Photo: Patrick Wellever
Cruise into Empire and snag a map and day pass at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore visitor's center (231-326-5134, nps.gov/slbe). Start your dunes day by mapping a course to Empire Bluffs for an easy mile-and-a-half hike with a big payoff: a breathtaking panorama of Lake Michigan at the trail's end. Plop down on the boardwalk, dangle your toes over the steep slope and gaze away at the swoop of blond shoreline stretching below.
Bump down dusty Bar Lake Road to North Bar Lake for sublime beach time. This sandy-bottomed lakelet is temperate compared to the chilly swells in the big lake nearby, so be prepared to share the shallows with giggling little ones. For a more bracing swim, dodge skimboarders and sun-worshipers as you follow the trickling stream on the west edge to the endless swath of Lake Michigan beach a few steps away.
Fully refreshed, catch a gotta-see-it specimen of sculpted dunes at Pyramid Point. Wander the two-mile, maple- and beech-shaded loop to reach the overlook above Lake Michigan. On a clear day you can see four islands: South Manitou, North Manitou, South Fox and North Fox. For a killer sunset view (without the legwork), pull off onto Lane Road from Port Oneida Road. The short stretch dead-ends at a thicket of trees overlooking the lake where, in summer, you can catch the sun sinking behind North Manitou Island.
When you've oohed and ahhed yourself out, pile back into your car and wind back down M-22 to Glen Arbor to sample the harvest of Leelanau's ubiquitous cherry trees at Cherry Republic (6026 S. Lake, 231-334-3150, cherryrepublic.com). The tiny ruby fruit reigns supreme here, where cherries find their way into everything from iced tea and soda to salsas and pasta sauce.
Quick bite: For picnic basket snacks, swing through Gemma's in Empire for smoked ham and Gruyère on a sourdough baguette, sacks of Belgian chocolate chip cookies and cold bottles of soda. 15590 Lacore St. (M-22), 231-326-2044.
Need to know: Access to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore requires a park pass. You can purchase yours -- $10 per vehicle, valid for seven days -- at the Philip A. Hart Visitor Center in Empire all year long or, in summer months, at Platte River Campground, Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive, the Dune Climb and D.H. Day Campground. A self-pay station is also available at North Bar Lake.