What happens when a combination of glacial recession, wind, and erosion produces a perched dune atop a glacial moraine atop geological debris from the most recent Ice Age? The result, in Michigan’s Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, is the Empire Bluffs, a 400-foot headland overlooking Lake Michigan and home to one of the park’s most interesting hikes. The short, family-friendly involves ¾ mile of walking through a pretty beech/maple forest, punctuated by an unobstructed overlook above the third-largest of the Great Lakes.
Start and end the 1.6-mile out-and-back hike at the Empire Bluff Trailhead, situated along Wilco Road, just a mile south of central Empire, a small town that hosts the main visitor center for Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. The signed parking lot has a moderate number of spaces, as well as a small pit toilet. The one and only hike from the trailhead begins by treading westward on a neatly-maintained path, initially keeping an open clearing to the right. Soon the gradually-ascending Empire Bluff Trail enters thick deciduous woodlands sporting mostly maples, pines, and beech trees.
After a few minutes, hikers will pass a rusted farming implement off to the right: this was once part of a mowing machine, now long-abandoned after becoming obsolete. Although the surface here is largely sand, it boasts a lush woodland landscape, with a relatively precipitous drop-off off to the north. Soon the incline eases, and the trail even descends for a brief period, treading through a pair of minor clearings. The second, at around exactly ½ mile, features a bench with a northward view, through the clear cut, to Empire, South Bar Lake, Sleeping Bear Dunes, and, of course, the beautiful blue waters of Lake Michigan. This is known as South Bar Lake Overlook. The embayment lake visible below was the result of a rising sandbar, followed by declining lake levels, leaving the smaller lake stranded from its much larger cousin.
After admiring the window view, continue as the trail treads westward, clearing a minor gully before climbing a steep but brief staircase. After a couple more ups and downs, the Empire Bluff Trail at last emerges at its stunning climax: a wide-open vista of Lake Michigan, way down at the base of the 400-foot Empire Bluffs. The terrific vantage point offers views as part north as the Sleeping Bear Dunes and South Manitou Island and westward across the big open blue toward the state of Wisconsin (not quite visible).
But this isn’t quite the end – there is still some more trail as the path routes abruptly southward, following a sand-caked boardwalk, culminating at an even better viewpoint complete with a couple benches, a wooden railing, and a short, final loop-around.
That is it for the Empire Bluff Trail; onward passage amid the steep and dangerous bluffs is prohibited. But it’s a pleasant and relatively mild return along the same trail back to the start. All told, the round-trip hike comes in at about 1.6 miles; the relatively easy tread and limited elevation gain makes this a nice, family-friendly walk in the Sleeping Bear Dunes area.