dune sensitivity issues.
While completing several hiking trips to the Lakeshore I have formulated an exciting route, that I believe exhibits much of the finest of Sleeping Bear Dunes. This 40+ mile route includes a variety of hiking along the beach and up on the dunes with a combination of on-trail and off-trail travel. Ideally this route will be hiked from North to South (to minimize steep climbs) from Good Harbor Bay to Point Betsie. To protect the fragile dune environment hiking solo or in a small group is recommended.
See the map below. Consider the track a general guide. On-route exploration is certainly encouraged.
Depending on the distance desired per day, hikers have options for overnight stay along the route at White Pine Backcountry Campsite (permits required), Platte River Campground (reservations recommended), local accommodations in Empire, D.H. Day Campground (first come-first serve), and local accommodations in Glen Arbor.
Keep in mind that much of this route is on sand and presents challenges greater than simply hiking a trail. Going north to south reduces the steepness of the climbs but the cumulative elevation change is the same both directions. Early in the summer, there will most likely be clouds of bugs. In some places it will feel like you are walking in someone's backyard, but walking the beach is a legalized right in Michigan. Near the popular tourist spots, there will be crowds of people in the summer, but much of the route includes remote stretches of pure wilderness.
Start at the eastern end of Good Harbor Bay off M-22
Hike the remote wilderness beach until joining rising small bluffs
Detour around a small home to avoid private property with a short road walk.
At the end of the road join an unmarked trail and follow it until it climbs upward through dunes to Pyramid Point.
Manitou Islands from Pyramid Point
Follow the Pyramid Point Trail to the parking lot. Roadwalk Thoreson Road through scenic farmland and historic buildings near Port Oneida
Descend to the beach
Climb up stairs and join what I believe is part of the Bay View Trail.
Enjoy a great view of the Manitou Islands.
Follow the trail past a cemetery.
Then head over to Miller Barn.
Climb off-trail through the forest to Lookout Point.
Descend to the Bay View Trailhead and then join Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail to Road 675.
Road walk 675 to beach to Sleeping Bear Bay *I have not completed this road walk. (This avoids a deep crossing of the Crystal River)
Walk the beach to D.H. Day Campground. Continue beach walk and explore Glen Haven and Maritime Museum.
Leave beach at Sleeping Bear Point
Travel cross country to top of Dune Climb for a great view of Glen Lake.
Make way to edge of dunes and climb parallel to Lake Michigan
Follow dunes until climb up to Sleeping Bear Overlook
Then Lake Michigan Overlook
Descend steeply to Lake Michigan (without having to worry about the climb back up!)
Follow beach past North Bar Lake to Village Park and Empire
Robert H. Manning Memorial Lighthouse
Continue on beach until below Empire Bluffs
Climb the steepest climb of the route to boardwalk.
Follow unmarked trails across dunes and in forest on edge of bluffs.
Descend to beach near Esch Road
Continue across Otter Creek
Cross Platte River
Go around Platte River Point
Complete at Point Betsie Light.
If time permits an additional adventure on the Manitou Islands should be added. North Manitou Island is a fine backcountry destination with open camping allowed a certain distance from the water. In fact, North Manitou Island was the first place I went backpacking. On South Manitou Island backpackers are limited to the main campgrounds but there is still lots to explore. Neither island is quite large enough to provide several days of hiking but doing both could add ~30 miles of spectacular wilderness scenery. Ferry schedule would take some planning though (See here: http://manitoutransit.com/rates-schedule). It does look possible to go to South Manitou first, spend a night. Then ferry over to North Manitou for another night before returning to Leland. Combining the mainland route with both Manitou Islands form one of the finest week-long backpacking adventures in Michigan.