Top 10+ Things To Do in Empire, Michigan

Empire, Michigan
Empire, Michigan / Source: mlive

Nestled along the shores of Lake Michigan lies the charming small town of Empire, Michigan. Located in the heart of Leelanau County, Empire serves as the gateway to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, surrounded by beaches, forests, vineyards and historic sites.

Though it only covers 1 square mile, this cozy Northern Michigan town punches above its weight with fun activities and quintessential Up North experiences.

1. Explore Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore
Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore / Source: Pure Michigan

No trip to Empire is complete without visiting the crown jewel of Northern Michigan – Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. Encompassing 35 miles of Lake Michigan shoreline, this national park contains towering perched dunes, secluded beaches, dense forests, wild inland lakes, and abundant wildlife.

A must-do is climbing the Dune Climb, where you can challenge yourself to scale the enormous 450-foot high dune. Take off your shoes and feel the hot sand between your toes as you slog your way to the top – the views are worth it!

Or take the scenic 7-mile Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive, which offers stunning vistas of the dunes and Glen Lake. Stop at the Maritime Museum to learn about shipwrecks in the Manitou Passage. And don’t miss a swim at popular Alligator Hill Beach.

With camping, hiking, cycling, and swimming opportunities galore, you could easily spend several days exploring Sleeping Bear Dunes. This natural wonder is Empire’s biggest claim to fame.

2. Hike the Trails of Port Oneida

Port Oneida Rural Historic District
Port Oneida Rural Historic District / Source: National Park Service

On the quieter side of Sleeping Bear Dunes lies the Port Oneida Rural Historic District , a 4,600 acres of quintessential Northern Michigan wilderness.

Immerse yourself in the woods and dunes on 24 miles of hiking trails that meander through lush forests, traverse perched sand dunes, and offer panoramic views of Lake Michigan.

Popular hikes include the Farm Loop Trail, a 2.5 mile loop showcasing historic farmsteads, and the Ridge Trail, a more challenging 5 mile route through hilly terrain. Or venture out on the relatively flat 4 mile Bay View Trail for nonstop Lake Michigan vistas.

With well-marked trails for all ability levels, Port Oneida is one of the best places to hike in Leelanau County. After working up an appetite, refuel at Leelanau State Park next door, which has a picnic area and small cafe.

3. Paddle Crystal River

Paddle Crystal River
Paddle Crystal River / Source: The Leelanau Conservancy

Just northeast of Empire lies the postcard-perfect paddling destination of Crystal River. Rent a kayak, canoe or stand-up paddleboard from one of the outfitters in town and set out to explore this spring-fed lake. Paddle past cottages, through thick forests and out to the small undeveloped islands.

This shallow, sandy-bottomed lake is ideal for families – you’ll almost definitely spot ducks, loons, painted turtles and other wildlife as you paddle. For a longer 5 mile trip, paddle from Crystal River to adjacent Glen Lake and back. There’s nothing more quintessentially Northern Michigan than paddling a tranquil inland lake.

Cap off your Crystal River adventure with a burger and brew on the beachfront patio at Stormcloud Brewing Company. You’ll earn it after all that paddling!

4. Enjoy Empire’s Quaint Downtown

Downtown Empire
Downtown Empire / Source: Flickr

Empire’s downtown packs a lot of small town charm into just a few walkable blocks. Pop into the shops and galleries lining Front Street to browse works by Leelanau County artists. Grab a coffee and pastry at one of the cozy cafes like Cherry Stop Restaurant or Bar None.

Hang out in Village Park along the waterfront, where you can dip your toes in Lake Michigan or just take in views of the South Manitou Lighthouse offshore. Don’t miss the town’s marina and public beach, where you can stroll down the boardwalk and watch boats come and go against the dune-backed horizon.

With its lively mix of cute shops, eateries and beaches, downtown Empire is the perfect place to while away an afternoon.

5. Tour and Taste on the Leelanau Peninsula Wine Trail

Leelanau Peninsula Wine Trail
Leelanau Peninsula Wine Trail / Source: Midwest Living

Just west of Empire lies the Leelanau Peninsula, a world-class wine region with over 25 wineries and vineyards to explore. Spend a day touring these postcard-perfect wineries, tasting crisp Chardonnays, rich Pinot Noirs and vibrant Rieslings along the way.

Some of my favorite wineries to visit include Leelanau Cellars for their sweeping Lake Leelanau views, 45 North Vineyard & Winery for the charmingly rustic setting, and Mawby to taste their bubbly sparkling wines.

For a designated driver-free experience, consider a tour company like Michigan Wine Tours who can shuttle your group between wineries. However you choose to experience Leelanau wine country, it’s a must-do just minutes from Empire.

6. Tour the Historic Lighthouses

South Manitou Island Lighthouse
South Manitou Island Lighthouse / Source: Wikipedia

With a maritime history dating back to the 1800s, Empire’s past is closely tied to the lighthouses that helped guide ships through treacherous Lake Michigan waters.

Take a step back into this heritage by visiting the South Manitou Island Lighthouse, located 12 miles offshore and only accessible by ferry or boat tour.

Climb the tower’s 100 steps to jaw-dropping 360 degree views of Lake Michigan and the Manitou Passage. While on the island, hike the accessible interior or more rugged exterior trails.

Back on the mainland, don’t miss the iconic Point Betsie Lighthouse, north of Empire. The winding staircase takes you to panoramic views of shoreline from 140 feet up.

Point Betsie Lighthouse
Point Betsie Lighthouse / Source: Tripadvisor

Touring these beautifully restored beacons provides insight into Empire’s history as a vital Great Lakes port. Between South Manitou Island’s remote setting and Point Betsie’s signature candy-cane stripe, you’ll capture some Instagram-worthy shots!

7. Relax at the Beaches

Empire Beach
Empire Beach / Source: Explorest

A trip to a Lake Michigan town like Empire wouldn’t be complete without ample time to relax on the beach. Empire boasts several public beach access points, like the popular 1/4 mile long Empire Beach tucked into the south side of town.

Spread out your towel on the soft sand, take a dip in the refreshing waters of Lake Michigan, hunt for Petoskey stones along the shoreline. Nearby, the Leelanau State Park Beach offers shallow swim-friendly waters, kayak rentals and stunning views looking back at Empire.

For a beach day with amenities, visit Historic Oval Beach in Saugatuck, which has a snack bar, concession stand and lively atmosphere. Don’t forget your sunscreen and beach reads!

8. Sample Local Eats and Brews

Riverside Inn
Riverside Inn / Source: Riverside Inn

The food and drink scene has exploded in northern Michigan in recent years. For an authentic local dining experience in Empire, snag a table on the back deck at Riverside Inn overlooking the marina. Their menu highlights locally-caught whitefish and produce from nearby farms.

Just up the road in Glen Arbor, grab breakfast or lunch at locally-loved Bluebird Restaurant, dishing up huge portions.

Don’t miss Empire’s own Earthen Ales, located right within Sleeping Bear Dunes park. Their Timekeeper Belgian Wit, Sleeping Bear Stout and other brews hit the spot after a day of hiking. The Leelanau Peninsula has become a haven for top-notch dining and drink – be sure to sample some!

9. Take a Farm Tour

Cherry Republic
Cherry Republic / Source: Cherry Republic

Get a taste of Northern Michigan’s agricultural bounty by touring a local farm like Cherry Republic or Tandem Ciders. At family-owned Cherry Republic, sample dried cherries and cherry products at the store, then take a ride out to the orchards on their cherry wagon.

Tandem Ciders offers free tours of their scenic cider operation and tastings of their award-winning hard ciders.

Tandem Ciders
Tandem Ciders / Source: Tandem Ciders

Nearby foodie destinations like Martha’s Leelanau Table and Leelanau Cheese also offer behind-the-scenes tours. Learning more about the fresh local food and drink is part of what makes travel in Leelanau County so special.

10. Rent a House with Lake Michigan Views

Michigan Waterfront House
Michigan Waterfront House / Source: Haven Lifestyles

To fully immerse yourself in the peaceful beauty of northern Michigan, I highly recommend staying in a vacation rental home or cottage so you can enjoy Empire from sunrise to sunset.

Rent a house right on the shore of Lake Michigan so you can fall asleep to the sound of waves. Wake up and watch the stunning colors reflect off the water with your morning coffee.

Companies like Lake Michigan Cottages and Vacasa have listings for homes with private beach access, expansive windows and decks overlooking the big lake sunrises and sunsets. With the lake just steps from your door, you’ll get the quintessential Up North vacation experience.

11. Enjoy Empire’s Small Town Charm

Empire's Small Town Charm
Empire’s Small Town Charm / Source: Flickr

No matter what brings you to Empire – the beaches, wineries, trails or dunes – take time to slow down and enjoy the small town charm. Chat with the woman who owns the local quilt shop on Front Street that’s been in business 25 years.

Grab a cone at Riverside Inn’s ice cream stand, a summertime staple. Ask the server at a local restaurant for their favorite menu item.

Waving to drivers as you walk across Empire’s main intersection, hearing the church bells ring on Sunday morning, finding the perfect Up North souvenir in a local shop – those are the moments that make this town so special. During your visit, embrace the friendly community spirit and quintessential Up North way of life.

With its stunning natural scenery and abundance of outdoor adventures, charming downtown and welcoming community, Empire truly encapsulates the beauty of a Northern Michigan escape. Let me know if you need any other Michigan tips – I’m happy to share more!
EXPLORING EMPIRE MICHIGAN / Source: Felicia Fullwood

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