Start with a quick stop at the Sleeping Dunes National Lakeshore's visitors center in Empire (231-326-5134, nps.gov/slbe) to pick up trail maps and a park pass. Put the pass in your car windshield and you're free to play in the sand all day.
Play spot No. 1 is the Dune Climb a few miles north of Empire on M-109. Swing by Tiffany's (10213 Front St., 231-326-5337) to grab a cone of dipped ice cream and a picnic lunch for later – you're going to need it after scrambling up and down dunes for a few hours.
Once you see that big, honey-colored hunk o' dune, you'll know what to do: chug your way to the top and drink in the view of Little and Big Glen Lakes that pours out in front of you (the white Victorian barn you see was built by lumberman D.H. Day at the beginning of the last century). Refreshed? Roll, run and somersault down. Then do it all again.
If you have the time, the 3.5-mile roundtrip hike along the Dunes Trail to Lake Michigan is well worth it. But this is no walk in the woods. It's a three-to-four-hour up and down over loose sand and dune grass terrain. Good walking sandals (open toes mean you can shake the sand out) are a must, and sunscreen and drinking water are essential. Your payoff for the work is an intimate look at this spectacular ecosystem, from dune wildflowers to the tracks of coyote, fox, raccoon and other creatures that cross this sandy highway on their way to the lake.
The Lake Michigan beach in the hamlet of Glen Haven at the northernmost end of M-109 is a primo picnic (and swimming) spot. It's also a great place to kick back for a lazy nap in the sand.
Katie Holland was an intern with Traverse, Northern Michigan's Magazine.
Note: This article was first published in May 2007 and was updated for the web February 2008.