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Sleeping Bear’s popular Empire Bluff trail gets a makeover

The Empire Bluff trail at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is undergoing some maintenance. This famed overlook at the top won't change, but crews are doing some maintenance and rerouting on other parts.
Expect morning trail closures Mondays through Wednesdays from 6 to 10 a.m., with visitor access resuming after 10 a.m. The work is expected to last through September.

The most popular hiking trail in the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is undergoing maintenance and rerouting.

Workers and park staff have already begun clearing fallen trees and excavating drainage areas along the Empire Bluff trail. Soon, they'll begin rerouting one of the steepest parts of the hike. They’re also updating parts of the trail for water drainage and accessibility. The work should run through September.

About two thirds of the way along the trail, hikers descend into a ravine and then up a steep hill. According to Parks Superintendent Tom Ulrich, that section of the trail predates the establishment of the National Lakeshore. It’s likely an old road used to haul lumber or tools through the forest.

The steepness of that section makes it difficult to traverse, especially when it’s been damaged by heavy water runoff. Ulrich said the trail lacks modern engineering and is overdue for a 21st century update.

“It’s so steep and the water still falls down it so hard that it’s not a sustainable way to build a trail,” he said. “And it’s not user-friendly to the hikers.”
The plan is for park staff to work early in the morning Monday through Wednesday, through September. The trail will be open to the public at all other times, barring any major issues.

Ulrich said park staff are excited about the rehab efforts at Empire Bluffs and the opportunity to improve the hiking experience at Sleeping Bear.

“So just in that little stretch of the trail, we’re going to go sidehill and put in a really elegant switchback in there so it won’t be as steep and the runoff will be dealt with in a much more sustainable way,” Ulrich said.

Visitors can expect to see construction equipment and blocked off areas along the trail, but the goal of the park staff is to minimize disruptions while completing the project.

And hikers who are worried about missing the famous view at the end of the trail should not fear: There won’t be any construction on the boardwalk section atop the bluff.

Lily Guiney is a an intern at IPR News Radio.