This 21.6 mile loop ride leaves from Empire and takes the “big” roads (M-22 & M-109) over to Glen Arbor and circles back on the “big” ones as well, taking a couple of detours along the new Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail bike path that runs from Glen Arbor to Sleeping Bear Dunes, and a short stretch on some pleasant inland roads.
I’m usually a fan of staying off the busier roadways, but this ride is good and the main roads have great views, wide shoulders for the most part, the traffic isn’t usually overly domineering, and often the main roads are even reasonably quiet. The roads pass through the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore and right past, and through (kind of), the Sleeping Bear Dunes. You can even dismount and climb the dunes if you’d like.
The ride begins at the Village Park on the shores of Lake Michigan in the Village of Empire. Exit the park road and turn right onto Lake Street at mile 0.2. Turn left on Front Street a block up and ride through the heart of downtown Empire. The village was named after a schooner, the Empire, caught nearby in the ice in 1865. (I got that part from Wikipedia, so it has to be true.)
Front Street is a mix of residences, a pub, a grocery, an antiques shop, and other stores intermingled and in use. This helps it retain the mixed nuts quality that makes Leelanau County so interesting. When I rode by in late summer, there was a bakery table along the sidewalk filled with locally made baked goods that could be purchased on the honor system. Nothing big. No major planning project to make it just right. But it was just right.
Roll up to Union Street and take a left. (By the way, if you want to do a neighborhood tour of Empire, circle north and south of Front Street through all the side streets to see some nice homes and residential areas.)
Detour 1 – Head north on Lacore Street, just for fun. You can even get all the way to North Bar Lake by continuing north on Lacore, swinging right on Voice, and then left on N Bar Lake Road, then left on Larahr Road. It’s an out and back on flat paved roads and it’s worth the detour.
Detour 2 – From downtown Empire, head east on Front Street across M-22, past the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Park Headquarters (good place to get park info), and right at the Y as M-72 swings left. You stay on Front Street, then a quick right onto Erie Street. You’ll enter a fascinating planned development with some very charming homes, particularly those that line the central square. It’s still, as of this writing, in progress, but if you have any interest in new town planning at a good scale for its location this is worth a look.
So, let’s finally get out of Empire. You’ve turned left onto Union Street. Follow it a few blocks north to Salisbury Drive and turn right. Pass the Empire Fire Hall and the Museum, both nicely restored, on the corner of Lacore Street, and a few feet further turn left onto M-22. This is busy at times, so proceed with caution. There is a nice shoulder once you’re out and rolling north.
This is Leelanau County, hilly nearly everywhere, so you’ll encounter a nice, steady ascent that peaks on a “Scenic” pull-off on the west side of the road. It’s so lined with trees blocking any possible view that the scenic part is shrouded in mystery at this time. Maybe someday they’ll return it to a view point with a view.
Roll downhill to the left turn onto M-109 toward Sleeping Bear Dunes at mile 2.6. There is another gentle ascent at this point that rounds over the top in less than a mile. From here it’s a long descent to a point where the sparkling azure Little Glen Lake comes into view on the right, then the area of the dune climb appears on the left.
Detour 3 – At about mile 3.9 is the access to the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive. It’s a paved, very popular loop through the dunes. The Dunes. It’s not flat by any means. The National Park Service recommends this for “expert-level cyclists only due to the steep terrain, sharp curves and heavy traffic.” You’ve been warned. Notice I don’t have this mapped out. It’s a 7.4 mile addition to this ride if you’re up for it. The views are stupendous. If you like pain mixed in with your sightseeing, this is the ride for you. (Don’t laugh, many of us do.) If not, come back and drive it. Same views, less pain. 7.4 miles will feel endless if you’re not enjoying yourself.
Onward. Proceed to the turn into the Sleeping Bear Dune Climb area at mile 6.1. Follow the parking lot around to the northwest corner to where the Heritage Trail begins. There are rumors that this trail will eventually go all the way to Empire to the south and north to Bohemian Road for a total of 27 miles, but for now, enjoy this well-crafted short section. Some riders wouldn’t be caught touching a wheel to a bike path. (If you just don’t like bike paths, stay on M-109 north and roll straight into Glen Haven. The same goes for a section a ways ahead.)
Enter the pathway and enjoy the winding, slightly rolling journey toward Glen Haven. The path is a unique opportunity to ride through a rather dense dune forest, with a wide variety of plant life and marsh and upland areas. The feeling is one of enclosure, in a good way.
Glen Haven appears at mile 8.1 after the trail opens up a bit. This is another one of the wonders of the National Lakeshore. When I was young this was interesting to visit, but it was also rather ramshackle looking and a bit sad. Now, the park service has restored the buildings, there are exhibits and there’s a store that’s open during the warm months. And there are bathrooms. Nice ones. Visit the Cannery Boathouse Museum, once a warehouse and cherry cannery, as well as the Coastguard Station Maritime Museum. Or, just wander down to the waterside and look out at South Manitou Island. The views over the water and up the coast are great. Glen Haven is a great tribute to the history of the area.
Detour 4 – The bike path continues on eastward, through the DH Day Campground and on to Glen Arbor. The route laid out here doesn’t go that way, though it’s a nice way to go.
To be contrary, this route heads straight south up the road to the intersection at M-109 at mile 8.9. Keep going south on 109 and up the hill. Go ahead, swear at me now because this hill, though short, is steep. It’s worth it, though. The road passes by the DH Day Farm on the left and just beyond that is Day Farm Road where you’ll take a left (mile 9.7). This is a quiet road that glides between a long line of sugar maple trees with the architecturally dramatic farmstead on the left, built in the 1880s and 90s and still privately owned. The views are free.
Turn left at the next intersection, Stocking Road (10.2). This passes the parking area for Alligator Hill, a nice set of hiking trails with some great views to consider for another outing. Roll up and over the roadway and enjoy the sweeping fast ride down to M-109. At the bottom, swing a sharp right U-turn onto the Heritage Trail once more. (Or, again, if paths aren’t your thing, go straight east on M-109. Glen Arbor is not too far up the road. Rejoin the route once in town.) This is a very beautiful section of the pathway, with all kinds of turns offering nice, varied views through the forest. Just be aware that this is a popular section of the trail and watch for other users.
Glen Arbor Area
The trail pops out onto Forest Haven Drive and I was a bit confused on which way to turn. I’ve learned since that either way works. Left takes you back to M-109, where you’ll take a short right and be in the heart of Glen Arbor. Right takes you up a dirt road past a parking area for the trail system and then swings left down to M-22 at mile 12.5. Turn left to head into Glen Arbor for a loop around town. Once a relatively sleepy little town, this is rapidly becoming Leelanau County’s tourist central. The recent touting on Good Morning America that gave the Sleeping Bear Dunes a prime ranking of places not to miss has boosted the stock price of this small village. Watch for cars and enjoy your loop around town. Turn right on M-22 at the intersection, and right again at Lake Street, and another right at State Street, to return you back to M-22.
Of course, this is all in the spirit of staying on your bike. Glen Arbor is also a fun place to get off the bike and wander around on foot, where you can check out some shops selling artisan’s wares and get a bite to eat. It’s a great halfway point to take a break if you’re so inclined.
Turn left off State Street onto M-22 heading south. This next section has nearly no shoulder, but in my experience the traffic passes slowly and carefully from here to the narrows at Olson Bridge. You’ll want to savor this. There are houses and trees all along this section as it rims the west side of Big Glen Lake, but they don’t deter from the beauty. Often the houses and cottages have a charm of their own, and the views through to the lake are dazzling, especially on a blue sky day. The colors of Glen Lake are nearly unmatched. At the very least, the colors are on par with other lakes in the region, such as Torch Lake and Crystal Lake. That’s a high standard of beauty. The variations of azure blue to emerald green will give you pause and make you forget your troubles without the use of external stimulants.
Olson Bridge, at mile 15.9, opens you up to the whole panorama: Big Glen, Little Glen, Inspiration Point to the southeast, the Sleeping Bear Dunes to the west. It’s a lot to take in. Stop and saturate for a short spell and let it soak in. It’s something you can bring back to memory when you’re sitting at your desk on a cold day in February. It’s an ahh moment now and it will be an ahh moment then.
Fully absorbed, ride over the bridge and take a right, continuing on M-22 (16.2). Go straight or left and you’ll be in for some of the toughest climbs in the county, not to mention that you’ll no longer be on a return route to Empire. Save those for another day. They’re worth it as well. Even the ride along this section of M-22 is uphill, but it’s gentler. The views are wide open, up wooded slopes and over fields.
At mile 19.1 you’ll return to the fork in the road with M-109. Keep steady on in a southerly direction. I’ve always thought that the ideal ride would include a long downhill run back to the beginning (of course, that also implies a long uphill ride from the start, though my ideal start is about ten miles of flat road…I know it’s out there somewhere). This does include that downhill run. Soar back to Empire. As things level off, take a right onto Niagara Street at mile 20.8. Pedal through the neighborhood and continue straight back to the water and Village Park.