warming sign at the end of the pyramid point trail at the top of the sand dune

The 10 Best Traverse City Hiking Trails

Traverse City is known for an abundance of gorgeous scenery — shimmering blue Great Lakes, windswept dunes, and thick canopies of forest — all the perfect ingredients for the best hiking trails! 

Traverse City has a trail for everyone, even if you’re not an avid hiker.

For those that want to work up a sweat and test their abilities, there are multiple sandy dune trails with your name all over them. If you’d rather take a leisurely stroll under a shady canopy, no worries; There’s a trail for that too!

As you plan your getaway, make sure you don’t miss one (or all) of these incredible Traverse City hiking trails. You will be rewarded with an excellent activity for your mind and body, and you’re guaranteed to see some of the most stunning scenery in Michigan.

Traverse City Hiking Trails You Must Explore

No matter if you only have one hour or one day, you should take some time out and explore these beautiful hiking spots throughout Traverse City. Be sure to also check out the best hotels on the water in Traverse City!

#1 Empire Bluff Trail

This trail is part of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore and one of the most popular for its outstanding views of Lake Michigan, Empire, and the Sleeping Bear Dunes. 

The trail starts from a gravel parking lot just off Wilco Rd. and meanders through a hilly forest of beech-maple trees and wildflowers (depending on the season). As you make your way out of the woods, you’ll come to a wooden boardwalk that leads you along the bluff to wide-open views of Lake Michigan. 

You will see that there are paths around the dune, but the National Parks Service asks that visitors stay on the sanctioned path to protect the dune from erosion. There are a couple of small benches where you can sit and enjoy the view. 

Trail difficulty: Easy to moderate; there are a few hills that can be challenging
Trail length: 1.5 miles round trip

#2 Sleeping Bear Dunes Climb

If you’re looking for an activity to test your physical abilities, this is it! The Sleeping Bear Dunes climb is one of the most popular spots in the area for the challenge, and it comes with unspoiled access to Lake Michigan. 

The 3.5-mile trail starts with a significant, steep climb, but that’s only the start — there are multiple more climbs to come! About .5-mile from the beginning of the climb, you will get your first glimpse of Lake Michigan. This is a good spot to stop for a short water break, but you still have over a mile to go. The trail ends at a lovely secluded beach on Lake Michigan that is also home to multiple shipwrecks.

If you decide to tackle the dune climb, keep in mind that it is entirely in the sun, there is no shade. Be sure to wear a hat and sunscreen, and you can’t forget water — if you don’t have water, I wouldn’t tackle this on a hot day. The sand also can become very hot in the summer, you might be tempted to take your shoes off, but I recommend leaving them on to protect your feet from the heat and prickly dune vegetation.

Trail difficulty: very challenging 
Trail length: 3.5 miles round trip

initial large sand dune at sleeping bear dune climb in traverse city

#3 Sleeping Bear Point Trail

If you like the idea of exploring the dunes, but the Dune Climb sounds a bit too challenging for you, check out the Sleeping Bear Point Trail. 

There are two hiking options with this trail. If you want views of Lake Michigan and less of a challenge, follow the trail sign to Lake Michigan. From the parking lot, it is approximately .5-mile round trip. The trail leads to a beautiful quiet beach that is also a protected area for nesting Piping Plover.

For a longer, more challenging hike, follow the trail sign to the Dune Loop trail. The trail is a 2.8-mile loop through the dunes and offers great lake views. If you want to go out to the beach, it is a separate .25-mile trail that spurs off the Dune Trail. 

Like the Dune Climb, the Sleeping Bear Point Trail is also directly in the sun; there is minimal coverage. Be sure to bring a hat, sunscreen, and water. It is also best to hike this trail early in the morning. 

Trail difficulty: moderate to challenging, depending on the trail
Trail length: .5-mile to over 3 miles round trip

#4 Pyramid Point Trail

Whether you’re looking to perch yourself high above Lake Michigan on a sandy bluff or wander through a shady maple-beech forest, you can do that here! This trail offers multiple options perfect for scenic vistas or spending a little extra time in nature. 

For those who want to skip right to the scenic views, you’ll take the main trail straight to the overlook, which is .5-mile round trip. The trail is packed dirt until you get to the overlook, which is all sand. This part of the trail does have some incline, but it’s not too strenuous. 

Once you get to the overlook, it’s wide open and barrier-free (be careful with small kids). You can explore a small amount of the dune, but honestly, the best part of coming here is the view — this is a great spot to watch the sunrise. At the overlook, you will be greeted with a sign warning not to go down the dune. This protects the dune from further erosion but also protects you! The climb back up the dune is strenuous — some people who have tried have had to be rescued, which comes with a huge fine.

For a longer hike, don’t go back the way you came. Continue with the trail that connects to the overlook trail, this trail loops through meadows and shady forests and ends on Basch Rd. The trail is a 2.8-mile loop.

Trail difficulty: moderate
Trail length: .5 mile to 2.8-mile loop

warming sign at the end of the pyramid point trail at the top of the sand dune

#5 Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail

If you’ve been scanning this list thinking, where are the long trails? This one is for you! This 20-mile trail (which will eventually be 27 miles) starts in Empire and travels to Point Oneida. Most of the trail is asphalt, except a 3-mile section through Point Oneida that is crushed stone and a few boardwalk sections through wetlands.  

The trail is perfect for exploring different areas of the Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore; you’ll find trailheads at Point Oneida, Dune Climb, Pierce Stocking, Bar Lake Road, Crystal River, Glen Haven, and Bay View. 

The trail is open year-round and open to hikers, runners, bicyclists, skiers, wheelchairs, and strollers. 

Trail difficulty: easy
Trail length: currently 20 miles; when finished, it will be 27 miles

#6 Alligator Hill Trail

If you’re interested in having a full day of hiking but don’t want to go to multiple spots, this might be the trail for you! Alligator Hill is located in the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore and offers visitors three looped trails that are approximately 2.5 – 3 miles each, or you can complete the whole trail, which is just over 8 miles.  

Each of the trails offers varying degrees of difficulty, including hills through grassy meadows and a lush maple forest to the Glen Lake Overlook for views of Lake Michigan and the Manitou Islands. Aside from the Glen Lake Overlook, there are also lake views along the first trail loop; most of the trails are wooded.

Trail difficulty: easy to moderate
Trail length: 2.5 miles to over 8 miles

#7 Whaleback Natural Area

This trail is a part of the Leelanau Conservancy Preserves. Located off M-22, it is hidden from the public with just one tiny sign acknowledging its existence. You’d pass right by it if you weren’t looking for it.

I suggest you use Google Maps to find it, and once you turn down Manitou Trail, the road will fork, take the road on the right, which will put you in a small parking lot. 

The trail is an easy 1.6-mile hike (round-trip) that leads to a small lookout observation deck over Lake Michigan. It is entirely tree-covered, creating a thick canopy from the sun, making it the perfect place to explore on a hot day or if you want to avoid crowds.

Trail difficulty: easy
Trail length: 1.6 miles round trip

#8 The Grand Traverse Commons Natural Area

This natural area is located within 480 acres of protected parkland just a few miles from the heart of Traverse City. The area comprises nine short trails that explore different areas of the park and offer a variety of scenery, including wetlands, meadows, hills, and hardwood forests. 

In addition to the natural scenery, you will also find trails that lead you through a neighborhood of mini fairy houses (Cedar Cathedral Trail) and to the painted Hippie Tree (located on the Streamside Loop just off of Red Drive, follow the painted blue arrows). There are many legends around the tree — it could be a portal to hell or a spot of enlightenment — find out for yourself! The legends are connected to the Traverse City State mental hospital, which was located near the trail. 

There are multiple trailheads; the easiest is located on North Long Lake Road. As I mentioned, the trails are short, the longest is 1 mile, but you can check out the trail map and visit more than one for a longer hike.

Trail difficulty: easy
Train length: 1 mile to 4.5 miles

fallen colorful painted hippie tree on the hiking path in grand traverse commons natural area in traverse city

#9 Boardman Lake Trail

Just south of downtown Traverse City is this beautiful 4-mile loop trail that circles Boardman Lake. This trail is lovely in the fall when the trees surrounding the lake are ablaze with color! 

The heavily wooded trail is a mix of asphalt, boardwalk, and gravel and features a unique extended boardwalk over Boardman Lake. You can easily access the trail at Medalie Park, off Hannah Road, 8th Street near Copy Central, or at the Oryana Trailhead (the first two locations have easy parking, and the second two are downtown). 

Trail difficulty: easy
Train length: 4-mile loop

view of boardman lake at dusk in traverse city

#10 TART Trail

Here’s another excellent trail if you’re looking to cover some distance! TART (Traverse Area Recreation Trail) covers 10.5 miles from Acme Twp. at M-72/Bates Rd. to Carter Road in Traverse City, which connects with the Leelanau Trail. 

Even if you don’t want to cover 10.5 miles, this is still a great trail to explore the area; it takes you through downtown Traverse City, by Clinch Park, Reffitt Nature Preserve, and it intersects with the Boardman Lake Trail. 

The trail is completely paved and only open to nonmotorized traffic making it perfect for hikers, bikers, strollers, etc. 

Trail difficulty: easy
Trail length: 10.5 miles one way

directional sign up close next to the paved traverse area recreation trail

More Michigan Travel Planning Help

If you’re planning to explore more of Traverse City or other parts of Michigan, don’t miss these helpful guides and articles.

Complete Vegan Travel Guide to Traverse City
Where to Find Vegan Wine in Michigan
The Best Spots for Vegan Food in Grand Rapids
The Best Hiking Trails in Pictured Rocks
7 Epic Things to Do in Pictured Rocks
Where to Stay in Pictured Rocks
How to Spend Two Days in Traverse City as a Vegan
Best Places to Enjoy Falls Colors in Michigan
13 Unique Things To Do in Detroit
The Best Vegan Travel Guide to Detroit

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